One Gangland Figure Legitimately Tough To The Bitter End

Meyer Lansky spent the final years of his life in sun-baked Miami Beach, Florida, which was not his first choice.

Lansky was a legitimately tough bastard, as one Miami cop learned.

He had fought like hell to stay in Israel, believing it to be the one place where he could live out the rest of his life and die in peace. But following two years of legal battles, he was tossed out.

How sincere was Lansky about wanting to live in Israel?

Probably very sincere. After all, Lansky himself had played something of a role in Israel's very founding. He had smuggled arms (rifles, specifically) there in 1948 to assist Menachem Begin and his guerrillas as they helped to violently forge the Jewish state's foundation.

In fact, years after he was kicked out, Lansky tried to return.

When Begin and his hard-line Likud party rose to power in May of 1977, ending the 30-year-reign of the Israeli Labor party, to which David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir had belonged, Lansky called a key contact from Florida -- one David Landau, who was then a political correspondent for the Jerusalem Post.

"Do you think I can come back now?" Lansky had asked.

He couldn't come back, Landau had had to explain to him. Begin had come to power, yes, but there had been nothing like a clean sweep, and a coalition cabinet was in operation.

"It was a rather sad conversation," Landau once recalled.

We thought about this story while reading a recent interview with Lansky's grandson focused on the debut tonight of AMC's miniseries about the origin of the American Mafia.

“He wasn’t traditionally Jewish,” the grandson told the Wall Street Journal. “He had Christmas trees. We celebrated Easter.”

Lansky may not have been an observant Jew, but it is quite clear he tried to avoid the pent-up fury of the American legal system, which at the time seemed poised to finally hold the 70-year-old Lansky accountable for a lifetime of crime. Israel was his first choice and he seemed to believe one day he'd return to his homeland.

After departing Israel, Lansky next tried to purchase asylum, but his million-dollar offer was seven times refused (by Switzerland, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia, Peru and Panama).

''That's life,'' Lansky reportedly said following his November 1972 arrest after he disembarked his plane in Miami. ''At my age, it's too late to worry. What will be will be. A Jew has a slim chance in the world.''

He paid his bail and was released an hour later. Ultimately Lansky was too ill to stand trial for the various charges brought against him (which covered everything from tax evasion to conspiracy). He wasn't faking it, or at least that is what we are led to believe since court-appointed physicians made the determination, saying the man was suffering from various ailments, including heart trouble, bronchitis, ulcers, bursitis and arthritis.

By the time of his death, the gangland figure, who started working with the mob in the 1920s, minting his first fortune during Prohibition, certainly reached a lofty height for an underworld figure. He died of natural causes, cancer, and despite having lived a long life of crime, had served no serious prison time. He also supposedly had a few hundred million stashed away.

Of the infamous mobster with a penchant for self-improvement, an FBI agent once famously said: "'He would have been chairman of the board of General Motors if he'd gone into legitimate business." Perhaps it would be more fitting to say he could have chaired U.S. Steel, which was supposedly a smaller operation than the American Mafia (according to Lansky himself).

Maier Suchowljansky, the real name of the Russian-born immigrant and American crime lord, is considered a pioneer in the art of laundering money. He certainly had enough money to spend copious amounts of time practicing his art. Lansky earned vast amounts from a range of rackets, perhaps most famously in gambling (via ownership interests in casinos located in Cuba, the Bahamas and the United States).

Face it Fidel Castro did more to harm Lansky than the Fed's ever could've.

(Lanksy also wasn't pleased with the way he was portrayed in Godfather Two. We know because he called up Lee Strasberg and told him. It wasn't the villainous portrayal of Hymen Roth, the character so clearly based on Lansky that the wily gangster didn't even have to ask, that bothered him. Rather, Roth was too .... bad... "I'm a grandfather," Lansky allegedly reminded the vaunted thespian who taught his "method acting" to a range of Hollywood luminaries of his day.)

A few years prior to Lansky's death, one of his biographers claimed he'd amassed a $300 million fortune, most of which had been carefully hidden inside Swiss bank accounts, real estate and investments. So reported the New York Times in Lansky's obit.

However, on careful review, it seems the Times was playing something of a journalistic trick with its readers. According to one of the two best Lansky biographies now available, Little Man: Meyer Lansky and the Gangster Life by Robert Lacey, 1991 (the other recommended biography is Meyer Lansky: Mogul of the Mob by Dennis Eisenberg, 1979), we read that the $300 million figure was first thrown out by "unnamed federal agents" cited in a Wall Street Journal article in which Lansky was "profiled at length." An honest mistake or did the Times editors simply not want to credit a rival publication? We strongly believe the latter.

(Interestingly, we also read in Lacey's book that when in the mid-1980s, when federal agents raided a Newark, New Jersey luncheonette called Hole in the Wall that served as the Luchese crime family's de facto headquarters for its Garden State operation, two black-and-white "icons" were viewed on a wall. A photograph of Al Capone stood alongside one of Lansky. Lacey considers the two men the "twin patron saints" of the Mafia, with Capone anointed for attaining his place among the mob's violent warlords, the "traditional violence and toughness of urban crime," while Lansky stood for "brains, sophistication, the funny money -- the sheer cleverness of it all.")

Still Lansky may have had a bit more blood on his hands than we know. Earlier, in the 1920s, it's been said Lansky had served as a gunman for the mob. Whether true or not, he certainly had something that made some people around him uneasy, long after he'd left the underworld. Consider this glimpse...

There's a story that an undercover Dade County cop once tried to put a scare into Lansky. His name was David Green and one morning while driving, he saw Lansky walking down Collins Avenue.

Now at the time, Green was dressed as a biker, in full "Hell's Angels undercover mode," standing over 6 feet tall, all 260 pounds of him. His hair and beard both long and greasy.

He quickly parks and positions himself farther down the sidewalk from Lansky, so that Lansky will have to pass him. He even stood on a perch a few feet above Lansky. Just as Lansky walks past him, Green jumps to the ground flapping his beefy arms and shouting "GRRR!!!!"

"It would have scared anybody," Green later recalled. "But he just backed up calmly, put his hand in his pocket like he had a knife, and kind of lifted his other hand. "What do you want?" he said."

Lansky was "cold blooded," Green said. "There wasn't an ounce of fear in his eyes."

In fact, ironically the cop who wanted to scare Lansky was himself shaken by the incident, even while recalling it years later. "Lansky... had given him something to think about -- the cold, hard eyes, quite unmoved, that would stop anyone dead in their tracks. You could understand why, when people got to talking about organized crime in the 1970s, they used to call Meyer Lansky the Chairman of the Board."

There's so much interesting Lansky material that the revelations offered by his grandson come up rather short and bland. Which means they are likely true.

“He had a couple of girlfriends,” we learned from the grandson. The Journal story also mentioned The Mafia Walking Tour by Eric Ferrara of the Lower East Side History Project, describing it as "part of the festivities surrounding the debut of the AMC series “The Making of the Mob: New York” about the rise of the Mafia in New York City."

According to the WSJ, the tour includes a stop at 80 Second Ave., where Joe “The Boss” Masseria was almost assassinated in 1922.

("Lansky," the story continues, "was instrumental in a more successful 1931 assassination attempt of Mr. Masseria on behalf of Lansky associate Lucky Luciano.")

Grandson Meyer Lansky II, who was interviewed for the eight-part miniseries, also revealed that his grandfather had never discussed his underworld past.

“Every time I’d touch on that, he’d steer it away from that. He’d never get into things like what he did.”
Lansky II, Meyer's grandson.

It wasn't until Walter Cronkite mentioned him on the CBS Evening News that Lansky II got an inkling of who his grandfather was. (The coverage had to do with Lansky trying to get off a plane in Argentina, only to be ordered to get back on.)

“That’s when I started to learn what he was about,” his grandson remembered. “I thought he was a restaurant owner.”

Lansky II grew up in Tacoma, Washington. His father, Meyer Lansky's son, had been an Air Force pilot. The grandson found a career in the gaming industry as a casino employee, with "his famous name apparently opening more doors than it closed," the WSJ wrote.

“When I went to get a gaming card,” so he could work as a Las Vegas croupier, “they wondered what was going on: ‘You’re the grandson?’ But they were pretty cool about it.”

As for AMC's "The Making of the Mob," an interesting story caught our eye. It seems one journalist has been doing a little bit of fact-checking regarding the Mafia's history.

Keertana Sastry writes:

The first episode ends with Lucky planning to kill Masseria and lead his own gang, but the history books tell a more complicated story. Supposedly, at this point Masseria and another alleged mob boss, Salvatore Maranzano, started a war between alleged mob bosses and families in New York, which was famously called the Castellammarese War. By the time it ended in 1931, Maranzano was killed by men some believed to have been hired by Luciano, though that has never been proven. Masseria was also killed by hitmen who were never officially identified, though rumors linked them to Luciano and other associates. 

The miniseries premiered Monday night on AMC.

PS, As an astute reader points out below in a comment the show is not passing muster even among mainstream press.

As reported of the AMC miniseries kick-off episode:

It's a hybrid of dramatic reenactments, archival footage, narration (provided by Ray Liotta) and interviews with historians, descendants of the gangsters, former mobsters, and such noted Mafia scholars as Vincent Pastore, Joe Mantegna and Chazz Palminteri. By the same token, I fully expect Chris Pratt to offer his thoughts on paleobiology for the next NatGeo dinosaur special.

It's a strategy that could work with less familiar material, but the the dramatic recreations in "The Making of the Mob" come off as a budget-minded "Boardwalk Empire" (both productions mine the same period). Because of the episodic nature of the reenactments, and abetted by merely competent acting and bland writing, they fail to gain momentum. This lack of urgency in the production is ironically heightened by a heavy-handed percussive score that never lets up.

Many Mafia classics have been faulted for glamorizing the criminal lifestyle; in that respect, the plodding "Making of the Mob" is a good antidote.


  1. Nice read Ed that man had balls of steel and knew how to make money for his friends yes in deedy. Philly

  2. so far this show falls flat.. pastore is an expert? these shows need better guys speaking, who were in that life..

  3. They introduced Salvatore Lucania as Charlie Luciano. Almost fell out of my seat. Still didn't catch entire episode but it seemed they glossed over something related to his heroin arrest....

  4. If his grandfather never spoke about his crimes then how does he know anymore about his crimes than the people that have already done the research and written the books ect? He's just peddling his name for profit.

  5. The Star Ledger doesn't like it either. I fear it is similar to "Gangster Empire" which was as inept as it gets. Here is the Ledger article / review

  6. Excellent comment!! See my postscript, Joy!

  7. Wonder of insertion of New York in title means we'll see a version for other key mob cities.....

  8. reminds me of "once upon a time in America"

  9. I agree...but how many are still alive and active .. who would want to come out..?

  10. You think they will talk about Bonnano? I hope so

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