The History Channel’s programs on the history of organized crime in America document how the mob’s transition from bootlegging to club ownership and gambling was overseen by a foresighted man from New York City, Meyer Lansky, who had grown up with several future gangsters including Bugsy Siegal and Lucky Luciano. He was the model for the character Hyman Roth in the movie “Godfather II” and also appears on the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire.”
Lansky, unlike many of his underworld colleagues, managed to avoid lengthy jail sentences and died of natural causes in Miami in 1983.
His only daughter, Sandra Lansky, recently wrote a memoir about her father entitled “Daughter of the King; Growing Up in Gangland.”
Sandra was born in 1938 when her father was married to his first wife, Anne Citron, who was the daughter of a wealthy produce wholesaler who also owned a chain of grocery stores. She writes that her father may have married his mother as a way to become a legitimate businessman and get out of the bootlegging racket, but he apparently could not overcome the appeal of easy money that crime offered him.
Sandra and her two brothers grew up in a New York City penthouse with a retinue of servants and a variety of men who she called “uncles” who ran the New York City Mafia families.
Her brother Buddy was born with multiple sclerosis and Lansky writes of how her family moved to Boston for a time so that he could receive treatment at a children’s hospital. She also tells of how her father had a longstanding relationship with several Boston mobsters that was rekindled during the family’s sojourn in that city.
After her parents divorced while she was in grammar school and her mother descends into mental illness, Sandra moved to Florida to live with her father and stepmother. She married at the young age of 15 and her father set up her husband in a Texas-themed restaurant in New York City called “Spindletop” in recognition of the East Texas oil field of that name.
A son is born from that marriage, but she writes of how she eventually figured out that her husband’s interest was in the handsome men that was around him was of a romantic nature and she describes him as a “gay fortune hunter.”
After the couple divorced, she lived an uninhibited single woman’s life in the Big Apple. She visited many of the elite restaurants and clubs that are operated by her father’s associates. At this time, her father is oversaw the development of casinos in Las Vegas, Florida, Cuba and several other locales.
One of the more chilling events contained in Lansky’s memoirs involved a dinner she had with her father and a New Jersey mobster, Willie Moretti, who had aided Frank Sinatra early in his career.
When Moretti begins to tell Sandra about how her father interrupted his honeymoon with her mother in 1929 to attend a meeting of bootleggers that included famed New York gangster Dutch Schultz, the senior Lansky glares at him and says, “Willie, you talk to much,” and abruptly orders the check.
Several months later, Sandra sees a headline in a New York paper that indicates that Moretti was shot dead in a restaurant in New Jersey.
Sandra blames Richard Nixon for the legal actions that were initiated against her father during his presidency and attributes it to a grudge that Nixon had against him. But it is also possible that Nixon’s duty was to see “that the laws are faithfully executed” may have been a factor as well.
The senior Lansky fled to Israel in 1970 after he was indicted for skimming monies from casinos he controlled and sought refuge there as a Jew under the “law of return,” but the Israeli Supreme Court orderd him deported due to his criminal connections.
After he is forced to return to the United States, Lansky is acquitted of the criminal charges filed against him.
By the late 1970s, Meyer Lansky, who was a heavy smoker, suffered from cancer and heart ailments. Forbes magazine had estimated his net worth to be over $300 million and as his health declines he tells his daughter that if she ever needs money that she should go to his brother Jake Lansky, who operated several of his casinos.
While Sandra does not indicate what she received from her father’s estate, she writes that when she approached her uncle for money he tells her that he can’t help her and that her stepmother asks him all the time for money.
But we are told that when Jake Lansky passed away in 1983, his will “left his family vastly better off” financially than Sandra and her brothers and stepmother were.
What became of the fortune amassed by Meyer Lansky is a mystery.
William F. O’Brien is an Oklahoma City attorney.