This Day in Jewish History

1983: A Crime Boss Cashes in His Chips

Russian-born Meyer Lansky was a gambling and crime kingpin across the country during the heyday of American gangsters.

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On January 15, 1983, Meyer Lansky, a major figure in American illegal gambling and organized crime in general, died in New York at the age of 80.

Lansky was born Maier Suchowljansky in Grodno, Russia (today Belarus) in 1902 . According to his U.S. passport, which can be viewed on the website created in his memory by his now-late widow, Thelma, at meyerlansky.com, his date of birth was July 4. Lansky immigrated with his family to the United States in 1911 and grew up first in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and later on New York’s Lower East Side. He did well academically, but in 1917 left school after 8th grade, in 1917. He found a job with a tool-and-die maker, and supplemented his income by organizing dice games, hooking up with two men who became notorious gangsters in their own right and longtime business partners of Lansky’s: Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel and Charles “Lucky Luciano” Luciana.

For many Americans, Lansky is identified with “Hyman Roth,” an American casino kingpin living in Havana, and modeled on him in part, in the 1974 film “The Godfather Part II.” (A line said by Roth to Michael Corleone in that film, “We’re bigger than U.S. Steel,” is a real remark that Lansky is said to have made to his wife when they were watching a television news report on the Mafia.) The character was played by Lee Strasberg, and is only one of many depictions of Meyer Lansky that turned up film, TV and books in recent decades.

By 1928, at the height of Prohibition, Lansky and Siegel were running a crime group of their own, the Bugs and Meyer Mob, which together with big-time smuggler Arnold Rothstein (who will be familiar to fans of HBO's "Boardwalk Empire," where Lansky also appears), smuggled alcohol into the country. The gang also offered strong-arm services to local bootleggers, and ran a number of gambling operations.

Even today, 30 years after his death, it is still hard to distinguish between myth and fact in parts of Lansky’s biography (for example, did he die with almost no property to his name, as he and his family claimed, or did he leave behind secret bank accounts with $300 million in them, as the FBI believed at the time?). Lansky's strength, however, seems have to been in running businesses efficiently, albeit illegally, rather than having excelled as a muscle-man himself.

He also was a proud Jew and American patriot. In the years preceding World War II, Lansky and his gang took it upon themselves to make the lives of Nazi sympathizers in New York hell, showing up at legally organized meetings in Yorkville, New York, and beating participants with pipes and bats (local authorities allegedly tolerated their activities as long as they kept their promise not to kill anyone). During the war, Lansky had gang members at ports along the Eastern seaboard keep watch for the entry of German saboteurs or infiltrators arriving via submarine.

Following the war, Lansky began operating gambling establishments around the United States, often in tacit collaboration with local governments, which received kickbacks that they used to supplement municipal budgets. He and his mafia colleagues helped bankroll Bugsy Siegel’s Flamingo hotel in Las Vegas; when it kept hemorrhaging money and Siegel refused to give it up, the crime families decided to have him killed. Lansky always claimed that he agreed to the 1947 assassination of his old friend with great reluctance, although within an hour of Siegel’s death, his men had entered and taken control of the Flamingo.

The Cuban government also brought him in to clean up the country’s racetrack industry, with Lansky then expanding into casino-hotels. When Fulgencio Batista became president of the island nation, he hired Lansky as an adviser on gambling reform, and offered him and his mafia partners control of all of Cuba’s newly expanded racetrack and casino operations. In return, Batista received major kickbacks. Lansky invited the heads of the U.S. organized crime families to what became known as the Havana Conference, on December 22, 1946, at the Hotel Nacional, to discuss and approve the proposal. Entertainment was provided by Frank Sinatra, among others.

When Batista was overthrown, in 1959, and Fidel Castro came to power, gambling was outlawed, and the assets of the tourism industry nationalized (or looted and destroyed). Lansky lost his hotels, which included the Nacional, the Riviera and the Montmartre, and had to flee Cuba. He settled in Miami Beach, but in 1970, when federal authorities began pursuing him for tax evasion, he moved to Israel, applying for citizenship under the Law of Return. Prime Minister Golda Meir was extremely uncomfortable with the idea of offering refuge to a man who was wanted by the U.S. government, and Israeli authorities turned down Lansky’s bid to make aliyah. He appealed the decision to the Israeli Supreme Court, which upheld the ruling and ordered Lansky’s extradition back to the United States, in 1972.

Lansky was arrested when his plane from Israel touched down in America, and prosecuted on tax evasion and other charges. He was acquitted of, or found too sick to stand trial for, all the charges. (His only time spent in prison was three months for running an illegal gambling operation in Saratoga Springs, New York, in 1952.) He lived out the remainder of his life quietly in Miami Beach, where he died of cancer on this day 30 years ago.