Meyer Lansky was saddled with the name Maier Suchowljansky when he was born in Grodno, Poland, sometime between 1898 and 1902. When Lansky got to the Lower East Side he made friends with Benjamin Siegel and they started a gang that included Louis “Lepke” Buchalter and got into bootlegging, smuggled drugs and cut themselves in on the labor unions. They met a nice Italian boy from the neighborhood, Charles Luciano, and they made a lot of money. Lansky did work for Arnold Rothstein and Dutch Schultz. He advised for Joe “the Boss” Masseria. When Luciano started the Commission, Lansky told them what to do with their money. On Boardwalk Empire, Meyer Lansky is played by Anatol Yusef.
Last week’s Boardwalk Empire, “The North Star,” depicted Meyer Lansky’s first taste of Florida sunshine and it was love at first bite. Lansky would run a gaming empire out of Florida that would reach as far as Las Vegas and Cuba. Lansky cut Nixon out of a deal on a casino in the Bahamas. Lansky had a life-long love affair with Ponce de Leon’s fountain of youth state. From Miami, Lansky gave marriage counseling to Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe. Sitting poolside with Sam Giancana, Lansky would prank a crying Frank Sinatra hiding from Giancana in a church basement. Lansky would die in Miami at a ripe old age on Jan. 15, 1983. I suppose that’s a SPOILER. Oops. Too late.
In Boardwalk Empire, when Nucky Thompson asks Meyer Lansky to tell him something about himself, not what he does, but what kind of person he is, Lansky recounts his meeting with Lucky Luciano. It was one of those great meetings, like when Lennon met McCartney or Laurel met Hardy or Sears and Roebuck. Meyer Lansky was walking down Hester Street when Luciano said “If you want to keep alive, Jew boy, you gotta pay us five cents a week protection money.” Lansky told the Italian gang to go fuck themselves. In Rich Cohen’s book Tough Jews, Lucky Luciano is quoted as recalling, “He stood there, this little punk. I was five years or so older than him and could have smashed him to pieces. But he just stood there staring me straight in the face, telling me to stick my protection money up my ass. He was ready to fight. His fists were clenched.”
Lansky arrived in America in 1911 with his mother and his younger brother Jake. Lansky’s father was already living on Lewis Street on the Lower East Side. Meyer Lansky came to New York from Grodno, Poland. Jews were bullied everywhere in Europe, even America, but in America they could fight back. In most areas of New York City and Brooklyn, Jewish and Italian neighborhoods border each other. A lot of New York Jews can speak at least a little Italian and New York Italians know enough Yiddish to get by. James Cagney, an Irish kid from a Jewish neighborhood, jokes with a beat cop in Yiddish in the movie Taxi. He explains it by saying he’s from Delancey Street. Italians and Jews first banded together to fight against Irish gangs.
Meyer Lansky had a younger friend from the neighborhood, Benjamin Siegel, the two became partners. They called themselves the Bugs and Meyer Gang and they included Jake Buchalter and his brother and Louis, better known as “Lepke,” probably the toughest of the tough Jews. Lansky, Siegel and Luciano guarded liquor shipments for Dutch Goldberg. Luciano, Lansky and Siegel combined with Frank Costello and Vito Genovese to grab cash from drugs, booze and labor rackets. Joe Masseria taunted Luciano that if he kept hanging around with Lansky and Siegel they were going to start making him to go to synagogue. Luciano responded by doing more and more work for Arnold Rothstein, who he said also cleaned up his mouth and made him dress respectably. Lansky became a naturalized citizen in 1928.
The young gangsters were ahead of their time. Years before anyone else was crossing ethic lines, Italians and Jews found a natural affinity in street crime. When Luciano was inducted into the family of “Joe the Boss” Masseria, Lansky and Siegel advised and strong-armed. When Masseria decided that Luciano was getting too big for his own good, Luciano went to Meyer Lansky for advice on how best to deal with it. Bugsy was one of the shooters from that decision. When Salvatore Maranzano put out a contract on Luciano, Costello, Genovese, Joe Adonis, Willie Moretti, Dutch Schultz and Al Capone in 1931, it was Meyer Lansky who helped draw up battle plans. They replaced the two Ms, Masseria and Maranzano, with three Ms: Moxie, Muscle and Money. Meyer had them in surplus. When the Commission was formed, Lansky was the financial advisor.
The first time Lansky was arrested, he was a teenager. On Oct. 23, 1918, Lansky was popped for assault. In the late twenties, the cops thought Lansky looked good for the Kiddy Kolbrenner hit, but Lansky was discharged. The first time Lansky saw the green felt of a crap table was at Arnold Rothstein’s gambling clubs. A.R. brought gambling out of the streets, he took them inside and laid out tables. Mayer Lansky went on to become the “king of illegal casinos.” Lansky set up gaming tables in Miami and Cuba. Lansky was immediately on board with Siegel’s Las Vegas dream. Legend has it that Bugsy Siegel was killed because the cost of the Flamingo Hotel spiraled out of control and was an embarrassment to mob interests. According to Meyer Lansky’s daughter, Sandi, it was because Siegel told Luciano to “go fuck yourself” because Luciano was bitching at him for showing up late at a meeting. Luciano was trying to get out of going to prison for life and Luciano’s lawyer, Moses Polakoff, said Siegel was late with the bagels. Even Lansky couldn’t save Bugsy from that. The only person who could tell Luciano to fuck himself was Lansky. And he did it already.
When Louis Lepke Buchalter was ditching narcotics and murder charges in 1939, Lansky sat at the meeting with Doc Rosen and Longie Zwillman that concluded Lepke should lam it out of the country. Lepke stayed. He eventually turned himself in. Lepke was the only mob boss ever to be fried in the electric chair. During World War II, Meyer Lansky was the go-between for the Navy when they needed Luciano’s help securing the ports of New York. Luciano was in jail at the time at Great Meadows Prison in Comstock, N.Y., and Naval Intelligence didn’t think it was smart to be seen with him.
When World War II ended, Lansky opened up the Colonial Inn casino in Miami with his brother Jake. They expanded into Saratoga and Hollywood. The Lansky brothers had to dump the Colonial Inn in 1948 when Florida cracked down on gambling. Lansky went in on the Beverly Club just outside New Orleans with Frank Costello and Phil Kastel in 1946. Lansky lost Havana’s Riveriera Hotel to Fidel Castro. The Riviera casino cost about $14 million to build and hadn’t seen a profit yet. It broke Lansky’s heart and gave him an ulcer. Lansky diversified into enough legit businesses to get around the Kefauver Committee on Crime in Oct. 11, 1950, but the feds never left him alone.
When Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller got divorced, Joe DiMaggio, the Yankee slugger, “Dunkin’ Joe” as Kramer calls him on Seinfeld, went to Meyer Lansky to see if he could get help get her back. Lansky put some guys on it, but between the Kennedy boys and the pills, there was nothing he could do. Lansky had a funny side. Frank Sinatra heard that Sam Giancana wanted him popped for being uppity with his gang and called Lansky to make a deal for his life. Sinatra gave a priest $50,000 to use a church basement as a hideout. Sinatra offered to play a million gigs for Giancana gratis if he’d call off his dogs. Lansky told the Chairman of the Board that he’d see what he could do and hung up the phone before Sinatra could hear Giancana laughing in the background.
By the early seventies the FBI drove Lansky to seek refuge in Israel. Nixon threatened to stop delivery on Phantom jets unless Prime Minister Golda Meir deported Lansky. The Israeli Supreme Court told him: have you tried Buenos Aires? When Lansky’s plane landed in Panama, U.S. officials filled it back up with gas and sent Lansky back to Miami to face the music on some Flamingo skimming. 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.
Meyer Lansky was smart as well as tough. He didn’t get convicted on the tax evasion charges Nixon leveled at him in retaliation for the Bahama Casinos. Lansky walked up and down Collins Avenue in Miami until he died of a heart attack on Jan. 15, 1983 at the age of 81, well, depending on which birth certificate you believe, still a pretty ripe old age for a gangser.