Saturday, 24 October 2015


“Meyer Lansky would have been chairman of the board of General Motors if he’d gone into legitimate business.”

FBI agent


For what shall it profit a man, if he should gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?

Mark 8:36



Meyer Lansky, the Polish Jew widely credited as the financial brains behind the Mafia, was the subject of a gag by Jewish comedian Jackie Mason;

“All those Italians with broad shoulders and dark glasses? How could they possibly have created something like the Mafia – unless they had a Jew to show them how? Meyer Lansky? He’s their Henry Kissinger.”
Robert Lacey’s Little Man: Meyer Lansky and the Gangster Life was first lent to me by a friend at the height of Scorsese-inspired gangster fever, with Goodfellas and Casino, and the Nick Pileggi books they were based on. The book did the rounds of all self-respecting hipsters. Indeed, film critic Robert Warshow mused, in 1948, that the average American took all their ‘knowledge’ of gangsters from the movies. Lee Strasberg’s character Hyman Roth in The Godfather is clearly Lansky, and is the reason the line “We’re bigger than US Steel” is reputed to the man they called the Chairman of the Board. The truth is both more mundane and more fascinating, and Little Man (a reference to Lansky’s diminutive height of 5’3”) is a palliative to the histrionic razzmatazz that grew up around the Mob.

Look at every chapter of the American Mafia’s history – Prohibition, the Cuban casino complex, Las Vegas, Apalachin – and there you will find the small, neatly dressed, trim figure of Meyer Lansky. It is unlikely that Lansky himself took part in the episodes of violence that punctuate the story of the Cosa Nostra, but he was surrounded by the hard men who did: Bugsy Siegel, Lucky Luciano, Arnold Rothstein. Lansky knew them all, impressing them with his ability to run an efficient accountancy practice from within the confines of his own head.

Born Meyer Suchowljansky in Grodno in Poland in 1902, the future financial capo di tutti capi made the rough sea voyage to the Land of the Free in 1912, his father Max having emigrated there two years earlier to set up a new life for his family. Meyer’s brother Jake would be a life-long business accomplice. The fascinated boy was soon drawn to the street crap games, and developed a skill for calculating odds which would never leave him. The is more than a trace of Lansky in de Niro’s portrayal of Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein in Scorsese’s Casino.

Like any smart criminal, Lansky operated a series of front operations – he sold Wurlitzer juke-boxes, then an innovation – and he paid at least some tax. Ultimately, though, gangsterism became a way of life, one for which Lacey – a smooth, compelling writer – gives an interesting diagnosis;

‘Meyer Lansky was a lawbreaker, and his decision to break the law was conscious and deliberate. He could make no excuses. But there was also a sense in which his career, at times, was less his own creation than an accommodation to the ways of his adopted country, and to the rough-and-ready style in which America had chosen to create herself.’

That said, one of the great paradoxes of the classic American gangster was his patriotism, particularly in time of war. The possibility of sabotage, and a Fascist fifth column, loomed large in America, particularly around the crucial arteries of the docks. Working for the government unit B-3, Lansky, Luciano, Vincent Alo – aka Jimmy Blue Eyes – and most other prominent gangsters used their pre-existing grapevine of informers to aid the US government in keeping tabs on potential double agents. This was not Lansky’s only cameo appearance in history; it is said that when Golda Meir decided ‘No Mafia in Israel’, the Nixon administration kept Lansky away in return for a contract for Phantom jets.

The other affiliation Lansky held was to the state of Israel. Although not a particularly observant Jew, and almost certainly devoted to Israel just as long as it seemed to offer him an escape route from an American justice system he only ever seemed to be one small step ahead of, Lansky was certainly beneficial to a Jewish state which, in the end, invoked Section 2(b)(3) of the famous Law of Return, the clause that exempts Jews from being able to return if they have ‘a criminal past likely to endanger the public welfare’. Certainly, Lansky parted with a great deal of his ill-gotten gains for the homeland. As Jewish activist Shepard Broad said; ‘Money for Israel? You did not have to ask Meyer Lansky twice.’ But, in the end, although the Jews took his money, he enjoyed no more than an extended stay in Israel, he and his second wife Teddy continuously extending their visas until the state would extend no more. He parted from Zion bitterly.

In the end, Lansky was just another wiseguy, content to break the law and try to evade the consequences. Reputed to be worth, at the height of his fame, $300M, the facts did not bear this out, and it was another example of America’s obsessive mythologisation of its criminal classes. There was precious little in the way of an inheritance for his family. Whether that dysfunctional family would have fared any better had Lansky plied his trade in the overworld is moot, and the coda to the book, which shows Lansky’s crippled son Buddy dying alone and quadriplegic in a dreadful home in Miami, is heart-breaking.

But it is difficult for us, in these times of swirling moral relativity, to judge the criminal, mired as we are in increasing state-sanctioned crime in the name of progress. Perhaps we should leave the last word to Lansky himself, an old Jew ending his days reading another old Jew, Spinoza, whose most famous work was the Ethics;

‘If Socrates and Plato had trouble defining what morality was, how can people come along, just like that, and lay down that gambling is immoral?’

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