Siegel, Bugsy (1906-1947)

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Siegel, Bugsy (1906-1947)

Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel is remembered as the visionary mobster who first recognized the enormous money-making potential of the legalized gambling oasis of Las Vegas, Nevada, and who oversaw the construction of the town's first lavish casino and hotel, the Flamingo, in the mid-1940s. Like his close associates Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano, Siegel began his underworld career as a street hoodlum on New York's Lower East Side, and with Lansky formed the Bug-Meyer Mob while still in his teens. Specializing in protection rackets, gambling, and auto theft, Siegel also quickly gained a reputation as a brutal hit man and worked alongside Lansky in the formation of Murder Inc., the enforcement arm of the New York syndicate. In the mid-1930s Siegel moved to California, where he worked to expand organized crime operations chiefly in gambling and drug smuggling, and renewed his acquaintance with the movie actor George Raft, a childhood friend. Through Raft, Siegel (who longed for a movie career himself) gained contacts in the film industry and was linked romantically with several actresses, including Wendy Barrie and, most notably, the mob courier Virginia Hill. When the Flamingo failed to bring the promised quick return on their $5 million investment, Luciano and his syndicate associates demanded Siegel settle his debt. Siegel refused and was subsequently shot and killed while he sat in the living room of his Beverly Hills mansion in June 1947.

During the ensuing decades of the twentieth century, Siegel's vision was fully realized as Las Vegas became the chief gambling center of the United States and a favorite location for mob investment. While Siegel himself never found success in Hollywood, several films have traced his career, including Neon Empire, a cable television movie that aired in 1989, and the star-studded 1991 biographical feature Bugsy, directed by Barry Levinson, in which Siegel and Hill were portrayed by Warren Beatty and Annette Bening. However, perhaps the ultimate ironic tribute was announced in June 1998—more that fifty years after Siegel's murder—when a Las Vegas investment group unveiled plans to construct a $130 million luxury casino named in honor of Siegel. Scheduled to open in early 2000, Bugsy's Resort and Casino will reportedly feature a 1940s Las Vegas decor reminiscent of Siegel's own ill-fated Flamingo.

—Laurie DiMauro

Further Reading:

Dorigo, Joe. Mafia. Seacaucus, New Jersey, Chartwell Books, 1992.

Jennings, Dean Southern. We Only Kill Each Other: The Life and Bad Times of Bugsy Siegel. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Prentice-Hall, 1967.

Nash, Jay Robert. Encyclopedia of World Crime. Vol. IV. Wilmette, Ill., Crime Books, Inc., 1990.

——. World Encyclopedia of Organized Crime. New York, DeCapo Press, 1993.

Sifakis, Carl. The Encyclopedia of American Crime. New York, Smithmark, 1992.

Wilen, John. Las Vegas Sun. June 26, 1998.