Born Meier Suchowlanski in 1902, Meyer Lansky initially emigrated from Russia with his Polish-Jewish family to America at age nine.
By the time he died in Miami Beach at age 80, the man both revered and reviled as “The Mob’s Accountant” had proven instrumental in establishing a national network of organized crime in his adopted homeland, winning and losing vast fortunes alongside the other most infamous gangsters of the 20th century.
While Lansky’s roots were in the Jewish Mafia, his brilliant mind for numbers and ruthless techniques for turning profits erased any and all ethnic or religious boundaries. Making bank and busting skulls proved to be Lanksy’s universal language.
Check out these five killer facts about Meyer Lansky.
1. MEYER LANSKY GREW UP — AND TURNED BAD — WITH BUGSY SIEGEL
Growing up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Meyer Lansky crossed paths early on with Benjamin Siegel, a local kid four years his junior who was so prone to wild emotions and violent outbursts that he earned the nickname “Bugsy” — as in “crazy as a bedbug.”
In 1918, the wayward youngsters, then aged 12 and 16, consolidated their fledgling criminal activity into “The Bugs and Meyer Mob,” an association that instantly emboldened them to step up from petty violations to big-time felonies.
When Prohibition took hold in 1920, The Bugs and Meyer Mob hooked up with major-league mobster Arnold Rothstein, launching and running the largest liquor bootlegging operation on the East Coast. While still a teenager, Meyer Lansky became filthy rich — but, as always with the outlaw mentality, it would never be enough. [Crimefeed]
2. LANSKY HAD EVEN MORE LUCK WITH LUCKY LUCIANO
Five years older than Lansky and an Italian immigrant, Lower East Side resident Salvatore “Lucky” Luciano spied a little Jewish kid in school one day who he thought would make an easy shakedown target.
After the boy refused to give Luciano his lunch money, they collapsed into a brawl, with the little Jewish kid more than holding his own. Afterward, Luciano was impressed. The kid introduced himself. He was Meyer Lansky. They would remain friends for life and go on to largely co-invent organized crime in the United States.
After generating millions with bootlegged booze in the 1920s, Lansky and Luciano shifted their focus to gambling. First, though, they aimed to launch Luciano to the upper echelons of the increasingly powerful Italian-American Mafia.
In 1931, Lansky masterminded a rub-out of mob kingpins Joe Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano. Luciano made it happen and assumed his new throne.
Throughout the 1930s, Lansky set up monstrously profitable (and illegal) gaming outfits in Florida, New Orleans, and Cuba. His genius for mathematics enabled the casinos to continually up the odds in their favor, while Luciano’s Mafia ties kept police palms greased and competitors at bay. [The Jewish Magazine]
3. LANSKY COULDN’T SAVE BUGSY WHEN LAS VEGAS (INITIALLY) WENT BUST
In 1946, Bugsy Siegel purchased the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas. With legal gambling coming into play, Siegel aimed to turn the otherwise obscure patch of Nevada desert into a wonderland of vice that would erupt money in unprecedented volumes. That dream would come true, of course, but Bugsy Siegel had to be assassinated before it could happen.
Seeking millions to invest in Las Vegas, Meyer Lansky largely bankrolled his childhood friend and persuaded the Mafia to let Siegel run Vegas on his own. The Flamingo project, however, turned into a mammoth money pit of endless legal fees and skyrocketing construction costs.
Once rumors arose that Siegel had been skimming from the till on top of all that, the mob chiefs demanded he go — permanently.
Meyer Lansky went to bat one last time for his pal, but ultimately he had to concede that Bugsy just bugged out one time to often. At a meeting of mob heads held in Cuba called “The Havana Conference,” it’s largely believed that Lansky gave his approval to Siegel’s execution. He denied it. Regardless, the hit went through in 1947. [The Mob Museum]
4. MEYER LANSKY LOST HIS FORTUNE TO FIDEL CASTRO
After running drugs and prostitutes in the wake of World War II, Lansky sunk his fortunes into Cuba. In 1952, he actually bribed President Carols Prio Socarras with a sweet enough deal for the leader to step down and allow deposed dictator Fulgencio Batista, who favored the Mafia, to return to power.
Over the next seven years, Lansky built lavish hotels and casinos throughout the island nation, only to have to flee on New Year’s Eve 1958, when Fidel Castro’s revolutionary communist army seized permanent control of Cuba. In 1960, Castro nationalized all resorts and outlawed gambling. Meyer lost everything.
At his peak, Meyer was estimated to be worth $20 million (more than $180 million today). When died from lung cancer in 1983, he had less than $10,000 to his name. [CNN]
5. MEYER LANSKY INSPIRED THE GODFATHER PART II CHARACTER HYMAN ROTH
Legendary stage thespian and acting teacher broke his long-time absence from film acting to play the part of Mafia money man Hyman Roth in The Godfather Part II (1974). He immediately became one of the most iconic characters in the famous cinematic saga of the Corleone family.
Just as The Godfather’s Moe Greene was based on Bugsy Siegel, Roth was directly inspired by Meyer Lansky. The fictional mobster parallels the real deal from his rise in New York bootlegging to his fall in Cuba and exile in Miami, and even his attempt to seek asylum in Israel (although Roth’s airport execution is far more dramatic than what happened to Lansky, who just got deported).
Even Hyman Roth’s most famous line about the Mafia is believed to have been actually uttered by Lansky at the 1947 Havana Conference: “We’re bigger than U.S. Steel.” [Godfather Wiki]
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Main image: Meyer Lansky mugshot [WikiMedia Commons]