Born Majer Suchowlinki in Grodno, Poland, on July 4th, 1902, Meyer Lansky was considered one of the masterminds of the modern day mob. In 1911, his family immigrated to New York City and took up residence at 6 Columbia Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. As a boy, he learned the trade of tool and die making. He also dabbled as an auto mechanic and for a short time he worked in a factory. Tired of the 9-5 drag, Lansky hooked up with fellow Lower East Sider, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel (no one called him Bugsy to his face), and they started an auto theft racket. Siegel would steal the cars, while Lansky would get them in good working order, then sell them.
They soon formed the violent “Bugs and Meyer Mob,” where they delved heavily into the illegal booze business. When they weren’t hired as muscle to protect other bootlegger’s shipments, they were hijacking liquor trucks themselves, sometimes even the trucks of the bootleggers they were supposed to be protecting. The “Bugs and Meyer Mob” was also intimately involved in violent “slammings,” (beating up people for a fee), and a few murders, as long as the price was right, which it always was. The murder business was so lucrative, several of the “Bugs and Meyer Mob” alumni became keys members of “Murder Incorporated,” which terrorized the streets of New York City in the 1930’s. These killers included Joe “Doc” Stacher, Joe Adonis, Abner “Longie” Zwillmen, and Arthur “Dutch Schultz” Flegenheimer.
As a young young man, Lansky became fast friends with Italian mobster Lucky Luciano. They joined forces with men like Arnold “The Brain” Rothstein and began to run crime as a business, with violence used only as a last resort. Rothstein was shot to death during a card game in 1928, and in 1931, after the deaths of Mafia bosses Salvatore Maranzano and Joe “The Boss” Masseria, Lansky and Luciano transformed the mob into one National Crime Syndicate, with men of assorted nationalities on their “Board of Directors.” Not only did they engage in illegal activities, such as gambling, hijackings, shakedowns and loansharking, but they controlled the labor unions, which oversaw the shipping and trucking industries, as well as public works projects. Lansky also partnered with mob boss Frank Costello to corner the slot-machine markets all across the country.
Even though most of his associates were in the Italian Mafia, Lansky had as much say as the Italians. In fact, most people considered him “the brains of the operation,” while the Italians mostly provided the muscle. Because he was short in stature, Lansky was dubbed “The Little Man,” but this was not a derogatory term. His vote on any crime issue usually took precedence over anyone else’s vote.
After Luciano went to jail on a trumped-up prostitution charge, Siegel convinced Lansky that there was money to be made in the deserts of Las Vegas, Nevada, which was then little more than a “comfort station” for weary travelers. Lansky formed the Nevada Projects Corporation and Las Vegas was born. Unfortunately, Siegel did not live long enough to reap their Las Vegas profits. He was suspected of skimming the mob’s construction cash, and in 1947, Siegel was shot through the eye, as he sat in the living room of his girlfriend Virgina Hill’s mansion in Beverly Hills. Rumors arose that Lansky voted against killing his long-time pal Siegel, but in fact, Lansky agreed, saying, “I had no choice.”
Lansky invested heavily in the casino gambling operations in Cuba, but then in 1959, he lost everything when Fidel Castro took over the rule of Cuba from Fulgencio Batista in a military coup. With the United States government cracking down on the mob in Las Vegas, Lansky fled to Israel to avoid arrest and tried to claim citizenship under “The Law of Return,” a rule that gave citizenship to anyone born of a Jewish mother. After lengthy court battles, Lansky’s pleas for citizenship were turned down and he was sent back to America. In 1973, law enforcement officials tried to jail Lansky on tax evasion charges, like they did Al Capone, but Lansky was acquitted at trial, which was a big black eye for the government.
After undergoing open heart surgery in 1973, Lansky spent the rest of his life as a sickly man. He contacted lung cancer, and Lansky died at his home in Miami Beach, Florida, in January 1983, at the age of 80.