By Mark Gribben  

The Mythical Meyer

Maybe he said it and maybe he didn't, but Meyer Lansky will forever be identified with the statement that the Syndicate, the underworld conglomerate of hoodlums, mobsters and killers from across the nation, was bigger than U.S. Steel. The boast made for good headlines and helped politicians like Estes Kefauver and Bobby Kennedy build their reputations and later achieved near-factual status when Hyman Roth, the Meyer Lansky-inspired character in the Godfather II repeated it to Michael Corleone. Whether or not Lansky ever really said it, it was probably true. Organized crime in America from the 1930s to the 1980s was big business and Meyer Lansky had helped make it that way.

There is a lot about Lansky that is apocryphal. Did he, for instance, meet Bugsy Siegel and Lucky Luciano on the same day? Probably not, but the story still floats around about how Lansky, the hard working son of Jewish immigrants, happened along one day and found Siegel and Luciano brawling over the favors of a prostitute the Italian was pimping.

Lansky, the story goes, hit Luciano over the head with a tool from his apprentice's box and stopped the fight. The known facts fit --Luciano did run some bordellos and no one disputes that Benny Siegel liked the ladies.

But Lansky never mentions the story in his authorized biographies and Luciano remembers meeting Lansky when Lucky's gang tried to shakedown the young Meyer and was told in no uncertain terms to go f__ themselves.

"Ok, Little Man," Luciano remembers telling the diminutive Lansky. "You get your protection for free."

"Shove your protection up your ass," Lansky shot back. "I don’t need it."

And Lansky, who would never grow much above five feet, proceeded to prove it to the older boy.

"Believe me, I found out he didn’t need it," Luciano recalled years later. "Next to Benny Siegel, Meyer Lansky was the toughest guy, pound for pound, I ever knew in my whole life and that takes in Albert Anastasia or any of them Brooklyn hoodlums or anybody anyone can think of."

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Mug shot of Meyer Lansky

If there ever was a golden age of organized crime, it could be argued that it began with Lansky's descent into the underworld when he placed his first bet on a street corner craps game before the start of World War I and ended when he died in the winter of 1983. Arnold Rothstein, the supposed fixer the 1919 World Series, was the Cronus of American organized crime -- the proto-godfather, if you will. Charlie Luciano stirred up the action, Benny Siegel provided the chutzpa, Lepke Buchalter terrorized the enemy but Lansky rose above the fray and served as the brains of the outfit. Luciano was exiled and died relatively young, Siegel and Rothstein were assassinated and Lepke died in Sing Sing's electric chair, but Meyer Lansky died a wealthy old man in Miami, Florida, where he was known as a supporter of Israel and a frequent contributor to the local public television station.

Siegel was more likely to shoot first and ask questions later as he lived and died by the gun. Buchalter, whose Stalinesque purge of his own gang would signal his undoing, was the only mob kingpin to go to the electric chair. Lepke was easy to figure out. He was a cold-blooded killer who was all ego and only interested in profit. Siegel was just your basic psychopath. A nice guy one minute and a killer the next, Bugsy was a big talker and loud dresser who loved mixing it up and let his fists do his talking. Luciano was a little more complex. Lucky killed guys, sure, but he had a sense of honor and nobility about him and seemed to recognize right and wrong even if he ignored it. Lansky was different. He was a family man with a wife and kids and a brother. He had learned a trade and operated legitimate businesses as well as carpet joints and bootleg operations. Lansky was one of the few mobsters who could rein-in his passions, disdaining the spotlight, which attracted up-and-coming gunsels eager to make a name for themselves as well as the law. He lived a nondescript life, a twice-married father of three children who preferred to let others do the dirty work for him. Meyer claimed in his biography never to have killed a man although circumstantial evidence shows otherwise and his exploits demonstrate that he wasn’t completely averse to eliminating those who stood in his way.

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Meyer's favorite photo of himself 

Where men like Lucky Luciano and Lepke Buchalter ruled their gangs through the standard mob methods of violence and fear, Lansky rose to the top of his profession because he was first a master organizer and more importantly a man of his word. Lansky was the brains behind the Syndicate; his shrewd analytical mind was responsible for the creation of an international crime cartel the effects of which are still with us today. This is the story of Meyer Lansky, the Russian immigrant who became known as the "Mogul of the Mob.

1. The Mythical Meyer

2. A Fortune Found

3. Bugs & Meyer Mob

4. Meeting with the Brain

5. Italian and the Jew

6. The Carpet Joints

7. Havana

8. Vegas

9. Israel

10. Lansky's Legacy

11. Bibliography

12. The Author
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