Whoever said that crime doesn’t pay didn’t know about Meyer Lansky, the Jewish bootlegger, gambler and all around criminal, who, in 1970, was worth $300,000,000. He hid his money in a Swiss numbered bank account, whose anonymity was assured by the 1934 Swiss Banking Act.
Unlike most criminals, Lansky reached the ripe old age of 81, while my bootlegging father, who was Lansky’s contemporary, was killed at 29 -- and whatever money was left to my mother was lost in the Great Depression.
Lansky was born Meyer Suchowljansky in Russia to a Jewish family who, he claimed experienced vicious anti-Semitic pograms. In 1911 he immigrated to the US with his mother and brother. He met Bugsy Siegel on the Lower East Side when they were teenagers. They became lifelong friends—Bugsy saved Lansky’s life more than once -- and became partners in the bootlegging trade along with Lucky Luciano. Lansky was instrumental in Luciano’s rise to power by organizing the 1931 murder of Mafia powerhouse Salvatore Maranzano. (Get ready for that story, Boardwalk Empire fans!)
By 1936 he had developed a gambling empire that stretched from Saratoga, New York, to Miami, to Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Las Vegas. He was into narcotics, pornography, prostitution, labour racketeering and extortion and also got control of legitimate hotels, golf courses and a meat-packing plant
He organized mob funding for Bugsy Siegel’s Flamingo Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. But when he kept its losing money, Lansky ordered his friend’s execution.
Like Arnold Rothstein and Bugsy Siegle, he captured the imagination of authors, television producers and moviemakers. The character Hyman Roth in The Godfather Part 11 was based on Lansky. Max Bercovicz, the gangster played by James Woods in Once Upon A Time In America was inspired by Meyer Lansky, as well as in Havana, staring Robert Redford. Dustin Hoffman played Lansky in The Lost City
Does that say something about our culture’s values?
Lansky died of lung cancer on January 15, 1983, after spending a quiet respectable life in Miami. He was buried there in an Orthodox Jewish ceremony.
He left behind a widow and three children.
Interview with Meyer Lansky, 1971
Next: Bugsy Siegel