The Mafia Files: Episode 2 Meyer Lansky

 

July 4th, 1902: Meier Suchowlański is born in what was then called the Russian Empire. Despite being born in a Russian-controlled area, Meier always considered himself to be Polish & always took pride in his heritage. At the age of nine, he migrated with his mother & brother to New York in order to be reunited with their father, who had already migrated there just two years earlier. This was a turning point in his life as it naturally led him down the path of becoming a mobster.

Born into Jewish heritage, Meier would often regulate American rallies held by Nazi sympathizers. Regulation simply meant he & his crew would come sweeping in during the rallies & beating its participants senseless.

When asked by a pro-Nazi German-American named Bund about a particular rally in the 1930s that Lanksy had regulated in New York, he said, “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.”–Meyer Lansky

If you watched our first video in this series about John Gotti, then you already know what the Commission is. But in case you haven’t here’s a brief recap. The Commission is an organization founded in 1931 that acts as the governing body of the Mafia. It’s comprised of the five New York family bosses as well as the boss of the Chicago Outfit. It was created to replace the “capo di tutti capi,” or “boss of all bosses.” The Commission was an initiative of Lucky Luciano and was also where Lansky played a significant role in the mob’s history.

In 1931, Salvatore Maranzano killed off Joe “The Boss” Masseria, thus taking the role as the new capo di tutti capi. But with his newly obtained power, Maranzano quickly rubbed all other families the wrong way by whittling down the rival families’ rackets in favor of his own. This was what led to his downfall.

Meyer’s associate, named Charles “Lucky” Luciano, did not wait around for conditions to improve. He pretended to agree to Maranzano’s new terms then sent Lansky in to arrange a hit—or assassination—on him. Four Jewish gangsters, whose faces were unknown to Maranzano’s people, went into his office disguised as government agents, disarmed his bodyguards, then stabbed Maranzano multiple times before finishing him off with guns.

After Maranzano’s death, Luciano arguably become the most powerful mobster in New York as well as the brains behind the newly-formed Commission. And because Lansky & his childhood friend Bugsy Siegel had orchestrated the hit, Luciano was in very high favor of the two.

One important contribution Lansky made during this reorganization period was the ritual of “making someone.” Luciano felt the tradition of “making people” within the Mafia was a Sicilian tradition that was well outdated. But as a very close associate of Luciano’s, Lansky persuaded him to keep the practice; arguing that their youth needed rituals in order to promote obedience to the family. They also stressed the importance of Omertà, or the oath of silence.

But despite Lansky & Siegel’s value in the eyes of Luciano, the two would forever be unable to hold any official position within any Cosa Nostra family due to the fact that neither were of Italian descent. Lanksy, however, became a top advisor to Luciano while Siegel became a trusted associate.

By 1936, Lansky had established several successful gambling operations in Florida, New Orleans, & Cuba thanks to financial backing by Luciano & the Luciano family. Ten years later in 1946, Lanksy branched out to Nevada by convincing the mafia to place his friend Siegel in charge of the Las Vegas market, of which Lansky was a major investor; specifically the Flamingo Hotel.

These casino businesses flourished thanks to two important factors. One: he ensured the games were never rigged & that gamers could always trust his casinos. And two: he was resourceful in using his mob connections to ensure the legal & physical security of his establishments from other crime figures while at the same time using bribes to keep law enforcement at bay.

Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel and Meyer Lansky met when they were teenagers & together made a quick rise through the ranks of organized crime. Siegel even saved Lansky’s life on multiple occasions when they were youngsters. Lansky was always greatly appreciative of all this. But being the ruthless mobster that he was, it did not stop him from eventually giving the go-ahead on the Siegel hit.

After relocating Siegel to Las Vegas, NV, Lansky & other mafia investors were growing increasingly displeased at the way Siegel was running the Flamingo Hotel & Casino, which was far [behind schedule & cost the investors significant amounts of money. Asecret meeting was called in Havana, Cuba to discuss the assassination of Siegel, where Lansky practically begged his fellow mobsters to give Siegel a second chance.

Despite not being a made man, Lansky had a great amount of influence in the decision-making process & thus, Siegel was spared. But it wasn’t too long after that that a second meeting was called because the Flamingo Hotel was still losing money. But by this time, the casino had started to show a small profit, so it did not take as much convincing to spare his friend’s life once more.

Soon after this meeting, the casino was back to losing money again & a third meeting was called, during which Lansky was no longer able to protect Siegel. Lansky reluctantly gave the final ok to have his childhood friend whacked and on June 20th, 1947, Siegel was shot and killed in Beverly Hills, CA.

20 minutes after the Siegel hit, two of Lansky’s associates 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 20 years. Lansky admitted in several interviews later on in his life that if it had been up to him, “… Ben Siegel would be alive today.”

At around the same time period that Siegel was killed, Lansky met with Cuban general Fulgencio Batista. During the general’s 1946 stay at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, he made a mutual agreement with Lansky that in exchange for kickbacks, Batista would offer Lansky & the mafia control of Havana’s racetracks and casinos. Batista would open up Havana to large-scale gambling & his government would match—dollar-for-dollar—any hotel investment over $1 million made by the mafia, which also included a casino license. Through this historical deal, Lansky placed himself at the center of Cuba’s gambling operations.

In 1952, General Batista managed to seize power in Cuba via a coup d’état & thus became president of Cuba. With Batista as president, Lansky was able to grow his Cuban interests even further. He quickly became Cuba’s unofficial gambling minister & within no time, also became one of the most notorious & richest American mobsters around.

Over the next 7 years, Lansky ruled the gaming industry in Cuba with an iron fist thanks to the help of Batista, who in return received massive amounts of bribes. But to their dismay, the Cuban revolution took place in 1959 with Fidel Castro’s rise to power. Castro single-handedly changed the entire climate for the mob’s investments in Cuba. All of Lansky’s Cuban assets were swiftly seized by the Castro administration. After the dust had settled from the revolution, Meyer’s grip on Cuban gambling was essentially vaporized.

The 1960s saw Lansky take a relatively low-profile stance, during which he began selling parts of his Las Vegas operations. Although he had made enough money to last a lifetime, his old age—along with the crackdown of casinos in Miami—forced him to gradually ease into retirement.

Lansky escaped to Israel in 1970 in order to evade federal tax evasion charges. His Jewish descent allowed him to settle there thanks to the Israeli law of return. Nevertheless, Israeli authorities deported him back to the U.S. in 1972 because of his criminal past.

After his return to the States, his inclination to always properly cover his tracks eventually proved beneficial in court. The main witness that the U.S. government brought to testify against Lanksy was a loanshark by the name of Vincent Teresa, or “Fat Vinnie.” Although he served as an informant for the government, Fat Vinnie held little to no credibility and consequently Lanksy was acquitted.

He eventually moved to Florida where he spent his final years in relative ease & peace along Miami Beach. Lansky died in 1983 due to lung cancer & left behind an estimated $300 million in hidden bank accounts. That money is still yet to be found.

 

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