Lansky, Meyer

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated

LANSKY, MEYER

LANSKY, MEYER (Maier Suchowljansky ; "The Brain," "Mogul of the Mob," "Chairman of the Board"; 1902?-1983), U.S. gangster, one of the most powerful and richest of U.S. crime syndicate chiefs, instrumental in the development of the American mafia. Born in Grodno, Lithuania, Lansky arrived in the U.S. in 1911, with his mother, sister, and brother. Passport officials at Ellis Island officially assigned Lansky July 4 as his birth date, although the exact date and year of his birth are not known, while his surname had already been Americanized by his father, who had arrived two years earlier. The family soon moved to the Lower East Side of Manhattan from the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, and it was there that Lansky – known to have a head for numbers – began early on learning the ins and outs of hustling. Lansky left school a few weeks shy of his 15th birthday to work as an apprentice in a tool-and-die shop, and by the following year was already being charged with felonious assault and disorderly conduct. He formed a friendship with Benjamin (Bugsy) *Siegel that developed into the Bug and Meyer Gang, with Lansky the brains of the outfit and Siegel the brawn, which included running gambling houses, and smuggling and hijacking liquor with the onset of Prohibition in 1920. The group formed the expanded Five Points Gang with Charlie Lucania, also known as Lucky Luciano, working for a time with the original "Brain," Arnold *Rothstein, and eventually eliminating rival gangs and bosses to become the top mafia chieftains. In 1931, Lansky organized a conference of Jewish organized crime leaders, which later would see the merging of the Jewish and Italian mafias into the National Crime Syndicate, a crime cartel. Lansky, despite being an outsider to the Italian mafia, was highly respected for his shrewd analytical mind and as master organizer and architect of the money laundering and financial network essential to organized crime; as a man of his word, these skills made him at least equal to Luciano as the godfather of modern organized crime. By 1936 Lansky had begun to develop gambling operations in upstate New York, Florida, New Orleans, the Bahamas, and also in Cuba, where he arranged payoffs to Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista.

Lansky was also a proud Jew. When the German-American Bund held rallies in New York City in the 1930s, Lansky was asked to disrupt the public meetings, which he happily assigned his henchmen to do, but would take no money for the work. "I was a Jew and felt for those Jews in Europe who were suffering," he said. "They were my brothers."

In 1970, fearing both a call to a grand jury and indictment for income-tax evasion, Lansky fled to Israel, seeking to remain under the *Law of Return, but Israel expelled him in 1972, and he ended up back in the United States facing several indictments. He was convicted in 1973 of grand jury contempt which was overturned on appeal, and was acquitted of income-tax evasion. Indictments on other charges were abandoned in December 1974, partly because of his chronic ill health. In 1979 the House of Representatives Assassinations Committee, ending its two-year investigation of the Warren Commission report, linked Lansky with Jack *Ruby, the nightclub owner who killed presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. The character of "Hyman Roth" in the film The Godfather Part ii is based on Lansky, and Richard Dreyfuss played him in the 1999 movie Lansky. He is the subject of a number of biographies, including Lansky (1971) by Hank Messick; Meyer Lansky: Mogul of the Mob (1979) by Uri Dan, Dennis Eisenberg, and Eli Landau; and Little Man: Meyer Lansky and the Gangster Life (1991) by Robert Lacy.

[Elli Wohlgelernter (2nd ed.)]