“I told little Benny that he could be my number two…. He was young but very brave. His big problem was that he was always ready to rush in first and shoot – to act without thinking.” – Meyer Lansky, longtime friend
“Bugsy was a textbook sociopath. He took what he wanted when he wanted it and the emotion of remorse was alien to him. In his mind, other people were there to be used by him, which was demonstrated by his long record of robbery, rape and murder dating back to his teenage years.” – Mark Gribben, biographer
“He was a frustrated actor and secretly wanted a movie career, but he never quite had nerve enough to ask for a part in one of my pictures…” – George Raft, actor.
“When he got killed, you wouldn’t believe how many employees broke down in tears…He was very generous with the help and very well liked. He was good to people. He was good to me and my wife.” – Lou Wiener Jr., Attorney
“Las Vegas would probably not be what it is today without Bugsy Siegel. His determination, and his vision, and his sheer will to make the Flamingo Hotel happen is why the rest of it is there.” – Jim Keily, Historian
Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel was shot to death on today’s date, June 20, 1947 as he relaxed in his Los Angeles home. And what to make of this man? Well I’ve found that there is little doubt that the characterization of his being a cold-blooded sociopathic killer is certainly correct. But apparently he did have it in his make-up to be outwardly kind to at least some people. And as to just exactly how much of a visionary he was… well there seems to be a pretty big diversion of opinion on that subject.
The Rise of “Bugsy” Siegel
Born Benjamin Siegelbaum in New York City on February 28, 1906 to poor immigrant parents from Eastern Europe, young Ben came from squalid, tenements resenting the poverty all around him and vowing to rise above it. He begun a life of crime by threatening local pushcart owners to set their carts afire unless they paid him protection money. In 1918, Ben met Meyer Lansky, (below) a fellow immigrant Jew, with whom he became life-long friends,
starting the Ben-Meyer Gang, a group of vicious Jewish mobsters who concentrated on boot-legging, auto theft… and murder. Eventually this grew into “Murder Inc.”, which specialized in contract killings and became the enforcement arm of the Luciano crime family, which became the center of a national crime organization known as “the Syndicate”. Early on in his life, Siegel became known for his quick temper, and acquired the nick-name “Bugsy” meaning he was as crazy as a bedbug. But it was a name which he never liked, and nobody short of a death-wish ever dared to use it to his face. In 1929, he married Esther Krakowen with whom he would have two daughters. During his time with “Murder Inc.”, Siegel was said to have killed more than 35 men. Eventually, he became a sought-after assassin, and in 1931 killed the Italian mob leader Joe “the Boss” Masseria. Bugsy was now too hot to stay in New York. So the Syndicate sent him to California in 1937.
Bugsy Becomes a Celebrity
In California Bugsy found a world that appealed to his flamboyant nature. Setting up the Mob’s West Coast operations for the first time, Siegel built up their interests in prostitution, and illicit drugs for which he built up one of the original pipelines of narcotics between Mexico and the United States. Most importantly he was able to force mob control of national book-making wire services and set up off-shore gambling dens to the point that by 1942, these were bringing in $500,000 per day. And all of this time Bugsy
began living the high-life, rubbing shoulders with the glamorous set, and movie stars, like his old friend from New York, actor George Raft, as well as the likes of Clark Gable, Gary Cooper and others. He also had affairs with such starlets as Jean Harlow, and began a long affair with Virginia Hill, a beautiful mob figure. They were well matched, each having a volatile temper, and a love of high-living. They both lived in palatial homes and they cut a very striking profile in cities like Los Angeles and Hollywood.
The Flamingo Hotel
In the early 1940’s, Meyer Lansky began hearing of possibilities for profit in the small town of Las Vegas, Nevada, and sent Siegel to look into it. What he found there was a small broken down town in the middle of the hot desert. But he saw an area for real growth in one key area: the fact that in the state of Nevada, gambling was legal. AND the Nevada legislature had expanded gaming laws to allow Off Track Betting on horse races. With Siegel having engineered Mob control of the wire services the possibilities for money-making in a “legitimate” business were enormous. With the help of Lansky, Bugsy was able to convince the Syndicate leaders to front 1.5 million dollars to invest in a lush new hotel that was being built by Billy Wilkerson and then take over the operation. In the words of Siegel biographer, Mark Gibben:
“Siegel had it in mind to create an oasis in the desert where travelers from both coasts could come for sun, fun, gambling and entertainment. He would woo travelers down from Reno with the finest hotels, food and stars at prices anyone in America could afford.”
It was to be named “The Flamingo Hotel”, and Siegel set to work like a demon to make his vision come true. In theory it was a marvelous idea. But in practice it ran into trouble in that Bugsy Siegel was a tremendous hit-man/killer/enforcer, but he was not an architect. His plans for luxurious accommodations, such as separate plumbing for each room simply didn’t work. And he found himself the target of unscrupulous contractors, who would, for example deliver the same palm trees twice a day.
The Mob Says: “ENOUGH!!”
The cost overruns began to pile up. The mob backers saw their original investment balloon from 1.5 million dollars to over six million. They were furious. Lansky was able to convince them to give his friend another chance to make their investment pay off. He almost managed to do it. The Flamingo had its Gala Grand Opening on December 26, 1946. But it was a huge mess with rainy weather keeping most of Siegel’s Hollywood pals away, an unfinished hotel and faulty electricity making it all a wreck. Siegel ordered the Flamingo closed in January, and then went back to work on it with a demonic fury — this time overseeing every facet of the construction in a full push effort to make his dream work. The Flamingo re-opened in March of 1947, and this tine it went well. The place finally began to turn a profit. But in the meantime Lansky had gone over the books and discovered that a large chunk of the cost overruns had resulted from Siegel having skimmed off the mob’s investment cash in order to keep himself and Virginia Hill living in style. The mob had finally had enough of Bugsy.
On June 20, today’s date in 1947, Siegel was relaxing on a couch in the living room of the Los Angeles home which he shared with Virginia Hill who was in Zurich at the time. At about 10:30 pm, a blast of eight bullets came crashing through his living room window. Five of them hit Siegel, killing him instantly. Very shortly thereafter two of Meyer Lansky’s operatives entered the Flamingo and announced that the Syndicate was taking over the operation. The murder of Bugsy Siegel has never been officially solved, but it as long been assumed that the mob leaders and Meyer Lansky had had it with Bugsy Siegel and had ordered him killed. Whether Bugsy Siegel was truly the visionary who correctly foresaw the future of Las Vegas or just a mob killer making a fast buck is a matter of some controversy. But in this world, Bugsy Siegel left nearly alone. None of his Hollywood pals attended his funereal. Not George Raft, not Meyer Lansky, nor even Virginia Hill were there. In fact, only five people, all of them family members were present to say goodbye to Bugsy Siegel.