The Italian and the Jew

By the start of Prohibition, Lansky and Luciano, along with the Bugs and Meyer mob were widely known in the underworld. Luciano had already attracted the attention of two of the leading gangster rivals for the title of capo di tutti capo: boss of bosses. Both men, Guiseppe Masseria and Sal Maranzano, were not-so-gently pushing for Luciano to join their gangs.

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Lucky Luciano

But Luciano was holding out, because he had developed a close affinity with Meyer Lansky and was able to look past Lansky’s Jewish heritage, something neither Masseria or Maranzano, a couple of "Mustache Petes" could do. They wanted Luciano to dump Lansky and take over the territory the Bugs and Meyer gang had clawed out.

The relationship between Luciano and Lansky was complex and very unusual for its time. Masseria and Maranzano, who headed the two most influential Italian gangs on the East Coast refused to associate with anyone who wasn’t a Sicilian. They were firm believers in the old way of doing things: the secret societies like the Black Hand, the Camorra and the Mafia which they brought with them from the Old Country.

But Luciano and Lansky didn’t let their different ethnic backgrounds stand in the way of friendship, partnership and profit. As Luciano noted in his authorized biography, there was more to attract him to Lansky and Siegel than to repel him. "The same ambitions, desires and intensity transcended religious differences," wrote Martin Gosch, Lucky’s biographer.

Lansky and Luciano were as tight as could be. They seemed to be on the same wavelength all the time, Siegel said.

"They would just look at each other and you would know that a few minutes later one would say what the other was thinking," he told Doc Stacher. "I never heard them argue. They were always in agreement with each other."

The ethnic differences were sometimes the source of jokes between the men. Once, when Lansky, Siegel, Luciano and Charlie’s lieutenant were meeting to plan an attack on a warehouse, Lansky complained that the Jews were forced to take the risky jobs while the two Italians sat back and watched.

"Whadda you mean, two Italians? We’re one wop, one mick and two Jews, just like in the neighborhood," said Luciano, using the current vulgar slang for Italians and Irish.

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Frank Costello

Lansky stared at Luciano like he was nuts. "What are you talking about, ‘one wop and one mick?’ Where’s the mick?"

Luciano started to laugh and pointed at his Italian chum, Francesco Castiglia. "Him, he’s Irish. Y’know, Frank Costello."

And thus did Castiglia become Costello, a name later to be associated with the highest echelon of organized crime in New York City.

The United Nations of crime grew and prospered. They bought boats for picking up loads of bootleg scotch and trucks to haul it in. Lansky and Siegel ran profitable gambling houses and Luciano, much to the chagrin of Costello and Lansky, became an important bordello owner. The quartet and their hangers-on hit the pawnbrokers and moneylenders in the ghettos and the insurance salesmen who collected nickel and dime premiums proved to be easy targets for the toughs.

"We had so much dough coming in that it was hard to keep track of it," Luciano said. "Even a good counter like Lansky got a little confused once in a while."

The group looked for ways to put their money to work for them. They bought into established bookmaking operations, the first step in what would become a nationwide gambling syndicate. Lansky made them create what he called the "Buy-Money Bank" with a nest-egg of $5,000 which was paid out by Costello to politicians and policemen who agreed to look the other way when the gang came into their wards. The Buy-Money Bank was sort of an investment plan that paid off big for the men. Costello started small, buying the pols and cops and ward heelers in areas where the group was buying up bookies. The politicians in turn used the money to insure election victories.

By this time the Italians and Jews of the Luciano and Bugs and Meyer mobs had attracted the attention of not only Rothstein, but of Maranzano and Masseria. As a powerful Italian, Luciano was drawn into the battle between the two old-timers despite his reservations. As a Jew, Lansky could only sit back and watch the battle and try to help his Sicilian friend. Later, once the forces of Masseria had been vanquished and Maranzano adopted the mantle of capo di tutti capo, Lansky and Siegel would step in, and working closely with Charlie Luciano, (who emerged from the two-year Castellamarese War with the appellation "Lucky") would bring true "organization" to organized crime.

In the Castellamarese War, Maranzano and Masseria attacked each other ruthlessly in an effort to unite all of the Italian underworld under one boss. Joe The Boss Masseria managed to woo Charlie to his side, only to see Lucky betray him to Maranzano when the balance of power shifted in favor of Salvatore. In return for betraying Masseria and helping in his murder, Luciano was rewarded with a lieutenant’s position in Maranzano’s new underworld order. But Lucky had no intention of staying number two for long. Shortly after Maranzano became boss of bosses, Bugsy Siegel and Bo Weinberg, Dutch Schultz’s number two man, burst into Maranzano’s Unione Siciliano office and shot him dead.

Lansky and Luciano called a summit of the major underworld leaders in New York. Taking an idea from Johnnie Torrio, who gave Al Capone his start in Chicago, they proposed a loose-knit Syndicate of gangs. They stressed that this was not a unification under one boss and no one would have to surrender any power to any other boss. The Syndicate, Lansky and Luciano said, would serve as a cooperative venture to halt the tit-for-tat bloodshed that had claimed so many lives in the past few years. The Syndicate would be a crime cartel, Lansky said.

With Maranzano out of the way, Lucky and Meyer took their show on the road and went from city to city selling the idea of the Syndicate. It was clear that this was a new day for the underworld. Lucky, who because of his extroverted personality took most of the spotlight, refused to accept the sealed envelopes filled with money that was the Mafia tradition.

"The old Mafia traditions are fine for Sicily," he told the mobsters. "But we are in America. The idea of putting a crown on my head is kid stuff. It’s time we grew up. We’ll all work for each other, but each is running his own outfit."

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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