Meyer Lansky: The Thinking Man’s Gangster – Robert Lacey

LanskyIn 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.

ASIN:‎ B01CZXARGG

Carmine the Snake: Carmine Persico and His Murderous Mafia Family – Frank DiMatteo and Michael Benson

carmineInfamous gangster Alphonse “Al” Capone (1899-1947) famously quipped that “once you’re in the racket, you’re always in it”. The seasoned gangster knew the pitfalls of a life of crime and conditions that apply. He was convicted on October 18, 1931, of tax evasion and sentenced to eleven years in prison. On November 16, 1939, Capone was released from prison due to effects of Syphilis which had spread to his brain. The disease continued to cause deterioration in the mobster and on January 25, 1947, Capone did in his sleep. It was a sad ending for America’s most famous mobster but less violent than the grisly fates met by other gangsters “in the life”. Carmine “the Snake” Persico (1933-2019), a former Colombo Family boss, also escaped a grisly fate but remained in prison until his death on March 7, 2019. And with his passing was the end of another era in New York City history. In his prime, Persico was one of the City’s most notorious figures and implicated in scores of mafia-related crimes, including the murder of Albert “The Mad Hatter” Anastasia (1902-1957), revisited by here by Frank DiMatteo is a Brooklyn native raised in the Park Slope neighborhood controlled by the Persicos, with whom his father was affiliated. This is the story of Carmine Persico and the terror his mob family unleashed on the City of New York.

Readers familiar with Park Slope might be surprised to learn how saturated the area was with mobsters in the past. Today, the area has changed significantly but remnants of the old days still exist there as they do in other parts of New York. The early part of the book focuses heavily on the Park Slope area where the budding gangsters are getting experience on the gritty streets of Brooklyn. The crimes are petty and routine, until Carmine and older brother Alphonse Persico (d. 1989) have a fateful encounter with a friend turned rival named Steve Bove. At this point in the book, the writing is on the wall that Carmine is destined for a life of crime. From this point on, the schemes become more daring and the violence deadlier. Yet, Persico always manages to slip out of tense situations, earning him the nickname of “the Snake”.

Though Matteo is writing about Persico’s life, a bonus is that the book is filled with information about mob events that shocked the city. Sadly, there are no “smoking guns” that have not been previously revealed but he does offer information that might explain why the events happened. In particular, the murder of Joseph “Joe” Colombo (1923-1978) remains controversial. The assailant Jerome Johnson, was shot and killed immediately by one of Colombo’s bodyguards but the woman he was with, masquerading as a reporter, has never been found along with a second man in their group. The hit has never been fully explained but has been blamed on Colombo’s rival at the time, Joseph “Crazy Joe” Gallo (1929-1972) and his brothers at odds with Colombo and the family’s prior boss, Giuseppe “Joe” Profaci (1897-1962). DiMatteo discusses the Colombo murder, and it is possible that Gallo was telling the truth when he stated he had nothing to do with the shooting. As the author shows, Colombo was respected by not well-liked, and the list of people who might have wanted to see him removed was long. The truth about the crime may be lost to history. But there is no question regarding the bad blood between the Gallo and Colombo factions, a simmering animosity that caused division within the family. The feud between them became so infamous that a part of it was reenacted on screen in The Godfather Part II. I won’t go into detail here, but if you have seen the movie and read this book, you will know which scene it is. Also provided is a satisfying amount of inside information about the production of the Godfather films and the filmmakers’ interactions with real-life gangsters including Persico. DiMatteo does mention other notable crimes in mafia lore such as the Air France Cargo robbery in 1967 and the Lufthansa Heist in 1978, both of which are depicted in Martin Scorsese’s mob classic ‘Goodfellas‘. The crimes are well-documented, so the author does not devote too much of the book to them, but they are discussed in relation to Persico’s story and the state of the mafia at the time.

Hollywood eventually moved on, but as we see in the book, the mob was getting stronger, and more blood was spilled on the streets of New York City before peace was established. But the difference is that the next war was within the family. With Colombo in a comatose state, the grabs for power kicked into high gear. And at Persico’s side was notorious hitman Gregory “The Grim Reaper” Scarpa (1928-1994). Scarpa’s reputation in mob history is cemented as someone not to cross. The section about Scarpa is not a biography but readers unfamiliar with him may want to read Peter Lance’s ‘Deal With The Devil: The FBI’s Secret Thirty-Year Relationship With A Mafia Killer‘ and the account by Scarpa’s daughter titled ‘The Mafia Hitman’s Daughter‘. Scarpa was a dark figure and the battles between the Persico faction and the soldiers loyal to acting boss Vittorio “Little Vic” Orena feel like a story out of the motion picture industry.

The story takes a significant turn at this point and is nothing short of wild. Combined with the inter-family wars brewing, Persico is also on the radar of the U.S. Government and was indicted multiple times as detailed by the author. Franklyn, it seemed that as soon as he was released, he was back inside yet again facing more charges. The unbelievable story as told by DiMatteo highlights the lengths to which federal prosecutors were willing to go in their mission to dismantle the Italian American mafia. The introduction of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, known as the “RICO Act”, signaled that the end was near for the mob. The legislation drafted by attorney G. Robert Blakely became an invincible tool in the Government’s arsenal that is still used to this day. As the convictions piled up, mobsters facing RICO charges knew the only options were to make a plea or face life in prison. Persico ended up with life in prison and had to live with the fact that his sons “Allie Boy” and Michael also followed their dad down the path of no return.

The sad fates of the major players compose the concluding section of the book and there are no happy conclusions. Death, incarceration, and financial ruin decimated the mobsters who found themselves targets of the Government. DiMatteo finished the story before Persico’s death resulting in the epilogue not containing mention of his passing. However, the sentence Persico received made it clear that he would die behind bars and that is exactly what happened. At the time of his death, the power, fame, and money he enjoyed on streets was gone but at his height, his life was one heck of a ride that even Hollywood could not have scripted. This is a fascinating look at the mob and the reality of life in it.

ASIN: B077WW4W1T