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Meyer Lansky

(1902-1983)
National Crime Syndicate Founder

Meyer Lansky was a godfather of the national crime syndicate, the parent organization of what became the American Mafia — and thus a real godfather of the American Mafia. He was called with total respect the “little man,” and Lucky Luciano’s advice to his followers was always “listen to him.” He himself would brag with typical quiet elation: “We’re bigger than U.S. Steel.” And an agent of the FBI would say of him with grudging admiration: “He would have been chairman of the board of General Motors if he’d gone into legitimate business.”

He was Maier Suchowljansky, better known as Meyer Lansky, a Jew from Grodno, Poland. While many mafiosi speak of “our thing” which excludes all but Italians, it is a matter of record that none of the top mafiosi ever excluded Meyer Lansky from anything. Only among the lower-rung levels of the Mafia was there any belief that Lansky, because he was not Italian, was just a money man to be respected and trusted, one who lacked real power to “vote” in the top councils.

Lansky truly had the first and last word in organized crime. When the Big Six dominated the syndicate in the 1940s and 1950s, Lansky voted and all the others followed. Greasy Thumb Guzik from Chicago thought Lansky the genius of the age. Tony Accardo marveled at the money Lansky brought in. Longy Zwillman, head of the New Jersey rackets, followed Lansky’s lead at all time. Ditto Frank Costello, who was Lansky’s partner in New Orleans, Las Vegas and elsewhere. And Joey Adonis was under strict orders from the deported Lucky Luciano to “listen to Meyer.” The voting usually went six-zip Lansky.

Everybody listened to Meyer because it paid. If they listened well, he might, for instance, give them a slice of the pre-Castro Cuban action. Lansky cut in Chicago, Detroit, New Jersey and New York. When the Trafficantes of Tampa tried to go in big on their own in Cuba, Lansky used his Batista connection to squash the move. Then he gave them a slice, smaller than what many other mafiosi got. That was Lansky’s way. Jack Dragna, the Los Angeles Mafia boss, once tried to use muscle on Lansky to get a piece in Las Vegas. Lansky talked him in circles, got him up on tiptoes, and then not only didn’t kiss him but gave him nothing. It was Lansky’s way.

Despite a rash of publicity during the last decade of his life, Lansky remained the most shadowy of the organized crime leaders. Although Luciano technically held the title, Lansky was regarded as equal and perhaps superior to Luciano as the godfather of organized crime as it emerged in the 1930s. Together, they were the successors of the warring Prohibition gangs as well as of the old-line Mafia, headed by the so-called Mustache Petes (particularly, Joe the Boss Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano). And the Mafia as it exists today, owes as much to the Jewish Lanskyas to the Sicilian Luciano for its shape and prosperity. They were the perfect match: the well-read, even studious Lansky, who could survey all the angles of a given situation, and the less-than-erudite Luciano (he could make out the New York Daily News or Daily Mirror but he freely admitted the New York Times threw him), who made up for his limitations with a brilliant flair for organization and the brutal character to set any plan in motion.

hrough the years Lansky built an image of being alien to violence, but it was a myth. In the 1920s he and Bugsy Siegel organized the Bug and Meyer Gang, which some described as the most violent of the Prohibition mobs in the East. They worked alternately as liquor hijackers and protectors of booze shipments for bootleggers willing to meet their prices, which were so exorbitant that it amounted to extortion.

Bug and Meyer muscle was also available for “slammings” and rubouts for a fee and was the fore-runner of Murder, Inc., the enforcement troop of the national syndicate. Many Bug and Meyer graduates, in fact, moved into Murder, Inc., in the 1930s; Lansky had as much to do with the forming of that outfit as anyone. He proposed the enforcers be put under the command of a triumvirate composed of Louis Lepke, Albert Anastasia and Bugsy Siegel. Other leaders of the emerging national crime syndicate objected to the kill-happy Siegel, feeling he would be too loyal to Lansky and would give Lansky too powerful a hold on the apparatus of the extermination crew should the confederation fall apart in a war of extermination. Lansky agreed to drop Siegel from the murder troop, but his influence was not dented. It was said that no major assignment for Murder, Inc., ever went forward without Lansky being consulted. That was true even in the elimination of Siegel in 1947 for spending or stealing too much of the syndicate’s money in his Las Vegas hotel operation. “I had no choice,” Lansky was quoted as telling friends, but others insisted he had pushed hard for the vote to kill his close friend. He did suggest the mob hold off execution for a time, though, while pressure was exerted on Siegel to produce profits from his Las Vegas ventures. It was Lansky’s way.

Both Luciano and Lansky independently said that they had planned the formation of a new syndicate as early as 1920, when Luciano was in his early 20s and Lansky was only 18. They were greatly influenced in this by the older Arnold Rothstein, the great gambler, criminal “brain” and mentor who, acting on his own plan for a national syndicate, nurtured Lansky’s and Luciano’s development. Rothstein’s murder in 1928 shortened what the pair may have considered too long an apprenticeship. Lansky and Luciano together survived the crime wars of the 1920s by cunning alliances, eliminating one foe after another, even though they lacked the manpower and firepower of other gangs. When they effected the assassinations first of Masseria and then Maranzano, they stood at the pinnacle of power in the underworld. Even Al Capone realized they were more powerful than he.

In remarks attributed to Luciano, he once explained, “I learned a long time before that Meyer Lan Sky understood the Italian brain almost better than I did. . . . I used to tell Lansky that he may’ve had a Jewish mother, but someplace he must’ve been wet-nursed by a Sicilian.” Luciano often said Lansky “could look around corners,” or anticipate what would happen next in underworld intrigues, and that “the barrel of his gun was curved,” meaning he knew how to keep himself out of the line of fire. Through the years that was Lansky’s way.

Lansky never begrudged Luciano his top role, realizing that the title brought the clear dangers of notoriety and, no matter how many payoffs were made, the hazard of being the target of the law. It was also necessary to sell Luciano as the top man in order to win the support of the Italian mobsters. Lansky had fewer difficulties selling Jewish mobsters like Zwillman or Moe Dalitz, or even the often unpredictable Dutch Schultz, on the value of syndication; they understood the profits involved. The Italian mafiosi were different, many cut adrift by the war of survival that had just been concluded. Lansky told Luciano: “A lot of these guys need something to believe in.” He urged Luciano to keep some of the old-style Mafia trappings used by the Mustache Petes. Luciano had no patience for the nonsense of “made men” and blood oaths but agreed to let those who wanted such rituals have them. He did eliminate the position of “boss of bosses”—and immediately,as Lansky anticipated, gained that position de facto. At Lansky’s suggestion the organization took the name of Unione Siciliano, a corruption in spelling of the old fraternal organization. Eventually Luciano just called it the “outfit” or the “combination.” Luciano imbued in his men that all the traditions really meant little, that the important thing was money-making. (In time, though, Luciano saw the merits of the structure of the Italian wing; it gave him a power base and cemented that power. Even when imprisoned for a decade, his support never eroded and he could issue orders and have his revenues set aside for him.)

As late as 1951, when his name surfaced during the investigation of bookmaking czar Frank Erickson, the New York Times, with one of the most reliable news libraries in the world, did not know exactly who Meyer Lansky was. The newspaper identified him as “Meyer (Socks) Lansky,” evidently mistaking him for Joseph (Socks) Lanza, the waterfront racketeer. During the Kefauver investigation (1950–1951) into crime, Lansky was considered so unimportant that he was not even called as a witness to testify. The committee did not even mention him in its first two interim reports. Only in the final report did the investigators correct their oversight and announce: “Evidence of the Costello-Adonis- Lansky operations was found in New York City, Saratoga, Bergen County, N.J., New Orleans, Miami, Las Vegas, the west coast, and Havana, Cuba.”

Lansky was revealed as “the brains of the combination.” The “little man” became acknowledged as the one who held together Luciano’s crime empire while he was behind bars. Lansky was the money man trusted to hide or invest millions for the syndicate, and he saw to it that Luciano got his share of the profits even after he was deported to Italy. It was Lansky who opened up what was for a time the syndicate’s greatest source of income, gambling in Havana. He alone handled negotiations with dictator Fulgencio Batista for a complete monopoly of gambling in Cuba. Lansky was said to have personally deposited $3 million in a Zurich, Switzerland, bank for Batista and arranged to pay the ruling military junta, namely Batista, 50 percent of the profits thereafter.

In the rise and fall of underworld fortunes, Lansky was immune to replacement because he was too valuable to lose. Thus, he could agree with Vito Genovese that Albert Anastasia should die and then later he could take part in a fantastic conspiracy that delivered Genovese himself to the feds. Despite this duplicity, Lansky faced no retribution.

Lansky’s arrest record over the years was bushleague stuff and it was not until 1970 that the federal government made a concerted effort to get him on income tax charges. Lansky had skimmed untold millions out of Las Vegas casinos which the syndicate secretly owned. The government also sought to deport him as an undesirable alien. In 1970, Lansky fled to Israel where so many of his Jewish underworld associates had retired. Lansky claimed Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, which accorded citizenship to anyone born of a Jewish mother. Lansky poured millions of dollars into the country to win public support, but he proved an embarrassment to the Israeli government. Law enforcement officials warned that Lansky was not retiring from organized crime but would use Israel as a base of operations. After a long battle in the courts and bitter debate by the public, Lansky was forced to leave Israel in 1972.

In 1973, after undergoing open-heart surgery, Lansky was put on trial in Miami on the income tax charges that had worked so well against many crime bigwigs since Al Capone. It was a disaster for the government; Lansky was acquitted. In December 1974, the federal government gave up its efforts to put the then 72-year-old organized crime legend behind bars.

Lansky maintained his position in the syndicate right to the very end. In the early 1970s his personal wealth was estimated at around $300 million and by 1980 it must have grown to at least $400 million. Some profilers have tried to explain Lansky’s continuing to make money as an indication of his inner need for power and the ability to exercise it. They tend to overlook the more simple explanation: Lansky felt a man could never have too much. His drive was always for more.

However, in 1991 a British writer, Robert Lacey, published Little Man in which he insisted Lansky died hard up. The theory gained few supporters. A New York Times reviewer found the book “banal” and dismissed Lacey’s claim that criminal investigators never pinned anything substantial on Lansky. “But such evidence proves exactly the opposite point, argue those who insist Meyer Lansky was a criminal mastermind who left behind a vast secret fortune. No one ever laid a finger on Lansky precisely because he left no fingerprints anywhere. The more you argue there was no fortune, the more you prove there has to have been,” continued the article.

Similarly, Lacey’s theory would mean that Lansky, who had shown such men as Huey Long and Fulgencio Batista of Cuba the joys of foreign numbered accounts, neglected to set up anything for himself out of the millions he admittedly accumulated.

Lansky had created organized crime in its syndicate form, but he was never interested in creating any dynasty. His children and wife were kept totally away from mob business. And he looked for no successor. In that sense Lansky was the quintessential Jewish-American mobster. They either stayed until they died or else they sold out their positions in the rackets and went into retirement.

Meyer Lansky had outlived Lucky Luciano by 20 years but, in the end, Luciano’s handiwork in the national crime syndicate—the American Mafia — was the portion that survived, simply because it was a structure, an apparatus that needed running,that automatically filled all vacancies because it remained a money-making machine. Yet Lansky in large measure created the American Mafia and was its real godfather.