Meyer Lansky was a man with a notorious reputation—known as the “Mob’s Accountant,” Lansky was a founding father of the National Crime Syndicate, one of the most infamous organized crime groups in US history.
Lansky was born July 4, 1902, in what is now Belarus. His Jewish family was victim to local pogroms, and fled to America in 1911, landing in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Once in New York, Lansky befriended Bugsy Siegel, who himself would go on to build a prolific criminal career. The men remained close for the remainder of their lives, and Siegel had a huge influence over Lansky’s young adult activities, with the two partnering in bootlegging along with Lucky Luciano. In 1931, Lansky helped organize a hit on Mafia leader Salvatore Maranzano, which paved to way for Luciano’s assent to power.
Lansky and Siegel went on to manage the Bugs and Meyer Mob, a violent Prohibition gang, and by 1936 Lansky was already managing gambling outposts in Cuba, New Orleans and South Florida. The operations were secured through police bribes and mob connections.
But the mobster had a soft spot. During World War II, Lansky reportedly used his position to help break up pro-Nazi rallies in New York, typically organized by the German-American Bund. He also worked as part of the Office of Naval Intelligence’s Operation Underworld, a government mission that used known criminals to track for German spies.
By the 1940’s, Lanksy’s longtime friend Bugsy was planning to open a massive new casino project in Las Vegas—the Flamingo. Lansky became a major player in the project, convincing Havana investors to pour more and more money into the project, with little profit to show.
Eventually, crime lords in Havana, frustrated with the money pit situation, met with Lansky to discuss the murder of Bugsy Siegel. It is widely believed Lansky had to give the final approval for the hit on his friend, which was carried out on June 20, 1947. Lansky would maintain a lucrative stake in the Flamingo for the next two decades.
Lansky’s influence in the Cuban crime world only grew after Siegel’s death. By that time, Luciano, who had been imprisoned in the US, was paroled and fled to Havana, where he set up residence. After that, Lansky held a close working relationship with Cuban President Fulgencio Batista, who sanctioned much of the mob’s efforts post-World War II.
But the Cuban Revolution in 1959 meant big changes for Lansky. He saw many of his casinos looted, and by 1960, when Castro outlawed the local gambling circuit, Lansky had lost $7 million.
In 1970, tax evasion charges finally caught up to Lansky, and he fled to Israel, but was deported back to the US two years later. He was put on trial and eventually acquitted in 1974.
Lansky lived out the rest of his days in his Miami Beach home. He died on January 15, 1983, of lung cancer. Officials believe he left behind a $300 million fortune in hidden Swiss bank accounts, but the money was never recovered.
The life of this Jewish mobster, who at times was considered one of the most powerful men in America, has been immortalized a number of times in pop culture. Several characters from the “Godfather” series, including Michael Corleone, were based on Lansky, and he is portrayed by Anatol Yusef on HBO’s popular series, “Boardwalk Empire.”