In September 1971, reputed mobster Meyer Lansky (b. Maier Suchowljansky)(1902-1983) was denied Israeli citizenship by Dr. Yosef Burg after a careful review of the evidence presented to him. Prior to his ruling, he had consulted with Prime Minster Golda Meir (1898-1978) who proclaimed, “no Mafia in Israel”. Lansky was dejected and continued to seek out ways to live abroad beyond the reach of the U.S. Government. His next stop was South America but there he refused entry and accepted his fate as he returned to the United States. When he arrived at Miami International Airport, I am sure onlookers wondered what the commotion was regarding one man who stood about five feet four inches. The media dubbed him “the Mob’s Accountant” due to his uncanny ability to process figures in his head. And rumors have persisted that he once had three hundred million dollars hidden from investigators. The allegations are grandiose, but the truth is that Lansky was a figure of his era, nothing more and nothing less. Robert Lacey first published this book in 1991 under the title ‘Little Man: Meyer Lansky and the Gangster Life‘. It was republished in 2016 under the current title and includes an updated account by the author. It is by far, a definitive biography of the late Lansky.
Mob aficionados will know Lansky’s story and readers who have viewed ‘The Godfather Part II‘ (1974) will recognize the inspiration for the fictional character “Hyman Roth” which was based on the real-life Lansky. Lee Strasberg (1901-1982) nailed the role and as Lacey discusses in the book, Lansky contacted the actor following the film’s release to discuss the portrayal of himself on screen. Lansky must have been thrilled to serve as an inspiration for a character in a film but the belief that he was a larger-than-life mobster who bankrolled La Costra Nostra may be misleading. In fact, the real story, as presented here, shows a complicated life that was anything but glamorous. There is more than meets the eye. Two marriages, a son with special needs and emotionally dysfunctional children are only parts of the Lansky story which begins in Grodno, Belarus in 1902. Like his contemporaries, Lansky emigrated to the United States as a child and the family settled in New York City. Max Lansky (1879-1939) found a new life for his family in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. I took notice of this part because the author touches on a part of the borough’s long forgotten history. In comparison to the Brownsville that exist today, known for a high crime rate and low income, the area was once a hotbed for Jewish immigrants. However, the story is just beginning and the move to the Lower East Side in Manhattan changed all their lives for good.
The section about Meyer’s childhood in Manhattan is key for it is here that he forms the alliances he would keep for decades with other immigrants, Italian and Jewish, who learned the way of the streets and the money to be made. The most famous of these friends are Charles “Lucky” Luciano (1896-1962) and Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel (1906-1947). Lacey takes us back in time to the era of prohibition and crime fighting politicians such as former Governor Thomas E. Dewey (1902-1971) and former New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia (1882-1947). Luciano fell victim to Dewey’s administration and was convicted on prostitution charges on June 7, 1936, and subsequently incarcerated. But his story was far from over. In fact, the United States Government would later need Luciano as the war effort heated up. And at the center of the events was Lansky himself. The covert operation and Lansky’s role are covered in the book and show that when it came to defeating the Axis powers, all avenues were open.
As his underworld life evolved, Lansky also became a family man, and that story is far more complicated and unglamorous than his criminal exploits. His two marriages and the three children he had with first wife Anna (1910-1984) provide some of the most emotional parts of the story. The family’s struggle is nothing short of heartbreaking and the private side of Lansky’s life stands in stark contrast to the public facade of the seasoned mogul who helped build casinos and fill the Mafia’s coffers. Lansky’s oldest son Buddy has a story of his own in the book and the trials and tribulations of father and son are difficult moments. Second son Paul and daughter Sandra are equally chaotic, and Sandra plays another role in the book that will shock readers. And throughout the story is the importance of Judaism and Lansky’s adherence to his faith. It can be argued that his life was anything but Jewish and one that no believer would subscribe to. But in his defense, he was one of hundreds of Jewish mobsters in the early 1900s. There is never a shortage of gangsters in America.
On New Year’s Eve, January 1959, Cuban President Fulgencio Batista (1901-1973) fled the country, evading capture by Fidel Castro (1926-2016) and his Revolutionary Army. For Lansky and other gangsters, the source of income Cuba had become was now over. The events of that night were fictionalized for the Godfather Part II and Lacey provides additional facts about Batista’s last flight from the island which I was unaware of. I also noticed that after Castro seizes power in Cuba, there are no further moves by Lansky that could be considered “big”. In fact, I saw the opposite. Aside from investments and miscellaneous sources of income, there is nothing in the book that alludes to him being a financial mogul with streams of hidden income. Even when Lansky moves to Florida later in the book, the belief that he had hundreds of millions of dollars in unclaimed income continued to haunt him. The stress from relentless investigations combined with his failing health only added to the tragedy his life slowly became. His second wife Teddy (1907-1997) stayed by his side, but also found herself under the prying eyes of the press. Her response to the press upon her return to Miami International Airport following Meyer’s failed attempt to establish residence in South America, was captured by television cameras and must be seen to be believed.
Despite the increased pressure by investigators, Lansky evaded prosecution for major crimes and that is one of the ironies in the book. If he was a criminal mastermind, he shrewdly kept himself out of long prison sentences. The reality I gleaned from the book is that Lansky was not the person he was portrayed to be. He did have dealings with mobsters and earned significant amounts of cash, but the only section in the book that shows extravagance is when he took his second wife Teddy on a first-class European vacation. Lansky did have income and the author provides details of his earnings as the story progresses, but the figures are well short of what would be expected from the “mob’s accountant”. Added to Lansky’s financial woes in Florida are the struggles each of his children had throughout their lives. This is a sobering reality in the story; Lansky could control hardened gangsters but struggled with his own kids. And what we see in the book about the Lansky home is all too familiar in mobster stories. Long nights out, weeks away from home and secrets of the streets combine to strain even the most committed marriages and bonds between a father and his children.
Lansky’s life in Miami during his final years closes out the story, but before it is over, the decline of the aging mobster plays out in the final act. Years of chain smoking and stress took their toll, and the decades-long health issues he endured came to a head. He dutifully walked Teddy’s dog Bruzzer but on the inside, his body was slowly breaking down. Readers will see the writing is on the wall and that Lansky does not have much time left. But when death comes for him, there are no last words in the form of a confession but instead Lansky affirmation that he was ready to go. He lived and died on code as the thinking man’s gangster. This is the legacy and tragedy of Meyer Lansky.