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Who Was Meyer Lansky?

Jewish American Mobster

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Who Was Meyer Lansky?

Meyer Lansky in 1958.

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Meyer Lansky was a powerful member of the mafia during the early to mid 1900s. He was involved with both the Jewish mafia and the Italian mafia and is sometimes referred to as the “Mob’s Accountant.”

Meyer Lansky’s Personal Life

Meyer Lansky was born Meyer Suchowljansky in Grodno, Russia (now Belarus) on July 4, 1902. The son of Jewish parents, his family immigrated to the United States in 1911 after suffering at the hands of pogroms (anti-Jewish mobs). They settled in New York City’s Lower East Side and by 1918 Lansky was running a youth gang with another Jewish teen who would also become a prominent member of the mafia: Bugsy Siegel. Known as the Bugs-Meyer Gang, their activities began with theft before expanding to include gambling and bootlegging.  

In 1929 Lansky married a Jewish woman named Ana Citron who was a friend of Bugsy Siegel’s girlfriend Esta Krakower. When their first child, Buddy, was born they discovered that he suffered from cerebral palsy. Ana blamed her husband for Buddy’s condition, worrying that God was punishing the family for Lansky’s criminal activities. Though they went on two have another son and a daughter, eventually the couple divorced in 1947. Not long afterwards Ana was placed in a mental hospital.

The Mob’s Accountant

Eventually Lansky and Siegel became involved with Italian gangster Charles “Lucky” Luciano. Luciano was behind the formation of a national crime syndicate and allegedly decided to murder Sicilian crime boss Joe “The Boss” Masseria on the advice of Lanksy.  Masseria was gunned down in 1931 by four hit men, one of whom was Bugsy Siegel.

As Lanksy’s influence grew he became one of the mafia’s major bankers, earning him the nickname of “The Mob’s Accountant.” He managed mafia funds, financed major endeavors and bribed authority figures and key individuals. He also channeled a natural talent for numbers and business into developing profitable gambling operations in Florida and New Orleans. He was known for running fair gambling houses where players did not have to worry about rigged games.

When Lansky’s gambling empire expanded to Cuba he came to an agreement with then Cuban leader Fulgencia Batista. In exchange for monetary kickbacks Batista agreed to give Lansky and his associates control of Havana’s racetracks and casinos.  

He later became interested in the promising location of Las Vegas, Nevada. He helped Bugsy Siegel convince the mob to finance The Pink Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas – a gambling venture that would ultimately lead to Siegel’s death and pave the way for the Las Vegas we know today.

World War II

During World War II Lansky reportedly used his mafia connections to break up Nazi rallies in New York. He made it a point to discover where rallies were taking place and would then use mafia muscle to disrupt the rallies.

As the war continued, Lansky became involved with anti-Nazi activities sanctioned by the US Government. After trying to enlist in the US Army but being rejected due to his age, he was recruited by the Navy to take part in an initiative that pit organized crime leaders against Axis spies.  Called “Operation Underworld,” the program sought the aid of the Italian mafia that controlled the waterfront.  Lansky was asked to speak with his friend Lucky Luciano who by this point was in prison but still controlled the Italian mafia. As a result of Lansky's involvement, the mafia provided security along the docks in New York Harbor where ships were being built. This period in Lansky’s life is portrayed in the novel “The Devil Himself” by author Eric Dezenhall.

Lansky’s Later Years

As Lansky’s influence in the mafia grew so did his wealth. By the 1960’s his empire included shady dealings with gambling, narcotics smuggling and pornography in addition to legitimate holdings in hotels, golf courses and other business ventures. Lansky’s worth was widely believed to be in the millions by this time, a rumor that no doubt led to his being brought up on charges of income tax evasion in 1970. He fled to Israel in the hopes that the Law of Return would prevent the US from trying him. However, though the Law of Return allows any Jew to settle in Israel it does not apply to those with a criminal past. As a result, Lansky was deported to the US and brought to trial. He was acquitted in 1974 and resumed a quiet life in Miami Beach, Florida.

Though Lansky is often thought of as a mafia man of considerable wealth, biographer Robert Lacey dismisses such ideas as “sheer fantasy.” To the contrary, Lacey believes that Lansky’s investments didn’t see him into his retirement years, which is why his family didn’t inherit millions when he died of lung cancer on January 15, 1983.

Meyer Lansky’s Character in "Boardwalk Empire"

In addition to Arnold Rothstein and Lucky Luciano, the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire” features Meyer Lansky as a recurring character. Lansky is played by actor Anatol Yusef and first appears Season 1 Episode 7.

References:

  • Lacey, Robert. "Little Man: Meyer Lansky & the Gangster Life." Random House: New York, 1993.
  • History.com (Meyer Lanksy article on History.com is no longer available.)
  • Time.com
  • Bio.com
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