The math whiz used his wits to reorganize crime into what looked like, on paper, a legitimate business.
The 1920s and 30s saw the shift of organized crime from a street game to a streamlined method of business. Meyer Lansky, also known as the “mob’s accountant,” was a key member in that transition.
Lansky helped to establish the association of multi-ethnic criminal organizations known as the national crime syndicate in 1934.
Known for his business savvy, Meyer Lansky built up profitable casino ventures both in the U.S. and abroad. He was physically small, well-composed and incredibly clever. Though he was heavily involved in organized crime for nearly half a century, the most serious thing he was ever convicted of was illegal gambling in 1953 — which landed him in jail for two months.
Meyer Lansky’s Early Life And Mob Beginnings
Meyer Lansky was born on July 4th, 1902, in Grodno, which was then considered the Russian Empire (today’s Belarus). His birth name was Meier Schowlański, which was later changed to “Meyer Lansky.”
This was not an ideal place for Jews at the time as antisemitism mounted and so the Schowlański family felt obligated to emigrate to the United States. Lansky arrived in New York with his mother and siblings in 1911 to join his father who had come over a few years prior.
Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where Lansky was raised, was at the time packed with different cultures all crammed into one compact neighborhood. This is where Lansky’s roots of organized crime were first planted, and how he was able to form multi-ethnic partnerships.
One of the first friends Lansky made was Bugsy Siegel, who would later become Lansky’s bootlegging partner.
Then Lansky met Lucky Luciano when they were teenagers. Luciano ran a small Sicilian gang that extorted money from Jewish kids. Luciano was impressed with Lansky’s defiance against his threats.
Lanksy excelled at math and used his natural talents to start some backroom gambling games in the neighborhood. Just as his reputation around New York began to grow, so did prohibition. And with it, the start of the golden age of organized crime.
The Brilliance Behind Lansky’s Operations
When prohibition began officially in 1920, Meyer Lansky told Siegel that they had to organize in the same way the Irish and Italian gangs had. Together, they formed the Bugs and Meyer Mob, which later became one of the most well-known Prohibition gangs and lucrative rum-running operations.
But Lansky managed to evolve this group of criminals into what, on the face of it, looked and ran like a legitimate business.
He also evolved with the times. When prohibition ended in 1933, Lansky turned back to his beginnings: gambling. He managed to open successful gambling casinos in New York, New Orleans, and Florida, all covertly.
He was able to build a gambling empire on two principles. The first was that unlike other gambling operations, which were usually rigged, Lansky insisted on honest gaming. He had genuine mathematical skills that he used to effectively figure out the odds of the most popular wagering games.
The second principle which kept his business intact was that he did not, ironically enough, use violence. Instead, he utilized mob protection and bribes against law enforcement. This ensured that the establishments were secure from both other crime figures and the police.
To protect himself from prosecution, Lansky transferred illegal earnings from the casino empire to a Swiss bank account (the 1934 Swiss Banking Act allowed anonymity). He went on to buy his own offshore bank in Switzerland so that he could launder money through it.
But ever ambitious, Meyer Lansky turned his attention to Havana, Cuba.
Meyer Lansky Sets His Sights On Cuba
Throughout World War II, Luciano ran casinos in Cuba. But the U.S. government pressured Cuba’s authoritarian dictator, Fulgencio Batista, to deport him. They succeeded.
Lansky stepped in and he formed his own business relationship with Batista. The agreement was that in exchange for large sums of money, Batista would give Lansky control over Havana’s racetracks and casinos, opening the city to large-scale gambling. Batista also said his government would match any hotel investment over $1 million.
On Dec. 22, 1946, Lansky held the Havana Conference at the Hotel Nacional. All the major American leaders of the criminal underworld met there. Lansky shared with them his vision for a new Havana for whoever wanted to invest in it. It’s also speculated that the assassination of Bugsy Siegel was planned here, put forth by Lansky himself.
He then invested a huge sum of money into the casinos in Cuba and even built his own. Meanwhile, Batista enjoyed the kickbacks he received from Lansky’s success.
It’s estimated that by the end of the ’60s, Lansky was worth over $300,000,000. But due to his careful and clever bookkeeping, on paper, Lansky was worth almost nothing.
The Nazi Hunter
His organization of Italian and Jewish gunmen often put their skills to use against Nazi sympathizers in the United States. Lansky was therefore prepared when the American government approached him to join the World War 2 effort.
Lansky was too old and small by 1941 to enlist (which he had attempted) but the U.S. Naval Forces had another job waiting for him.
Lansky and his group of gunmen, who had by now created a reputation as Nazi hunters on the streets of Manhattan, followed up on tips from the Navy and the FBI which concerned potential Reich sympathizers in a mission known fittingly as “Operation Underworld.”
No one outside of the FBI knows what happened to the individuals noted in those tips. It’s safe to assume though that Lansky’s war efforts on the streets proved successful.
Later Life And Death
It took the communist revolution in Cuba to bring down Lansky’s Havana businesses. The revolutionaries led to Batista’s removal and Fidel Castro’s rise to power, which resulted in Lansky’s expulsion from Cuba and his fortune seized by their government.
He continued to profit through the 1960s through loanshark ventures and numbers rackets for a time, undaunted.
In 1970, Lansky faced tax evasion charges. He attempted to escape to Israel under the Law of Return, which gave Israeli citizenship to anyone of Jewish heritage. However, Lansky was denied permanent residency due to his criminal past and deported back to the U.S. in 1972.
Meanwhile, the FBI had closely monitored Lansky for years. However, they could find no evidence that linked him to major crime. He was convicted of contempt charges, but by that time he was in poor health due to lung cancer and the decision was overturned.
He spent his last years quietly at his Miami Beach home. On January 15, 1983, Meyer Lansky died at 81. He was survived by his wife and three children and buried in Mt. Nebo Cemetery in Miami.
Lansky’s New York Times obituary read, “‘He would have been chairman of the board of General Motors if he’d gone into legitimate business,’ an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation once said of Meyer Lansky with grudging admiration” and “Mr. Lansky once boasted to an underworld associate: ‘We’re bigger than U.S. Steel.'”
Six months after his death, an associate, Vincent “Jimmy Blue Eyes” showed up to Lansky’s apartment to collect the last of an outstanding debt that was owed to him. He found some jewelry, a few other valuable possessions, and some stocks and bonds, but not much else.
Likewise, his family was shocked to find out that his estate was only worth $57,000. To this day, his family does not know where all his fortune went.
Lansky kept a notebook in his desk drawer. In it, he wrote: “Take the responsibility on your shoulders and it will leave no room for chips.”