Coming to America
Meyer Lansky, was born Maier Suchowljansky, July 4, 1902 in Grodno, Russia (there has been debate on Meyer’s real birthday, but July 4th is the date he celebrated). His parents, Max and Yetta, named him after a historic rabbi. After many challenging years in Grodno, Max Suchowljansky decided to move his Jewish family out of Russia and immigrate to the United States.
In the late summer of 1910, Max’s parents Benjamin and Basha made a difficult journey, from Grodno to Jerusalem. A month later, Benjamin died. Another month later, Basha followed Benjamin. And while the family will never know what became of Benjamin and Basha after they arrived in Jerusalem, there is solace in that they rest side by side on the Mount of Olives. Meyer Lansky loved his grandfather, Benjamin, a warm-hearted, generous and respected man.
Max traveled to America in 1909, landing on Ellis Island. He took the last name Lansky and it’s been that ever since. It’s here that the Lansky American story begins.
In their quest to reunite with Max, Meyer’s mother Yetta was duped out of their travel money. The three of them, Yetta, Meyer and Meyer’s brother Jake, then lived in a hostel until they could find new passage. How overwhelming this must have been for Yetta. Meyer took on the responsibility to protect his Mother and didn’t let his own uncertain feelings show.
Brooklyn and the Lower East Side
In 1911, when his family arrived, Max settled them in their first American home in Brownsville, an area of Brooklyn. Shortly after, Meyer and his brother Jake (also known as Jack) enrolled in elementary school. Neither spoke a lick of English. There were no fancy “learn English classes” nor were they afforded any leniency because they didn’t speak English. So…they learned to speak English quickly. Meyer excelled at school. Lots of arithmetic, which proved to be a special skill Meyer possessed. Max’s daughters Rose, Lena, and Esther were born in America. Tragically, Rose died at age 15 and Lena at just one year of age.
Money was sparse, so Max moved his family to the Lower East Side of New York. Max was a hardworking man who worked long hours in the garment industry. He just never quite succeeded in what we call the “American Dream.” But Meyer, well Meyer definitely was the definition of a successful businessman. Meyer provided his mother with a life of abundance that she so deserved.
Fueling Meyer’s desire to learn, he joined a library in Manhattan. Meyer found many topics interesting and especially enjoyed history and biographies.
Max and Yetta Lansky
Meyer took precious care of his mother, Yetta, until she died in 1959.
Best Friends: Bugsy & Meyer
Besides the libraries in the Lower East Side, readily available was prostitution, gambling, cigar stores aka fronts for taking bets, a gambling hall where you could fence your stolen goods, and numerous other illegal activities on any given day. The one that caught Meyer’s eye was street-corner craps. The arithmetic and his adding machine mind drew him to the game, like a moth to the flame. Meyer could visualize the game in his head.
In his early teens, with 5 cents his mother had given him for other means, he decided to try craps. He lost. Then, he had to admit to his mother that he gambled and lost her money. Meyer was intrigued as to “why” he had lost. He studied craps and the gamblers intently from this point on. One day, he had the ah ha moment, the trick was the way the game was organized. Meyer came to love organization. Drawing the suckers into the game with “house” players already destined to win in the street craps games. He learned to bet right when the “house” player bet. He only gambled with his Mother’s 5 cents twice, from then on he had his own private bankroll. He learned something valuable on those Manhattan streets, Meyer would say, “There’s no such thing as a lucky gambler. There are just the winners and the losers. The winners are those who control the game.” Meyer figured out controlling the game didn’t have to mean cheating. Meyer was known for running a clean casino, house, and games. He said, “you didn’t need to cheat because the house already has the advantage.”
Ben Siegel and George Raft
George was the catalyst for Ben’s move to Los Angeles, California in 1933. Ben would discover “Las Vegas” on a day trip in 1935.
Benjamin (Benny) “Bugsy” Siegel was fighting with two rival craps players when Meyer met him. A gun was dropped in the scuffle, Benny picked it up. Meyer jumped in and said “You’re crazy” and grabbed his arm, which caused him to drop the gun. Meyer and Benny ran quickly, away from the police whistles. In the mid 1910’s, Benny became one of Meyer’s greatest friends, best friends really.
Benny and Meyer married a couple of gals, Esther and Anna, who also happened to be best friends. Benny and Meyer were the best man at each others weddings. Benny went to Los Angeles in 1933. He was great friends with George Raft who he grew up with. George often played gangsters in the movies.
Benny was in L.A. for ten years, when he was murdered in cold blood in the home of his mistress, Virginia Hill, in Beverly Hills, California in 1947. He was shot right through the front window of the house. Benny had been caught skimming money from the Flamingo during it’s Las Vegas construction. Legend says Meyer knew and condoned the killing. We say, simply not possible. Meyer would have spoken up for Benny and rally to give him a second chance. Meyer would never have condoned the killing of his best friend. Meyer simply was not that type of person.
Meyer Lansky and Charles “Lucky” Luciano
Meyer and Charlie (Lucky) Luciano met on Hester Street. Jewish guys usually gave up their money and were intimated by the Italians. My grandfather, Meyer wasn’t. Back when Meyer lived in Grodno, Russia in his Jewish community when they were attacked – they attacked back. Which was not common. Meyer learned at an early age – don’t back down and show no fear. So, Meyer stood up to Luciano which really didn’t happen back then. Especially, from this little scrappy Jewish kid. They both respected each other by the end. They were two rough and rowdy kids who had their eye on the prize, money.
Lucky Luciano is credited with starting organized crime. Organized crime basically started in New York with Chicago and New Jersey close on their heels. Luciano, Seigel and Meyer Americanized the mob. Italian gangs and Jewish gangs were rivals that operated separately. The exception was an Italian and a couple of Jewish boys. Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel and Lucky Luciano formed this unlikely partnership and became lifelong friends. Working together, putting aside their ethnic differences, for one purpose – let’s make mass amounts of money. The more money the better. The American dream right? Business geniuses, I believe.
Meyer was Lucky Luciano’s right-hand man and definitely had his ear for his whole life. The alliance they formed lasted until Charlie died in 1962 of a heart attack.
Lucky Luciano Mausoleum
Honored and humbled to pay my respects in 2015 to a life-long family friend, Charles “Lucky” Luciano.
Family is Everything
Meyer Lansky married Anna Citron in 1929. After 18 years of marriage, they divorced in 1947. Together they had three children: Bernard (Buddy), Paul and Sandra (Sandi). Buddy was born in 1930. He was born with spina bifida, but would be misdiagnosed for quite awhile has having cerebral palsy. Buddy’s mind was sharp as a tack. Another boy, Paul was born in 1932. Paul was healthy as an ox. The baby of the family and a precious girl, Sandra (Sandi) was born in 1937.
Meyer loved his children. He never wanted any of them to go in to the “family business”. Paul went to the West Point Military Academy. My father is USAF Capt. Paul Lansky, West Point ‘54. The Air Force recruited USMA grads before the Air Force Academy opened.
A low point in Meyers life was when his wife Anna had figured out what Meyer did for a living. She said they were being punished for his sins and that is why Buddy was born with the disease he had. Meyer took this very personally and had a bit of a breakdown from it. He went to Boston for a few weeks to clear his mind and get his head on straight again. When he came back, he had found a way to live with it.
Meyer Lansky stressed education and honesty as the best policy. Grandpa never complained or talked badly about people even when they did him wrong. He was very controlled in his emotions. He was shrouded in a sense of mystery at all times. You could always tell there was more about him than what he displayed.
When I would meet with Grandpa in Miami Beach, generally in a deli, he was soft-spoken. I never saw him lose his temper. I would read up on current events before I met with him. He loved to ask me questions about politics. He wanted all his kids and grandkids to get a good education. Don’t just be interested in sports. He always liked to say, “Do your homework Meyer.”
When I would visit my grandfather in Florida, I would stay with Uncle Buddy. Buddy was super personable and everyone liked him. Buddy loved to gamble. He had a room right by the hotel office where he was a phone operator. Everyone stopped by to say hello to Buddy. Buddy never felt sorry for himself.
Meyer Lansky’s daughter, Sandi said, “His idea of relaxing was sitting outside overlooking the sea, drinking scotch, smoking cigarettes, and playing gin rummy with my uncles and other men like Uncle Benny, visiting from California. America’s highest rollers would get all worked up over their hands as they played for a penny a point. Daddy and Benny also enjoyed fierce handball competitions.”
Meyer married his second wife, Thelma Schwartz in 1948. They had no children together and were married 35 years at the time of Meyer’s death.
Meyer found a true love with his mistress, Zali de Toledo. Zali was forty years younger than Meyer. Their affair lasted 12 years.
Hot Springs, Arkansas 1935
Meyer Lansky at Owney Madden’s Ranch. He was there treating Buddy’s cerebral palsy.
Meyer & His Boys
Paul, Meyer, and Buddy Lansky. Taken in 1938 in Cuba.
The Lansky family – Paul, Buddy, Meyer, Sandi, Anna Lansky in 1940.
The FBI was after Meyer Lansky for most of his adult life. The FBI followed his every move for over twenty years. When he thought prosecution was forthcoming, he fled the U.S. to Israel, believing the Law of Return would be open to him which would not permit the extradition of Jews. After all, he had been a great supporter of Israel verbally and financially over the years.
Two years after his arrival in Israel, Nixon made a deal with Israel. Part of the agreement was that Meyer Lansky had to be returned to the U.S.
In 1972, once he was back on U.S. soil he was arrested at the Miami International Airport. Hours later he was free after posting bail. He was acquitted of all charges in 1974.
Meyer & Bruzzer
FBI surveillance photo (1972) of Meyer Lansky walking his dog, Bruzzer – Collins Avenue, Miami Beach, Florida
Meyer Lansky II
Meyer’s Grandson recreating iconic photo (2014) – Collins Avenue, Miami Beach, Florida
Pistols, Rifles, and Furs
Every notice the background? Pistols, rifles, and furs.
Meyer Lansky died of lung cancer on January 15, 1983 in Miami Beach, Florida. He was buried within 24 hours. A traditional Jewish funeral occurs within 24 hours of the time of death as a sign of respect to the deceased. There is no public viewing. As his grandson, I was not able to attend his funeral since it was held so quickly and I was in Seattle, Washington. My father, Paul, was with him within his last days.
When I was in my early 20’s and my grandfather, Meyer, still had a few years left, we were talking about success and money. He looked at me and said “Meyer, there is a lot more to life than money. Write a few letters. Read a few good books. Have a few good friends. What more do you want out of life?”
Lansky Family Memorial
Grateful to the folks who tend to my grandfather Meyer, grandmother Anna, and uncle Buddy Lansky.