Notorious Jewish gangster Meyer Lansky was born on July 4, 1902, as Maier Suchowljansky in Grodno, Russian (which is now known as Poland). The Lansky family relocated to the United States during 1911 where they settled in New York and young Meyer began working as an apprentice toolmaker after quitting school.
Meyer Lansky eventually had his hands in a broad range of criminal activities and was known to associate with a number of well-known crime figures dating back to the 1920s through the 1970s. It was in 1920 when Lansky befriended Lucky Luciano and Bugsy Siegel when the three men were just teenagers and they all got involved in a life of crime that included the protection racket, bootlegging, and gambling. Lansky especially enjoyed running floating crap games and became so successful with gaining that it wasn’t long before he and Siegel were head of a sizable gang known as the Bugs and Meyer Mob.
Lansky was also ended up working for New York Mafia crime boss Joe Masseria. However, in 1931 Meyer Lansky teamed up with Albert Anastasia, Bugsy Siegel, and Lucky Luciano to execute Masseria. With Joe Masseria out of the picture, Lansky’s fortunes continue to rise. In 1936 he established gambling operations in New Orleans, Florida, and Cuba. He became a primary investor in the Las Vegas flamingo hotel which was founded by his pal Bugsy Siegel. Lansky later arranged to have Siegel killed in June, 1947 when he realized that Siegel was cooking the books.
Because of the success of the gang and Lansky’s reputation as a smart businessman, Lucky Luciano invited Lansky to take part in his efforts to create a national crime syndicate. Prohibition provided a golden opportunity for gangsters during the roaring 20s and 30s and the crime syndicate allowed Lansky, Luciano, and Siegel to become incredibly wealthy. During the 1930s Luciano’s national crime syndicate dominated organized crime and Lansky took a seat on the board of directors of the organization. Lansky was highly valued for his skill in laundering illegal profits from mob activities as well as milking every last bit of profit from the syndicates many legal investments.
When Lucky Luciano was finally sentenced to prison, it was Meyer Lansky who arranged an early release for Luciano in exchange for his cooperation with the United States military as it prepared to invade Sicily. Upon Luciano’s release from prison and subsequent deportation to Italy, Lansky took the reins over managing his Empire.
Meyer Lansky was always the most shadowy organized crime boss even though he received a great deal of negative publicity during the last 10 years of his life. While Lucky Luciano was the official head of the crime syndicate, Lansky was equally regarded as the syndicate leader and was also called one of the godfathers of organized crime as it evolved during the 1930s.
Together, Lansky and Luciano succeeded the old-school Mafia led by the infamous Mustache Petes (namely, Salvatore Maranzano and Joe the Boss Masseria), and the warring gangs of the Prohibition era. Today’s modern organized crime owes much of its heritage to the Sicilian Luciano and Jewish Lansky for its organizational structure and prosperity. Their partnership was perfectly matched with Lansky being the well-read and studious academic type and Luciano as the streetwise enforcer, that complemented each other’s limitations by combining one’s unique talent for organization and the others brutal character that could carry out any plan set in motion.
The Meyer and Siegel enforcement apparatus was also hired out to do “slammings” or “rub outs” for hire and it eventually evolved into Murder, Inc., the enforcement arm for the national crime syndicate. Many Meyer and Siegel associates migrated to Murder, Inc. in the 1930s, and Meyer Lansky played as large a role in forming the organization as anyone. He even recommended to the other crime bosses that the enforcers be put under the control of a triumvirate that included Louis Lepke, Bugsy Siegel, and Albert Anastasia. However, a number of the other crime bosses objected to the inclusion of the kill-happy Bugsy Siegel because they feared that he would align his loyalties with Lansky and oppose them should the cartel fall apart. Lansky relented and removed Siegel from the enforcement group, but Lansky’s influence never waned. It’s rumored that every significant “hit” performed by Murder, Inc. had to be approved by Lansky before it could be carried out.
That was true even in 1947 when the crime bosses decided that Bugsy Siegel must be eliminated for either stealing or spending too much money that belonged to the syndicate on his Las Vegas hotel operation. Lansky claimed in conversations with friends that he had “no choice” but to go along with the killing of his longtime friend. But other mob bosses insisted that Lansky’s dissatisfaction with Siegel was a major reason why the syndicate voted to kill Siegel. For decades Lansky’s position as a major player in the Italian and Jewish Mafia made him one of the most powerful men in America.
It wasn’t until 1972 when Meyer Lansky was indicted along with several others for skimming millions of dollars from a Las Vegas casino. The indictment was ultimately dismissed because authorities considered him too ill to face trial.
As Lansky aged he lived a relatively low-profile life in Miami, Florida, making it his practice to make it as difficult as possible for the FBI to monitor his activities. Lansky usually met with his associates in crowded shopping malls and other places where there were lots of people. It’s reported that he would have his chauffeur drive him all around town looking for new payphones to use on nearly a daily basis to avoid being wiretapped. It’s rumored that Lansky proved to be so elusive that by the mid-1970s the FBI for all practical purposes abandoned any further attempts to track his movements.
Although Meyer Lansky was reported to have a net worth of between $300—$$400 million dollars by the 1970s, he kept very few assets in his own name by concealing his net worth with shell corporations and offshore accounts. Nevertheless, he fled to Herzliya Pituah, Israel in the early 70s to escape facing income tax evasion charges by the U.S. government. Within two years Lansky was deported from Israel back to the United States where he stood trial for tax evasion. However, the star witness for the government was a low-level loan shark named Vincent Teresa, who was an informant in the witness protection program who had very little credibility. The jury was unsympathetic to the government’s case and Lansky won acquittal in 1974.
Meyer Lansky’s final years were quietly lived out at his Miami Beach home in Florida. He died on January 15, 1983, from lung cancer at the age of 80, leaving a wife and his three children behind. Officially, Meyer Lansky was worth very little on paper, and the FBI was never able to find any of his vast fortune that was hidden away in secret bank accounts.
The existence of hidden bank accounts brimming with ill-gotten gains didn’t stop Lansky’s biographer, Robert Lacey, from depicting Lansky’s financial condition as meager for the last 20 years of his life. He even claimed that Lansky was unable to purchase healthcare for his relatives. Lacey claimed that no evidence existed “to sustain the notion of Lansky as king of all evil, the brains, the secret mover, the inspirer and controller of American organized crime.” He asserted that the reputed wealth attributed to Meyer Lansky was grossly exaggerated as claimed by surviving members of the Lansky family. He also said that a more accurate portrayal of Lansky would be that of an accountant for the mob rather than a mobster himself.