“Boardwalk Empire” is an HBO television series set in Atlantic City, New Jersey during the 1920’s and early 1930’s. At this time Prohibition made it illegal manufacture or sell alcohol in the United States. Prohibition began in 1919 and ended in 1933, but in the meantime Atlantic City prospered while alcohol was consumed in the back rooms of nightclubs and restaurants. Eventually a racketeer named Enoch “Nucky” Johnson garnered significant political power by collecting kickbacks from alcohol sales as well as from gambling and prostitution operations in the city. On the HBO series, the character of Nucky Thomspon is based upon Enoch Johnson.
Nucky Thompson is not the only “Boardwalk Empire” character based upon a real-life individual. The series also portrays Jewish mobsters such as Arnold Rothstein, Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel and Waxey Gordon.
Arnold Rothstein was a powerful Jewish mobster during the early to mid 1900’s. Born in New York to an observant Jewish family, from an early age he expressed an interest in illegal activities and eventually became an important member of the mafia. He was sometimes called “The Big Bankroll” because he was known to carry rolls of $100 bills in case he wanted to finance a deal on the spot. He was also called “The Brain” because he worked behind the scenes, orchestrating the details of illegal operations. When the Chicago White Sox threw the 1919 World Series it was widely believed that Rothstein financed the conspiracy, however, his involvement was never proven in court. You can learn more about Arnold Rothstein in: Arnold Rothstein – Jewish American Mobster.
In “Boardwalk Empire” Rothstein is portrayed as a suave and influential New York mobster. HBO’s website describes Rothstein as “a strategic thinker and consummate gambler… [who] never makes a bet he doesn’t know he’ll win.” His character has appeared in both Season 1 and 2 and is played by actor Michael Stuhlbarg. (Stuhlbarg also happens to be Jewish.)
Meyer Lanksy was another high-level Jewish mobster during the early to mid 1900’s. Born in Russia, his family immigrated to the United States in 1911 and settled in New York City. As a teen Lansky became involved in illegal activities and formed the Bugs-Meyer Gang with Bugsy Siegel, another Jewish teen who would go on to be a member of the mafia. Lansky later began working with Charles “Lucky” Luciano, a New York gangster and associate of Rothstein. He became one of the mafia’s major bankers and was known as “The Mob’s Accountant.” In addition to bribing authorities and managing mafia funds, he also ran profitable gambling operations of his own in Florida, New Orleans and eventually Cuba. You can learn more about Meyer Lansky in: Meyer Lansky – Jewish American Mobster.
“Boardwalk Empire” depicts an early period in Lansky’s life when he is a young man working and gambling with Lucky Luciano and Arnold Rothstein. Lansky appears in both Season 1 and 2 of the show and is played by actor Anatol Yusef.
Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel
Bugsy Siegel grew up with Meyer Lansky in New York’s Lower East Side. Together they ran the Bugs-Meyer Gang, which extorted “protection” money from pushcart peddlers and eventually engaged in gambling and bootlegging. Born Benjamin Siegel, “Bugsy” was a nickname based upon Siegel’s personality – he had a hot temper and would let people “bug” him. However, Siegel hated this nickname and few would call him “Bugsy” to his face. In the late 1930’s Siegel moved to California and later setup The Pink Flamingo hotel. Though the hotel was a failure and led to Siegel’s murder, many say it established the foundation for modern day Las Vegas. You can learn more about Bugsy Siegel in: Bugsy Siegel – Jewish American Mobster.
On “Boardwalk Empire” Siegel is depicted as a teen and appears on Season 2 of the show. He is played by actor Michael Zegen.
Waxey Gordon was born Irving Wexler around 1889 in New York City. As a youth he became known as “Waxey” because he was such a skilled pickpocket that people joked his victim’s pockets were waxed. In the early 1900’s Gordon was hired as a rum-runner by Arnold Rothstein. Gordon was so successful that he was eventually put in charge of Rothstein’s entire East Coast bootlegging operation. By the 1920’s he was a wealthy man with an income well over $2 million per year and a New Jersey castle as his residence. However, his success was short-lived and Gordon ended his years in Alcatraz Prison. You can learn more about Waxey Gordon in: Waxey Gordon – Jewish American Mobster.
“Boardwalk Empire” portrays Gordon as an estranged associate of the fictional character Manny Horvitz, a Philadelphia-based Jewish mobster. The show also incorporates Gordon’s real-life ties with Rothstein in Season 2, when Rothstein arranges for Gordon to receive a 20% cut of Nucky’s bootlegging operation in exchange to transporting liquor into Atlantic City. Gordon is played by actor Nick Sandow.