July 4, 1902 Grodno, Russian Empire
January 15, 1983 (aged 80) Miami Beach, Florida
Cause of death
Mount Nebo Miami Memorial Gardens
"Don't worry, don't worry. Look at the Astors and the Vanderbilts, all those big society people. They were the worst thieves-and now look at them. It's just a matter of time." - Meyer Lansky
Meyer Lansky (born Meyer Suchowljanski) (July 4, 1902 – January 15, 1983; known as the "Mob's Accountant") was a Jewish-American organized crime figure who, along with his associate Charles "Lucky" Luciano, was instrumental in the development of the "National Crime Syndicate" in the United States.
Lansky developed a gambling empire which stretched from Saratoga, New York to Miami to Council Bluffs Iowa and Las Vegas; it is also said that he oversaw gambling concessions in Cuba. Although a member of the Jewish Mafia, Lansky undoubtedly had strong influence with the Italian Mafia and played a large role in the consolidation of the criminal underworld (although the full extent of this role has been the subject of some debate).
Early Life[edit | edit source]
Meyer Lansky was born Meyer Suchowljanski into a Jewish family in Grodno (Belarus) to Max Suchowljanski and his wife Yetta.
Lansky met Bugsy Siegel when he was a teenager. They became lifelong friends, as well as partners in the bootlegging trade, and together with Lucky Luciano, formed a lasting partnership. Lansky was instrumental in Luciano's rise to power by organizing the 1931 murder of Mafia powerhouse Salvatore Maranzano. As a youngster, Siegel saved Lansky's life several times, a fact which Lansky always appreciated. The two adroitly managed the Bug and Meyer Mob despite its reputation as one of the most violent Prohibition gangs.
Lansky was the brother of Jacob "Jake" Lansky, who in 1959 was the manager of the Nacional Hotel in Havana, Cuba.
Gambling Operations[edit | edit source]
By 1936, Lansky had established gambling operations in Florida, New Orleans, and Cuba. These gambling operations were very successful as they were founded upon two innovations. First, in Lansky and his connections there existed the technical expertise (in Lansky) to effectively manage them based upon Lansky’s knowledge of the true mathematical odds of most popular wagering games. Second, mob connections were used to ensure legal and physical security of their establishments from other crime figures, and law enforcement (through payoffs).
But there was also an absolute rule of integrity of the games and wagers made within their establishments. Lansky’s “carpet joints” in Florida and elsewhere were never “clip-joints”; where gamblers were unsure of whether or not the games were rigged against them. Lansky ensured that the staffs (the croupier’s and their managements’) were actually men of high integrity. And everyone knew what would happen to a croupier or a table manager who attempted to cheat or steal from a customer or the house.
In 1936, Lansky's partner Luciano was sent to prison. As Alfred McCoy records:
"During the 1930s, Meyer Lansky 'discovered' the Caribbean for Northeastern United States syndicate bosses and invested their illegal profits in an assortment of lucrative gambling ventures.... He was also reportedly responsible for organized crime's decision to declare Miami a 'free city' (i.e., not subject to the usual rules of territorial monopoly)."
Lansky later convinced the Mafia to place Bugsy Siegel in charge of Las Vegas, and became a major investor in Siegel's Flamingo Hotel.
After Al Capone's 1931 conviction for tax evasion and prostitution, Lansky saw that he too was vulnerable to a similar prosecution. To protect himself, he transferred the illegal earnings from his growing casino empire to a Swiss numbered bank account, whose anonymity was assured by the 1934 Swiss Banking Act. Lansky eventually even bought an offshore bank in Switzerland, which he used to launder money through a network of shell and holding companies.
World War II Work[edit | edit source]
In the 1930s, Meyer Lansky and his gang claimed to have stepped outside their usual criminal activities to break up rallies held by Nazi sympathizers. Lansky recalled a particular rally in Yorkville, a German neighborhood in Manhattan, that he claimed he and 14 other associates disrupted:
"The stage was decorated with a swastika and a picture of Adolf Hitler. The speakers started ranting. There were only fifteen of us, but we went into action. We threw some of them out the windows. Most of the Nazis panicked and ran out. We chased them and beat them up. We wanted to show them that Jews would not always sit back and accept insults."
During World War II, Lansky was also instrumental in helping the Office of Naval Intelligence's Operation Underworld, in which the US government recruited criminals to watch out for German infiltrators and submarine-borne saboteurs.
According to Lucky Luciano's authorized biography, during this time, Lansky helped arrange a deal with the US Government via a high-ranking U.S. Navy official. This deal would secure the release of Lucky Luciano from prison; in exchange the Italian mafia would provide security for the war ships that were being built along the docks in New York Harbor. German submarines were sinking allied shipping outside the coast on a daily basis and there was great fear of attack or sabotage by Nazi sympathizers.
The Flamingo[edit | edit source]
During the 1940s, Lansky associate Bugsy Siegel persuaded the crime bosses to invest in a lavish new casino hotel project in Las Vegas, the Flamingo. After long delays and large cost overruns, the Flamingo Hotel was still not open for business. To discuss the Flamingo problem, the mafia investors attended a secret meeting in Havana, Cuba in 1946. While the other bosses wanted to kill Siegel, Lansky begged them to give his friend a second chance. Despite this reprieve, Siegel continued to lose mafia money on the Flamingo Hotel. A second family meeting was then called. However, by the time this meeting took place, the casino turned a small profit. Lansky again, with Luciano's support, convinced the family to give Siegel some more time.
The Flamingo was soon losing money again. At a third meeting, the family decided that Siegel was finished. He had humiliated the organized crime bosses and never had a chance. It is widely believed that Lansky himself was compelled to give the final okay on eliminating Siegel due to his long relationship with Siegel and his stature in the family.
On June 20, 1947, Siegel was shot and killed in Beverly Hills, California. Twenty minutes after the Siegel hit, Lansky's associates, including Gus Greenbaum and Moe Sedway, walked into the Flamingo Hotel and took control of the property. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Lansky retained a substantial financial interest in the Flamingo for the next twenty years. Lansky said in several interviews later in his life that if it had been up to him, Ben Siegel would be alive today.
This also marked a power transfer in Vegas from the New York to the Chicago crime families. Although his role was considerably more restrained than in previous years, Lansky is believed to have both advised and aided Chicago boss Tony Accardo in initially establishing his hold.
Lansky in Cuba[edit | edit source]
After World War II, Lansky associate Lucky Luciano was paroled from prison on the condition that he permanently return to Sicily. However, Luciano secretly moved to Cuba, where he worked to resume control over American mafia operations. Luciano also ran a number of casinos in Cuba with the sanction of Cuban president General Fulgencio Batista, though the American government succeeded in pressuring the Batista regime to deport Luciano.
Batista's closest friend in the Mafia was Lansky. They formed a renowned friendship and business relationship that lasted for three decades. During a stay at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York in the late 1940s, it was mutually agreed upon that, in exchange for kickbacks, Batista would offer Lansky and the Mafia control of Havana’s racetracks and casinos. Batista would open Havana to large scale gambling, and his government would match, dollar for dollar, any hotel investment over $1 million, which would include a casino license. Lansky, of course, would place himself at the center of Cuba's gambling operations. He immediately called on his "associates" to hold a summit in Havana.
The Havana Conference was held on December 22, 1946 at the Hotel Nacional. This was the first full-scale meeting of American underworld leaders since the Chicago meeting in 1932. Present were such notable figures as Joe Adonis and Albert "The Mad Hatter" Anastasia from New York, Frank Costello, Joseph "Joe Bananas" Bonanno, Vito Genovese, Moe Dalitz, Thomas Lucchese, Santo Trafficante Jr. from Tampa, Carlos "The Little Man" Marcello from New Orleans, and Stefano Magaddino, Joe Bonanno's cousin from Buffalo. From Chicago there was Anthony Accardo and the Fischetti brothers, "Trigger-Happy" Charlie and his brother Rocco, and, representing the Jewish interest, Lansky and “Dandy” Phil Kastel from Florida. The first to arrive was Charles "Lucky" Luciano, who had been deported to Italy, and had to travel to Havana with a false passport. Lansky shared with them his vision of a new Havana, profitable for those willing to invest the right sum of money. A city that could be their "Latin Las Vegas," where they would feel right at home since it was a place where drugs, prostitution, labor racketeering, and extortion were already commonplace. According to Luciano’s evidence, and he is the only one who ever recounted details of the events in any detail, he confirmed that he was appointed as kingpin for the mob, to rule from Cuba until such time as he could find a legitimate way back into the U.S. Entertainment at the conference was provided by, among others, Frank Sinatra who flew down to Cuba with their friends, the Fischetti brothers.
In 1952, Lansky even offered then President Carlos Prío Socarrás a bribe of U.S. $250,000 to step down so Batista could return to power. Once Batista snatched control of the government that he had relinquished, he quickly put gambling back on track. The dictator contacted Lansky and offered him an annual salary of U.S. $25,000 to serve as an unofficial gambling minister. By 1955, Batista had changed the gambling laws once again granting a gaming license to anyone who invested $1 million in a hotel or U.S. $200,000 in a new nightclub. And that meant anyone. Unlike the procedure for acquiring gaming licenses in Vegas, this provision exempted venture capitalists from background checks. As long as they made the required investment, they were provided with public matching funds for construction, a 10-year tax exemption and duty-free importation of equipment and furnishings. The government would get U.S. $25,000 for license plus a percentage of the profits from each casino. Cuba’s 10,000 slot machines, even the ones which dispensed small prizes for children at country fairs, were to be the province of Batista's brother-in-law, Roberto Fernandez y Miranda. An Army general and government sports director, Fernandez was also given the parking meters in Havana as a little something extra. Import duties were waived on materials for hotel construction and Cuban contractors with the right "in" made windfalls by importing much more than was needed and selling the surplus to others for hefty profits. It was rumored that besides the U.S. $250,000 to get a license, a fee sometimes more was required under the table. Periodic payoffs were requested and received by corrupt politicians.
Lansky set about reforming the Montmartre Club which soon became the in place in Havana. He also long expressed an interest in putting a casino in the elegant Hotel Nacional, which overlooked El Morro, the ancient fortress guarding Havana harbor. Lansky planned to take a wing of the 10-storey hotel and create luxury suites for high stakes players. Batista endorsed Lansky’s idea over the objections of American expatriates like Ernest Hemingway and the elegant hotel opened for business in 1955 with a show by Eartha Kitt. The casino was an immediate success.
Once all the new hotels, nightclubs and casinos had been built Batista wasted no time collecting his share of the profits. Nightly, the "bagman" for his wife collected 10 percent of the profits at Trafficante's interests; the Sans Souci cabaret, and the casinos in the hotels Sevilla-Biltmore, Commodoro, Deauville and Capri (part-owned by the actor George Raft). His take from the Lansky casinos, his prized Habana Riviera, the Nacional, the Montmartre Club and others, was said to be 30 percent. What exactly Batista and his cronies actually received in total in the way of bribes, payoffs and profiteering has never been certified. The slot machines alone contributed approximately U.S. $1 million to the regime's bank account.
Revolution[edit | edit source]
The fast times soon rolled to a stop. The 1959 Cuban revolution and the rise of Fidel Castro changed the climate for mob investment in Cuba. On that New Year's Eve of 1958, while Batista was preparing to flee to the Dominican Republic and then on to Spain (where he died in exile in 1973), Lansky was celebrating the $3 million he made in the first year of operations at his 440-room, $18 million palace, the Habana Riviera. Many of the casinos were looted and destroyed that night, including several of Lansky's.
On January 8, 1959, Castro marched into Havana and took over, setting up shop in the Hilton. Lansky had fled the day before for the Bahamas and other Caribbean destinations. The new Cuban president, Manuel Urrutia Lleó closed the casinos. and nationalized all the casino and hotel properties.
In October 1960 Castro nationalized the island's hotel-casinos and outlawed gambling. This action essentially wiped out Lansky's asset base and revenue streams. He lost an estimated $7 million. With the additional crackdown on casinos in Miami, Lansky was forced to depend on his Las Vegas revenues.
Later Years[edit | edit source]
In his later years, Lansky lived a low-profile, routine existence in Miami Beach, making life difficult for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). He wore a torn sweater, walked his dog every morning, and portrayed himself as harmless. Lansky's associates usually met him in malls and other crowded locations. Lansky would change drivers, who chauffeured him around town to look for new pay phones almost every day. Lansky was so elusive that the FBI essentially gave up monitoring him by the mid-1970s.
During the 1970s, Lansky fled to Herzliya Pituah, Israel, to escape federal tax evasion charges. Two years later, Israel deported Lansky back to the U.S. However, the government's best shot at convicting Lansky was with the testimony of loan shark Vincent "Fat Vinnie" Teresa, an informant with little or no credibility. The jury was unreceptive, and Lansky was acquitted in 1974.
Death[edit | edit source]
Lansky's last years were spent quietly at his home in Miami Beach. He died of lung cancer on January 15, 1983, age 80, leaving behind a widow and three children. On paper, Lansky was worth almost nothing. At the time, the FBI believed he left behind over $300 million in hidden bank accounts, but they never found any money.
However, his biographer Robert Lacey describes Lansky's financially strained circumstances in the last two decades of his life and his inability to pay for health care for his relatives. For Lacey, there was no evidence "to sustain the notion of Lansky as king of all evil, the brains, the secret mover, the inspirer and controller of American organized crime." He concludes from evidence including interviews with the surviving members of the family that Lansky's wealth and influence had been grossly exaggerated, and that it would be more accurate to think of him as an accountant for gangsters rather than a gangster himself. His granddaughter told author T.J. English that at his death in 1983, Lansky left only $37,000 in cash.When asked in his later years what went wrong in Cuba, the gangster offered no excuses. "I crapped out," he said. He would also tell people he had lost every single penny in Cuba. In all likelihood, it was only an excuse to keep the IRS off his back. According to Lansky's daughter Sandra, he had transferred at least $15 million to his brother Jake due to his problems with the IRS. Lansky was known to keep money in other people's names, but how much will likely never be known. Meyer Lansky was and continues to be a mystery.
In September 1982, Forbes listed him as one of the 400 wealthiest people in America. His net worth was estimated at $100 million.