Bugsy Siegel

Bugsy Siegel

Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel (February 28, 1906 – June 20, 1947) was an American gangster, who was behind large-scale development of Las Vegas.

Early life

Siegel was born in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to a poor Jewish family originally from Letychiv, [Chapin, David A. and Weinstock, Ben, The Road from Letichev: The history and culture of a forgotten Jewish community in Eastern Europe, Volume 2. ISBN 0-595-00667-1 iUniverse, Lincoln, NE, 2000.] Podolia Governorate of the Russian Empire, in modern Ukraine. As a boy, Siegel joined a street gang on Lafayette Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and first committed mainly thefts, until, with another youth named Moe Sedway, he devised his own protection racket: pushcart merchants were forced to pay him a dollar or he would incinerate their merchandise on the spot. [cite web | url=http://www.crimelibrary.com/gangsters_outlaws/mob_bosses/siegel/days_2.html| title=Bugsy Siegel | author=Mark Gribben | access=2008-01-11 | publisher=Crime Library]

During adolescence, Siegel befriended Meyer Lansky, who was forming a small mob whose criminal activities expanded to include gambling and car theft. Siegel reputedly also worked as the mob's hit man, whom Lansky would sometimes hire out to other crime families.

In 1930, Lansky and Siegel built close ties to Charles "Lucky" Luciano and Frank Costello, both future bosses of the Genovese crime family. Siegel became a bootlegger and was also associated with Albert "Mad Hatter" Anastasia. Siegel was heavily involved in bootlegging operations in New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia. During the so-called Castellammarese War in 1930-1931, they finished the war by killing Sal Maranzano for Lucky Luciano; Luciano had eliminated Maranzano's rival and his own boss, Joe Masseria, ending the formal war, before having Maranzano murdered. Siegel reputedly had a hand in Maranzano's murder and later in the formation of Murder, Inc. In 1932, he was arrested for gambling and bootlegging but got off with only a fine. Lansky and Siegel assisted in Luciano's brief alliance with Dutch Schultz and killed rival loan sharks Louis "Pretty" Amberg and Joseph Amberg in 1935.


In 1937, the East Coast mob sent Siegel to California to develop syndicate gambling rackets with Los Angeles mobster Jack Dragna. Once in L.A., Siegel recruited gang boss Mickey Cohen as his lieutenant. Siegel used syndicate money to set up a national wire service to help the East Coast mob quicken their returns.

On January 28, 1929, Siegel married Esta Krakower, his childhood sweetheart and sister of hit man Whitey Krakower. Siegel eventually moved Esta and their two daughters, Millicent and Barbara to the West Coast. Siegel had several mistresses; four of whom included actresses Ketti Gallian, Wendy Barrie, Marie "The Body" MacDonald, and Hollywood socialite Dorothy DiFrasso.

With the aid of DiFrasso and actor friend George Raft, Siegel gained entry into Hollywood's inner circle, allegedly using his contacts to extort the movie studios. At this point in his career, Siegel started living in extravagant fashion; on his tax returns Siegel claimed to earn his living through legal gambling at the Santa Anita racetrack near Los Angeles.

Siegel soon started an affair with Virginia Hill. The Alabama-born Hill lived in a mansion in Beverly Hills that she rented from Metropolitan Opera baritone Lawrence Tibbett. Siegel became a frequent guest at the Hill mansion. There were rumors that the couple had secretly married in Mexico, where Hill helped Siegel establish drug dealing contacts. However, Siegel's relationship with Hill did not deter Siegel from his compulsive womanizing.

On November 22, 1939, Siegel, Whitey Krakower, and two other gang members killed Harry "Big Greenie" Greenberg. Greenberg had become a police informant, and Louis "Lepke" Buchalter, boss of Murder, Inc., ordered his killing. Siegel was arrested and tried for the Greenberg murder. Whitey Krakower was killed before he could face trial. Siegel was acquitted on the Greenberg murder, but his reputation was in ruins. During the trial, the newspapers revealed Siegel's sordid past and started referring to him as "Bugsy". He hated the nickname, "Bugsy" (said to be based on the slang term "bugs", meaning "crazy", and used to describe his sometimes erratic behavior), and wouldn't allow anyone to call him that to his face.

Las Vegas

Like many of his gangster counterparts, Siegel yearned to be legitimate. The perfume of legitimacy and respectability he craved was still well beyond his reach. But by the spring of 1946, that perfume became stronger - wafting in on the heat waves of William R. Wilkerson's Flamingo.

Las Vegas gave Ben Siegel his second opportunity to reinvent himself. Siegel had originally traveled to southern Nevada in 1934 with Meyer Lansky's lieutenant Moe Sedway, on Lansky's orders to explore possibilities for expanding their operations. Lansky had turned the desert over to Siegel. But Siegel, wanting nothing to do with it, turned it over to Moe Sedway and fled with lightning speed for the lights and glamor of Hollywood.

Lansky pressured Siegel to represent them in Wilkerson's desert project. Someone had to watchdog their interests. Siegel, who knew Wilkerson and lived near him in Beverly Hills, was the obvious choice as a liaison. But Siegel was infuriated. He wanted no part in any operation that took him back to Nevada on a permanent basis. It meant forsaking his comfortable Beverly Hills nest and Hollywood playboy lifestyle and enduring the sweltering heat of the Nevada Desert. At Lansky's insistence, however, Siegel reluctantly consented.

Throughout the spring of 1946, Siegel proved remarkably useful. He obtained black-market building materials through his connections. The post-war shortages that had dogged construction were no longer a problem. At first Siegel seemed content to do things Wilkerson's way. His desire to learn everything about the project from the ground up took precedence over his "sportsman" lifestyle. It also seems to have temporarily subdued his aggressive impulses. Under Wilkerson's tutelage, Siegel played the willing pupil, earnestly learning the mechanics of building an enterprise.

The role of the pupil did not come easily to Benny Siegel. Perhaps outdistanced and afraid of being upstaged by his mentor, Siegel began to feel intimidated and paranoid. He grew increasingly resentful of Wilkerson's talents and vision. As time went on, the gangster's respectful admiration disintegrated into an insane, all-consuming jealousy. It all started quietly enough. Siegel reverted to his familiar role; the big-shot. He began making decisions on his own without Wilkerson's consultation or authorization. Informing work crews that Wilkerson had put him in charge, Siegel ordered changes which conflicted with the blue-printed plans.

The problem came to a head when Siegel openly protested his watchdog role. He demanded more hands-on involvement in the project. In an effort to appease the gangster and keep the project moving smoothly, Wilkerson agreed to a compromise. It was mutually agreed that Siegel would supervise the hotel portion while Wilkerson retained control of everything else.

As time passed, Siegel's grandiose ambitions mushroomed into uncontrolled greed. Unhappy with the business arrangements originally negotiated by Harry Rothberg, the gangster began to view Wilkerson, who held the reins of power, as a major obstacle. In May 1946, Siegel decided that the original agreement had been a mistake. It had to be altered to give him full control of the Flamingo. Siegel offered to buy out Wilkerson's creative participation, not with cash, but corporate stock - an additional 5 percent ownership in the operation. On June 20, 1946, Benny formed the Nevada Project Corporation of California, naming himself as president. He was also the largest principal stockholder in the operation, which defined everyone else merely as shareholders. From this point on the Flamingo became effectively a syndicate-run operation.

Siegel then began spending with a free hand. He launched an all-out spending spree that was staggering even by today's standards. Indulging in a taste for the astronomically expensive, Siegel demanded the finest building that money could buy at a time when wartime shortages were still being felt. Siegel decreed that each bathroom of the ninety-three room hotel should have its own private sewer system. Cost: $1,150,000. More toilets were ordered than needed. Cost: $50,000. Because of the new plumbing alterations, the boiler room, now too small at its original capacity, had to be enlarged. Cost: $113,000. Siegel also ordered a larger kitchen. Cost: $29,000. Adding to the budgetary over-runs were problems with dishonest contractors and disgruntled unpaid builders. By day, trucks regularly delivered black market goods. By night the same materials were often pilfered, and resold to Siegel a few days later. As costs soared, Siegel's checks began bouncing. By October 1946, the project's costs had soared above $4 million. In the spring of 1947, the Flamingo would clock in at over $6,000,000.

The first indication of trouble for the gangster came in early November. The syndicate issued a stern ultimatum: either provide them with a full accounting or forfeit future funding. But the last thing Siegel wanted to do was produce a balance sheet. After the syndicate's refusal of help, Siegel waged a reckless campaign of private fundraising. He was so desperate for cash that he even sold nonexistent stock. Suddenly, Siegel was in a hurry to finish the hotel. He doubled his work force, believing the project could be completed in half the time. But it was the costs, not the building, that began rising even faster. Siegel paid overtime and even double-time. In some cases, special bonuses tied to project deadlines were offered in hope of increasing productivity. By the end of November work on the casino was nearly finished.

Under immense pressure to have the hotel start making some money, Benny moved up the grand opening from Wilkerson's original date of March 1, 1947 to the day after Christmas, 1946. Although the hotel portion was still incomplete he was hoping to generate enough revenue from the casino to complete the project and repay angry investors. Siegel formally announced that the hotel would be open and ready for occupancy the day after Christmas. Its gala opening would be held that same evening, December 26,1946. Siegel managed to generate considerable confusion regarding the opening date itself. Acting on a whim, the gangster had suddenly decided that a weekend would be more likely to entice the much-needed celebrities away from home. Invitations were subsequently sent out for Saturday, December 28. The indecisive Siegel changed his mind yet again. Invitees were hurriedly notified by phone that the opening had been changed back to its original date, the 26th.

While locals jammed the opening, the masses of celebrities Siegel has been counting on never materialized. A handful of celebrities did motor in from Los Angeles despite the appalling weather. Some of the celebrities present were June Haver, Vivian Blaine, George Raft, Sonny Tufts, Brian Donlevy and Charles Coburn. They were welcomed by a cacophony of construction noise and a lobby draped with decorators' drop cloths. The desert's first air-conditioning system collapsed at regular intervals, leaving guests cursing the heat. While visitors did find gambling tables in operation at the Flamingo, the luxury rooms that would have served as the lure for them to stay and gamble longer were not ready. After two weeks of operation the Flamingo's plush gaming tables were $275,000 in the red and ended up shutting down the entire operation in late January 1947. [cite book
last = Wilkerson III
first = W.R.
authorlink =
coauthors =
title = The Man Who Invented Las Vegas
publisher = Ciro's Books
date = 2000
location =
pages = 73-104
url = http://cirosbooks.com/man_who_invented_las_vegas.html
doi =
id =
isbn = 0-9676643-0-6
] [ [http://www.casinoconnectionnevada.com/articles/Vegas_and_the_Mob Casino Connection Nevada | Vegas and the Mob ] ]


On the plaques above see the name Max Siegel, Siegel's father, whose Hebrew name is "Mordechai Dov ben Reb (son of) Beirush HaLevi" (from the Hebraic tribe of the Levites) and the one for Siegel, whose Hebrew name is "Bairush HaLevi ben Reb Mordechai Dov HaLevi;" from this we see that Bugsy was named for his grandfather, Dov, meaning Bear (Bairush is the Yiddish for Dov), which was Americanized to Benjamin. All fathers are called Reb as an honorifc on memorial plaques; Reb means "teacher" as in Rabbi.] ]

On the night of June 20, 1947, as Siegel sat with his associate Allen Smiley in Virginia Hill's Beverly Hills home reading the "Los Angeles Times", an unknown gunman entered the backyard and fired at him through the window with a .30-caliber military M1 carbine, hitting him many times including twice in the head. No one was ever charged with the murder, and the crime remains unsolved.cite news |first= |last= |authorlink= |coauthors= |title=Siegel, Gangster, Is Slain On Coast. Co-chief of 'Bug and Meyer Mob' Here. Is Victim of Shots Fired Through Window. |url= |quote=Benjamin Siegel, 42 years old, former New York gangster, was slain last midnight by a fusillade of bullets fired through the living room window of a Beverly Hills house where he was staying. |work=New York Times |date=June 22, 1947, Sunday |accessdate=2007-10-31 ]

Though popular descriptions held that Siegel was shot in the eye, an autopsy revealed that the bullet actually entered the back of his skull, and exited through an eye socket; investigators found the eye across the room. The cause of death was cerebral hemorrhage. According to Florabel Muir, "Four of the nine shots fired that night destroyed a white marble statue of Bacchus on a grand piano, and then lodged in the far wall".

In the Bialystoker Synagogue on Manhattan's Lower East Side, Siegel is memorialized by a Yahrtzeit (remembrance) plaque that marks his death date so mourners can say Kaddish for the anniversary of his passing. Siegel's plaque is just below that of his father, Max Siegel, who died two months prior to his son's murder.

Cultural references

*In the 1969 novel "The Godfather", and the 1972 film adaptation, the character of Moe Greene played by Alex Rocco, was heavily based on Siegel. Although Greene's death is not described in the novel, in the film he is shot through the eye evoking Siegel's death. Additionally the film's sequel adds a new character related to Greene, based upon Siegel's partner Meyer Lansky, named Hyman Roth. [cite news |first= |last= |authorlink= |coauthors= |title=The Not-so-famous Alex Rocco |url=http://nl.newsbank.com/nl-search/we/Archives?p_product=BG&p_theme=bg&p_action=search&p_maxdocs=200&p_topdoc=1&p_text_direct-0=0EADEF1D219E2215&p_field_direct-0=document_id&p_perpage=10&p_sort=YMD_date:D&s_trackval=GooglePM |quote=Until this year, Alex Rocco was best known as Moe Greene, the Bugsy Siegel character who was shot in the eyeglasses at the end of "The Godfather. ... |work=Boston Globe |date=November 13, 1989 |accessdate=2008-07-20 ] [cite news |first= |last= |authorlink= |coauthors= |title=Snap Judgment: Betting against the odds |url=http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull&cid=1201523800474 |quote= Moe Greene is, of course, Lansky partner Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, who spearheaded the building of Las Vegas's first luxury casino-hotel, The Flamingo, ... |work=Jerusalem Post |date=January 31, 2008 |accessdate=2008-07-20 ]
*In the show The Sopranos, Brendan Filone is also executed with a bullet clean through the eye. The execution is referred to as a "Moe Greene Special", in reference to the way in which Moe Greene was killed, which in turn was based on Siegel.
*Sergio Leone's 1984 film "Once Upon a Time in America" and the obscure novel "The Hoods" upon which it was based, were loosely based upon the lives of Siegel and Lansky. [cite news |first= |last= |authorlink= |coauthors= |title=Bending the Truth |url=http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-112704323.html |quote= ... saga around Jewish mob boss David "Noodles" Aaronson (Robert De Niro). The character was inspired by Meyer Lansky, a Russian immigrant who rose from the ... |work=The Mirror |date=January 30, 2004 |accessdate=2008-07-20 ]
*In the 1991 "Bugsy", Warren Beatty portrays Siegel.
*In the 1981 NBC mini-series, "The Gangster Chronicles", Joe Penny is cast as Siegel.
*Played by "Harvey Keitel" in Virginia Hill: Mistress to the Mob, 1974
*In the 1991 movie "Mobsters" Siegel is played by Richard Grieco.
*In the 1999 TV movie "Lansky", the adult Siegel is played by Eric Roberts.
*In the TV series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", the character "Angel" claims to have known Siegel.
*In the 1999 episode of the TV series "" "Badda-Bing Badda-Bang", mob character Frankie Eyes (played by Robert Miano) remarks that Bugsy Siegel "built" Las Vegas and laments that there is "not one statue" to him in the whole city. The exact same line is said by Hyman Roth in "The Godfather Part II".
* In the song 2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted by 2pac, Snoop Doggy Dogg refers to Siegel in the verse: "...but my dream is to own a fly casino like Bugsy Siegel, and do it all legal...".
*In Tim Powers' novel "Last Call", Siegel holds the supernatural office of the Fisher King of the American west. The construction of the Flamingo and Siegel's murder are both tied into a clandestine, magical conflict surrounding his kingship.


Further reading

*"Hollywood's Celebrity Gangster. The Incredible Life and Times of Mickey Cohen" by Brad Lewis. (Enigma Books: New York, 2007. ISBN 978-1-929631-65-0)

External links

* [http://www.bugsysiegel.net/lair Bugsysiegel.net] , various information including a copy of Siegel's [http://www.bugsysiegel.net/deathcert.html death certificate]
* [http://foia.fbi.gov/foiaindex/siege.htm FBI files on Siegel (2,421 pages, heavily censored)] From the FBI Freedom of Information Act.
* [http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=954 Bugsy Siegel] at Find-A-Grave
* [http://www.roadsideamerica.com/sights/sightstory.php?tip_AttrId=%3D13488 Bugsy Siegel memorial in Las Vegas]
* [http://www.j-grit.com/criminals-benjamin-bugsy-siegel.html Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel Profile and NY Times Article ] at [http://www.j-grit.com J-Grit: The Internet Index of Tough Jews]
* [http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/lasvegas/peopleevents/p_siegel.html PBS American Experience]

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