Mobster Meyer Lansky was once quoted as saying that he kept his business in his hat. It must have been some hat. Or maybe not.
A new cinematic character study, Lansky, was just released. As the author of a book and articles on Lansky, what interested me most is the film’s approach to him as a myth and meme of capitalism.
Harvey Keitel delivers the most accurate elderly movie Lansky to date. The two men were the same age, Keitel at just over eighty during filming, and Lansky toward the end of his life. Both were mostly Brooklyn-bred, which conveyed in their accents. Keitel’s Lansky speaks very slowly, as did the real deal, but the latter was not a big swearer or known to menace. Keitel is a medium-sized man; Lansky was strikingly small, about five-four when young, even smaller when old and sick.
There is a scene in the film where Lansky explains that Henry Ford’s product was freedom, not the automobile, and that the gaming industry’s real product was excitement, not money. I would add that the real Lansky’s “product” was less gangsterdom than it was moneymaking myth: the omnipotence of shadowy power, the capacity to vanquish one’s enemies without a trace, and get away with a life of financial crime, outfoxing mighty regulators along the way.
Americans love the illusion of the outlaw that rises but never falls, which Lansky did, albeit largely out of the spotlight. This is why many students of the old west insist that Butch Cassidy made it out of Bolivia and settled under a pseudonym somewhere in the southwest. Because few could witness the reality of Lansky’s everyday life, the culture that only knew his name made up for what they didn’t know by dreaming up the rest: Think Lee Strasberg’s Hyman Roth in The Godfather II, a Jewish Yoda casually dividing Cuba into mob subsidiaries as he cuts his birthday cake.
Lansky’s name has long since become a proxy for the unexplained events of the 20th century. A pundit could always sound clued-in by throwing out his name when asked about the Kennedy assassination, the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa, why J Edgar Hoover took so long to go after the mob and, of course, anything super-secret undertaken by Israel’s Mossad.
A hallucinatory biography of Lansky by Hank Messick had been circulating just before the Godfather films featuring the subhead, “The Mob Runs America and Lansky Runs the Mob.” An elfin retiree running America from a one-bedroom Miami Beach condo? As the man himself might have said, “Oy.”
It was Messick that began the rumor that Lansky had squirreled away $300 million by the late 1960s, a figure that would run into the billions in today’s dollars. The “maguffin” of director Eytan Rockaway’s new film is the question of where that money went.
Fake news about Lansky is evergreen almost four decades after his death. A flimsy allegation by a preposterous source asserted that he had blackmailed Hoover into submission by keeping a photo of the FBI director wearing a dress in his safe deposit box.
I’ve been through the contents of Lansky’s safe deposit box and, alas, no photo. Wouldn’t he have used it before Hoover virtually chased him out of the country in the early 1970s? Plus, if his cash-strapped family had it, they surely would have sold it, especially given that Lansky’s severely disabled son, Buddy, died in a down-market nursing home after his father’s death.
So, where is Lansky’s $300 million?
I’ll tell you: For one thing, he never had it. For another, the fortune that he once did have was lost when his Havana casinos fell to Castro. The central lesson I took away from studying the man’s speaking and writing patterns, the books he read (Security Analysis by Benjamin Graham), and the private notes he made in them was that he never wanted to be a gangster. He wanted what the most ruthless capitalists in American history did: to become respectable. Respectable meant legal. The best place to accomplish this was in Cuba where his casinos were owned lawfully under dictator Fulgencio Batista’s government. So, Lansky put nearly all his money there.
Being an outlaw is hard when the mightiest government in history is hunting you based largely on your legend. No, what happened to Lansky in real life is what happens to many of us: we eventually get muscled out of the game by a new generation of players who are younger and better equipped. Lansky lamented that he simply couldn’t compete in the gaming business against the IPOs of Wall Street-backed companies while the government was planting listening devices his bathroom. But his prediction was right that legalized gambling would explode once “the establishment” ran the Jews and Italians out.
Many years ago, not long after Lansky’s wife Teddy died, I sat among his books and private records with their granddaughter, Cynthia, in Miami Beach as I researched a historical novel I was writing about his activities during World War II. I thought about how he claimed to have kept his business in his hat. I placed Meyer’s straw hat on my head and couldn’t believe how tiny it was.