For close to 100 years, organized crime in America has been a constant headache for authorities. But who organized it? Step forward Meyer Lansky, otherwise known as the “Mob’s Accountant.”
He relied on numbers as much as weapons and became widely-acknowledged as a chief architect of the USA’s criminal networks.
In the biography Meyer Lansky: Mogul of the Mob (1979, co-authored with Dennis Eisenberg and Eli Landau) Uri Dan writes, “We realized that this was more than the life story of Meyer Lansky; it was also the story of organized crime in America, and particularly the story of the Jewish presence in both the mafia and the underworld.”
Lansky was born Meier Suchowlański in 1902, in the city of Grodno. This eventually became part of Belarus, but back then it was Russian territory. The specter of anti-Semitism drove his family to the States nine years later.
As a boy Lansky faced not only the upheaval of a new culture, albeit the melting pot of New York’s Lower East Side, but also a dangerous new world. The poisonous atmosphere of Grodno gave way to the intensity of the Big Apple.
At first, it seemed his life might take a different path. Biography.com says that “Lansky had a hardscrabble life, facing horrible violence as a child, yet he was also renowned for his prodigious mathematical abilities and self-assured demeanor. He left school after graduating from the eighth grade and took on tool and die work, later becoming an auto mechanic.”
However there were the young Lansky’s pals to consider, namely Benjamin Siegel (also known as “Bugsy”) and Charles “Lucky” Luciano. All three were set to become legends of the underworld, with Lansky the perhaps-unlikely lynchpin of their operations.
Lucky’s first encounters with Lansky were like a miniature version of the business they went on to be part of. The website All That’s Interesting mentions that, “Luciano ran a small Sicilian gang that extorted money from Jewish kids. Luciano was impressed with Lansky’s defiance against his threats.”
The repressive measures of Prohibition were arguably a gift to Lansky, Luciano and Siegel. With the population craving booze from 1920 onward, the network thrived.
Lansky’s talent for calculation meant he could always move with the times, moving his ill-gotten gains with him. Prohibition may have been over, but he saw the future in another enterprise… gambling.
The arid desert of Nevada was about to twinkle with the neon of Las Vegas. But Lansky was more interested in mental arithmetic than muscle.
He built a gambling empire based on two key principles. The first, which was very unusual for the time, was that Lansky insisted on honest gaming. His brilliant mathematical skills meant that he could effectively calculate the odds of most games of chance. The second principle was that he did not, again unusual for the time, use violence. Instead, he made use of mob protection and bribes against law enforcement who were only too willing to get a piece of the action.
That wasn’t to say he didn’t have a foundation in violence. The infamous group Murder Inc. was formed by Lansky and was made up of Italian and Jewish enforcers who let bullets do the talking.
Despite being pursued by the Feds, he was also approached by them in particular circumstances. Biography.com mentions that, “During World War II, America’s Office of Strategic Services worked with Lansky to curtail saboteur activities at New York docks.”
‘Operation Underworld’ allowed gangsters to do their bit for the war effort, weeding out and smashing Nazis. Ominously enough, basically no one except those involved in the FBI measures knew what happened to the individuals revealed in those tips.
Lansky’s influence spread across the world. He had a cosy arrangement with Cuban President Fulgencio Batista, whereby he ran the show when it came to gambling in Havana. Communism and the rise of Fidel Castro put pay to that wing of the business.
The man described as “physically small, well-composed and incredibly clever” only spent two months behind bars for illegal gambling. Yet even he couldn’t keep investigators away forever.
His entry on the FBI website states “In 1972, he was indicted on charges that he and others had skimmed millions of dollars from a Vegas casino that they owned.”
At that point Lansky attempted to become a citizen of Israel. Under the “Law of the Return” he believed his Jewish roots would enable him to retire there and be protected.
Uri Dan gained Lanksy’s confidence, writing “We had to be told what he considered the truth. We had to understand his point of view. In his eyes we Israelis had been molded by blood, violence, and a struggle for survival and power in the sands of the Middle East. Meyer perceived his background on New York’s Lower East Side as similar, though in a different setting.”
This particular gamble didn’t pay off due to his criminal record, though there was a double-edged sword waiting for Lansky. He was sick, and couldn’t stand trial as a result. However it was lung cancer that pursued him now.
He passed away in 1983, his legacy immortalized on the screen. Richard Dreyfuss played Lansky in a self-titled TV movie written by David Mamet.
In 1991, Sir Ben Kingsley tackled the role in Bugsy, alongside title villain Warren Beatty. Lansky also featured prominently in the hit HBO show Boardwalk Empire.
And as recently as this year, the John Travolta picture Speed Kills featured Lansky as part of a fictionalized speedboat-based thriller. James Remar played the notorious number cruncher.
Meyer Lansky’s tale showed it took brains as well as brawn to truly succeed in the underworld. Admired and despised in equal measure, he was a singular figure whose mark on the world is still visible today.