Meyer Lansky, born Meier Suchowlański somewhere in what is today’s Belarus, was known as the Mob’s Accountant. He helped Charles “Lucky” Luciano turn the chaos of mob rule into organized crime.
AMC’s The Making of The Mob: New York is part of its yearly “Mob Week” programming, which I personally like as much Breaking Bad or The Walking Dead. The AMC special begins in 1905 and covers the usual suspects: Charles “Lucky” Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, Abe Rothstein, “Joe the Boss” Masseria, Salvatore Maranzano, Joe Adonis, and the other notorious gangsters who gave birth to the 20th century.
Lansky met Luciano when they were both teenagers on the lower east side of New York City. As the story goes, Luciano’s gang tried to shake the young Jewish kid down but he wouldn’t stay down. He and his friend Ben Siegel became lifetime friends with the neighborhood Italians and went on to redraw the criminal landscape.
Under Lansky’s guidance, crime became bigger than U.S. Steel, to quote The Godfather Part II. Crime was an institution, During World War II, U.S. Naval Intelligence went to Meyer Lansky to take Luciano up on his offer to protect the ports of New York. Luciano was in jail at the time at Great Meadows Prison in Comstock, N.Y., at the time.
After World War II, Meyer and his brother Jake Lansky opened up the Colonial Inn casino in Miami getting Lansky called before the Kefauver Committee on Crime in Oct. 11, 1950. Even Nixon took on Meyer Lansky, extorting Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir to have him deported.
Meyer Lansky’s grandson, Meyer Lansky II, spoke exclusively about one of the biggest crime figures in U.S. history. A man he knew as grandpa, who told him to spend as much time studying as he did playing sports and banging drums. But Lansky II got to introduce the elder statesman to Santana.
Den of Geek: You’re not from the city, are you?
Meyer Lansky II: I was born in 1957 in Tacoma, Washington. My dad was in the military. He was stationed at Fort Lewis. He met my mother out there and that’s where I was born and raised, near Seattle.
Have you seen the neighborhood your grandfather grew up in?
Yesterday was the very first day that I went down to walk the streets where all the history took place, actually. It was very interesting.
Do you feel a disconnect because you didn’t grow up in New York?
Not really at all because I’ve been here quite a few times. I just haven’t been down to the sites here where all this initially took place. My dad’s talked about New York. He’s from here and I grew up hearing about all this. The area I grew up in didn’t have a lot of knowledge, especially in the seventies, about the mob and my grandpa.
Did your grandfather tell you stories?
He told me stories that had nothing to do with his background, but he was never like that at all. I tried to touch on those kinds of stories once in a while. I asked him ‘did you know Frank Sinatra’ one time. All the time I spent with him was down on Miami Beach. He was already there about ten years before I was born. I never spent any time in New York with him. But no, he would steer me away from that. He’d stay on subjects like how my grades were doing and what kinds of sports was I playing and politics. I learned early on that if I touched on that subject he would just not talk about it. He didn’t want to think about it anyway.
Did your father talk about it?
He did and after my grandfather passed away, it was about 1987, I got together with my father and we went over everything, first hand. He told me ever story. At that time I was very interested in everything, all the background and things I never could ask my grandfather. It was a mythical story coming out. I would compare what really happened to what the movies said happened and the books. It was interesting to go over those stories.
What were the most glaring differences between what you know and what the movies showed us?
Well, first of all some of the time periods were off. His age wasn’t exactly what they portrayed it as in the movies. His reactions to things, I knew him, he was my grandfather and I knew he would react in certain ways, and the portrayals weren’t exactly that. But that’s fine. That’s creative license and that’s what Hollywood does. It makes for good movies. He wasn’t a rough guy with anybody. He was always in control, always self-confident.
Did you watch Boardwalk Empire?
Yes I did. I liked Anatol [Yusef- who played Meyer Lansky] very much. I liked the show. I thought the whole show was good. I loved the filming part of it: the old 1920s glows and the period buildings and the costumes. I just loved that part of it. I thought Anatol did a great job. There’s really nobody that I’ve seen who’s portrayed my grandfather that I didn’t like in some way. I thought Ben Kingsley was fantastic in Bugsy.
Do you see anything of your grandfather in the portrayals?
Yes I do. Godfather II. Lee Strasberg of course being the top person I personally liked representing my grandfather in Cuba. I noticed a couple things, I don’t know if they knew about things like that: My grandfather always liked being on top of a building because he felt safer. I knew that because we would talk on top of buildings or on the beach. When he said “We’re bigger than U.S. Steel” [it exemplified that].
Lee Strasberg was from relatively the same time period and background. At one point it was like looking at and listening to my grandfather. He sounded just like him. It was almost spooky. His mannerisms and everything were just perfect.
Did they meet?
They talked. He called. He was around when that movie came out and he called Lee Strasburg. He got hold of his wife and his wife knew right away that it was Meyer. My grandfather said he did a great job. He could have made him more sympathetic, my grandfather, but he did a wonderful job. That must have been quite a moment for Mr. Strasberg. He liked the way he portrayed him.
Your grandfather was one of a few individuals who shaped the 20th Century. Did he have any sense of his own place in history?
He did have a sense of it. You can see it just by the way he would tell me: ‘Be honest. Know what you know. When you learn something, learn it well. Be honest with people and it goes a lot farther.’ He instilled this in me. There was one time, I was in my early twenties, we were on the beach in Miami and we stopped. He said ‘see that new building going up?’ I said yes. He says ‘they don’t own the land underneath it. You never want to build something when you don’t own the land underneath it, Meyer.’
I didn’t know it at the time but he was telling me what happened in Cuba. That was exactly what he was trying to get through to me so later in life I would know that.
He was always indirect, if you know what I mean. He didn’t say “I lost everything in Cuba.” He would go around it. I think he knew later I would know more about it. He was sore at himself.
Do you think he was railroaded? Nixon basically strong armed Golda Meier to deport him. If he were a regular drug kingpin or non-historic criminal, do you think they would have gone to those lengths to drag him back?
The tax evasion charges? You’re talking about when he had to leave Israel? Let me tell you this first up front. We have 350 letters that were actually written by him. A few of them are what happened in Israel. It’s not what you think. The story is that Golda Meir heard that it involved the Mafia and he couldn’t stay but the truth is it was a different situation than that. They really didn’t get anything. Bringing him back to the United States would add up to nothing. They arrested him for his stomach medicine and that was the end of it.
Speaking of medicine, a lot of revelations have come out lately that weren’t a part of the usual mythology. I read in Tough Jews that Lansky kicked heroin.
None of that is true at all. He had nothing to do with any kinds of drugs. Early on, Lucky Luciano, in his youth, had something to do with that, but that was Lucky Luciano. My grandfather would never have anything to do with drugs.
Did you read your aunt’s book?
Can you say anything to any of the stories like how Lansky counseled Joe DiMaggio on getting back Marilyn Monroe after she divorced Arthur Miller or that he pranked Frank Sinatra so bad that he paid a priest $50,000 to hide out from Sam Giancana in a church basement?
I had never heard them before. My aunt Sandi was the Paris Hilton of the ’40s, basically and that book is her story as Meyer Lansky’s daughter. She was around Willie Moretti. She saw Moretti on his last day and she was traumatized, of course, the next day when it was in the paper that he was gone. There were situations in there that I didn’t know about, but I wasn’t surprised about it. Which stories again?
That Lansky gave Joe DiMaggio advice on getting back Marilyn Monroe after she divorced Arthur Miller?
No, I don’t believe that. And Sam Giancana and Frank Sinatra, I don’t believe that. My grandfather had the Wurlitzer distributorship right here in New York in the forties. My dad met Frank, he had a Christmas party when my dad was about 14 and Frank was standing there at the buffet. There was never, with Sam Giancana, anything like that. I know this because Jean Giancana is one of my best friends. I know her daughter very well. The stories are made up, to say the least.
Your grandfather worked Wurlitzer in the forties? Joe Gallo ran jukeboxes in South Brooklyn, do you think there was any crossover?
That must have been later. Frank Costello had the leases for the distributorships. They’d put them in bars and collect like 60 percent, which was fifteen dollars a week at the time. They would maintain them and supply the records but no.
Do you think you learned more about your grandfather from your family or from outside sources?
Definitely my family. I’m 57 so I was around for 27 years and heard the real thing. Definitely from family.
Do you have any Charlie Luciano stories that didn’t make it to the books?
I never met Luciano. My aunt had dinner with him and described him as being exactly like grandpa: the same demeanor, the same quiet type of person. She described him as very nice. I got her stories because I wasn’t around. I was around Vincent Alo who was called Johnny Ola in the movie, Godfather II. He was already with grandpa in Miami. But I never discussed Lucky Luciano with him. I never would have brought it up back then. It would have been a sore subject. He didn’t want me discussing those subjects.
Were Charlie Luciano and your grandfather close until the day Luciano died in 1962?
They were close the whole time. They grew up, initially they survived with each other on the streets of New York and that lasted a lifetime, including Ben Siegel. The myth of him having something to do with the demise was false, they were best friends all the way through.
In 1979 the House of Representatives Assassinations Committee linked Meyer Lansky with Jack Ruby when they were checking the facts on The Warren Commission report on the JFK slayings. So, who killed Kennedy?
Who killed Kennedy? Kennedy killed himself.
That’s a new theory. That’s my lead. People discuss the Kennedy assassination at dinner tables across America, were the conversations different in your house?
Yes, we never talked about that. In my life I’ve learned about true stories and things that aren’t true. Grandpa and Jack Ruby were, he had nothing to do with that. I’m sure he knew of the people who did, but we never discussed it or anything like that.
If your grandfather didn’t go into that career, with his mathematical mind, etc., what do you think he would have done?
I think he would have been an engineer like my father. He expressed interest in that at some point. My dad was a civil engineer and grandpa was just as interested. In his early years, he was a tool and die maker. I’m still trying to find the exact location of the shop. It was like 1915, he was a young guy, there were primitive methods to tool and die making. He had to figure out all this out in a primitive way. He was very mechanically inclined. He worked on engines. He wasn’t just a math person. He liked the hands-on work, on engines and motors. Engineering is what he would have done.
Did he have any favorite gangster movies that came out during his time period?
[Laughs] Like Little Caesar?
Well, like Cagney was based on Hymie Weiss in Public Enemy.
I couldn’t tell you if he used to watch things like that. George Raft was their host over in Cuba so maybe some of his shows, but he never talked about it. Benny Siegel would have had a favorite movie. He would have wanted to star in them. Grandpa was a little more reserved. I’m they amused him but we never talked about it.
I’ll tell you one thing, during one of his visits to Tacoma, Washington, I was twelve years old and I had a rock band in the basement. So my dad went to get grandpa and all of a sudden he shows up downstairs and meets my friends and we all had long hair and I was playing drums. My dad said ‘why don’t you play your grandfather something.’ So we played ‘Evil Ways’ by Santana, just by chance. I realized later, ‘oh my goodness,’ the Latino sound probably reminded him about Cuba. He was smiling and asking questions. He asked who plays that song? And I said ‘that’s Carlos Santana, grandpa.’ I remember that like it was yesterday.
I know he frequented nightclubs as a business but did he have a great appreciation for the arts?
Oh yes, very much so. You know, everybody talks about my grandfather as this behinds-the-scenes person, and he was to a certain extent, but he was in the casino industry and the nightclubs. There was a part of him that was very outgoing and social and he liked to have some drinks and listen to music. He was interested in music and entertainment. He knew good from bad. He wanted the best. Carmen Miranda wouldn’t play at one of his casinos in Florida so he had to go over to Cuba, which wasn’t that far, and come back that night to bring her these special maracas that she wanted. He went out of his way to please his people. He loved the nightlife and music and everything like that.
What did he think of your band?
We had a way’s to go at that time but he appreciated it. He thought it was great. He encouraged me. At one point I was very into sports and he told my father it’s getting out of balance. [LAUGHS] He encouraged me in everything.
Since the Godfather, we’ve learned that it’s all family, just another career choice. In New York, and I’m sure in most cities, Jewish and Italian neighborhoods usually border each other, but besides that, why were they natural allies?
Versus? I know the Irish were, the ones they were raised with didn’t get along with them. Similar in backgrounds I guess, but not really. That’s difficult to answer that, but they do, they do get along.
Back then crime was divided very cleanly along ethnic lines.
It was all Sicilian. Masseria and Marranzano didn’t even want any other aspects of Italians. They didn’t want Napolitanos or anything it was just Sicilian, let alone Jewish. [Lanskey and Luciano] left their countries at a very early age, They weren’t engrained in the old school. They were in America. They were Americans.
Plus the money that could be made by having alliances with other cultures. Jews and Italians, they wanted to grow. They wanted more than just local businesses. They all got along. They did the job best. They could trust who they grew up with.
You have any Lepke stories?
No I don’t know a lot about him. I know what everybody else would. He was Murder Inc with Albert Anastassia, that aspect of the business. But he was also a great business man, the Garment district, unions. These guys were competent and they had very little education. They were able to run things, have authority. Louie Buchalter had the tough thing too, that’s what he was.
Is the Colonial Inn still in Miami?
No that’s long gone. The resorts are all gone. The Imperial House is still there, where he lived, on Collins Avenue.