The gangland father of Las Vegas comes in for a fresh appraisal.
Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel (1906-1947) is the first gangster to be included in the Jewish Lives series, now more than 50 titles strong. As Vanity Fair contributing editor Shnayerson notes, Siegel had the “dubious distinction” of representing four broad classes of criminality: bootlegger, racketeer, gambler, and murderer. His career began in the tenements of New York, where some of the children of immigrant Jews pulled away from traditions and formed gangs. Siegel was an enforcer, shaking down street vendors for protection money. As he entered adulthood, he and fellow kid gangster Meyer Lansky aligned with Sicilian immigrant Lucky Luciano to form an underworld army. “The Syndicate, as it became known,” writes the author, “would be American in the truest sense: an amalgam of immigrants making their way in the New World,” helmed and staffed by people practicing capitalism in its purest form. Smart and good looking, Siegel took his criminal gains to Hollywood, becoming a celebrity, “Gatsby with a penchant to kill.” He also had a grand vision: Jews were frozen out of Reno, where gambling was legal, but the Las Vegas of the 1930s was wide open, and he foresaw a time when casinos on the Monte Carlo model would lure visitors from all over the world. Building one such casino, the Flamingo, eventually brought him afoul of Luciano and the Syndicate, for construction costs ballooned, with much of the difference skimmed. Even when the Flamingo began to turn a profit thanks to busy tables and acts like Lena Horne and the Andrews Sisters, the heat didn’t get turned down. Siegel was infamously gunned down at home. The author’s theory about the killer’s identity is novel but perfectly plausible—and in any event, “Ben Siegel’s imprint on Vegas grows with each next brand-new super resort.”
A highly readable, fast-moving contribution to the annals of 20th-century organized crime.