Throughout the 1960s the G-men eavesdropped on the private conversations of Meyer Lansky by bugging his personal residence where he lived with his wife in Hallandale, FL and the hotel rooms in which he stayed when in New York City according to FBI files. Although Lansky may have had a mind for numbers in handling the casino skimming and money laundering rackets of the Genovese mobsters for whom he worked, his own words reveal a small-minded man who was both embittered by and self-deluded about his station in life. Perhaps the most shocking revelations from the recorded confessions involved jealous rants about the Kennedy family and racist tirades against minority groups. There seemed to be few in the world whom Lansky liked, and perhaps least of all was himself.
During his life Lansky was perceived by the press and the public as a wealthy man — some estimates put his net worth at $300 million — who was among the most powerful gangsters in the country. However, the reality is that Lansky was just a work horse harnessed by the Genovese family in its various incarnations as reflected by his own unguarded admissions and corroborated by other evidence. After Prohibition the Italians began consolidating their control over the underworld, and by the end of World War II the Jewish gangsters were either working for the Mafia, retired or dead. The bosses assigned capo Vincent “Jimmy Blue Eyes” Alo to keep a close eye on Lansky in Hallandale, FL, and everywhere that Lansky went Alo was sure to follow.
After Vito Genovese took over the crime family from Frank Costello in 1957 Meyer Lansky dutifully stepped into line under the new boss. Congressional testimony by flipped mobster Joe Valachi in 1963 suggested that Lansky was a proxy for the Genovese family as paraphrased by the FBI in a January 19, 1968 memo:
Joseph Valachi, an admitted member of La Cosa Nostra, in testimony before the United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Committee on Government Operations, during 1963, stated that Vito Genovese and Meyer Lansky had common holdings in gambling casinos in Las Vegas and Havana, Cuba. Valachi, a close associate of Genovese, testified that Lansky and Genovese were very closely associated in racket activities over the years and that wherever Lansky operated, Genovese had an interest.
No doubt vast sums passed through Lansky’s hands but little of it was his to keep. His lifestyle hardly suggested any accumulation of great wealth. He owned a modest home in Hallandale, FL and drove a rented Chevrolet. The simple living was not an elaborate ploy to keep the IRS at bay but an accurate reflection of his financial means. Indeed, in conversations secretly recorded by the FBI Lansky made it clear to associates that he worked out of necessity. For example, while staying at the Volney Hotel at 23 East 74th Street in New York in May 1962, “LANSKY complained that the necessity of making a living was taking a lot out of him,” and “remarked how lucky people are that ‘fall into it.’” In another conversation he remarked how “some people became millionaires since the War,” and “they shouldn’t hold a job.” Lansky clearly did not consider himself a man of independent means who could afford a life of leisure.
Of course, whatever personal wealth Lansky may have accumulated likely was wiped out when Fidel Castro chased the mobsters out of Cuba in January 1959 after overthrowing corrupt dictator Fulgencio Batista. Upon returning stateside with his tail between his legs Lansky solicited a meeting with the FBI for the avowed purpose of providing intelligence on the communist infiltration of Cuba. The meeting took place on May 22, 1959, and Lansky stated that he “could lose heavily unless the situation changed,” and “he could not deny that the possibility of this loss contributed to his decision to discuss the Cuban situation.” Lansky’s own losses were likely insignificant compared to the reverses suffered by his Genovese bosses, and perhaps he was required to make a financial settlement with them for failing to read the handwriting on the wall. After all, it was Lansky’s job to be on top of such matters.
Although Lansky later would rewrite history by telling associates that he warned the feds in 1958 that “Cuba was going Communist” the fact is that he did not do so until May 1959, and even then had nothing meaningful to offer. The G-men expressly noted that the mobster stated only the obvious, and “all of LANSKY’s comments were general in nature”:
When pressed for particulars LANSKY advised he was not in a position to furnish facts. * * * He stated he could not name any individuals in the present government who had publicly described themselves as Communists nor could he offer any facts which would set one person aside from the others as a Communist.
Frankly, Lansky’s purported concern about a communist Cuba is laughable. Neither Lansky nor his Mafia overlords cared a wit with whom they conducted business. In fact, while still in Havana, on January 5, 1959 Lansky gave an interview to Alan Jarlson from The Las Vegas Sun who reported that Lansky “talked freely” about his hope “that the new government will emerge from Fidel Castro’s liberation of Cuba and will continue to permit American gamblers to operate.” Similarly, when Lansky left Cuba on January 7, and arrived at Miami International Airport, the casino operator told Joseph Manners, a Special Assistant to the Attorney General, that “he expected to continue in business, and did not anticipate trouble from the new government.” Lansky developed his anti-communist animus only after it became clear that Castro was refusing to allow the American mobsters to continue their exploitation of Cuba.
If Lansky thought his new-found anti-communist fervor — feigned or otherwise — would curry him favor with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover he sorely miscalculated. Instead, the feds exploited his gambling losses as an opportune time to investigate him. A March 23, 1960 memo from the Director to the Miami Field Office states:
You now have residing in your territory one of the very most important individuals in the national crime picture in the person of Meyer Lansky. Information developed in Bureau investigations over a period of many years indicates strongly that Lansky is a very important individual in a segment of the criminal element. In pursuing investigations in your Criminal Intelligence Program, you should not overlook the possibility of employing extraordinary investigative techniques with reference to Lansky. Because of the loss of the lucrative Cuban gambling situation, Lansky is presently in a position of having to make decisions as to his future course of action. This may be a propitious time for close coverage of Lansky.
The memo further reflects Hoover’s lingering questions about the existence of the Mafia, and its relationship to non-Italians such as Lansky. Already contemplating the distinction between a mob member who must be Italian and a mob associate who can be of any ethnicity Hoover writes:
It is desired also to point out to you the need of continuous alertness to develop the existence or nonexistence of the “Mafia.” Persons who furnish information in this field should be thoroughly interviewed for a determination of what they mean by the use of the term “Mafia.” It is the Bureau’s desire to determine whether or not this is a mere term used to characterize criminal groups made up of a preponderance of persons of Italian birth or extraction, or whether it is a term denoting something of greater significance. Complete details of any facts available should be obtained from any persons contending that it is an actual organization which can be characterized as being a “Mafia.”
The federal investigation on top of his Cuban losses added insult to injury for Lansky, and was a constant source of stress for Lansky and his wife. When the G-men visited their South Florida home on May 2, 1961 for a spot check Mrs. Lansky “went into a tirade about the ‘harassing tactics of the FBI,’” and when agents again returned on May 17 the mobster “said he felt he was being persecuted because of his name.” FBI bugs caught Lansky routinely kvetching about the prying eyes. For example, in May 1962 while staying at the Volney Hotel in New York City Lansky described the G-men as “racketeers” and the “new mafia”:
They’re nothing but racketeers, every one of them. After five years they get out, get on a big corporation’s payroll. Now what happens, you and I . . . let’s say I work for IBM. You came. They say [redacted] is doing the same business. He has no FBI guys working for him. Pop, they chop his legs off. They find him with a sweetheart, they find him with this, they find him with that. This thing’s gonna get an investigation. It’s a new mafia. The investigators are going to get investigated. It’s just a matter of time. It’s the same with those senate investigators. You remember those McCarthy hearings. That lying (obscene) with the pictures.
Lansky directed most of his anti-government enmity towards the Kennedys which was fueled by Bobby Kennedy’s mob busting campaign and Jack Kennedy’s refusal to back the Bay of Pigs invasion to topple Castro. However, Lansky also was a terribly insecure man who undoubtedly felt like a bug under the long-cast Kennedy shadow. Lansky grew up poor on the Lower East Side in New York City, his education topped out at the 8th grade, he was a national pariah with whom no person of good standing would associate, and the poor thing was short, slight and ugly. Lanksy was nothing more than a greedy troll living under a bridge in the Kingdom of Camelot, and his bitterness was palpable at the mere mention of the revered Kennedy name. For example, FBI eavesdropping on the Lansky couple at their New York City hotel room in May 1962 captured on the following conversation on the Kennedys:
[Redacted] in discussing wiretapping bill presently pending, remarked that wiretapping is okay against the Communists, but otherwise is most sickening. She stated she believed the “KENNEDYs” were acting sincerely and in their best beliefs. When LANSKY disagreed, she reminded him that he came up “on the wrong side of the fence,” to which subject replied that he was brought up on the “unhypocritical” side.
On another occassion Lansky referred to Bobby Kennedy as “an arrogant punk” who had no right to judge the mob life:
Let me tell you something. Anyone who hasn’t lived, hasn’t the right to tell anyone else anything. He’s a young boy, 37 years old. He hasn’t lived yet and he wants to tell others how to live. He’s an arrogant punk.
“Arrogant punk” or not, the mobsters feared Bobby Kennedy. An FBI bug installed at the Lansky home in Hallandale, FL picked up an associate telling Meyer on August 18,1962 that “the person everyone is afraid of is BOBBY KENNEDY. ‘He is the hatchetman.’”
In order to prop up his ego Lansky routinely pontificated before others on a variety of subjects, and sounded as much a bore as the insufferable Polonius from Hamlet who missed the irony behind his quip “brevity is the soul of wit.” For example, on June 5, 1962 Lansky held court for sycophantic groupies at his room in the Volney Hotel, and told everyone what a literate man he was even though he had “no education”:
LANSKY bragged about his ability to read several books at one time. He stated he is presently reading a history book, a grammar book, and a book on French quotations. He stated these are the things you need with no education because you can get mixed up. LANSKY expounded on various subjects and his listeners expressed awe at his knowledge.
On another occasion during his stay at the hotel “MEYER remarked that Saturday or Sunday he intends to go over to the museum and buy a photograph of ‘Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer’ which is selling at $12.50.”
Apparently Lansky hoped that a little culture would mask his mob stench. The self-delusion which gripped Lansky was shockingly apparent when on multiple occasions he savagely spoke with racial slurs of blacks and Latinos as “lousy minority groups” who are criminal by nature. For example, in June 1962 when discussing race with some associates at his New York City hotel room, Lanksy said the following with respect to blacks:
If you find a person stealing who doesn’t have enough to eat, there a reason. But tell me why you steal if you’ve got money in your pocket. You see these n***** [n-word] kids stealing. Their parents are ignorant, no education. There’s a certain spark in them.
He further stated that “n****** [n-word] are getting even with white people through welfare and they’re laughing at the white people.”
And then when comparing Scandanavians against Latinos he stated:
They’re not only physically healthy, but their lives are more healthy. They’re cleaner. They’re not as criminal as some of the other nationalities. The Latins are more criminal. They had to steal to subsist.
Apparently Lansky conveniently forgot during these racist tirades that he was a former enforcer with Murder, Inc. Lansky may have read the classics and got his nails manicured but he still was nothing but a common thug with blood on his hands. Indeed, when Israel sent Lansky packing from the Promised Land towards the end of his life one wonders whether he had the courage and honesty to ask “what profit it a man to gain the world but lose his soul?”