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Virginia Hill: ‘Queen of the Mob’ was no one’s pushover

Brassy cash courier for the Mob died 50 years ago

By Jeff Burbank

3-21-16 Virginia Hill
Virginia Hill

Third in a series of profiles for Women’s History Month.

On March 24, 1966, passersby walking on a footpath beside a picturesque brook near Salzburg, Austria, found the body of a woman in the snow beside a tree. Her coat was neatly folded on the ground. A possible suicide note indicated the person was simply “tired of life.”

The woman was Virginia Hill, the onetime so-called “Queen of the Mob,” a courtesan and entrusted cash courier for household-name American gangsters from the mid-1930s through the 1940s. An Austrian official concluded the 49-year-old Virginia died of a self-administered overdose of sedatives, not a surprise given her history of near-fatal pill-swallowing going back to the 1940s.

Hill, born in 1916, was surely something of a mental case, perhaps diagnosed today as bipolar, sociopathic, borderline personality or worse. But while still only a teenager in 1934, she showed her mettle as the beautiful and beguiling redheaded apprentice of Mob bookmaker Joe Epstein in the rough and corrupt city of Chicago. Soon, with incredible ease, using her looks, sexual liaisons and talents for laundering money and stolen merchandise, Hill rose higher than any other woman in the national underworld, an equal among the most infamous male racketeers in the United States, among them Meyer Lansky, Joe Adonis, Frank Costello, Johnny Rosselli, Charles and Joe Fischetti, Tony Accardo, Frank Nitti, William “Ice Pick Willie” Alderman, Jack Dragna and, most famously, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel.

Even as late as 1949, Hill was described as the “intellectual director” of the Chicago Outfit’s narcotics trafficking ring in Mexico by making the gang’s “financial and social contacts” and entering “high Mexican society through her many lovers,” according to a 1951 report by Rudolph Halley, lead counsel to the Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce, known as the Kefauver Committee.

But Hill is best known for her relationship with Siegel, a stormy and sex-charged union of two professional criminals, experts in money laundering, gambling, intimidation, fraud and, later, Mexican narcotics. The two, both at times irrational, started seeing each other as early as 1937 in New York and resumed their affair full bore at actor George Raft’s Hollywood home in 1939. To the still-married Siegel, Hill was his ideal woman in all respects. Their intense pairing on the West Coast ironically fused the interests of rival Mob factions – Siegel’s ties to New York boss Charles “Lucky” Luciano, who used Siegel to gain a foothold in the West’s race wire and gambling rackets, and Hill’s association with the Chicago Outfit’s Charles Fischetti and Fischetti’s Los Angeles boss, Jack Dragna, who liked to hear her tell what Siegel was up to.

Dragna, who detested Siegel, was said to have once remarked that Hill “was the only woman who could be trusted to keep her mouth shut.” Hill’s longtime financial provider, Epstein, who would be unusually dedicated to her for decades, reportedly confided to Lansky: “Once that girl is under your skin, it’s like a cancer. It’s incurable.”

Her bond with the equally smitten Siegel, whom she regarded as the greatest of her many lovers, would take them to Las Vegas, which she grew to hate, in 1945 for the fateful building, opening, closing and reopening of the syndicate-financed Flamingo hotel-casino. Rumors swirled that by 1947 Siegel had skimmed $2 million of the Flamingo’s building “costs” of $6 million and gave it to his veteran cash-carrying girlfriend to hide in a Swiss bank. The end would come days after Chicago ordered Hill to leave Las Vegas in early June 1947 and to tell Siegel she was going to buy wines for the Flamingo in Paris. Siegel called a charter plane pilot to fly her solo to Los Angeles. Siegel is said to have taken $600,000 in cash for his buddy “Fat Irish” Green to hold (Green later agreed to return the money to Lansky). Siegel flew to Los Angeles for the Beverly Hills home Hill rented (with Siegel’s money) from Hill’s friend, Juan Romero, her former Hollywood movie agent. Inside the house, unawares, Siegel was killed by a rifle shot by someone – never apprehended – through the front window, almost certainly a gangland hit, on June 20, 1947. Hill first heard about it from a fellow reveler during a party on a boat in Paris.

Virginia’s backstory started at her birthplace, the small town of Lipscomb, Alabama, on August 26, 1916. She was one of nine or 10 children fathered by Mack Hill, a trader in horses and mules. Mack beat her during her childhood until one day she threw a hot skillet at him. She was sexually active with boys at age 12 and allegedly married a mysterious man named George when she was only 14. At 17, she moved with George to Chicago in 1933, where she dumped him. She then worked as a side show “shimmy” dancer at Chicago’s “A Century of Progress Exposition” and, some claim, as a prostitute. A year later, she was a waitress in a short skirt at the San Carlo Italian Village, a hangout for the Capone gang, still thriving after boss Al Capone was sent to federal prison in 1931. At the San Carlo, she met a customer, Epstein, the Capone group’s bookmaker and accounts man for Jake “Greasy Thumb” Guzik. The chance meeting with Epstein would lead to Virginia’s future as the mistress, cash carrier, money launderer and spy for many of America’s leading racketeers.

Epstein was impressed by Hill’s no-nonsense demeanor. He met Hill again at a party in June 1934 and recruited her to launder Outfit racket money by placing wagers at Chicago horse race tracks. Epstein’s betting schemes enabled him to increase his odds of winning. The funds from winning bets could then be reported to the Internal Revenue Service as legitimate income. Hill, given cash to bet $1,000, $2,000 and more per race, followed Epstein’s precise instructions, brought back the winning tickets and got a 10 percent share of the proceeds. He showed her how to lure unsuspecting men into “sucker” bets – pure profit for bookies – such as for fixed boxing matches. She passed with flying colors.

Epstein bought her expensive clothes and had her board planes carrying stolen jewels and furs for sale out of state. Her savvy, discretion and vulgar, wisecracking conversation at the Outfit’s hangout, the Plantation Club, impressed those she met. By 1935, still not yet 20 years old, Hill was invited to confer about business with Frank Nitti, Charles Fischetti and others in the Outfit’s top echelon.

Hill, well-dressed and bejeweled, was seen as a shrewd and trusted courier of cash and a less-obvious target of frisking by law enforcement than the typical male Mob torpedo. In the mid- and late 1930s, Hill was the top moll of the underworld. Her boyfriend/benefactors included Major Riddle, a rich trucking and oil tycoon, Chicago Outfit associate and late Las Vegas casino mogul. In a secret scheme hatched by Epstein, Hill agreed to be Riddle’s paramour for more than a year, enticing Riddle to hand over thousands in cash for nonexistent “investments” that she simply delivered to Epstein. She did almost anything for Epstein, including having sex with men to obtain information. She even, on a dare without hesitation, gave oral sex to Charles Fischetti, Guzik and several other top Outfit men in front of shocked guests – including Fischetti’s wife – at a Christmas party in 1936.

The Outfit had around this time made a deal with Luciano’s New York gang, allowing for mutual investments in each other’s vice rackets. Epstein sent Hill back East, instructing her to use her wilds on the vain Adonis, the king of New York’s vice schemes, to see if he was holding up his end with Chicago. Hill relished the role. She moved to New York and laundered tens of thousands in cash she received in the mail from Epstein. In Adonis, she found mutual physical attraction. She helped Adonis pull scams, collect and deliver racket-earned cash. They made money together during their affair, but neither was faithful to the other.

One of Adonis’ main earners at the time was Siegel. Hill told the Kefauver Committee in 1951 that she met Siegel in 1942 or 1943, but she likely first saw the handsome, blue-eyed Siegel in 1937 while in the company of Adonis and almost immediately started a sexual relationship with Adonis’ underling. This hurt and enraged Adonis. He made his anger known to the Outfit, which soon cut Hill’s allowance. She moved to be near her mother in Georgia, then headed to Hollywood, where one day she got into a loud argument with a date, the famed actor Errol Flynn, at the Brown Derby restaurant. Her name made it into the national gossip columns.

3-21-16 Bugsy Siegel1
Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel

The year 1939 would be a busy one. She had her hot dalliance with Siegel in Raft’s Los Angeles home but it did not last. She took up with a Mexican nightclub dancer named Miguelito Valdez, returned to Chicago and then went to Georgia, where she met a 19-year-old college football player at a bar, married him on the spur of the moment and had it annulled six months later. She also may have taken Louis Dragna’s top associate, Johnny Rosselli, as a lover. She married Valdez in early 1940 to permit him back into the United States to resume his career. That year, Siegel sat in jail on a murder rap from August to November. She invested Outfit cash into a nightclub in New York, the Hurricane, and appeared at the opening, dancing the rumba in her bare feet with Valdez before news cameras. After the opening, she tricked the hapless Valdez into signing a paper saying it was for a club booking when it was an uncontested divorce agreement.

By then, fluent in Spanish, Hill was directing drug trafficking – specifically heroin – out of Mexico for her Chicago patrons. To curry favor and obtain important information for the Outfit south of the border, she had affairs with the son of a Mexican finance minister and a connected politician.

All the while, Epstein sent her cash through the mail when she asked for it, a service her old loyal friend from her teen years would maintain into the mid-1960s. Luciano’s top henchman Lansky as well used Hill to distribute Mob cash, likely realizing her double attraction as a courier who provided sexual favors to the recipient. The seductress served as a spy, exchanging verbal communications with gangsters and reporting back to Lansky on the latest inside news and gossip.

In the early 1940s, Virginia was traveling from Chicago to New York, Los Angeles and Mexico City doing the bidding of Chicago and Los Angeles Mob figures. She and her brother Chick took acting lessons in Hollywood and tried to land movie parts. She spent thousands, thanks to Epstein, on furs and jewelry. She rented suites of rooms at the Beverly Hills Hotel and hosted lavish parties, dropping a then-fortune $7,500 on one celebrity shindig. In New York in 1944, she started a relationship with Carl Laemmle, Jr., heir to the fortune left by his movie producer father. He fell hard for her and bought her expensive gifts, but she rebuffed his advances.

Siegel dodged his murder charge, in the slaying of Mob associate Harry Greenberg, in 1942. He struck Hill during their frequent arguments. In 1944, soon after he allegedly punched and raped Hill, Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies arrested him for felony bookmaking. He beat the felony rap but his arrest made the papers. Embarrassed and frustrated dealing with L.A.’s gangsters and law enforcement, he turned his sights on Las Vegas. He had investments there in a race wire at the Northern Club and El Cortez casinos. He thought Las Vegas had great potential as a new resort destination for travelers. He wanted Hill to join him there. She refused at first. Dragna contacted her and told her to go to Las Vegas, watch Siegel and report back on his activities.

In 1945, Siegel became a partner with Hollywood nightclub owner and publisher Billy Wilkerson, whose planned Flamingo resort project in Las Vegas ran out of money after Wilkerson gambled away his cash. Siegel obtained about $1.5 million in financing from, among others, Luciano’s crony Lansky and Chicago’s Fischetti brothers and Murray Humphreys. Hill agreed to come live with him temporarily in Las Vegas.

Siegel made many expensive changes to the Flamingo. Building materials were stolen under his nose and resold, driving up costs and delaying the project. The Mob’s investment expanded to $6 million by the time the casino opened, unfinished, on December 26, 1946. The debut included Raft and a handful of other Hollywood stars as guests but turned out to be a flop. Lucky gamblers led to losses of about $300,000 (or so veteran thief Siegel’s story goes) in the first two weeks. Siegel closed the gambling hall, finished the hotel rooms and reopened it in early 1947.

One day in the casino, a drunk and enraged Hill punched a woman. Siegel took Hill upstairs and yelled, “You’ve made me look like a bum!” Shortly thereafter, Hill took an overdose of sleeping pills and fell silent. She survived after Siegel and another man drove her to a hospital to have her stomach pumped.

The Flamingo turned around and earned an income in the spring of 1947, but was still in the red. Siegel’s investors were unhappy with the losses and his corrosive personality. On about June 8, 1947, Hill received orders from the Outfit to leave Las Vegas for Chicago. A pilot, Lew Gourley, later wrote that Siegel himself called him to charter her a flight to Los Angeles. Hill was “an excellent passenger” during the flight but she objected when Gourley told her that due to heavy fog. they might have to land in Palmdale. Hill said no, that she had to be in Los Angeles within an hour, likely to make a connecting flight. She flew to Chicago and eventually made it to Paris. Siegel was shot to death 12 days later. In the coming weeks in Europe Hill would survive three more suicide attempts and after returning to the States, a fourth in Miami where Siegel had bought her a house. After a trip to Mexico, she returned and searched for a home in Reno, Nevada, and Spokane, Washington. By now, federal authorities were investigating her for evading taxes on her cash income.

In early 1950, she traveled to the popular ski resort of Sun Valley, Idaho. There she met a ski instructor named Hans Hauser, a former world champion downhill skier from Austria. Hauser’s friend and fellow ski teacher Otto Lang described Hill as “far from pretty, a bit short and dumpy” who compulsively pulled out her eyelashes “hair by hair.” Soon, Lang wrote, some “shady and ominous characters began to drift in and call Virginia and leave again” without skiing. She accepted deliveries of stacks of $100 and $50 bills and threw some free parties. The FBI came to investigate, and the lodge wanted her to leave. But Hauser told Lang he wanted to marry Hill. Lang advised against it but Hauser and Hill eloped the next morning. They had a son, Peter, on November 20, 1950, in Brighton, Massachusetts.

The following year, the Kefauver Committee subpoenaed Hill, now 34, to appear in New York to testify during nationally televised hearings on organized crime activities. Hill arrived on March 16, 1959, several months after giving birth. She entered the Foley Courthouse in a $5,000 mink cape, broad-brimmed hat and silk gloves. Some described her as the “star witness” of the Kefauver hearings.

Hill evaded questions from committee counsel Halley about her organized crime associations. She gave vague answers and artfully lied about the origins of the tens of thousands in cash she had Epstein hold for her in a safe deposit box. The money was from her winnings betting on the horses, she explained. Hill also claimed the “fellas” she knew, including Siegel, simply sent her gifts and money along the way.

“Bought me everything I wanted, when I was with Ben. He paid for everything. And he gave me some money, too, bought me a house in Florida.”

About Siegel and the Flamingo, Hill said she advised him to sell the casino “because it was making him a nervous wreck.”

Halley asked about how she obtained up to $20,000 in the past year, including the $12,000 she spent during her brief stay in Sun Valley.

Hill said she had asked Epstein since 1935 to hold her gambling winnings. He sent some when she needed money and she “never kept track of it.” She also said admitted recently receiving $10,000 cash from friends in Mexico.

Virginia denied, likely on cue from her Mob cohorts, that the infamous men she consorted with were racketeers or gangsters. She also denied being part of the “dirty business” of mobbed-up drug sales in Mexico. But investigator Halley knew otherwise. In 1949, she was identified as assisting in the heroin trade in Mexico with Al Blumenthal, owner of the Los Angeles nightclub Ciro’s, providing the investment cash.

Halley complained to Hill that she had nothing substantial to provide the committee despite having associated with organized criminals for years.

“But I never knew anything about their business,” she said. “They didn’t tell me about their business. Why would they tell me? I didn’t care anything about business in the first place. I don’t even understand it.”

Halley replied: “The reason I ask you is that you seem to have a great deal of ability to handle financial affairs.”

“Who, me?” she asked.

Halley told her “it just seems impossible” that she did not know who Siegel’s associates were at the Flamingo. Hills claimed she mostly stayed upstairs with friends in her hotel room.

“I didn’t ever go out. … In the first place, I had hay fever. I was allergic to the cactus. Every time I went there, I was sick. So I had to take those benadryls, and they would make me feel terrible anyhow. … Ben’s friends, I never even met them or was around them.”

After the committee finally excused her and on the way out of the hearing room Hill spewed obscenities at the press, slugged and floored a female reporter, Marjorie Farnsworth, and covered her face while walking quickly through the corridors. Before climbing into an awaiting cab, she told reporters she hoped an atomic bomb would fall on them.

Hill and Hans Hauser did not remain in the country for long. Hans overstayed his visa and had to leave. He flew to Chile to teach skiing and brought Peter with him. The IRS was pursuing Mrs. Hauser with vigor. That July, the agency served a $161,000 lien on her for back taxes from 1942 to 1947. In a stopover at the Denver airport, Hill was nearly arrested. She snapped at reporters, “I’d shoot you if I had a gun.” In August, while the Hausers were in Europe, the IRS auctioned off 800 of Hill’s possessions in Spokane – including two cars, five expensive furs worth $23,000, a ruby and diamond ring from Siegel for their intended wedding in 1947, china and crystal sets, her $30,000 home – from which the IRS netted a mere $41,000.

Now that Hill was in Austria, near Switzerland, some in the States speculated that she had deposited as much as $5 million in Swiss banks for the underworld. U.S. and Interpol agents monitored Hill’s movements. She made 65 border crossings in Europe from 1952 to 1956. She traveled with Epstein in Italy for several days in 1953. The Hausers moved to Klosters, Switzerland, and kept an apartment in Zurich. A grand jury in Los Angeles indicted Hill in 1954 on four counts of tax evasion. The ever-loyal Epstein sent about $3,000 a month to his patron through the mail and delivered money to her personally in Switzerland. In 1957, she dined with old boyfriend Joe Adonis in Rome and later inquired about returning to the United States. But she faced a $227,000 tax evasion suit in Los Angeles and heard she faced at least a year in prison if convicted.

Hill and her family moved to Austria. By the mid-1960s, she wearily related to people about her wish to commit suicide. In 1965, her husband found her unconscious and took her to a hospital for yet another overdose of sedatives – her seventh – to be pumped from her stomach. She flew to Cuba but officials knew who she was and denied her entry. In 1966, now out of money, even Epstein ignored her pleas for funds. She is said to have spoken by phone to Adonis, then living in Naples, Italy, on March 20. She left her home on March 22. Her body was found two days later. Some maintained that Adonis had his soldiers force feed her drugs to kill her after she tried to extort money from him. Epstein publically admitted he had sent her $100,000 from 1952 to 1965 from her investments, backed by money provided by mobsters, and that her assets had finally run out.

Hans Hauser died from in an apparent suicide in Austria in 1974. Peter Hauser, a decorated U.S. Army veteran of the Vietnam War, died in a car accident in Toulouse, France, in 1994. All three family members are buried together in a cemetery in Salzburg, Austria.

 Jeff Burbank is content development specialist for The Mob Museum. Contact him at jburbank@themobmuseum.org.