The good and evil of Meyer Lansky

The good and evil of Meyer Lansky

New movie explores the ‘dark and elusive underworld’ led by the Mob’s financial genius

David Worthington and Harvey Keitel star in Lansky.

Eytan Rockaway is intrigued by complex gangsters. The film director’s new movie, released last week, explores an underworld figure he says fits that description: Meyer Lansky.

From his early days in New York during the Prohibition years to his role as the Mob’s gambling guru and financial wizard, Lansky emerged as one of the most prominent organized crime figures in the country. He is reputed to have once proclaimed to an associate that the Mob was “bigger than U.S. Steel.”

Harvey Keitel plays Lansky in his final years, when he was all but retired from organized crime yet the FBI was still investigating him.

Titled Lansky, the movie stars Harvey Keitel as the title character, a 1911 immigrant from Byelorussia who only made it through the eighth grade in New York but built a gambling empire from Cuba to Las Vegas. He died in 1983 at age 81.

Among Lansky’s partners were Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, Charles “Lucky” Luciano and Frank Costello. Lansky and Siegel, childhood friends, once headed the Bugs and Meyer Gang.

The movie explores Lansky’s elderly years in Miami, where the FBI continued to keep an eye on him. In the movie, Lansky agrees to work with a journalist named David Stone, played by Sam Worthington, to tell his life story. Federal agents, in turn, pressure Stone to help them find $300 million that Lansky supposedly had squirreled away somewhere.

As Variety magazine puts it, “Stone finds himself caught in the middle of a game of cat and mouse, uncovering the hidden truth about the life of the notorious boss of Murder Inc. and the national crime syndicate.”

‘Thin gray line’

When Rockaway was young, his father, the historian Robert Rockaway, told him about “the adventurous and dangerous lives of gangsters,” the director said in an email.

Robert Rockaway conducted a rare interview with Lansky in writing the book But He Was Good to His Mother: The Lives and Crimes of Jewish Gangsters.

Writer and director Eytan Rockaway, right, confers with Harvey Keitel on the set of Lansky.

Eytan Rockaway said he was fascinated by the “dark and elusive underworld, with its own rules and codes of conduct operating in the shadows of civilized society.”

“As a young boy, it sounded more like a fantasy world rather than a historical reality,” he said. 

To the director, Lansky stands out partly because of his complex nature. “I studied the criminals and gangsters who lacked empathy and emotion from a young age to the ones who lost it along the way,” Rockaway said. “I observed the stories of those thrown into the life of crime and the ones who willingly chose that path. But there was a small group of gangsters who intrigued me the most. These were the ones who reached the height of power, and their complexity transcended the normal boundaries of good and evil.”

Lansky was the “epitome of that group,” Rockaway said.

“Often in life things are not just black and white, good or bad, but there is a thin gray line between the two,” the director said. “Lansky walked that thin gray line like a funambulist” — a tightrope walker.

Siegel’s death

Meyer Lansky’s daughter, Sandi, said she knew her father and his associates as honorable men. Now 83 years old and living in Tampa, Florida, Sandi Lansky during her younger years hung out at the Copacabana nightclub in New York. She referred to men like club owner Costello as “uncles.”

“They were good people,” she said in a telephone interview.

The close relationship among these men is one reason Sandi Lansky doubts her father had anything to do with the still-unsolved shooting death of his friend Benjamin Siegel.

In late1946, Siegel opened the Flamingo hotel-casino south of Las Vegas on the highway to Los Angeles. Today, the Flamingo is at the same location on the Strip, though none of its original buildings remain.

Meyer Lansky, whose life is depicted in the movie, died in 1983 at age 81. Library of Congress.

Six months after the Flamingo opened, Siegel was shot to death at his girlfriend Virginia Hill’s Beverly Hills home. The shooter was outside the residence, firing at Siegel through a window.

Some historians believe Siegel’s syndicate partners, including Lansky, orchestrated the murder because of cost overruns and other problems at the property. In the movie, Lansky urges his syndicate colleagues not to kill Siegel but he is powerless to stop them.

“My dad wasn’t behind it,” Sandi Lansky said. “My dad and Benny were friends since they were kids.”

Her son, Gary Rapoport, agrees that his grandfather did not order Siegel to be killed. He said Lansky loved Siegel like a brother. “He never would have ordered that,” Rapoport said in a telephone interview.

Rapoport, 66, also lives in Tampa but grew up in Miami around his grandfather. He remembers Meyer Lansky as a kind man who always stressed the importance of education. Even during leisure time on the golf course, Lansky would ask his grandson math questions, testing his multiplication skills.

“I respected him for his mind,” Rapoport said.

Rapoport said that if Lansky had $300 million stashed away as some have claimed, it was invested or spent over time. It doesn’t exist anymore.

Another grandson, Meyer Lansky II, said his grandfather would not talk much about his life but mentioned that his childhood was tough. Lansky II, 63, lives in Las Vegas. His father is Lansky’s son Paul.

Lansky remembers his grandfather telling him not to let people push him around, to “fight back.”

Popularity of Mob movies

Rockaway’s movie is the latest in a long line of Mob films that continue to generate interest. Another is The Many Saints of Newark, a prequel to the television series The Sopranos. The move is set to be released September 24 in theaters and on HBO Max.

Another upcoming Mob movie, The Legitimate Wiseguy, looks at Tony “The Ant” Spilotro’s role in helping an aspiring actor in Hollywood. Spilotro was the Chicago Outfit’s overseer in Las Vegas during the 1970s and early ’80s. The movie stars Paul Ben-Victor as Spilotro and features Keitel, Emile Hirsch and Ruby Rose. A release date has not been set.

Rockaway said he and the public continue to be fascinated by the Mob world because of its characters.

“They reminded me of the characters in Greek and Norse mythology who had the capacity and the will to be forces of evil inflicting tremendous harm and chaos around them, while at the same time they could be forces of good, honor and judgment,” he said.

In other words, characters like Meyer Lansky.

Larry Henry is a veteran print and broadcast journalist. He served as press secretary for Nevada Governor Bob Miller, and was political editor at the Las Vegas Sun and managing editor at KFSM-TV, the CBS affiliate in Northwest Arkansas. The Mob in Pop Culture blog appears monthly.