Daughter's Memoir Offers New Portrait of Enigmatic Lansky

Sandra with the "Mob's Accountant"; Lansky's pinches were
all gambling related.
REVISED, EXPANDED: Sandra Lansky has written a 229-page memoir, Daughter of the King: Growing Up in Gangland, which she describes as an expression of the deep love she held for her father, Meyer Lansky.

Born Meyer Suchowljansky (July 4, 1902 – January 15, 1983), Lansky was a major organized crime figure who worked closely with associates such as "Joe Adonis" and Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, though he was closest to Charles "Lucky" Luciano, both as a friend and business partner. It can be categorically stated that Lansky stayed true to his dear friend until the end, which came much earlier for Luciano.

Nicknamed the "Mob's Accountant" by the press, Lansky was instrumental in the development of the mob's gambling rackets across the country, most notably in Las Vegas, as well as in Cuba, which had been poised to serve as the mob's new frontier, a place where it was to be on an equal footing with the government, allowing it the freedom to develop its rackets unimpeded by law enforcement, as well as amass its fortunes without an IRS lurking over its collective shoulder.

Lansky is something of an enigma; a Jew who did business for most of his life with Italians, primarily Sicilians, exerting strong influence within the Mafia. There is some debate regarding the exact role he played during the formative years of American organized crime. He himself was never found guilty of anything more than gambling charges, though the law and media hounded him until the end of his life.

The FBI considers him an early pioneer in the art of money laundering and claims that during a raid of a New Jersey-based Luchese social club in the 1980s, a framed photograph of Lansky was seen hanging on the wall alongside one of Al Capone. The iconic racketeer alongside the iconic gangster. (Though I am personally surprised it was not Charley "Lucky's" photo alongside Meyer's.)

Born in 1902, Lansky was 10 years old when his family fled the deadly pogroms of czarist Russia-occupied Poland and emigrated to New York City. Like most of his gangster contemporaries, Meyer grew up knowing the deep poverty of the Lower East Side; the poverty of never having enough food to eat, of wearing threadbare, ill-fitting clothes, freezing in winters and melting in the sweltering humid summers of Manhattan. (Gangsters of today: what's your excuse?) The Lanskys were not the poorest of the poor, but they lived in constant panic that lack of money would crush them.

All his life, Meyer seemed to never forget that panic, and made sure he always had money.

Family man: Lansky made sure his own family never knew
the deep poverty that he himself had grown up with.

He also expressed a strong appreciation for formal education, saying that he "loved" school. He never made it passed the eighth grade himself, but continued his own informal education all his life, spending a lot of his spare time reading books (his mobster pals got a kick out of his membership in the Book-of-the-month Club). Lansky once said that he studied Shakespeare and memorized some of those immortal plays; he held a special lifelong fascination for  "The Merchant of Venice," likely due to the character in the work who practiced one of the same professions as Lansky and his gangster pals did.

The memoir, obviously, offers a subjective account of the legendary gangster, rich with new anecdotes about the short man who played a large and pivotal, albeit not fully understood, role in the evolution of the Mafia in the 1930s, though he himself was never a member.

“This was the most wonderful father, even though he wasn’t around that much,” Sandra Lansky told the New York Daily News. “He was 1,000%, not 100%. I went everyplace with him. He spoiled me rotten.”

According to Lansky, a pair of old friends — renowned mob chronicler Nicholas Pileggi and his wife, writer/director Nora Ephron — first pitched her on writing the book.

“I wanted to tell a story about my dad, about the truth. I wanted all the good to come out.”

She loves “The Godfather” movies — and saw the original in the theater more than a dozen times. As for the sequel: “[Lee] Strasberg [who played a character based on her father] ...was too old,” she said. Of part III, no mention.

“My dad wasn’t that old and decrepit and sick.” [She's forgetting it was an act; Hymen Roth acted like a dying man but "thinks he's going to live forever," as Al Pacino, as Don Corleone, revealed in the film.]

Her favorite Lansky portrayer is “Grey’s Anatomy” star Patrick Dempsey, who played a young Meyer in the 1991 movie “Mobsters.”

Despite their close ties, Sandy recalled her father as a man of few words. She recounted his terse explanation of how career decisions landed him behind bars in 1953. “When I was a young man, I had a choice,” he said. “I had two roads I could have taken. There was one to the right, and one to the left. This was the road I took. This was my choice.”

Though Lansky memorably observed that U.S. organized crime was “bigger than U.S. Steel,” he didn’t leave a fortune behind after his 1983 death; Sandra says all the money went to Meyer’s brother, her Uncle Jack.

“I don’t care who knows it, that’s the truth,” she declared. “When Daddy got in trouble, he turned all his stock and everything to his brother.

“It was all supposed to be returned. And nothing was ever returned.”

Comments

  1. my mom was dating meyer's son paul while he was attending west point. in his chauffer-driven limo, meyer would stop at my grandparent's house in bensonhurst to pick mom up to go and visit with paul at school. mom said meyer was a perfect gentleman.

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  2. In 1967 I was working for the owner of the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach aboard his 150' yacht which was moored along Collins Avenue across from the hotel. One day I had the gangway watch when this little old man (at 22 everyone over 50 looks old) came up the gangway and asked if the boss was aboard. I told him that the owner, Ben Novack, was indeed aboard but wished not to be disturbed. "If you'll give me your name I'll tell him you stopped by," I said. Gently, but with obvious authority, he pushed me aside and as he walked to the aft deck, he replied, "You know my name you know too much". When he left I asked the Captain, "Who is that?". "Meyer Lansky" was his answer.

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