Lansky in 1958
July 4, 1902
|Died||January 15, 1983 (aged 80)|
Miami Beach, Florida
|Resting place||Mount Nebo Cemetery, Miami, Florida|
|Known for||Mafia associate, Mafia financier|
|Net worth||$300 million (1967 estimate)|
$57,000 (time of death)
Meyer Lansky (born Meier Suchowlański; July 4, 1902 – January 15, 1983), known as the "Mob's Accountant", was an American major 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.
Associated with the Jewish mob, Lansky developed a gambling empire that stretched across the world. He was said to own points (percentages) in casinos in Las Vegas, Cuba, The Bahamas and London. Although a member of the Jewish mob, Lansky undoubtedly had strong influence with the Italian-American Mafia and played a large role in the consolidation of the criminal underworld. The full extent of this role has been the subject of some debate, as Lansky himself denied many of the accusations against him.
Despite nearly fifty years as a member-participant in organized crime, Lansky was never found guilty of anything more serious than illegal gambling. He has a legacy of being one of the most financially successful gangsters in American history. Before he fled Cuba, he was said to be worth an estimated $20 million (equivalent to $189 million in 2018). However, when he died in 1983, his family was shocked to learn that his estate was worth around $57,000.
Lansky was born Meier Suchowlański in Grodno, in the Russian Empire (now Belarus) to a Polish-Jewish family who experienced anti-semitic pogroms. He was born in the former lands of Crown of the Kingdom of Poland, which were under Russian rule, and when asked about his native country, Lansky always responded "Poland". In 1911, he emigrated to the United States through the port of Odessa with his mother and brother Jacob, and joined his father, who had immigrated in 1909, and settled on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, New York.
Lansky met Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel when they were children. They became lifelong friends, as well as partners in the bootlegging trade, and together managed the Bugs and Meyer Mob, with its reputation as one of the most violent Prohibition gangs. Lansky was also close friends with Charles "Lucky" Luciano; the two met as teenagers when Luciano attempted to extort Lansky for protection money on his walk home from school. Luciano respected the younger boy's defiant responses to his threats, and the two formed a lasting partnership thereafter.
By 1936, Lansky had established gambling operations in Florida, New Orleans, and Cuba. These gambling operations were successful as they were founded upon two innovations:
There was also an absolute rule of integrity concerning 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 staff administering the games consisted of men of high integrity.
In 1946, Lansky convinced the Italian-American Mafia to place Siegel in charge of Las Vegas, and became a major investor in Siegel's Flamingo Hotel. To protect himself from the type of prosecution which sent Al Capone to prison for tax evasion and prostitution, Lansky transferred the illegal earnings from his growing casino empire to a Swiss bank account, where 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.
In the 1930s, Lansky and his gang stepped outside their usual criminal activities to break up rallies held by the pro-Nazi German-American Bund. He recalled a particular rally in Yorkville, a German neighborhood in Manhattan, that he and 14 other associates disrupted:
During World War II, Lansky was also instrumental in helping the Office of Naval Intelligence's Operation Underworld, in which the government recruited criminals to watch out for German infiltrators and submarine-borne saboteurs. Lansky helped arrange a deal with the government via a high-ranking U.S. Navy official. This deal would secure the release of Luciano from prison; in exchange, the Mafia would provide security for the warships that were being built along the docks in New York Harbor. German submarines were sinking Allied shipping in great numbers along the eastern seaboard and the Caribbean coast, and there was great fear of attack or sabotage by Nazi sympathizers. Lansky connected the ONI with Luciano, who reportedly instructed Joseph Lanza to prevent sabotage on the New York waterfront.
Lansky attended a secret meeting in Havana in 1946 to discuss Siegel's management of the Flamingo Hotel, which was running far behind schedule and costing Siegel's Mafia investors a great deal of money. While the other bosses wanted to kill Siegel, Lansky begged them to give his friend a second chance.:36–38 Despite this reprieve, Siegel continued to lose money on the Flamingo. A second 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 other investors to give Siegel some more time. However, when the hotel started losing money again, the other investors decided that Siegel was finished. It is widely believed that Lansky himself was compelled to give the final okay on eliminating Siegel due to his long relationship with him and his stature in the organization.
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 and took control of the hotel. According to the FBI, Lansky retained a substantial financial interest in the Flamingo for the next 20 years. Lansky said in several interviews later in his life that if it had been up to him, "... Ben Siegel would be alive today." Siegel's death marked a power transfer in Vegas from New York's Five Families to the Chicago Outfit. 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.
After World War II, 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 Mafia operations. Luciano also ran a number of casinos in Cuba with the sanction of Cuba's authoritarian dictator, Fulgencio Batista, though the US government succeeded in pressuring the Batista regime to deport Luciano.
Batista and Lansky formed a renowned friendship and business relationship that lasted for a decade. During a stay at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel 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 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 figures as Joe Adonis, Albert "The Mad Hatter" Anastasia, Frank Costello, Joseph "Joe Bananas" Bonanno, Vito Genovese, Moe Dalitz, Thomas Luchese, from New York; Santo Trafficante Jr. from Tampa; Carlos Marcello from New Orleans, and Stefano Magaddino, Bonanno's cousin from Buffalo. From Chicago there were Accardo and the Fischetti brothers, "Trigger-Happy" Charlie and Rocco, and, representing the Jewish interest, Lansky, Dalitz and "Dandy" Phil Kastel from Florida.
The first to arrive was 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. According to Luciano, the only attendee who ever recounted 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 US. Entertainment at the conference was provided by, among others, Frank Sinatra who flew down to Cuba with his friends, the Fischetti brothers.
In 1952, Lansky offered then-President Carlos Prío Socarrás a bribe of US$250,000 to step down so Batista could return to power. Once Batista retook control of the government in a military coup in March 1952, he quickly put gambling back on track. Batista offered Lansky an annual salary of $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 $200,000 in a new nightclub. 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 $250,000 for the license, plus a percentage of the profits from each casino. Cuba's 10,000 slot machines, even the ones that dispensed small prizes for children at country fairs, were to be the province of Batista's brother-in-law, Roberto Fernandez y Miranda.
A Cuban 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 $250,000 to get a license, 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-story hotel and create luxury suites for high-stakes players. Batista endorsed Lansky's idea over the objections of American expatriates such as Ernest Hemingway, and the elegant hotel opened for business in 1955 with a show by Eartha Kitt. The casino was an immediate success.[unreliable source?]
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 ten percent of the profits at Trafficante's interests; the Sans Souci cabaret, and the casinos in the Sevilla-Biltmore, Commodoro, Deauville and Capri hotels. 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 $1 million to the regime's bank account.
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, including several of Lansky's, were looted and destroyed that night.
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, took steps to close the casinos. 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.
In 1970, Lansky fled to Herzliya Pituah, Israel, to escape federal tax evasion charges. Although the Israeli Law of Return allows any Jew to settle in the State of Israel, the law allows the government to use discretion to exclude those with a criminal past. Two years after Lansky fled to Israel, Israeli authorities deported him back to the US. The US government brought Lansky to trial with the testimony of loan shark Vincent "Fat Vinnie" Teresa. Lansky was acquitted in 1974.
Lansky's last years were spent quietly at his home in Miami Beach. He died of lung cancer on January 15, 1983, aged 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 handicapped son, who eventually died in poverty. 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. His second wife's granddaughter told author T.J. English that at the time of his death in 1983, Lansky left only $57,000 in cash.:328 When asked in his later years what went wrong in Cuba, the gangster offered no excuses. "I crapped out," he said. Lansky even went as far as to tell people he had lost almost every penny in Cuba and that he was barely scraping by.
Hank Messick, a journalist for the Miami Herald who had spent years investigating Lansky, said that the key to understanding Lansky lay with the people around him: "Meyer Lansky doesn't own property. He owns people."[page needed] To him, the FBI and Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, the reality was that Lansky had kept large sums of money in other people's names for decades and that keeping very little in his own was nothing new to him.
In 2010, Lansky's daughter Sandra publicly stated that her father had transferred some $15 million to his brother's account sometime in the early 1970s, when Lansky was having problems with the IRS. How much money Lansky was really worth will probably never be known. Since the warming of relations between the United States and Cuba in 2015, Lansky's grandson, Gary Rapoport, has been asking the Cuban government to compensate him for the confiscation of the Riviera hotel that his grandfather built in Havana.
Meyer Lansky, the reputed financial genius of the underworld, died today of cancer at Mount Sinai Hospital here. He was 81 years old. Mr. Lansky was admitted to the hospital Dec. 31 suffering from dehydration, according to Joyce Clark, a spokesman for the hospital. Mr. Lansky lived in the Imperial House, a high-rise waterfront condominium in Miami Beach.... Mr. Lansky was married twice. His first marriage, in 1929 to the former Anna Citron, ended in divorce in 1946. The couple had two sons, Bernard and Paul, and a daughter, Sandra. In 1948 he married Thelma Schwarz, a manicurist at a Midtown Manhattan hotel. She survived him.
Lansky recalled breaking up a Brown Shirt rally in the Yorkville section of Manhattan: "The stage was decorated with a swastika and a picture of 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."
Meyer Lansky was "a human cash register and ledger book", a wizard with figures who in ... He was the model for the character of Hyman Roth in the first two ...
The public got an inkling of the Lansky legend from the character Hyman Roth in The Godfather, Part II. Anna Strasberg, widow of Lee Strasberg, who played Roth, recalled listening in on a phone conversation her husband received shortly after the movie opened in 1974. "You did good," said the caller, who did not give his name. "Now why couldn't you have made me more sympathetic?"
... saga around Jewish mob boss David "Noodles" Aaronson (Robert De Niro). The character was inspired by Meyer Lansky, a Russian immigrant who rose from the ...
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