Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Profile: Meyer Lansky

Multiple-time suggester Bruce from Cambridge, IL, writes:

"You suggest in his profile that Bernie Madoff stole $50 billion. Well, they're going to recover a lot of that, and he also paid back early investors with stolen money, so the true amount stolen is a lot lower. If you consider a lifetime at the highest levels of organized crime, adjusting for inflation and remembering that Lansky paid no taxes on his wealth, I think he might give Bernie a run for his ill-gotten money."

So we got the #1 and #2 thieves in history? Hmmm...

Lansky was also suggested by Sofia from Florida, John from New York, as well as returning suggesters Michael from Maryland, Avi from Amstelveen, and Moishe from La Jolla.


  1. "Mob's accountant" doesn't quite describe what Lansky did or how he operated.

    To start with, he wasn't the feeble guy that Lee Strasberg played in the Godfather II. He was actually just as much a tough thug in his youth as the rest of them; check out Robert Lacey's "Little Man" for some descriptions of how the "Bugs-Meyer" gang got their start in just about the hardest way possible: hijacking and then protecting the trucks that drove bootleg around town. That was front-lines gangster work.

    More to the point, though, he was essentially a criminal entrepreneur and not "an accountant." There were plenty of people around to count the money -- and, sure, many were Jews -- but his particular expertise lay in finding new places for the major New York organized crime money to go. Like most of the successful figures in the mob, he migrated from bootlegging into gambling (which is much safer and much more consistently lucrative), and then it was a matter of staying ahead of the prosecutors. That meant going to Cuba, then to Las Vegas, Miami and, without success, Israel. None of it was 'genius' work; it just meant having the money to buy the legal protection you needed and then hedging your bets against when it would all fall apart.

    The reason he's important in the history of organized crime -- outside of his longevity -- is that he came to represent the most important Jewish element in the coalition that Lucky Luciano pulled together. Luciano needed his Jews to take control of Italian-American organized crime in New York, and Lansky's hooking up with him helped Lansky, too, giving him more money and more muscle for what were essentially conservative criminal operations. Organized crime has always been much more of a coalition than most depictions have it; it may help to have the solidarity, say, of an Italian-American community, but you need expanse to make it big. Lansky gave that expanse to Luciano and his several successors.

    A 10 sounds perfect for him: he was one of us, no question, and more typically so than we usually remember. There isn't a whole lot to be proud of in that, but it's long struck me as delusion to pretend he and his cohort were nothing more than anomalies.

  2. Thanks for the details. Changed it up a bit to play down the accountant part in the middle of the profile. Still, it was his nickname... :)

  3. Moishe from La Jolla! All right ! Hello from San Diego.

  4. One thought on the nickname: Gangster nicknames come from two places, newspapers and the gangsters themselves.

    A few of the Chicago reporters acknowledged that they invented many of the famous nicknames such as Scarface for Capone, Little New York for Louis Campagna or Doves for Joey Aiuppa. (Aiuppa's nickname was actually a kind of mockery: he was once convicted of exceeding the legal hunting limit on doves.)

    I think -- though I didn't get time to check it out in Robert Lacey's good biography -- that Lansky's "Mob's Accountant" comes from that school of nickname, something that newspaper writers hung on him to give him an identity in their stories.

    On the other hand, you do have nicknames from within the mob itself. I understand for instance that Vincent Gigante was supposedly called "Chin" by his colleagues and I think I remember reading transcribed wiretaps that have other mobsters refering to Carmine Galante as "Cigar."

    As I recall from Lacey, there's a lot of evidence that a lot of other mobsters refered to Lansky as Little Man. I'm not sure how to take that, but there you have it.