Meyer and the Myth of the American Mafia – Cutting Lansky Down to Size 

Robert Lacey, Little Man: Meyer Lansky and the Gangster Life (Boston: Little Brown & Co, 1991).

Robert Lacey’s biography of the infamous Jewish-American organized crime figure, Meyer Lansky, was originally published in 1992 with the title Little Man: Meyer Lansky and the Gangster Life, only to be reissued in 2016 with a new title, Meyer Lansky: The Thinking Man’s Gangster

This latter subtitle, ‘The Thinking Man’s Gangster’, perhaps accords more with the popular image of Lansky as a kind of nefarious criminal mastermind, and may therefore have helped boost the book’s sales. However, given that Lacey’s biography is actually concerned, to a large extent, with debunking that very image of Lansky, and indeed much of the popular mythology surrounding him, it is the earlier title, ‘Little Man’, that better reflects the book’s actual content.  

It is true that Lansky, despite his diminutive stature, was never, to my knowledge, known by the sobriquet, ‘Little Man’.[1]

However, in a metaphoric sense, Robert Lacey’s biography is indeed very much concerned with ‘cutting Lansky down to size’. 

Debunking Sensationalist Claims 

The history of organized crime in America is a subject that has rarely attracted the attention of serious historians or first-rate researchers. What literature does exist on the subject is largely to be found, not in the ‘history’ section, but rather in the much-maligned, and often justly maligned, true crime section of the library or bookshop, and is typically sensationalist in tone and often historically inaccurate. 

Indeed, Lacey coins a new and apt term for this literary subgenre – “Pulp Nonfiction” (p314).[2]

Thus, inevitably, much of Lacey’s text is concerned with debunking the many myths perpetuated in earlier Mafia histories.

One famous example is the so-called ‘Night of the Sicilian Vespers’, when, according to mafia folklaw, and countless previously published mafia histories, a whole succession of Mafia bosses across America were assassinated in a single night in the aftermath of the assassination of Salvatore Maranzano.  

Actually, however, despite being repeated as lore in countless mafia histories, the nationally-synchronized bloodbath never actually seemed to have occurred.  Thus, aside from the killing of Marazano himself, Lacey reports: 

systematic study of newspapers in eight major cities in the two weeks before and the two weeks following September 10, 1913, the date of Maranzo’s killing… [revealed] only three reports of similar gang- or racketeer-linked killings – two in Newark and one in Pittsburgh” (p65). 

Lucky Luciano and World War II

Another source of much “legend and exaggeration”, Lacey reports, has been the supposed role of then-imprisoned crime boss Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano in the Allied invasion of Sicily. Thus, Lansky reports how, in some of the more outlandish accounts: 

Lucky Luciano has been pictured hitting the beaches in person, waving triumphantly from atop a tank, and there have been dark tales of planes dropping flags and handkerchiefs bearing the letter L behind enemy lines – signals supposedly from Luciano to local Mafia chiefdoms” (p125).[3]

These claims are obvious make-believe. However, the real story of the cooperation between organized crime and the American government to forestall infiltration and sabotage on the New York docks, which cooperation likely gave rise to the more sensationalist rumours referred to above, is arguably almost as remarkable in its own right. 

The impetus was a fire onboard the SS Normandie, a French liner that had been commandeered for military use, and was being converted into a troop ship in a New York harbour. 

With the benefit of hindsight, it is today all but certain that the fire was simply an accident. However, authorities at the time, wary of the threat of infiltration, suspected enemy sabotage, and hence moves were made to establish contact with the underworld figures who were known to control the New York docks in order to forestall any possible recurrence.[4]

This search for underworld contacts on the docks led the authorities ultimately to Luciano, then serving a sentence for prostitution offences in a New York prison. Lansky’s own role in this process was to act as an intermediary, having been recommended for this role by Luciano’s Jewish lawyer Moses Polakoff. 

The result was a remarkable meeting between Luciano, Lansky and representatives of the US Navy in an interrogation room in Great Meadow Correctional Facility, at which Luciano somewhat reluctantly agreed to cooperate. 

Perhaps surprisingly, genuine patriotism seems to have been at least part of the reason both Luciano and Lansky agreed to help out.

Lansky, being Jewish, was obviously no friend to the Nazis; Luciano, meanwhile, may have been unsympathetic to Mussolini’s Fascist regime in his Native Italy due to its crackdown on the Sicilian Mafia under Cesare Mori – both, however, also claimed to see themselves as patriotic Americans (though Luciano was soon to be deported).

Whether there was also some implicit quid pro quo agreement whereby Luciano would receive early release after the war in return for his cooperation is not clear. However, Luciano did attach at least one condition to his cooperation – namely, that it remain strictly a secret, lest he be subject to retribution after his envisaged deportation back to Sicily after the War (p119). 

Unfortunately for Luciano, however, after the war he was to discover that he was not the only one who wanted his secret agreement with US naval intelligence to remain very much a secret. On the contrary, with Mussolini’s regime now in tatters and the War very much won, it was now naval intelligence themselves who had every incentive to keep their disreputable secret dealings with organized crime elements very much out of newspaper headlines and the public domain, ultimately to the chagrin of Luciano himself. 

Thus, when Luciano’s attorney, the same Moses Polakoff who had played such an instrumental role in arranging the meeting, applied for a grant of clemency and commutation of sentence as recompense for Luciano’s wartime cooperation with the authorities, Naval Intelligence, contacted by the parole board for corroboration of Polakoff’s claims but loathe to admit their dealings with such a notorious figure, denied ever having been in contact with Luciano (p125-6). 

Polakoff did ultimately obtain evidence of his client’s wartime cooperation with the authorities, and, as a result, Luciano was indeed ultimately granted parole, albeit on condition that he not contest his immediate deportation to Italy, from where he was subsequently alleged to have orchestrated the international trade in heroin. 

However, the wartime cooperation between government and organized remained a tightly-guarded secret and it was probably this secrecy, combined with the inevitably leaking of “hints and half revelations” regarding what had occurred, that gave rise to some of the more outlandish claims of Mafia involvement in the invasion of Sicily (p119). 

History vs. True Crime 

Yet, if most true crime authors are indeed rightly to be criticized for the quality of their research, then the fault does not lie entirely with them. It also lies, according to Lacey, with the serious historians and researchers who have neglected this area of American history as somehow beneath them. 

Yet the history of organized crime is by no means a matter of peripheral importance in the history of twentieth century America. On the contrary, organized crime in America has had a substantial impact on America’s social, economic, legal, cultural and even its political history, and to some extent continues to do so to this day.  

Thus, Lacey rebukes his fellow-historians, declaring: 

There is a dire need for objectively analysed data on organized crime, an area which academics have too readily surrendered to the custody of popular entertainment” (p445). 

Gangster or Businessman? 

Unfortunately, however, in exhorting serious historians to research the history of organized crime in America, Lacey could almost be accused of failing to take his own advice, since the subject of his own biography, Meyer Lansky, was, at least in Lacey’s own telling, only really on the fringes of organized crime for most of his adult life.[5]

Indeed, perhaps the most remarkable revelation of Lacey’s biography of the most notorious Jewish gangster of the twentieth century, or perhaps of all-time, is that, for most of his adult life, Lansky apparently genuinely regarded himself as no such thing.

Rather, after youthful dalliances as, first, a shtark or “strong-arm man” and perhaps as a pimp, and then in his early adulthood as a prohibition-era bootlegger, Lansky thenceforth cultivated a respectable, or at least semi-respectable, image.  

In his own self-image, Lansky saw himself, not as a gangster, but rather as a businessman – albeit a businessman whose chosen line of business, namely casino gambling, happened to be unlawful. 

This makes large sections of Lacey’s biography rather less exciting in content than one might expect for a book ostensibly in the sensationalist ‘true crime’ genre of literature. Certainly, any reader who goes in expecting dramatic accounts of gunfights, gang wars and the like is liable to be disappointed.

Gang wars and assassinations occur only in the background, and Lacey discounts any notion that Lansky had any role in ordering such assassinations as those on Albert Anastasia or Bugsy Siegel with which he has sometimes been linked. 

Yet, unlike so many other prohibition-era bootleggers who took advantage of the repeal of prohibition to move into the lawful production and distribution of alcoholic beverages or other lawful business ventures, some of whom would ultimately establish themselves as respectable, and sometimes highly successful businessmen, Lansky never did quite ‘go straight’ (p80). 

Neither did he grasp the other main opportunity to ‘go legit’ that presented itself to him over the course of his career, namely in Las Vegas, Nevada, where casino gambling had been legalized in 1931 (p152). 

Instead, as an organizer of gambling activities, Lansky operated in an illegal and illicit industry. As such he could not turn to the police for protection, and had instead to rely on the muscle provided by organized crime. 

However, Lansky appears to have sought to distance himself from this side of the business, which he contracted out, mostly to Italians, and kept at arm’s length. Nevertheless, in Lacey’s eyes, Lansky ultimately remained ultimately a gangster: 

Ethically and practically, the perceived threat of muscle is the same as muscle itself, and all Meyer’s businesses rested ultimately on that threat” (p170). 

Gambling and Other Victimless Crimes 

In keeping with his (semi-)respectable self-image, Lansky’s casinos were very much respectable institutions – or at least as close to respectable as casinos could be in a jurisdiction where casino gambling was illegal. 

One lesson he had learned in to the crap games of the Lower East Side was that the principal ingredient for long-term gaming success is not flashiness but probity. It is easy to fix a roulette wheel or to rig a game of craps… But such tricks can only yield temporary dividends. The moment that serious players sniff the slightest suspicion that the games are rigged against them, they will go elsewhere, and word spreads very quickly. A crap game or casino can be dead in a matter of hours, and once dead, it stays dead. So, as with his bootlegging, Meyer Lansky found himself in an illegal enterprise where enduring success depended on being honest” (p186). 

In short, in Lansky’s casinos, just like in the crooked ones, the high rollers would ultimately lose their money. But, unlike in the crooked casinos, they would be fleeced fair and square – and hence keep coming back for more. 

Lansky took pride in running a clean operation. For all their illegality, and the sinfulness of gambling, his carpet joints were essentially bourgeois establishments” (p143). 

Indeed, it was Lansky’s reputation for probity that led General Bastista, the then-dictator of pre-revolutionary Cuba, to invite Lansky to take control of the Cuba’s lucrative casino gambling operations so as to ensure that the games were fair and hence counter negative publicity in America that had resulted from the fleecing of American tourists. 

In accordance with his carefully-cultivated semi-respectable image, Lansky naturally sought to distance himself from other, less reputable, criminal activities besides his chosen vocation of gambling. 

Interestingly, this included not only victimful and violent crimes such as robbery and murder, but also other so-called victimless crimes besides gambling itself, such as prostitution and narcotics. Thus, Lacey reports: 

Throughout his adult career, Meyer Lansky was careful to distance himself from the ‘dirty’ crimes⁠—drugs, prostitution” (p159) 

I haven’t ever dealt in narcotics,” Lacey quotes Lansky as telling a journalist “with a mixture of pride and distaste” (p90).

 As for prostitution, not only did Lansky himself not profit from or involve himself in the trade, but he also strictly forbade prostitutes from frequenting and soliciting within his respectable ‘carpet joint’ casinos.[6]

Yet, ironically, Lansky adduces evidence to suggest that Lansky may have begun his criminal career as a pimp.

The evidence is tentative but tantalizing – each of Lansky’s first appearances before the courts related to violent assaults on women, who themselves, Lacey infers from their addresses, likely worked as prostitutes (p42-3). 

In other words, it appears that Lansky’s pimp hand was strong. 

Frank Costello and ‘Street Activities’ 

However, Lacey’s claim that Lansky was not involved in in any other illegal activities besides casino gambling is perhaps brought into doubt by the fact that Lacey also makes a similar claim regarding Lansky’s friend and sometime business partner Frank Costello, claiming that, at least by the 1950s: 

There is no evidence that Frank Costello was involved in street activities like loan-sharking, drug-dealing, or pimping” (p189). 

This, however, in my view, puts the whole matter in some doubt, since, while this claim may indeed be true of Lansky, it cannot be true of Costello, since the latter was, at least according to the orthodox mafia chronology, at this time the ‘boss’ (or, in some versions, merely ‘acting boss’, accounts vary) of what is today known as the Genovese crime family

As boss, Costello probably had no need to directly participate in such activities, and almost certainly didn’t, having no wish to ‘dirty his hands’ or risk implicating himself in such a way. 

However, as boss of an American Mafia family, Costello would automatically be entitled to a cut of profits earned by members or associates of his crime family who did engage in such activities. 

Given that many Genovese family members no doubt did engage is such “street activities” as loan-sharking, and very possibly prostitution and drug-dealing as well, this would mean that Costello did indeed profit from, and hence involve himself, albeit indirectly and at arm’s length, in these activities. 

Lacey’s claim that Costello was wholly uninvolved in such activities is therefore doubtful. 

The Myth of the American Mafia? 

This leads to another topic on which Lacey has an interesting take – namely, the existence and nature of what we today habitually refer to as ‘the American Mafia’. 

A recurrent theme of recent histories of the Mafia, in both its Sicilian incarnation and its American offshoot, is that the Mafia was indeed a real criminal organization, and that those who denied the existence of the Mafia were, at best, naïve and misinformed, but, at worst, corrupt collaborators with, lackeys of and apologists for the Mafia itself. 

This, for example, is a recurrent theme in John Dickie’s history of the Sicilian mafia, Cosa Nostra, as well as its sequels, Blood Brotherhoods and Mafia Republic, where those who claimed that Mafia was not a criminal organization, but rather, in some versions, a mere ‘state of mind’, or ‘attitude of exaggerated individualism and defiance of authority’, come in for repeated condemnation as disingenuous mafia apologists. 

Similarly, in recent histories of the American Mafia, FBI boss J Edgar Hoover invariably comes in for criticism for having long denied the existence of the Mafia during the first half of the twentieth century, before being belatedly forced to change his tune after the much-publicized police raid on the Apalachin meeting of mafia bosses in 1957.[7]

For example, in Selwyn Raab’s long and tedious history of the New York Mafia, Five FamiliesHarry Anslinger, the then-head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, who is today mostly remembered for his hysterically exaggerated claims regarding the malign effects of cannabis, emerges as an unlikely hero, for recognizing the reality of the American Mafia while Hoover himself was still in denial, and not just about his sexuality

Lacey’s position regarding the existence, or non-existence, of the American Mafia is, however, more nuanced than that of most other mafia historians.

Certainly, Lacey does not deny the existence of the American Mafia. On the contrary, he readily acknowledges:

In the course of the last forty years countless law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, have shown that America is riddled with local associations of Italian malefactors. Mafia is as good a name for them as any” (p203). 

However, Lacey does question what exactly we mean by the term Mafia.  

Thus, he argues that, contrary to popular perception, the American Mafia is not a nationally-organized criminal conspiracy, or, as it was popularly termed, a ‘national syndicate’, but rather a combination of many different local criminal conspiracies and syndicates.  

These disparate local criminal structures and networks may share a common culture, a common vocabulary and even a similar structure. For example, they may use similar terms to refer to one another (‘made guy’, ‘associate’, ‘boss’) and have similar or identical initiation rituals to induct new members.[8]

However, the American mafia is not and never was a single organization with a single nationwide hierarchal structure, as it was sometimes imagined as being. 

Thus, Lacy concludes: 

Hoover’s personal position, that the Mafia did not exist, has proved as erroneous as the Kefauver Committee’s belief in a national conspiracy” (p203). 

Defining ‘The Mafia’ 

Ultimately, then, whether the Mafia exists depends on what we mean by the term ‘the Mafia’. 

Indeed, FBI supremo J Edgar Hoover, long infamous for denying the existence of the American Mafia, took advantage of this semantic pedantry to assert that he had been right all along – ‘the Mafia’ did not exist but La Cosa Nostra very much did and indeed suddenly represented a serious nationwide threat (p293). 

This might sound like mere semantics, but it actually had an element of truth. Thus, as early Mafia turncoat Joseph Valachi explained to a disbelieving Senate subcommittee: 

No one who was involved in what outsiders called the Mafia ever actually used the word” (p292).  

Instead, Mafia insiders in America referred, not to the Mafia, but to Cosa Nostra’which has been variously translated into English as either ‘Our thing’ or ‘This Thing of Ours’. 

However, to compound confusion, the FBI then decided to invent a new term of its own coinage – namely, not ‘Cosa Nostra’, but La Cosa Nostra, henceforth abbreviated to LCN in FBI documents (p293). 

Unfortunately, however, this was not only a term never actually used by mafia insiders (nor indeed, as far as I am aware, by anyone else prior to its adoption, or perhaps invention, by the FBI), but also made no grammatical sense whatsoever in the original Italian, translating to roughly ‘The Our Thing’ (Five Families: p136). 

The ironic result, Lacey observes, is that: 

After all the arguments, the FBI dedicated itself to the pursuit of an entity which literally did not exist” (p293). 

The Kefauver Committee and the Myth of the American Mafia 

Why then, in Lacey’s view, have American perceptions of Italian-American organized crime been so skewed and mistaken? 

Lacey places the ultimate blame primarily with the Kefauver committee, a Senate Committee set up to investigate organized crime in America in the 1950s, which, he argues, was responsible for several “fundamental and enduring misconceptions” about American organized crime, in particular the notion that American organized crime was a nationally organized criminal conspiracy (p203).  

Why then did the Kefauver Committee come to reach this strange conclusion, so contrary, at least in Lacey’s telling, to the evidence presented at its own hearings? 

Lacey proposes that the committee was itself institutionally predisposed to such a conclusion: 

As a national, federally constituted body… the committee was predisposed to a singular nationwide explanation” (p203). 

Indeed, not only was the Committee institutionally predisposed to just such a conclusion, it also, Lacey suggests, had a vested interest in depicting American organized crime in this manner. 

The Kefauver committee had no choice but to reach such a conclusion, for if organized crime was not fundamentally a matter of interstate commerce, then what business did an arm of the Senate have lavishing so much time and attention on the subject?” (p203). 

Thus, the Committee’s full title was The United States Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce, and, if interstate commerce were not involved, then organized crime would properly be the province, not of the Senate and Federal government, but rather of individual state governments and legislatures. 

In other words, if the committee had not decided as it did, it would have undermined the very constitutionality of its own remit.

The Commission: Intergovernmental or Federal

Yet, as we have seen, even Hoover was belatedly changed to change his tune with regard to the existence of the Mafia (or, at least, of ‘La Cosa Nostra’) after the Appalachin meeting of gang bosses from across America of 1957. Did not this meeting, and other similar nationwide meetings between organized crime bosses from different parts of the country, prove that the Mafia did indeed exist as a nationwide criminal organization? 

Lacey thinks not. He acknowledges the abundant evidence that, at meetings such as that at Appalachin

Gang leaders [from different parts of the country] might meet from time to time for sit-downs at which they would sort out disputes over territory and common threats” (p66). 

However, Lacey is adamant in maintaining: 

While local groupings of mafiosi can generate quite active links between each other, they do not constitute, and have never constituted, a centrally, almost corporately structured organization such as the one the Kefauver Committee led America to believe existed” (p204). 

Thus, to draw an analogy with international relations, the Mafia’s so-called National Commission, though it certainly existed, seems to been more intergovernmental than federal, let alone unitary or centralized, in its powers, in its powers and structure.[9]

In other words, it is more analogous to the United Nations or League of Nations than to, say, US federal government or even the European Union

Certainly, it had prestige and, in a world of illegitimate activities, even, within criminal circles, a certain perverse perceived ‘legitimacy’.[10]

However, as Stalin is said to have contemptuously remarked of the Pope, it commanded no divisions (nor any ‘crews’, capos or soldiers) of its own.[11]

Boss of Bosses’? 

What then of claims made that a single figure is boss of bosses throughout America? 

Various figures, at various times throughout the twentieth century are said to have attained this position, including, in chronological order Giuseppe MorelloJoe MasseriaSalvatore Maranzano and Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano. Yet, if there was no nationwide organization, then how could there ever be a single nationwide boss of bosses

Thus, some mafia authors have claimed that the very term capo di tutti i capi is a media invention, that has never actually been used by mafiosi themselves, let alone actually existed as a position in America or Sicily. 

Actually, however, the title capo di tutti i capi does not appear to have been entirely a myth. It does indeed appear to have been used by mafia insiders of certain influential figures during the history of twentieth century organized crime in America. 

For example, in his remarkable study of the early history of Italian-American organized crime in America, The First Family, historian Mike Dash reports that the title predates both Masseria and Maranzano and was first bestowed upon Giuseppe Morello at the dawn of the twentieth century. 

However, the meaning accorded by this title may have been rather different than that presumed by many popular historians and true crime writers. 

Thus, while the title capo di tutti i capi may indeed have been periodically claimed by, or bestowed upon, certain especially powerful and influential bosses, such a figure was, a best, first among equals vis a vis the bosses of other families.  

In this light, Lacey describes the differing approaches of, on the one hand, Salvatore Maranzano, and, on the other, Charles Lucky Luciano, when each was said, successively, to have assumed this position.  

Maranzano, Lacey reports, seems to have wanted to “extend his authority beyond the confines of New York City” and become, if not the nationwide head of the America Mafia, then at least “some sort of northeastern ‘boss of bosses’” (p66). 

Thus, like his rival, Joe ‘The Boss’ Masseria before him, Maranzano stood accused of attempting to demand a cut from the profits made by other bosses and crime families operating within New York City in return for his protection

However, Luciano’s intentions were, it seems, more modest. Thus, Lacey quotes Bonanno family boss Joe Bonanno as observing in his self-serving autobiography:  

Luciano… mainly wanted to be left alone to run his enterprises… He was not trying to impose himself on us as had Masseria. Lucky demanded nothing from us” (p66). 

Thus, Lacey concludes: 

The fundamental rule was live and let live – laissez-faire, the unstructured free market principle upon which the country’s legitimate business had long been founded” (p66). 

Luciano was, then, a true American laissez-faire capitalist. 

Mafia Ranks and Hierarchy?

Indeed, according to Lacey, ‘boss of bosses’ is not the only mafia title that has been misinterpreted by authors, senate committees and law enforcement. On the contrary, Lacey argues that the entire hierarchal structure of Cosa Nostra is in fact something of a myth. 

Thus, Lacey argues, just as the Kefauver committee, as a national legislative body, was predisposed to see a nationwide criminal conspiracy, so law enforcement were predisposed to seeing a hierarchical, bureaucratic and semi-military structure analogous to their own.

Thus, Lacey suggests that the hierarchal charts that famously adorn law enforcement walls in movies, television and real-life, and which attribute to Mafiosi such supposed Mafia ranks as ‘soldier’, capoconsigliere and underboss, reflected less real mafia ranks and relationships than they did: 

The bureaucratic and semimilitary cast of thought prevailing in the average police office. Everybody had a rank, and they did little justice to the confused, fluid, and essentially entrepreneurial character of most criminal activity” (p293). 

Thus, describing the criminal organization of Lansky’s ostensible model, and, according to Lacey, “the archetype of what would become known in America as organized crime” (p48), namely Arnold Rothstein, the man who is famed for supposedly fixing the 1919 World Series (even though, according to Lacey, he was not directly involved: p48; p460 n14), Lacey writes: 

The essence of organized crime as perfected by Arnold Rothstein was not structural organization as the conventional world knew it. It was, rather, the absence of structure… This was not the integrated empire of a czar or a JP Morgan. Such comparisons fail to grasp the secrecy and nimbleness necessary to success in in organized crime… Each of Rothstein’s deals was separate, flexible, detached. His protegés and partners might operate individually or together. It was a question of what worked” (p50). 

In short, Lacey concludes: 

The secret of his organization was the lack of it” (p50). 

Like his early mentor, Lansky was to operate the same way: 

True to the example of his Arnold Rothstein, [Lansky’s] organization lay in the absence of structure… He kept the paperwork in his own head” (p54-5). 

What the authorities invariably failed to grasp about the nature of organized crime relationships was that they were based ultimately, not in hierarchy, but in partnership.[12]

Thus, Lacey notes the difficulty that early Mafia turncoat Joe Valachi had in explaining to senators that ‘soldiers’ received no salary from their boss or family, but rather, on the contrary, were expected to pay their boss a cut of what they themselves made (p293).
 
Lacey also notes the difficulty of fitting the non-Italian Lansky into this hierarchical scheme (p292). 

Ostensibly, Lansky, as a non-Italian and hence ineligible for membership, was a mere ‘associate’. However, even Lacey, who argues that Lansky’s power and importance in the American Mafia has been much exaggerated, admits that to describe Lansky as a mere ‘associate’ is not to do him justice.[13]

The Kosher Nostra?

Another mafia myth Lacey purports to debunk is the notion: 

The early thirties saw America’s gangsters became overwhelmingly Italian” (p65). 

In response, Lacey points out: 

This makes no allowance for the flourishing in New York City, throughout this period and beyond, of Dutch Schultz, Lepke Buchalter, Jake ‘Gurrah’ Shapiro, and Benny Seigel… who were responsible for more deaths between them than Lucky Luciano and all the Padrones in the Castellammarese Wars” (p65). 

Actually, however, I suspect this view – namely that “the early thirties saw America’s gangsters became overwhelmingly Italian” – is not so much false, as about five or ten years premature. 

Thus, of the examples of Jewish criminals cited by Lacey in this passage, Schultz was assassinated in 1935, apparently on the orders of Italian organized crime figures who increasingly viewed him as a liability, and Murder Inc, the predominantly Jewish hitmen supposedly responsible for his assassination (and many others), not only took their orders from the Italian Albert Anastasia and the rest of the five families, but were, at any rate, themselves broken up by law enforcement in the early 1940s. 

Siegel, meanwhile, was assassinated in 1947, and, unlike the Italian-American mafia families that survived and flourished over several generations of leadership changes over the course of the twentieth century, the criminal organizations of Schultz and Siegel did not outlive their leaders.[14]

Meanwhile, looking outside of New York, the predominantly Jewish Purple Gang in Detroit imploded through internal warfare in the 1930s. 

Thenceforth, Jews like Lansky operated largely as adjuncts to Italian-American crime syndicates, not independent powers in and of themselves as Schultz and Rothstein had been.  

Only in Las Angeles, with a relatively small Italian-American population, and where the much-maligned Mickey Mouse Mafia was long perceived as weak, were Jewish racketeers like, first, Bugsy Seigel, and, later, Mickey Cohen, able to give the Italians a run for their money into the mid-twentieth century. 

This is a process known to sociologists and criminologists as ethnic succession theory, whereby, over the course of the twentieth century, successive waves of new immigrants replaced previous waves, not only in the urban ghettos where they resided, but also in the organized crime rackets that they successively inherited and came to control.  

Thus, in New York, organized crime was first dominated by the Irish in the nineteenth century, then, around the turn of the century, Jews started to attain dominance. Jews were then displaced by the Italians, who are now themselves now largely giving way to blacks and Latinos

This chronology, of course, represents a gross over-simplification.  

For one thing, the most recent incumbents in this chain of inheritance, namely American blacks, been resident in America rather longer than many of the Anglos, let alone most of the Italians, Irish Catholics and Jews. At most, they were internal migrants, having arrived in norther cities by fleeing the Jim Crow South in a series of so-called Great Migrations over the course of the twentieth century. 

Yet, even when Francis Ianni published Black Mafia: Ethnic Succession in Organized Crime in 1974, he was widely ridiculed for his claim that blacks, together with Latinos, were the rising force in organized crime in America. 

In short, African-American dominance in organized crime has been long in gestation.[15]

For another thing, there have been people of many other ethnicities, besides Irish, Jews, Italians, blacks and Latinos, who have also been involved in organized crime over the course of the twentieth century.[16]

Finally, there has been considerable overlap in the periods of dominance of the different groups, and, of course, substantial geographic variation too, depending on the ethnic groups present in large numbers in any given area.

For example, in New York, the Irish-American Westies remained the dominant organized crime in the Hell’s Kitchen neighbourhood until at least the 1980s, and, in other parts of America (e.g. Boston), Irish-American dominance may have lasted even longer.

As for Jews such as Lansky, their own period of dominance seems to have been especially short-lived if only on account of their exceptional levels of upward social mobility.

Thus, by the mid-twentieth century, Jews were already, one suspects, as likely to be lawyers, doctors and legitimate businessmen as organized crime figures. 

By the late-twentieth century, meanwhile, Jewish organized crime was all but extinct, only to belatedly re-emerge in the 1900s with a new wave of Russian Jewish immigrants to the Brighton Beach area

Las Vegas: A Gambling Oasis in the Desert 

Another Mafia myth debunked by Lacey is the notion that has Bugsy Siegel as the lone visionary single-handedly responsible for constructing the modern Las Vegas amid the Nevada desert. Actually, according to Lacey, Siegel was almost a latecomer:

In reality, Bugsy followed a trail pioneered by quite a few others. When he arrived in Las Vegas in 1941, there was already one luxurious hotel-casino in the desert… and in December 1942 [it] was joined by an even larger and more luxurious development” (p150). 

Indeed, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported as early as 1946: 

“‘I’m going to build a hotel’ was the stock comment of wealthy visitors to Las Vegas in the early months of peace” (p151). 

Instead, Seigel’s role was altogether more modest: 

Seigel did not invent the luxury resort hotel casino. He did not found the Las Vegas Strip. He did not [even] buy the land or first conceive the project that became the Flamingo. But by his death he made them all famous” (158). 

The conclusion is clear. Although Mafia figures certainly later bought, maneuvered and muscled their way in, the Las Vegas we know today, whether we love or hate it, would have come into being even without the involvement of the American Mafia, though its history may have been less colourful and bloody in the process. 

As for Lansky, Siegel’s friend and sometime partner, his own involvement in Las Vegas was, according to Lacey, even more modest. Thus, after the end of prohibition: 

Las Vegas offered the second great chance in [Lansky’s] life to go legit, but he made no special effort to take it” (p152). 

Thus, the extent of Lansky’s own investment in Vegas casinos was modest, and he remained largely a silent partner, with a minimal investment, allowing Siegel and others to take the leading role. 

Cuban Casinos and the Coming of Castro and the Communists 

Instead of investing heavily in Vegas hotel-casinos, Lansky chose to back a different horse – Cuba, constructing the massive, luxurious Havana Riviera hotel-casino in Havana, apparently in imitation of similar resorts in Vegas. 

At the time, and without the benefit of hindsight, Lansky’s investment actually made a great deal of sense. 

The then President-turned-military-dictator of Cuba, Fulgencio Bastista was indeed a visionary leader, being among the earliest Third World leaders to recognise the wealth and inward investment that a growing international tourist industry could bring to a country like Cuba, known for the beauty of its beaches, its women and its climate. 

Unfortunately, however, Cuba’s visionary leader was overthrown by puritanical communists opposed to gambling, as well as to prostitution, sex tourism and other such fun and healthy recreational activities.

Castro and communist Cuba were, of course, to become long-running headaches for the American government. Yet what is often forgotten is that the Cuban revolution was initially favourably received among most American.

Thus, on a visit to America soon after coming to power: 

In New York… Fidel Castro arrived in April 1959 to a hero’s welcome… The young guerrilla leader, charismatic in his beard and fatigues, was hailed as a liberator in the finest Latin American tradition – another Bolívar” (p253) 

The one thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history. American liberals are no exception.

Thus, just as a previous generation of American journalists such as John Reed and Walter Duranty had hailed the Bolshevik revolution, so later generations to hail Mugabe and the so-called Arab Spring as ‘progressive’ liberators. 

In respect of Cuba, among the first to see the writing on the wall was Lansky himself, perhaps because, unlike most Americans, he was present on the ground in Cuba attempting in vain to protect his investment and business interests. He could hardly afford to be as naïve and deluded as his fellow countrymen regarding the true nature of the new regime. 

Thus, it was that Lansky reluctantly took it upon himself to explain the truth about the new Cuban regime to the US government. The representatives of the US government to whom Lansky delivered his carefully prepared presentation were two FBI agents whom his lawyer had arranged for him to meet in the latter’s office. 

The agents were impressed with Lansky’s presentation. However, predictably, the government took no notice. Although the copious notes made by the FBI agents present were added to Lansky’s FBI file, there is, Lacey reports, no evidence they were ever passed to the State Department or indeed anyone involved in formulating US foreign policy. 

Lansky nefarious reputation simply overshadowed the substantive content of his presentation “such that anyone who accepted what he said at face value risked being labelled tainted or naive” (p256) – and it was one thing to be naïve about Castro and the Cuban communists, quite another to be naïve regarding infamous Jewish-American crime figure Meyer Lansky. 

Lansky was, however, ultimately proven right: 

Subsequent events in Cuba suggested that the FBI might have paid more attention to what Meyer Lansky said… The records of the FBI’s meeting… show with rare clarity, that Meyer Lansky predicted almost exactly what was going to happen in Cuba the best part of a Year before it did” (p256). 

 
Of course, the main victims of the Castro and Cuban communism were the Cubans themselves, condemned to a half-century or more of poverty by the misguided socialism of the ruling regime. Another lesser victim was, however, Lansky himself. 

Thus, Lansky, the consummate gambler, had, in the greatest investment of his life, backed a losing horse. 

Meyer Lansky had staked his personal bankroll solidly on the success of the Riviera – to the exclusion of almost everything else. His spectacular casino-hotel was to be the culmination – and ultimate vindication – of his career… Meyer Lansky had invested much more than his money in the Havana Riviera. He invested himself. He gambled everything – and, as he later put it, ‘I crapped out’” (p257-8). 

Financial Genius? 

Lansky has sometimes been described as the accountant for the Mob’. In reality, ‘The Mob’, as a whole, not being a single homogenous entity, had no single accountant, and, if it did, they would probably have picked someone who was, well… an accountant. 

Thus, Lacey observes: 

The fantasies that depicted Meyer Lansky as the ‘Accountant of the Mob’ misrepresented organized crime as a corporate entity, and they also failed to take note of how much money the accountant in any deal tends to finish up with in real life… The owner of chief executive of a corporation may become a millionaire. The chief financial officer remains on a salary” (p405). 

Another familiar claim is that Lansky was the financial genius behind the Mafia

However, while it is sometimes claimed that Lansky himself was responsible for inventing the process that became known as money laundering, Lacey shows that there is not support for this claim (p304-5).

On the contrary, in laundering his own money, Lansky had his own financial “guru” who advised him on financial affairs and how to invest, namely one Paul Pullman (p306).

The latter, Lacey reports, then fatefully introduced Lansky to his boss, Tibor Rosenbaum – who, investing in a property development in Italy, but bribing the wrong set of corrupt politicians who promptly lost office, managed to lose the entirety of Lansky’s investment. Lacey concludes: 

This episode scarcely suggested that Meyer Lansky could be considered an infallible guide when it came to the dangers and complexities of international high finance” (p309). 

Making money in illegitimate ventures is always easier than making money legitimately, if only because the risk of arrest deters much of the competition, and the threat of violence deters most of the remainder. 

Lansky is therefore skeptical of the oft-repeated claim that, in the words of an unnamed FBI agent quoted in Lansky’s New York Times obituary: 

He [Lansky] would have been chairman of the board of General Motors if he’d gone into legitimate business” (p423). 

Indeed, according to Lacey, Lansky himself “ruefully remarked… more than once” that he had an “unerring ability… to lose money whenever he went legit” (p296). 

In his better moments Meyer managed to laugh at his atrocious sense of timing as a businessman… the millions lost in Cuba, his inability to take legal advantage of Las Vegas, the Bahamas, Atlantic City, or anywhere else that his own game of casino gambling became legal in his later years” (p430). 

Therefore, reviewing the failure of Lansky and his partners’ attempt to make money from a legitimate TV rental business, Lacey concludes: 

The television adventures of Meyer Lansky and his fellow czars of the underworld showed what sort of businessmen they were when the playing field is level” (p172).

This is perhaps unfair. It is a feature even of the careers of many successful entrepreneurs that their careers involve as many failures as successes, especially when they stray outside their main area of business. Successful entrepreneurs tend to be risk-takers, and risks, by their very nature, only sometimes pay off. Their success often seems as much a consequence of perseverance in the face of failure (and of luck) as of pure business acumen. 

Thus, Lansky does seem to have been successful in Cuba, and, to a lesser extent, in Vegas, where casino gambling had been legalized.

However, in Vegas, Meyer had Mafia might behind him, and, in Cuba, Batista’s regime may have provided the muscle necessary to secure Lansky’s monopoly even more effectively than did the Mafia. 

Family 

Some reviewers of Lacey’s book on amazon and goodreads have accused Lacey of producing a whitewash, a biography absolving Lansky of almost all the nefarious, criminal activities of which he has been accused and altogether too favourable to its subject. 

In fact, however, this is only half the story. Although Lacey does indeed suggest that Lansky was not nearly as dangerous, powerful and malign as he has been made out to be in other popular accounts, he also reduces Lansky to a rather marginal, insignificant figure in the history of American organized crime. 

If, in Lacey’s account, Lansky loses much of his power, glamour and mystique, he acquires in its place perhaps a certain sympathy. 

If Lansky’s business and criminal career seem to have been hardly the unmitigated success story made out by the popular press and true crime authors, his family life, in comparison, seems to have been virtually an unmitigated disaster. 

There was, Lacey reports, no grand romantic affairs. Any extra-marital affairs were conducted by Lansky with the same secrecy and discretion as that with which he couched his business affairs (p129). 

Lansky’s first wife succumbed to mental illness. Lacey, perhaps unfairly, blames this on Lansky himself, arguing that it was Lansky’s obsessive secrecy regarding his business affairs (necessitated, no doubt, by their criminal nature) that led to his wife’s breakdown. 

Lansky’s first son, Buddy, who seems to have been a primary source for Lacey’s biography, was born with a crippling physical disability and, as a result, never managed to live independently, being supported by his father throughout the latter’s life, and later by charity and the state, before dying in poverty. 

Given his disability, Buddy’s inability to live an independent life was perhaps excusable.  However, no such excuse was available to Lansky’s daughter who, after a short, unsuccessful marriage to a closeted homosexual, and an illegitimate child of unknown paternity who was so handicapped he ultimately had to be institutionalized, became something of a socialite, again on her father’s dime (p268). 

However, showing little gratitude to the father who funded her extravagant lifestyle, she also became an FBI informant against him, albeit providing little of real evidential value if only because of the secrecy with which Lansky hid his business affairs from his family (p269).[17]

Her ultimate betrayal, however, came only after her father’s death when, after her father’s underworld associates had got together to provide her and her disabled brother with a lump sum of $300,000 as a legacy to help them get by, she promptly embezzled the share of her by now severely debilitated disabled brother. 

Only Lansky’s second son, Paul, was something of a success and source of pride to his father, graduating from West Point and having a successful career in the military and then in civilian life. 

He disdained the lifestyle of both his father and his brother, being law-abiding, proudly independent and refusing any gifts from his father, but defiantly insisting on naming his own son Meyer Lansky II. 

He seems, therefore, to have inherited something of his father’s obsessive scrupulousness. 

Unfortunately, this personality trait may also have been implicated in his marital breakdown when it was discovered that, at the same time the FBI spying on and recording the phone calls of Lansky and possibly Paul himself, Paul himself was surreptitiously using expensive surveillance equipment to spy on and record his own family (p353-4). 

When the Honeymoon Was Over 

Lansky’s second marriage seems to have been more successful. However, his children from his first marriage naturally resented their father’s new wife, regarding her as “crude… loud and flashy”, but also stingy and cheap – in short, though Lacey never actually says this, stereotypically Jewish (p277). 

Her adult son, now Lansky’s stepson, caused both parents no little headache. Now relishing and trading on his new status as the ‘son’ of Meyer Lansky, he was ultimately murdered in apparent retaliation for himself killing the (actual biological) son of local Miami underworld figure in a barroom brawl (p394-5). 

Meyer’s second marriage also led to what was, at least in Lacey’s telling, perhaps the greatest mistake of Lansky’s long criminal career. This was his decision to take his new bride on an ostentatious new honeymoon, which was reported on by a reported from the New York Sun

As with the fictionalized Frank Lucas in the movie, American Gangster, who, at least in the film version, attracted law enforcement attention by attending a Muhammed Ali fight dressed in an expensive fur coat and occupying front-row seats, Lansky had made the fatal mistake of engaging in conspicuous consumption to impress his new wife. 

For whatever reason… Meyer had broken the cardinal rule that he had laid down to Vinnie Mercurio: ‘You must not advertise your wealth’” (p176). 

Previously, Lansky had had little problem complying with this advice. After all, Lacey reports: 

Meyer had genuintly sober tastes… [and] indulged none of the extravagance which characterized many… ‘hoodlums’” (p285-7). 

Unfortunately, however, this one extravagance was the beginning of the end for Lansky’s anonymity. Until that honeymoon, Lacey reports: 

Lansky’s name had only been mentioned, almost in passing, in occasional articles lists New York racketeers and gangsters… usually as an associate, and, by implication, something of a sidekick to underworld stars like Luciano and Bugsy Siegel. But with his appearance on the front page of the New York Sun and his first ever newspaper photograph, Lansky was starting on the path to becoming an underworld star in his own right” (p176). 

The price of fame, however, was a heavy burden to pay. While Lacey also suggests that Lansky sometimes rather relished his media infamy and reputation as a major mafia mogul, the negative consequences of his reputation surely, in the long-term, far outweighed any superficial boost to his ego. 

The result was endless years of law enforcement harassment and failed prosecutions, even as Lansky entered his dotage, finally culminating when even the Israeli government, despite its infamously broad, and overtly racially discriminatory, law of return, rejected his application for citizenship. 

Mafia Millions? 

Hank Messick, who launched a literary career out of mythologizing Lansky, described the diminutive Lansky as: 

Boss of the Eastern Syndicate and probably the biggest man in organized crime today” (quoted: p311).

In the course of the same article, he claimed: 

Lansky’s wealth is reliably estimated at $300 million” (quoted: p311). 
 

However, after the millions lost in Cuba, Lacey himself estimates Lansky’s wealth rather more modestly: 

Meyer would have had a hard job listing realizable assets and cash resources that stretched as far as $3 million” (p312). 

Indeed, even Messick himself later backed away from the figure he had earlier cited, insisting, in an interview conducted with Lacey: 

It was not my figure. It came from an expert who was supposed to know what he was talking about” (p311).[18]

For his part, Lansky himself affected to envy Messick the money the later made out of writing about him, on the one occasion they actually met remarking, “You ought to pay me half the money that you’ve made writing about me” (p315).

As for the claim, “We’re bigger than US Steel” – a quotation so famous it got into the script for The Godfather II – Lacey traces the origin of this quote to an FBI bug.

Lansky was, it seems, watching “a documentary… on organized crime, followed by a discussion among a studio panel of experts” (284). 

Meyer sat in silence… until one of the panellists ‘referred to organized crime as only being second in size only to the government itself’. Lansky remarked to his wife that organized crime was bigger than US Steel” (p284). 

The transcript was all that remained, the tapes having been recorded over and this transcript “shows that the agent chose to paraphrase” (p284).

Yet the context of the remark seems to suggest it was made sarcastically and in disbelief, and certainly concerned organized crime as a whole rather than Lansky’s, or even the Mafia’s, own operations alone. However, Lacey reports: 

By the time that Lansky’s comment was made public five years later… it had also been subtly altered: ‘We’re bigger than US Steel’” (p294). 

Antisemitism? 

For his part, Lansky himself tended to blame the law enforcement harassment and media attention that he received on antisemitism. 

Indeed, anti-Semitism seems to have been something to which Lansky was hypersensitive, perhaps even paranoid, having something of a persecution complex.[19]

Indeed, Lacey even interprets Lansky as blaming the Israeli Supreme Court’s refusal to allow his appeal against the decision not to grant him amnesty as evidence of antisemitism, Lansky being quoted in a newspaper in Israel as lamenting ruefully after his courtroom defeat “a Jew has a slim chance in the world” (p351). 

In this court case, even Lansky’s relative lack of serious criminal convictions was perversely turned against him, being cited as evidence of his power and hence untouchability, the state attorney arguing that: 

The slight and comparatively trivial nature of Meyer Lansky’s criminal record… was no indication of his innocent, argued the state attorney. On the contrary, it confirmed his guilt, since it was in the nature of US organized crime that those who were masterminds of criminal activity should insulate themselves from its practical execution. This meant that they were seldom caught, and, when brought to justice, tended to escape conviction. It followed, therefore, that those who were the most culpable usually had the fewest convictions – so the very lack of solid evidence against Meyer Lansky must, in fact, be considered the strongest possible evidence against him” (p343-4).[20]

Certainly, the popular image of Lansky, as a shadowy and sinister criminal mastermind, dominating organized crime from behind the scenes, is indeed disturbingly redolent of familiar antisemitic canards: 

Often hinted at, if seldom explicitly stated, Meyer Lansky’s Jewishness was an important part of his mystique” (p313). 

Interestingly, Lacey even posits Lansky as the ultimate prototype for the archetypical Bond villain

Unprepossessing little men, for the most part, they terrorized with the power of their minds… and to judge from their names, could never be mistaken for WASPsBlofeld, Stromberg, Dr Julius, Drax” (p313).[21]

Criminal Mastermind? 

If he was not then as rich and powerful as the popular imagination suggested, was Lansky indeed then the evil genius and criminal mastermind that he was so often credited as being? 

Certainly, Lansky seems to have been good with figures. His cellmate during his only substantial spell of incarceration recalls how, presumably to relieve the boredom of incarceration, Lansky would demonstrate his remarkable speed and accuracy at arithmetic (p209). 

Lansky also, Lacey reports, had a remarkable memory, which facilitated the expedient of not having to write anything down where it could be used as evidence against him. 

In a world without filing cabinets, Meyer Lansky’s genius [was] the ability to act as a human cash register and ledger book in the succession of shifting partnerships and deals” (p53). 

However, having a good head for figures and a good memory is hardly evidence of genius. Many people employed as bookmakers, for example, develop quick computation skills, and likewise rote-memory is not an especially g-loaded cognitive ability. 

Certainly, his criminal associates tended to be overawed by Lansky’s alleged intellect. 

However, someone else who got to known Lansky well, concluded that, though “reasonably sharp and quick-witted” (p327), Lansky “was not intelligent” (p339).

This was the opinion, perhaps tellingly, not of a criminal, but of a lawyer.

Perhaps then Lansky was regarded as an intellectual heavyweight only by dint of comparison with the company he kept. 

Thus, Lacey, a Cambridge-educated historian, notes with subtle but unmistakable intellectual snobbery the amazement of Lansky’s fellow criminals, Bugsy Seigel and Joe Adonis: 

Can you believe it? He’s even a member of the Book-of-the-Month Club” (p4). 

Daniel Seligman in his popular science book, A Question of Intelligence, notes that John Gotti, later to become a particularly infamous boss of the powerful New York-based Gambino crime family, when given an IQ test while still at school, had “tested at 110”. 

Since IQs are normed by reference to an average score of 100, with a standard deviation of about 15 points, a score of 110 is above average, but well within the normal range. Therefore, Seligman concludes: 

“[Since] criminals tend to have IQs clustered around 90, in a sense, then, you can think of Gotti’s rise to mob stardom as basically concordant with the general rule that smart people get to the top” ( A Question of Intelligence: p35).[22]

In general, criminals tend to have low IQs because ultimately crime, even serious organized crime, is not an especially smart career choice in the long-term, especially for someone with sufficient smarts to be successful in an alternative career where s/he does not run the risk of imprisonment.[23]

Thus, ultimately, Lansky’s refusal to ‘go straight’ either at the end of prohibition or in Vegas with its legalized gambling turned out to be his greatest mistake – since it was, ironically, those organized crime figures who didgo legit’ who ultimately amassed the sort of wealth and power which Lansky himself possessed only in the imaginings of those ‘pulp nonfiction’ writers whom Lacey so disparages. Thus, Lacey reports the irony whereby:

In reality, Dutch Schultz, Benny Siegel, Joe Adonis, Frank Costello, and Lucky Luciano all died without much money to their names. The millionaires of their generation were Moe Dalitz, Morris Klienman, and the other moguls of Las Vegas – the truly clever ones who went straight” (p405).  

Endnotes

[1] Carlos Marcello, the boss of the New Orleans crime family, most famous for his supposed role in the assassination of John F Kennedy, was the only major American organized crime figure, to my knowledge, widely known by the sobriquet ‘The Little Man’.

[2] Indeed, such is the quality and accuracy of some research and writing in this genre that, as with the word ‘true’ in the genre ‘true crime’, one might argue that the phrase ‘pulp nonfiction’ is inaccurate in so far as it implies that the content of such work is indeed anything other than fictional. Books outside the ‘true crime’ genre that might also qualify as ‘pulp nonfiction’ include conspiracy theory books and many celebrity biographies.

[3] While the role of Luciano and the American Mafia in the invasion of Sicily may be a myth, it does seem to be true that many figures associated with the Sicilian Mafia did take advantage of the American invasion by offering themselves up as translators and aides to the American invaders. Also, some Sicilian Mafiosi, imprisoned by the authorities during the fascist regime’s campaign to crush the Mafia for their Mafia associations and activities, seemingly succeeded in passing themselves off as anti-fascists, imprisoned instead for anti-fascist activities. In so doing, they managed to secure influential appointments as mayors in some Sicilian towns and villages. This alliance between Mafia and America was later institutionalized when the Southern Italian mafias found themselves elevated in American eyes to the lesser of two evils in an unholy alliance against the perceived communist threat in Italy during the Cold War. Here, again, however, exaggerated conspiracy theories abound, especially regarding Operation Gladio and the supposed culpability of the CIA for terrorist attacks during Italy’s Years of Lead

[4] Some true crime writers have even proposed that the Mafia themselves deliberately set the vessel afire in order to force the authorities to approach the imprisoned Luciano and hence enable to him offer his assistance in return for early release. However, the idea that Mafia figures would have anticipated that a fire onboard the vessel would somehow lead to the government making contact and conducting negotiations with the organized crime figures who controlled the docks, something that would have appeared beforehand to be an obviously improbable scenario (even if something similar did indeed ultimately come to pass), is obviously preposterous.

[5] In Lacey’s defence, it seems that he only became aware of just how marginal Lansky was to organized crime in America for most of the twentieth century as he researched his biography. Before undertaking his research, he had apparently believed the hype.

[6] The term ‘carpet joint’, refers to a relatively upmarket casino, though without glamour of later Vegas casinos, and is used to distinguished such an establishment from a less pretentious ‘sawdust joint’.

[7] Various conspiracy theories have been formulated to explain Hoover’s refusal in investigate the Mafia, usually involving either gambling debts owed to Mafia bookies or the Mafia supposedly having dirt regarding Hoover’s alleged homosexuality (see Potter 2006 Queer Hoover: Sex, Lies, and Political History Journal of the History of Sexuality 15(3): 355-381). Indeed, some versions even have Lansky himself possessing incriminating photographs of Lansky engaged in homosexual activities, Lansky being quoted as bragging, I fixed that sonofabitch.
More prosaically, and perhaps more realistically, it is suggested that Hoover simply did not want his FBI agents to become corrupted by mafia bribes, as he rightly feared would result from their investigating non-political profit-oriented organized crime. Thus, Selwyn Raab writes: 

Hoover’s reluctance to seriously challenge the Mafia stemmed from three main factors, according to former FBI agents and criminal-justice researchers. First was his distaste for long, frustrating investigations that more often than not would end with limited success. Second was his concern that mobsters had the money to corrupt agents and undermine the bureau’s impeccable reputation. And third, Hoover was aware that the Mob’s growing financial and political strength could buy off susceptible congressmen and senators who might trim his budget” (Five Families: p89).  

At any rate, since, at least according to Lacey, the American Mafia, far from being a nationwide conspiracy, is predominantly organized at the local level, one might question whether organized crime is indeed within the remit of a federal law enforcement authority, though no doubt some Mafia crimes did indeed cross state boundaries. 

[8] However, even these similarities may be exaggerated. For example, bemoaning law enforcement’s overreliance on (and overgeneralization from) what they were told by a few relatively low-level informants like Joe Valachi, who knew little, at first hand, about crime elsewhere, Lacey observes observes that:

Valachi was only a comparatively minor figure in one subgroup of New York Italian criminals. The strength of his testimony was that he had had firsthand experience of life in this group. His weakness was that he knew little, at first hand, about crime elsewhere – in Chicago, for example, Capone’s successors talked neither of ‘Cosa Nostra’ or ‘Mafia’, but of ‘The Outfit” (p292). 

Indeed, the Chicago Outfit, founded by predominantly non-Sicilian Italian-Americans like Big Jim Colosimo, Johnny Torrio and Capone, was initially a very different beast to the five families of the New York Metropolitan area. Initially, at least, it was said to have lacked the initiation rituals of the New York families altogether.

[9] Indeed, the so-called National Commission, not only existed, but may have been rather older than it is usually credited as having been. Its origins are usually traced, in most Mafia histories, to the end of the Castellammarese War in 1931, under either Maranzano or Luciano, though the idea for a National Commission is sometimes attributed to Johnny Torrio or sometimes even Lansky himself. However, in his remarkable book The First Family: Terror, Extortion, Revenge, Murder, and the Birth of the American Mafia, historian Mike Dash adduces evidence that the commission, under the name ‘the Council’ actually existed almost twenty years earlier, being established, he concludes “some time before 1909”.

[10] The use of the term ‘legitimacy’ may seem exaggerated, but this is exactly how mafiosi saw it. Thus, in FBI agent Joe Pistone’s account of his work as an undercover agent posing as an associate in the Bonnano crime family, Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia, when fellow undercover agent Edgar Robb (alias Tony Rossi) enquires as to what is precisely the advantage of being ‘straightened out’ to become a ‘made guy’ or ‘wiseguy’ (i.e. a member of the mafia), their sponsor Benjamin ‘Lefty’ Ruggiero explodes:

Donnie, don’t you tell this guy nothing? Tony, as a wiseguy, you can lie, you can cheat, you can steal, you can kill people—legitimately. You can do any goddamn thing you want and nobody can say anything about it. Who wouldn’t want to be a wiseguy?” (Donnie Brasco: p360)

[11] Thus, whatever its pretensions and theoretical powers, the National Commission, rather like the United Nations or earlier League of Nations, possesses no monopoly on the use of force, quite the contrary, and is therefore obliged to rely for enforcement of its edicts on the cooperation of its constituent members (i.e. individual crime families).
Another way of putting this is to say that crime families, like nation states, exist, vis a vis one another in a Hobbesian ‘state of nature, without a central authority, sovereign or ‘leviathan’ exercising a monopoly on the use of force.
Of course, in respect of crime families, this analysis is complicated by the fact that, of course, the American government does exist and, at least in theory, does claim a monopoly on the use of force. However, it is, of course, the fact that this ostensible monopoly on the use of force is, in practice, far from absolute, that allows organized crime syndicates and other violent criminal enterprises to survive and flourish.

[12] Indeed, even protection rackets offer a form of partnership, the extortioner offering protection, not just from himself but also from other extortionists, in exchange for a fee or cut of the profits. However, perhaps the better analogy here would be with the concept of tribute and fealty which governed the relationships between different ranks of rulers under feudalism. On this view, the so-called mafia operates as a sort of shadow government, which provides services, especially the maintenance of order, in return for taxes (or protection money). 

[13] Of course, there is today ample evidence, in the form of both turncoat testimony and wiretap recordings, of mafiosi themselves using such terms as ‘soldier’, ‘capo’, ‘consigliere’ and ‘underboss’ to refer to one another. Perhaps, however, this was a later development, or even a case of life imitating art, as mafiosi, themselves often avid viewers of mafia films, themselves adopted the terminology used first by the police and then later in movies. At any rate, it is clear that terms such as soldier and boss had very different meanings for mafiosi than for senators.

[14] Interestingly, even before his assassination, Schultz had taken the step of converting to Catholicism, something interpreted by many biographers and mafia historians as an attempt to ingratiate himself with Italian-American mafiosi, especially Luciano, who were already coming to dominate organized crime in the city. This decision may then have reflected a recognition on Schultz’s part of the changing demographics and ethnic power balance in New York organized crime. 

[15] Others have argued that African-American organized crime has existed since the early-twentieth century, but, for whatever reason, has attracted less attention and publicity (e.g. Lombardo 2002 The Black Mafia: African-American organized crime in Chicago 1890–1960 Crime, Law and Social Change 38: 33–65 ). This seems to be true. However, until the last few decades of the twentieth century, African-American organized crime groups and figures seem to have been, in general, relatively less powerful, wealthy and politically-connected than equivalents of other ethnicities. 

[16] For example, the so-called Dixie Mafia in the South were composed of white Southerners. Meanwhile, even in, for example, Chicago, where ethnic succession theory seems to be broadly applicable, Murray Humphries of the Chicago outfit was of Welsh descent, and George ’Bugs’ Moran of the rival North-Side Gang was apparently of French-Canadian ancestry.
It might be noted here that surnames are not an accurate indicator of the ethnicity of American crime figures, many organized crime figures not so much ‘anglicizing’ their names as, if you like, Irish-izing them. Thus, just as George ’Bugs’ Moran had been born Adelard Leo Cunin, but adopted the Irish-sounding surname Moran, so Paul Kelly, leader of the infamous early-twentieth century Five Points Gang, though possessing the quintessentially Irish surname of Kelly, was actually born, Paolo Antonio Vaccarelli; while, Jack McGurn, the ostensible choreographer of the St Valentine’s Day Massacre, had been born Vincenzo Antonio Gibaldi – both Kelly and Mcgurn supposedly first adopting Irish names to further their boxing careers. Frank Costello, born Francesco Castiglia, confused this pattern somewhat by choosing an Irish surname that nevertheless actually sounds more Italian than Irish

[17] According to her FBI handlers, she blamed her father for having her mother committed in order to marry his second wife, something that was untrue, but which, Lacey suggests, given her age at the time, she might have been forgiven for believing (p269-70).

[18] Lacey responds rather incredulously, “It is difficult to imagine who this expert could have been” (p311), and concludes “It is impossible to square the figure with anything that is known or can reasonably be imagined about the finances of Meyer Lansky” (p312). 

[19] For example, in a private conversation with the eponymous Estes Kefauver (of Kefauver Committee fame) where he challenged Kefauver as to why he and his committee were so concerned about the victimless crime of gambling, even though Kefauver himself was known to gamble, and Kefauver responded that he had no problem with gambling as such, but only with “you people” controlling it, Lansky chose to interpret that phrase “you people” as a racial remark, and retorted “I will not allow you to persecute me because I am a Jew” – even though, at least according to Lacey, by “you people” Kefauver almost certainly meant, not Jews (nor Italians), but rather criminals. Of course, the reason criminals control so much of the gambling in the USA is precisely because so many forms of gambling are illegal in puritanical America.

[20] One Israeli law student, who became a friend and champion of Lansky, one Yuram Sheftel (who seems to be the same Yuram Sheftel who later represented the convicted murderer of an Israeli Prime Minister and a Ukrainian-American falsely accused of being a succession of different Nazi war criminals) had advocated a different, more innovative, legal argument on Lansky’s behalf. Sheftel, who organized a petition on Lansky’s behalf, readily conceded that Lansky might have been a powerful American gangster, but maintained: 

Jewish gangsters like Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, Waxey Gordon, Doc Stacher – even Lepke Buchalter, a convicted murderer – might have broken the law. But that law, in Sheftel’s eyes, was the law of ‘white Christian countries… based on Christianity, which is the most anti-Semitic phenomenon in history’. ‘I don’t see anything wrong,’ says Sheftel, ‘with a Jewish person breaking the law of countries which were persecuting, murdering, torturing, and discriminating against Jews for the past two thousand years” (p335). 

This argument is odd given both that Jews have thrived and prospered in the USA and other Christian countries and that America has given more aid to Israel than any other country in the world.

[21] Indeed, in the hands of professional anti-Semite David Duke, this unspoken anti-Semitic subtext becomes explicit, Duke claiming in his book My Awakening that, although Italian-American gangsters took most of the heat, it was Jews who were really to blame for the American Mafia, and Lansky himself who who was the worst of the bunch: 

The top law enforcement sources and investigative reporters agreed that Lansky was the master gangster in America. He had been the most powerful person in the American crime syndicates for four decades, yet most Americans – who certainly know the names Al Capone and John Dillinger – have never heard of Meyer Lansky. The most notorious gangster was not Italian; he was in fact Jewish and an ardent supporter of Zionism” (Duke, My Awakening). 

Actually, however, far from Jewish gangsters being the real powers behind the scenes, with Italian criminals merely representing the window dressing, the truth seems to have been, for a long time, almost the exact opposite of this. Thus, in the mid-twentieth century, at the Central Intelligence Bureau, Selwyn Raab reports: 

The consensus among the department’s brass was that Jewish bookmakers were raking in the big bucks as organized crime’s most productive money makers. [NYPD detective Remo] Franceschini got nowhere trying to convince officials that major bookies were not independent and could only operate with the acquiescence of one of the five families” (Five Families: 158). 

On the other hand, Hollywood does indeed seem to have largely ignored the phenomenon of Jewish-American organized crime in the movies. This probably reflects the fact that many Hollywood producers and executives were themselves Jewish and had no wish to feed into familiar antisemitic stereotypes of Jews as dishonest or criminal.
Thus, Italian-American organized crime has featured particularly prominently in Hollywood movies, especially from the middle of the twentieth century onwards. Black crime and Irish American organized crime have also hardly been neglected. However, there are few movies focussing specifically on Jewish-American organized crime, Sergio Leone’s masterful Once Upon a Time in America being a notable exception.
This trend began at the same time the genre itself began in the 1930s with the Warner Brothers gangster cycle. Here, Edward G Robinson made a career for himself playing Italian gangsters, while James Cagney’s characters, although their ethnicity was less explicit, are usually interpreted as being Irish-American. Neither were exactly what they pretended to be. Although Cagney was indeed of predominantly Irish ancestry, he was no archetypal tough guy, but rather a dancer and former female impersonator, and also spoke fluent Yiddish. Robinson, on the other hand, was actually of Jewish ancestry, the ‘G’ initial in his name supposedly standing for his original surname of ‘Goldenberg’. Robinson therefore disguised his Jewish origins by adopting an ‘Anglo’ surname, ironically so as to pursue a career mostly portraying Italians. 

[22] In fact, however, John Gotti, despite his notoriety (or indeed because of it), was a rather inept and unsuccessful crime boss. After all, genuinely smart criminals rarely court publicity as did the infamous ‘Dapper Don’. This only invites law enforcement attention, as John Gotti, like Capone before him, was subsequently to discover. Instead, smart criminals try to keep as low a profile as possible.
An interesting counterpoint to Gotti is his contemporary Vincent ‘The Chin’ Gigante, who reigned as boss of the Genovese family around the same time as Gotti was boss of the Gambinos. Yet, while Gotti invited media attention, Gigante shunned the spotlight, faking mental illness so successfully that he was, at first, genuinely believed by most law enforcement to be largely retired and inactive rather than boss of the most powerful crime family in America.
Interestingly, however, Gigante himself was intellectual heavyweight. According to his biographer, Larry McShane, Gigante had a “recorded IQ just north of 100  a slightly above average score” (Chin: The Life and Crimes of Mafia Boss Vincent Gigante: p6).
Here, it is worth noting that offenders, upon conviction and admission to prison, if not before then so as to present a psychological report in court before sentencing or even before trial, are often given a battery of psychological tests, including of cognitive ability. IQs for convicted criminals are therefore often rather more credible than those cited in respect of celebrities or other public figures.
However, criminals may sometimes deliberately get questions wrong on an IQ test in order to qualify for mitigation of sentence, especially in order to evade the death penalty. Assuming Gigante’s IQ was tested in these circumstances, it is possible he may have faked a low IQ score in order to lend credence to his courtroom defence, whereby his lawyers insisted that he was suffering from dementia. However, if he did, he obviously did not fake dementia very well, given that his score was, according to McShane, slightly above average.

[23] The claim that criminals tend to have low levels of intelligence, as claimed by Seligman, is based largely on the testing of convicted offenders in prisons. An obvious rejoinder is that it is disproportionately the dumber criminals who are successfully convicted. In contrast, one might argue, the smart criminals tend to avoid being successfully prosecuted and thus are less likely to ever see the inside of a prison cell in the first place. However, it is generally agreed that there is nevertheless some correlation between criminal behaviours and IQs in the low normal range.

One thought on “Meyer and the Myth of the American Mafia – Cutting Lansky Down to Size 

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