Lansky, Meyer (1902-1983)

Born Grodno, Russia, July 4, 1902.

Died Miami, FL, Jan. 15, 1983.

Lansky was a long-time friend and "business" associate of Charlie Luciano, Benjamin Siegel, Frank Costello and other big-name Prohibition Era gangsters.

He was born Maier Suchowljansky in Grodno, Russia. Various dates of birth range from 1898 to 1902. Social Security death records and FBI files contain a birthdate of July 4, 1902. Some believe that his birthdate was erroneously recorded upon his entry into the U.S. and was actually Aug. 28, 1900. Lansky appears to have used the 1902 date in official papers.

The Jewish community in his native Grodno surrounded by and often assaulted by non-Jewish residents of the area. Lansky's earliest memories reportedly were of Jewish versus Gentile warfare. Lansky, his mother and his younger brother Jacob "Jake" sailed to America in 1911. They arrived in New York harbor on April 4, and were met by Lansky's father Max, who had traveled to the U.S. years earlier and was living on Lewis Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, in sight of the Williamsburg Bridge. They subsequently moved a very short distance to an apartment building near the corner of Columbia and Grand Streets.

In that neighborhood, populated by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, Lansky met and befriended Benjamin Siegel (known as "Bugsy"). A friendship also developed with young Salvatore Lucania - later known as Charlie Luciano - who lived nearby. Luciano, Lansky and Siegel cooperated on some minor criminal enterprises, possibly working for Arnold Rothstein on occasion, and in scuffles with the nearby Irish-dominated gangs. They joined in racketeering ventures - likely including bootlegging, narcotics smuggling and labor racketeering - with Louis "Lepke" Buchalter, and possibly had business relationships with Dutch Schultz.

On Oct. 23, 1918, a teenage Lansky was arrested for felonious assault. He was later discharged. During Prohibition, Lansky, Siegel and Luciano engaged in rum-running. Lansky and Siegel regularly served as guards for illegal liquor shipments sent from New York to Chicago by Dutch Goldberg, Charlie Kramer and Bill Heisman. The two men also may have worked at hijacking competitors' liquor shipments. In the late 1920s, Lansky was suspected of involvement in the murder of Kiddy Kolbrenner, he was arrested for felonious assault, for violation of penal law and for homicide. Each time, he was discharged.

Luciano was absorbed into the New York Mafia organization of "Joe the Boss" Masseria, and Lansky and Siegel served informally as his advisors and enforcers.

In the early 1930s, Lansky became a trusted financial adviser to the Mafia's ruling Commission. His presence in Chicago in the spring of 1932 was documented by his April 19 arrest. He began setting up gambling facilities in Miami and Cuba and stayed regularly at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Havana. He also initially supported Siegel's vision of a gambling and entertainment Mecca in Las Vegas. Lansky reportedly held a secret financial interest in the Flamingo for many years.

In 1939, Lansky reportedly attended a top-level meeting of racketeers which considered how best to handle the law enforcement pursuit of fugitive Lepke Buchalter. Buchalter was wanted on narcotics charges and other racketeering offenses. Prosecutors in Brooklyn also were investigating Buchalter's connections to a series of murders. At the meeting, Lansky, Doc Rosen, Longie Zwillman and others decided that Buchalter must leave the country. Buchalter remained and eventually turned himself over to the authorities.

Lansky is generally credited with serving as an early 1940s go-between for the jailed Luciano and officials with U.S. Naval Intelligence. Lansky was among the noteworthy underworld visitors to Luciano at Great meadows Prison in Comstock, NY.

After World War II, Lansky and his brother Jake ran a gambling house near Miami known as the Colonial Inn. They took part in gambling operations in Saratoga and Hollywood. Lansky is believed to have collaborated with Frank Costello and Phil Kastel in the opening of the Beverly Club just outside of New Orleans in 1946.

In 1948, as Florida began to crack down on illegal gambling, Lansky sold off Colonial Inn. Pressure by the U.S. government against organized crime increased in the late 1940s, and Lansky was called before the Kefauver Committee Oct. 11, 1950. By that time, he was invested in a number of legitimate enterprises, including alcohol distributorships, food companies and coin-operated machines.

Lansky's major gambling investment, the Riviera Hotel in Havana, was lost with a change in Cuban leadership. Tourists had been discouraged from traveling to Cuba during the revolution of Fidel Castro's force. When Castro took over the government and embraced Communism, tourism shut down completely. The hotel, which by some estimated cost $14 million to build, had not be open long enough to recover more than a third of the initial investment.

Lansky's health, already an issue while developing his casino in Cuba, suffered further upon the casino's shutdown. He dealt with ulcers and chest pains and was hospitalized after a heart attack.

U.S. federal law enforcement agencies hounded Lansky for much of the rest of his life. In the early 1970s, he attempted to retire to Israel. Under pressure from the U.S., which wanted Lansky back home to face charges of skimming from the Flamingo, the Israeli government refused his request for permanent citizenship in 1971. Late in 1972, the Israeli Supreme Court backed the decision and Lansky was forced to attempt to find refuge elsewhere.

An airplane exodus took him first to Switzerland, then to Rio, then to Buenos Aires and on to Paraguay, where he hoped to set up a quiet life for himself. But U.S. authorities headed him off, and Paraguayan officials refused to let Lansky off the plane. The aircraft continued on with stops in La Paz, Lima and Panama before returning Lansky to Miami and the waiting American officials.

Lansky avoided conviction but three other attempts to go to Israel were blocked. He died in Miami on Jan. 15, 1983.