Meyer Lansky: Turning crime into an industry

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LITTLE MAN: MEYER LANSKY AND THE GANGSTER LIFE.

Robert Lacey.

Little, Brown.

547 pages. $24.95. During the Hill-Thomas hearings, Sen. Joseph Biden, anxious to prove to a panel of Judge Thomas' supporting witnesses that anything is possible -- including, of course, the conduct alleged of the nominee -- asked each of four apparently reasonable women whether it is possible that there is life on other planets. He posed the question carefully, thoughtfully, to each of the four, as if he were perplexed by the concept of extraterrestrial existence: Is it possible? he wondered.

Each witness dutifully admitted that, yes, it was possible that there was life on other planets. None, however, had the temerity to ask the senator to simply look around him, where he would have seen Ted Kennedy on one side and Strom Thurmond on the other. Anything's possible.

But 40 years ago, when crime-busting had a certain new-found telegenic charm -- focused mainly on Sen. Estes Kefauver, the ultimate Untouchable, and his round of well-publicized Senate hearings on organized crime -- a truth-seeker like Senator Biden might have asked whether it was possible for the mob to contain life-forms other than Italians. The answer probably would have been "No." For most people then, and for many now, the prevailing view of organized crime in this country is linked inextricably and unfairly with Italian Mafiosi.

But organized crime has roots that go deep into many ethnic communities, including the Irish, the Italians and, most surprisingly, the Jews. Al Capone, Dutch Schultz and Machine Gun Kelly made criminality famous in this country. But it was a slight, somewhat reclusive Jewish immigrant from Poland, Meyer Suchowljansky, who, more than anyone else, organized the highly diverse and competitive world of crime in America.

In fact, it is to Meyer Lansky, now made famous in current and forthcoming movies, more than to any other man, that organized crime owes its very existence. His ruthless perseverance and managerial skills, his enthusiastic embrace of American entrepreneurialism, created an industry out of lawlessness. Meyer Lansky organized crime. Near the end of his career, he could boast of his syndicate, "We're bigger than U.S. Steel," and he was right.

Lansky's life is an exercise in cinematic excess. He formed Murder Inc. with his childhood chum, Bugsy Siegel; he befriended Charles "Lucky" Luciano, and helped him consolidate the power of quasi-corporate crime that had developed during Prohibition; he financed and promoted casino gambling here and abroad; and he held a virtual monopoly of administrative power over organized crime for four decades.

But if his life mirrored certain gangster epics, he lived well-hidden behind the scenes. Lansky let Luciano enjoy the limelight, since he felt that with it went the risk of notoriety and all that entailed. In fact, in 1951, when Lansky's name finally appeared as part of a gambling investigation, some news accounts confused him with Joseph Lanza, a waterfront thug; Kefauver considered Lansky too unimportant even to call to testify. Only later did the committee realize the extent of Lansky's interests.

For 20 years, the government tried to pin something on Lansky. It failed. The near-desperate attempt to prosecute Lansky finally ended in 1974, when then-Solicitor General Robert Bork closed the file on the last outstanding case against him. Rejected by Israel, where he had gone in his last years to be buried near his grandfather, Lansky died of cancer in Florida in 1983. The press noisily guessed that his estate would exceed $300 million.

The chronicling of such a colorful passage as Lansky's has been attempted several times, and each time the richness of the tale has somewhat overwhelmed the teller. Robert Lacey, who is the author of biographical studies about the royalty of England ("Majesty"), Saudi Arabia ("The Kingdom") and Detroit ("Ford: The Men and the Machine"), perhaps has gone slumming this time, but he's ended up with more than a book about the Machiavelli of the Mafia, more than a biography of a crook.

At first glance, "Little Man" seems to be a 500-plus-page monument to obsessive research written by a man who perhaps knows too much. Mr. Lacey not only has mastered the material in this book, he has wrestled it to submission. Only a research-happy chappy could stop a lively discussion of Fat Al Levy's, an early Grand Street casino where Lansky took a job, with a line like, "The first use of the word 'gangster' in the English language has been traced back to April 10, 1896, three days after organized gangs of hoodlums had done battle on behalf of rival candidates in a Chicago municipal election."

So passages of exuberant portrayal often are interrupted by thorough, densely packed and often fascinating discussions of wildly different, passing interests. It is only after a more careful reading that you realize what Mr. Lacey has accomplished. When all the pieces are put together, what seems at first to be only an over-dressed gangster epic becomes a wonderfully drawn portrait of an entire segment of American society, with more colorful characters gathered under one cover than even "Ragtime" could muster.

"Little Man" doesn't skimp on its biographical charge; Lansky's whole story is told here. But it delivers several delicious ironies. For example, according to Mr. Lacey, Meyer Lansky owed his success not just to his managerial skills, but also to his acceptance of one of the oldest cliches in the book, namely that crime doesn't pay.

"With Meyer, somehow, there were never any nasty surprises," Mr. Lacey writes. "No one felt he had been shortchanged. As deal followed deal, and as the sums kept turning out right, his partners came to trust his calculations. They came back for more -- and, as is the way with partners who have come to know and rely on each other over a period of time, they got better at what they were doing together."

But, as he also reveals, the members of Lansky's family discovered the bitter truth behind cliches, since crime didn't pay for them, either. As it happened, that fabled $300 million estate was worth virtually nothing, and nearly seven years after Lansky's death, his son, Buddy, crippled since birth, suddenly stopped eating and drinking and died alone and on welfare. "If there's life after death," Buddy told Mr. Lacey during one interview, "I don't want to come back."

Little Man, big story.

Mr. Boyles is the author of "Man Eaters Motel," a traveler's guide to East Africa, and the forthcoming "Stardust Mariner: Tony Cornero and the Fleet of Chance." He lives in Pennsylvania.

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