LET'S REMINISCE: Who was Bugsy Siegel?

By Jerry Lincecum
Special to the Herald Democrat

We Americans have a fascination with gangsters that comes largely from Hollywood movies featuring glamorous actors as plausible stand-ins for real-life mobsters like Al Capone. Another example is the slickly lethal Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel—blue-eyed, handsome and physically fit. If Siegel were to be portrayed believably in the movies, the part would have to go to a charismatic star like Gary Cooper, or Clark Gable (both of whom were guests at Siegel’s parties in Los Angeles). Warren Beatty played the title role in the 1991 film “Bugsy.” This murderous hood is quoted as saying, “Class, that’s the only thing that counts in life. Without class and style a man’s just a bum.”

Siegel (1906-1947) grew up on New York’s Lower East Side. This was an American Jewish enclave of more than one million people, writes Michael Shnayerson in his new biography of Siegel’s life and crimes. The opportunity for advancement was slim, except for those who forced their way into “gangster capitalism.” Siegel, whose father worked in a factory as a pants presser, quit school early to help support his parents and siblings. By the age of 12, he was extorting protection money from pushcart peddlers and carriage drivers. What distinguished Siegel from run-of-the-mill urchins was a total absence of fear. He became known as a beast.

In 1918 Siegel met another neighborhood boy, 16-year-old Meyer Lansky, and the two teamed up in a gang. With the start of Prohibition in 1920, Siegel and Lansky became full-fledged criminals, running booze for a bootlegger. By 21 Siegel was already a rich man, well able to support his family; in time, he would put his younger brother through medical school. But his family was always ashamed of his money and what he did to earn it.

Throughout Prohibition, Siegel’s dark star ascended. By the late 1920s, Siegel and Lansky were said to be bringing more booze into the United States than any other bootleggers. In 1931 the two joined forces with other mob bosses, merging Irish, Italian and Jewish gangs into a “Syndicate” meant to minimize bloodshed and maximize profits. When violence persisted within the new organization (whose interests now ranged into gambling), the Syndicate tapped “Murder, Inc.” as its enforcement arm. This squad of killers, on retainer, would eventually claim a collective body count of somewhere between 400 and 1,000. Siegel became known for doing many of his own jobs himself.

“Was the perpetrator of these atrocities a sociopath?” his biographer asks, and then goes out of his way to place his homicidal subject in the fairest possible light. He also puts Siegel in a specific cultural framework. While Siegel didn’t attend synagogue, we learn that a rabbi officiated at his 1929 marriage.

Coaxed by Lansky, Siegel visited Los Angeles in 1933 to explore new moneymaking opportunities. His arrival was smoothed by his old New York crony George Raft, a fellow gangster and Broadway dancer-turned-Hollywood actor. Siegel muscled in on the management of a Sunset Strip gambling club. He eventually built a grand house, where he threw lavish parties for the biggest stars.

But tragedy (or at least pathos) lay ahead. First, Siegel fell hard for an actress, who broke up his marriage and took over his life. Then his ambition launched him on a venture to build a pleasure-palace in Las Vegas. The Flamingo Hotel went millions over budget; its opening was a disaster, and it lost money its first several months of operation, angering Siegel’s Syndicate partners.

On the night of June 20, 1947, Siegel, age 41, was shot five times while sitting in the living room of his girl friend’s house in Beverly Hills.

Who killed Bugsy Siegel? No one was indicted. This biography walks readers through possible answers. In the end, we’re led to conclude that it was Siegel’s hubris that did him in. Determined to prove he could make his American dream come true, he squeezed out the experienced people involved with the Flamingo project. Indicative of Siegel’s poor judgment was his decree that the casino’s moat be populated by pink flamingos. Out of their element in the desert heat, the pretty birds died.

Jerry Lincecum

Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories. He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject: jlincecum@me.com.