Joe Bruno on the Mob – Virginia Hill – Part Three
The next few years were ostensibly hunky dory for both Siegel and Hill. True to form, both cheated on each other, but Siegel had no idea that Hill, although he may have been sexually attractive to Hill, was mainly married to the mob; in Los Angeles, Chicago and in New York City. Siegel was just her nighttime job.
By mid-1940, Siegel had his hooks into the Hollywood crowd, and he had bigtime stars eating out of his murderous hands.
After he took care of the his mob crony’s gambling interests, Siegel decided to play a little game based on the union extortion rackets Lepke, along with his partner Jacob “Gurrah Shapiro, had perfected on the East Coast. After figuring out the inner workings of Hollywood, Siegel decided that the movie business could go out of business if he organized an “Extras Union.” Every movie needed extras to fill in the background scenery, and big epic movies, like “Gone With the Wind,” needed hundreds and sometimes thousands of extras in battleground scenes. A movie could have the biggest movie stars, the best scripts, and the finest producers and directors, but without extras, most movies could never get made.
Siegel unionized the Hollywood extras, and he collected tidy sums from each extra for the privilege of appearing, if only for a few seconds in a Hollywood production. Siegel even became a movie extra himself.
If the producers didn’t pay the extras more money, with better working hours and conditions he demanded, Siegel would order the extras to picket the Hollywood sets, and big stars like Clark Gable and Gary Cooper would have nothing better to do but to sit on their hands.
However, that only scratched the surface of what Siegel had in mind for Hollywood and its biggest stars.
With his good looks and New York City street smarts, Siegel, with the help of George Raft (who was half-a-mobster himself), bulldozed himself into the upper reaches of Hollywood’s elite. The top actors and actresses of that time were Siegel’s best friends (or so they thought), but they learned fast being pals with a man called Bugsy (no one ever called him “Bugsy” to his face) was an easy way to go broke.
Using the same technique Lepke had employed with the East Coast labor unions, Siegel approached famous stars of both sexes. First, he employed the velvet glove approach and if that didn’t work he used the iron fist. Siegel made it clear to the thespians that he was a very dangerous man and that he needed “donations” for his “Extras Union.” Siegel told the stars if they didn’t contribute tidy sums, averaging $10,000 a pop, his extras would picket that particular star’s movie, which would result in production being stopped, or even terminated.
Some actor’s complained, but then Siegel would show them his New York City “I’d like to rip out your eyes” glare, and every one of the stars he put the bull on coughed up the cash Siegel had requested. After all, these big stars were flush with dough, and they would hardly notice a few thousand bucks missing from their bank accounts.
However, someone in Hollywood dropped a dime on Siegel (at that time it was probably a nickel), and in 1940 the Feds got a warrant to search Siegel’s thirty-five room Holmby Hill’s mansion. In a safe in an upstairs room, the Feds found a ledger which minutely detailed the shakedown money Siegel had extorted from the top stars in Hollywood.
When the Fed’s fingers stopped on their tabulating machine, they discovered Siegel had, in the previous 12 months alone, extorted over $400,000 from his pals in Hollywood. What amazed the Feds, is that when they approached these stars about the shakedowns, they were so afraid of Siegel, they denied anything untoward had happened. The stars explained their names in Siegel’s ledger by saying they had willingly given Siegel loans. They also said they considered Siegel a man of his word, and were certain Siegel would pay back their money in a reasonable amount of time.
Siegel walked on the charges, and the same fools who Siegel had scammed continued to remain friends with Siegel.
Soon, Hill returned to Siegel with fresh orders from the mob to keep her eyes on Siegel. It seemed that Siegel has not sent one single dime to either New York or Chicago concerning his Hollywood extortion schemes.
For the next several years Siegel and Hill were constantly in the adoring press’s newspapers, magazines and movie reels. This occurred mostly when they appeared on the sets of the movies of famous movie stars like Raft and Cooper, but also their escapades were noted in several tony nightclubs. Siegel’s face kept popping up as an extra in movies, but Hill was upset when her screen test for Ball of Fire went nowhere.
Still, Hill was rolling in cash, either from the largesse of Siegel, or from the out-of-town mob bosses, who gave her plenty of cash for her drug dealings in Mexico; for carrying money from one mobster to another, and for occasional excursions on her back for top mob guys like Joe Adonis. The news spread that Hill was so ostentatious about spending money, in order to purchase an $11,000 house for her family, she paid the tab by pulling out a wad of hundred dollar bills from her purse.
In 1944, Siegel and Hill parted ways for a time. Hill went back to New York at the order of Joe Adonis, and Siegel split to Las Vegas to build up the gambling city he had sold to his fellow mobsters as good as gold.
While Siegel was busy in Vegas, Hill trekked back to California. She soon has a torrid love affair with Carl Laemmle Jr., the son of the Universal Studios movie pioneer. Carl Jr. was whacky about Hill, but Hill treated him shabbily and broke off their love connection. Hearing about Hill’s problems with Carl Laemmle Jr., Siegel begged Hill to join him in Vegas. However, Hill, playing coy at the insistence of the mob, turned Siegel down and stood in Los Angeles.
In 1945, the mob and their money were parted when they agreed to fund Siegel’s Las Vegas hotel/gambling project. The mob sent Hill to Las Vegas to keep an eye on Siegel, and Hill was present when Siegel, and his partner Moe Sedway, together with mob associates and friends, formed the Nevada Projects Corporation to build Ben Siegel’s Flamingo Hotel (so-called after his nickname for Hill). Among Siegel’s partners were old-chum Meyer Lansky and Billy Wilkerson, the owner of The Hollywood Reporter.
To keep records of Siegel’s over-spending, Hill kept proof of the costs of the building operations in her diary.
The first thing Siegel did was to circumvent the postwar shortages of building materials by buying exclusively from the black market. This saved Siegel and his partner tens of thousands of dollars, and since they were larcenists at heart, it allowed them the fabulous sensation of “getting over”; a feeling that is as crucial to members of the mob as the act of stealing itself.
The reason the mob had taken in Billy Wilkerson as a partner was because he was an established businessman, who knew how to get things done without breaking the bank. At first, Siegel welcomed Wilkerson’s tutelage. Siegel cast away his true image of a gangster and he became a willing pupil of Wilkerson and his businesslike ways.
However, as the months passed, Siegel grew resentful of Wilkerson. The reason for Siegel’s about-face was the workers on the project considered Wilkerson Siegel’s boss, and nobody in their right mind bossed Bugsy Siegel around. Siegel’s resentment grew into paranoia and he soon became jealous of Wilkerson’s superior talent for getting the project done. Soon, this paranoia turned into to seething jealousy.
Ignoring his bosses in Chicago and in New York, Siegel began making crucial business decisions previously made by Wilkerson. Siegel informed the crews working on various stages of the project that he was now the big boss; he called the shots and he insisted that Wilkerson’s directions should be ignored. To keep the project moving forward, Wilkerson decided to bite the bullet and he acceded to Siegel’s demands. However, Wilkerson informed his partners up north of the latest developments and the mobsters were not too happy. They had sunk millions into the Las Vegas operation and they didn’t need Siegel inserting his ego ahead of the common good.
His chest puffed from his ousting of Wilkerson, Siegel decided to have the architects draw up a new set of blueprints for the project; blueprints that led to a vast increase in costs. However, Siegel didn’t care; it wasn’t his money he was wasting. Due to Siegel’s insistence that the Flamingo should have the best of everything, the gross building figures rose from two million dollars to over six million. This caused Siegel’s partners up north to become even more pissed than before.
Hill, still feverishly writing Siegel’s misguided actions into her dairy, told her bosses that Siegel was skimming a little off the top of the construction costs; cash that headed straight into Siegel’s pockets. Hill was especially peeved because the money Siegel was pocketing (reportedly over $2 million) was not spent on her, but on Siegel’s other lady-friends, and by this time they had grown exponentially.
There were rumors spread throughout the underworld that Hill was actually in on Siegel’s thievery (some said she was stashing Siegel’s stolen loot in Swiss numbered bank accounts). However, those rumors proved to be unfounded. Hill knew which side her bread was buttered on, and she also knew if Siegel was whacked, she still had her old friends in the mob to fall back on. The truth is – Hill knew these mobsters longer than she knew Siegel and they always, unlike Siegel, treated her right.
In May of 1946, Siegel ego grew more tempestuously than before. Siegel demanded that the agreement between himself, Wilkerson, and his pals up north had to be altered; giving Siegel full control of the project. Siegel told his partners that Siegel’s reputation alone would bring in the high rollers from nearby California. Siegel’s reasoning was that by providing the best food and liquor, and using the best entrainment available, gamblers and vacationers would flock to the Flamingo in droves.
Siegel had his lawyers draw up a brand new contract and he formed the Nevada Project Corporation of California, which listed Siegel as the president and top stockholder. His mob pals up north were listed in the corporation paper as mere shareholders. As for Wilkerson, Siegel offered to buy him out, but then changed his mind and he told Wilkerson that if he didn’t disappear, Siegel would do something to make him disappear. Wilkerson, fearing for his life, escaped to France and was never heard from again in relation to the Flamingo project.
With Wilkerson gone, Siegel flew completely out of control. He commanded that each bathroom of the 93 room hotel would have its own sewer system. This cost an additional $1,150,000. Additional toilets which were not needed were ordered – costing another fifty grand. And because of the drastic change in the plumbing, the boiler room had to be enlarged; cost- another $113,000. Siegel also wanted a larger kitchen which cost $29,000
Then Siegel started playing the crooked angles he had perfected up north. Siegel hired crooked contractors who stiffed their subcontractors and threw a nice percentage of the savings right into Siegel’s coffers. Suddenly, the black market building materials started disappearing from the site. After the materials were delivered in the daylight hours, Siegel’s hired goons stole them at night, then selled them back to Siegel at a reduced price. The losses went on the ledger as the “cost of doing business,” but Siegel still had the materials to continue building.
While Siegel staged his shenanigans, Hill was writing down the facts in her little black book.
By November of 1947, the Chicago and New York mobsters had seen enough. They sent word to Siegel that is he didn’t offer up a balance sheet detailing expenses; they would cut off all future funding. Siegel told them to go spit in their hat, and he decided, through intimidation of the Hollywood elite and by selling nonexistent stocks, he could raise enough money to complete the project himself. With the Flamingo now a reality, Siegel figured the money would be flowing in instead of flowing out, which would shut up his mob pals, at least for a little while.
However, Bugsy Siegel didn’t factor in his biggest problem: Bugsy Siegel.
With money he raised, legally and illegally Siegel went all-in on the construction of the Flamingo. He doubled his work force, figuring that would cut the remaining construction time in half. However, the increased work-force tactic was undermined by Siegel paying double-time overtime to the workers. So, instead of the workers working faster, they slowed down a bit so that they could qualify for the double-time perks. Even Bugsy Siegel couldn’t crack the whip fast enough to make his workers work more quickly. Besides, Siegel was so obsessed with his women and maintaining a high profile, he was hardly ever on site to notice the phenomenon of twice as many workers doing the job essentially as fast as half the workers had done in the past.
To make matters worse, Siegel’s well-earned reputation for violence scared away potential contractors; ones he needed desperately to complete the project at a faster rate.
One day, while inspecting the building’s progress and not too happy about what he had discovered, Siegel raised his voice and bragged about how many men he had personally evaporated. One of the men present was his top contractor – Del Webb. When Siegel noticed that Webb had blanched as his remarks, Siegel forced a smile, threw an arm around Webb’s shoulder and said, “Don’t worry, Del. We only kill each other.
Desperate to get the cash flowing in the opposite direction, Siegel decided to open the Flamingo three months earlier than projected, even though the hotel/casino was not entirely ready to run and would not show well to the customers who were expected to spend tons of cash at the Flamingo.
The Flamingo was scheduled to open in March of 1947, but Siegel unilaterally moved the Grand Opening to December 26, 1946, the day after Christmas. By this time, the casino, lounge, theater, and restaurant was finished, but the lobby was decorated with drop cloths and the air was filled with the sound of the jackhammers, which did not please the few customers who decided to show.
Through his animal magnetism, and by issuing more than a few threats, Siegel was able, despite the frightful weather, to entice a few celebrities to drive over the desert to the Flamingo for opening night. Xavier Cugat, Jimmy Durante and Rose Marie were the star performers. The indispensable lout George Raft showed up, as did actress Vivian Blaine. Also on hand were actors Charles Coburn, George Jessel, Lon McAllister, George Sanders, Sonny Tufts and Brian Donlevy. The local gamblers also put in an appearance, but although the gaming tables were operating just fine, the luxury rooms, which would have served as the enticement for customers to stay for several days and gamble longer, were not even close to being ready. In addition, the air conditioning system went off and on all night, causing more gamblers to flee the premises.
Throughout the night, the pit bosses reported the losses to Siegel and this made Siegel more irate than usual. Things reached a climax when Siegel, for no discernible reason except that he was Siegel, verbally abused a family of paying customers and personally threw them out into the street.
While Siegel was busy throwing fits, Hill was on the phone to Chicago and New York, informing them of the nasty turn of events. After two weeks of disastrous results, the Flamingo was $275,000 in the red, and Siegel, with a little prompting from his partners up north, temporarily closed the Flamingo in late January.
Siegel, now hat in hand, made a trip to New York, begging for additional financing so that when the Flamingo reopened, all the kinks that had shown up in the dreadful few weeks the Flamingo had been open would now be ironed out.
Two weeks after the first opening of the Flamingo, Virginia Hill moved away from Siegel’s lair in Las Vegas and hightailed it back to California, where she moved into a home at 810 North Linden Drive in Beverly Hills with her brother, Chick. At this point, Hill knew Siegel was a loser in Vegas, and she didn’t want to be in the wrong place at the wrong time in case the mob decided to whack Siegel.
Siegel, not as defiant as before, slinked back to New York City to meet with his oldest and dearest friend – Meyer Lansky. Siegel told Lansky their dreams of a money-making operation would be a reality if only he could squeeze some more coins from his mob friends. Lansky told Siegel he’d consult with the other bosses, and soon Siegel was in receipt of what was reportedly one million extra dollars to get the Flamingo up and running, and more importantly – profitable.
Siegel, elated at a second chance, started doing things right. The renovations were completely quickly, and to assure big crowds at the second Grand Opening, Siegel hired publicist Hank Greenspun, which was quite bright of Siegel since Greenspun was also the publisher of the Las Vegas Sun newspaper.
The second Grand Opening of the Flamingo occurred on March 1, 1947, and it was a smashing success. Profits were flowing in, and the boys up north figured it was time for Siegel to start paying them back what he owned them. Even though the Flamingo had showed a $300,000 profit by May 1, Siegel stalled; saying he needed the profits for more improvements. However, Siegel promised he would start sending cash up north in a just few short months.
This did not please his mobster partners. As a result, in May of 1947, Jack Dragna, Johnny Roselli, Joe Adonis, and Meyer Lansky met with Siegel at the home of a prominent Beverly Hills attorney. The ostensible reason for the meeting was to talk about the repayment of debt, and also the possible expansion of the Flamingo that Siegel was talking about. But in truth, the other mobsters were weighing whether Siegel would be more valuable to them dead or alive.