Benjamin Siegel


February 28, 1906 Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York


June 20, 1947 (aged 41) Beverly Hills, California





Cause of death

Cerebral hemorrhage

Resting place

Hollywood Forever Cemetery

"My friends call me Ben, strangers call me Mr. Siegel, and guys I don't like call me Bugsy, but not to my face."' - Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel

Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel (February 28, 1906 – June 20, 1947) was an American gangster who was involved with Italian-American organized crime. Siegel was a major driving force behind large-scale development of metropolitan Las Vegas.

Early Years[edit | edit source]

Ben Siegel came out of the tough Williamsburgh section of Brooklyn, and was involved in criminal activities from an early age. As a teenager he struck up a friendship with another local gangster, Meyer Lansky, that would last the rest of their lives, and in fact one of their first business dealings together was the formation of a gang of local toughs called the "Bugs and Meyer Mob". In 1926, Siegel was arrested for raping a woman who had turned down his advances in a speakeasy, but Lansky coerced the victim not to testify. Siegel, unlike many of his contemporaries, didn't fit the stereotype of a typical Jewish gangster. He was tall, had thick wavy hair, movie-star good looks and clear, piercing blue eyes. While Lansky - as always - was the brains and financial genius behind the mob, Siegel was the brawn, always preferring to use his fists, his knife or his gun whenever an obstacle appeared, and soon got a reputation as a vicious and fearless killer. It was during this period that he acquired the nickname "Bugsy". While that name often was used as a term of respect or honor, in Siegel's case it was used as a synonym for "crazy" in recognition of his penchant for explosive, senseless violence (he hated the nickname and was known to physically assault anyone unwise enough to use it in his presence). In 1930 Lansky and Siegel joined forces with Charles "Lucky" Luciano. Siegel became a bootlegger and was also associated with Albert Anastasia. Siegel was used for bootlegging operations in New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia. During the so-called Castellammarese War in 1930-1931, they fought the gang of Joe Masseria; Siegel reputedly had a hand in Masseria's 1931 murder in Coney Island and later had a part in the formation of Murder, Inc. In 1932 he was arrested for gambling and bootlegging but got away with only a fine. Lansky and Siegel were briefly allied with Dutch Schultz and killed rival loan sharks Louis and Joseph Amberg in 1935.

California Love[edit | edit source]

In 1937 the East Coast mob sent Siegel to California to try to develop Syndicate gambling rackets in the West alongside Los Angeles mobster Jack Dragna. Siegel also recruited Jewish gang boss Mickey Cohen as his lieutenant. Siegel used Syndicate money to set up a national wire service to help the East Coast mob quicken their returns. Siegel married his childhood sweetheart Esta Krakow, sister of hitman Whitey Krakow, on January 28, 1939. He eventually moved her and their two daughters to the West Coast after his bosses had sent him there, but kept them in the dark about his many extramarital affairs. Four of his mistresses were actresses Ketti Gallian, Wendy Barrie and Marie "the Body" MacDonald, and Hollywood socialite Dorothy DiFrasso. With the aid of DiFrasso and actor friend George Raft, Siegel gained entry into Hollywood's inner circle and is alleged to have used his contacts to extort movie studios. He thereafter always lived in extravagant fashion, as was his reputation, and on his tax returns Siegel claimed to earn his living through legal gambling at the Santa Anita racetrack near Los Angeles. Siegel became enamored with a sharp-tongued moll and courier, Virginia Hill. They began a torrid affair. Hill helped Siegel establish contacts in Mexico. The Alabama-born Hill was wealthy in her own right and had bought a mansion in Beverly Hills from Metropolitan Opera baritone Lawrence Tibbett, where Siegel frequently stayed. Hill became Siegel's paramour. Later, there were rumors that they had secretly married in Mexico. Their affair, however, did not keep Siegel from continuing his compulsive womanizing. Hill's reaction to Siegel's infidelities is unknown, but the long-suffering Esta finally reached her limit; she went to Reno and obtained a divorce in 1946. On November 22, 1939, Siegel, with his brother-in-law Whitey Krakow and two others, killed Harry Greenberg, who had become a police informant, on the orders of Murder, Inc. boss Lepke Buchalter. Siegel was arrested and tried for the murder (by that time, he had also killed Krakow). He was acquitted, but newspapers referred to him for the first time by his nickname "Bugsy." Siegel was not pleased, especially when his gangland past was revealed.

Las Vegas[edit | edit source]

Siegel is most famous for his transformation of Las Vegas, Nevada, into a gambling mecca, although that isn't quite true. Gambling had been legal in Nevada for quite some time and there were already established gambling establishments in Las Vegas when Siegel got there. A Los Angeles businessman was trying to build a huge luxury hotel and casino to which he was hoping to attract wealthy California movie and businesspeople from Los Angeles, but he was running into financial problems. Siegel, who had been unsuccessfully trying to gain a foothold in the gambling business in Las Vegas, seized the opportunity and bought a controlling interest in the project. He renamed the hotel "The Flamingo", after his nickname for his girlfriend, actress Virginia Hill. Siegel convinced many of his organized-crime friends and associates to put both the mob's money and their own into the venture, and he soon had more than a million dollars to work with. Unfortunately, Siegel's lack of business experience and his unfamiliarity with Las Vegas and the construction industry in general resulted in huge overruns as costs escalated, much of it due to theft, double-billing and other fraudulent business practices by many of the resort's contractors and suppliers. Soon the estimated price tag of the complex had ballooned from $1 million to $6 million, with no end in sight and no revenue coming in. The casino finally opened at the end of 1946, but opening night was a disaster. The weather was awful and kept many potential customers away, few of the locals showed up, and since the hotel wasn't finished yet, the customers who did gamble there took their lodgings at several of the other downtown casinos, thereby cutting into the hotel's profits on food and services. A few days after it opened, the Flamingo was basically empty, and shortly thereafter Siegel closed the establishment in order to finish up the hotel.

Bugsy Siegel dead.jpg

Siegel's mob "friends" were furious and wanted to put out a contract on his life, but were persuaded by Siegel's friend Lansky to let him have more time to finish the complex. In March the hotel was finally finished and the casino opened up again, and since gamblers were now able to stay in the hotel and avail themselves of food and entertainment in addition to the gambling, the casino began to make money, By the middle of 1947 it was showing a $250,000 profit for the year.

However, if Siegel thought he was off the hook, he was mistaken. On June 20, 1947, he was sitting on the couch at his home in Beverly Hills when gunmen standing outside his living room window opened fire with M1 Carbines on him. He was killed instantly. Although it has never been established who had ordered the hit, conventional wisdom is that his mob associates, even though they were now making money from the casino, were still angry with him for the financial losses they incurred during the construction phase, especially since much of the money came out of their own pockets.

Facts[edit | edit source]

  • Took over the construction of the Flamingo Hotel & Casino from the original developer, and promptly ran up massive cost overruns. The fact that most of the money he was spending was mob money, and that much of the huge debts the casino was incurring would most likely never be paid off, are generally considered to be the reasons for his murder.
  • Hated the nickname "Bugsy"--a slang term meaning "crazy" that was given to him early in his criminal career due to his explosive temper and penchant for brutal violence--and was known to physically attack and seriously injure people who used it in his presence.
  • Committed at least one rape, armed robbery, and murder before he turned twenty.
  • Portrayed by Warren Beatty in Bugsy (1991), Harvey Keitel in The Virginia Hill Story (1974) (TV), Armand Assante in The Marrying Man (1991), Brad Dexter in The George Raft Story (1961), and Richard Grieco in Mobsters (1991).
  • Is referred to indirectly in the Tom Waits song, "Mr. Siegal".
  • He was the basis for the Moe Green character in The Godfather (1972)--they both started casinos in Las Vegas and both were murdered by being shot in the eye.
  • His assassination is depicted in the film L.A. Confidential (1997).
  • Virginia Hill was his on-and-off girlfriend for some years until his death.
  • In the movie Once Upon A Time In America (1984), the character of Joe Minaldi (Burt Young) is killed after being shot in the eye, similar to Siegel (the death scene was based on a postmortem photograph of Bugsy). Also, the character of Max (James Woods) reacts violently whenever someone calls him "Crazy", similar to Siegel's reaction to his nickname of Bugsy. There is also a minor character named Bugsy (played by James Russo).
  • Tim Powers imagined Siegel as a modern-day Fisher King in his award-winning novel Last Call.
  • In 1991, there was a film, Mobsters, about the early years of Bugsy Siegel, Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky and Frank Costello starring Christian Slater as Lucky and with Richard Grieco as Bugsy.
  • In the show The Sopranos, Brendan Filone is also executed with a bullet clean through the eye.

Ben Siegel as a Character Pictures[edit | edit source]

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