BEVERLY HILLS, CA — On the balmy and otherwise tranquil evening of June 20, 1947, legendary organized-crime figure Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel sat thumbing through a newspaper inside the home of his mistress, Virginia Hill. Suddenly, nine bullets fired from a .30-caliber Carbine tore through a nearby window. Four slugs hit Siegel directly, including two in the head, one of which blew his left eye out its socket.
The end came fast for the brutal vice lord who began as a two-bit teenage hood in Brooklyn and then scaled the heights of outlaw glamour in Hollywood and Las Vegas. At the time he died, Bugsy Siegel was 41. To date, no one has ever been charged for his execution.
It should come as no surprise, of course, that Siegel boasted more than a fair number of enemies — and “friends” — who had the means, motive, and sheer chutzpah to just so blatantly knock him off. So, 70 years later, the guessing game continues.
Benjamin Siegel grew up in a typical New York City tenement, packed side-by-side along other children of European Jewish immigrants. Desperate to break out of poverty, Siegel sought illegal shortcuts early on. Petty theft and sidewalk shakedowns rapidly gave way to protection rackets and extensive burglaries.
Siegel also displayed a volcanic temper and frequently exploded in bouts of violence beyond what a given situation called for. As a result, his cohorts deemed him “crazy as a bedbug,” which led to the nickname “Bugsy.” Just like Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson, though, Bugsy Siegel absolutely despised his nickname.
While still in his teens, Siegel befriended future crime lord Meyer Lansky. The pair formed the Bugs and Meyer Mob, organizing other young thugs into an expanding criminal enterprise. Once Prohibition took hold in 1920, Siegel and Lansky made a fortune by hooking up with major mobster Arnold Rothstein and running the East Coast’s dominant bootlegging operation.
Throughout the 1920s, Siegel’s underworld star rose. He connected with Italian-American Mafia kingpin Charles “Lucky” Luciano and, along with other stylish killers, founded a nationwide mob syndicate that came to be known — and feared — as “Murder, Incorporated.”
In the mid-1930s, Siegel relocated to Los Angeles, aiming to solidify a West Coast Mafia stronghold. Charismatic from birth and always a sharp dresser, Siegel brought dangerous allure to Hollywood and hobnobbed with the biggest stars of the day.
Studio heads wined and dined Siegel. The mobster hung around during movie shoots and counted among his closest friends Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, Frank Sinatra, and Jean Harlow.
Decades later, art imitated life as Warren Beatty would portray the gangster himself in the Oscar-nominated 1991 film Bugsy. Michael Zegan also played Siegel as a recurring character on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire.
After a few years of juggling a public life of Tinseltown glitz with the private reality of robbing and killing for a living, Bugsy Siegel wanted to go “legit.” To that end, Siegel relocated to Las Vegas in 1946, which was then in its infancy as gambling hotspot.
Bugsy purchased the Flamingo Hotel and revamped it as a state-of-the-art luxury resort and playground for the rich and fabulous. Siegel hoped that the Flamingo would transform the rest of the desert town into a similarly shining wonderland of gambling, sex, booze, and celebrities. Of course, that is what happened — eventually.As a result, Bugsy Siegel is often portrayed as the mobster who “invented” our modern understanding of Las Vegas. Such glamour didn’t come cheap though.
Before the Flamingo reopened, Siegel spent $6 million on its rehab — that’s $76 million in 2017 dollars.
Much of the funding had been borrowed from California crime lords, as well as his original law-breaking buddy, Meyer Lansky. Even worse, the Flamingo immediately started losing money, to the tune of $275,000 ($3.5 million today) in the first two weeks.
Lansky helped his old friend reorganize, and the Flamingo turned toward profitability. Alas, in the process, Siegel had apparently burned at least one bridge too many and somebody, somewhere ordered him to be taken out.
Theories as to who killed Bugsy Siegel vary. Some believe a cabal of Siegel’s longtime associates, including Lansky and Luciano, met in Havana to decide how to handle him.Siegel had spent far more money than the lenders expected could be paid back in a timely fashion. In addition, rumors arose that Bugsy was skimming from the construction fees.
Philadelphia mob boss Ralph Natale claimed that Lansky reluctantly placed the call, and an enforcer named Frankie Carbo pulled the trigger.
Another suspect is Mathew “Moose” Pandza, a Vegas hoodlum out to protect his girlfriend, who was the wife of Siegel’s business associate Moe Sedway. The whole thing may or may not have been some sort of love triangle.
To date, the murder remains a mystery. Bugsy Siegel himself remains a reminder that even if crime doesn’t pay in the long run, some criminals sure can make it look worth getting your eye blasted out of your skull for in the short term.
Main photos: Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel [WikiMedia Commons]