Nathan Abrams reviews a new biography of the gangster Bugsy Siegel and argues we need to study Jewish criminality in more depth.
Of the nearly fifty volumes in Yale’s Jewish Lives series, this is the first about a bootlegger, racketeer, gambler and murderer, writes Michael Shnayerson at the outset of his new biography of Bugsy Siegel.
By the time he died at the age of 41, Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel had personally killed a dozen men and overseen the contract killings of many more. His is the story of many American Jews – either immigrants or the children of immigrants — born into poverty on New York’s Lower East side in 1906 who, barred from most professions by anti-semitism crime was the means by which Jewish immigrants could transcend their humble origins and enjoy the fruits of the American Dream.
Siegel stood out and not just for his chosen career route. At nearly 5 ft 10, he was dashingly handsome with deep blue eyes and a strong profile but he also had a terrifying temper and a lust for violence that even alarmed his friend and partner in crime, Meyer Lansky. Woebetide you called him by his nickname (said to be based on the slang term ‘bugs’, meaning ‘crazy’, used to describe his erratic behaviour), which he hated, to his face. You would soon learn how violent he was. He preferred to be called Ben or Mr. Siegel
Siegel was involved in many exploits, making his fortune during the Prohibition era in the United States, and beyond but perhaps he will be best known for helping to develop Las Vegas as a casino resort. The Las Vegas we know today was built by Jews like Benjamin Siegel.
Before his involvement, gambling in Nevada existed in two places: Reno, which was dominated by a handful of Christian families and where Jews were not welcome, and Las Vegas where they were, which is where they decided to start their gambling business there.
Back in 1941, there was a smattering of small Western-style wagon wheels and sawdust joints that catered to the locals. It was still a hot, dry, desert cowboy town with little to recommend it other than its proximity to Los Angeles and that it could be easily reached by car and aeroplane. Siegel had the foresight, drive and vision to build and open the Flamingo in 1946 even if he didn’t live to enjoy fully the fruits of his labour as he was killed the following year.
Nor did he witness how, over the decade that followed, most of the big casinos such as The Desert in the Sands, the Sahara, the Riviera, the Dunes, the Stardust, the Tropicana, the Royal Nevada and Caesar’s Palace were constructed by builders most of whom were Jewish. Nearly all had shady pasts, Shnayerson writes, but they hid them behind business suits for they were businessmen.
Today the Flamingo might stand in a state of near disuse as a large but low-class casino known for its cheap food and cheap rooms in a sea of grander resorts but Siegel’s imprint on Las Vegas grows with each brand new super resort. The Bellagio, the Wynn, the Venetian, the Mandalay and the MGM Grand all stand in homage to the man whose manic ambition got the Flamingo finished and showed what could be done. Without Bugsy Siegel, Las Vegas would not be the Las Vegas that we know today.
‘Most people have never heard of Jewish gangsters’, Rich Cohen suggested in his book Tough Jews. ‘They do not believe they ever existed’. But Jewish gangsters still exist today; they just don’t look, dress and act as Bugsy Siegel did. If anything, there is an honesty to Siegel’s gangsterism. Today’s gangsters look and act like Bernie Madoff, Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein and are unfortunately much harder to detect until it is too late because they are hidden behind an illusory façade of white-collar respectability, assimilation, upward mobility, private school and Ivy League college education and privilege. We need a deeper study into this sort of Jewish criminality.
Bugsy Siegel: The Dark Side of the American Dream by Michael Shnayerson is published by Yale University Press priced £16.98.