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Meyer Lansky: The Mob's Accountant

May 20, 2022
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23
minutes

He was a famous organised criminal known for his superior mathematical skills.

In this episode, we'll learn how Meyer Lansky took the American criminal underworld by storm, built an empire and managed to evade the authorities.

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Meyer Lansky, the man known as the “Mob’s Accountant”.

[00:00:31] Meyer Lansky was a legendary figure in American Mafia circles. So much so that he even had his own character in the all-time classic Mafia film the Godfather - Hyman Roth. 

[00:00:44] At one point, his total wealth was estimated at around $300 million.  

[00:00:50] Yet when Lansky died, there was no trace of these hidden millions. 

[00:00:56] So, in this episode we’ll look at the life of Meyer Lansky, how he managed to become a well-respected member of the mob, despite not being Italian, how he befriended the Cuban president and helped build Las Vegas all while spending very little time behind bars.

[00:01:16] OK then, let’s get started.

[00:01:21] Meyer Lansky was born in 1902, in what is modern-day Belarus, to Jewish-Polish parents. 

[00:01:30] The family emigrated, they relocated, to New York in 1911, under pressure to escape the anti-semitic, the anti-Jewish environment that was widespread in Imperial Russia.

[00:01:46] Lansky's father found work in Brooklyn, where the family first settled. 

[00:01:51] Lansky was a good pupil at school and appeared to take his lessons in his stride. Later on in life, his excellent mathematics skills would help him to earn a fortune and propel him to the top tier of the mob

[00:02:09] While he may have had more money than he knew what to do with later on in life, as a young boy there was never much money around. 

[00:02:18] In an effort to cut costs, Lansky's family moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan's Lower East Side. 

[00:02:26] During the early 1900s, the Lower East Side was home to a large number of Jewish families from Eastern Europe, often working in garment manufacturing or selling goods from pavement stalls

[00:02:41] At the time, the Lower East Side was one of the most densely populated places in the world, with families living in cramped, overcrowded apartments with very basic sanitation facilities.

[00:02:56] It was here that Lansky began to deviate, to stray from the straight and narrow.

[00:03:04] While Lansky continued to do well at his new school, he quickly became involved in local kid’s street gangs and illegal street gambling. 

[00:03:14] While Lansky was at school, he became friends with another Jewish boy called Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel. The pair would form a long-lasting friendship and go on to create the Bugs and Meyer Mob - a very violent Prohibition-era gang. 

[00:03:34] Lansky's move to the Lower East Side was also responsible for his close relationship with the Italian Charles “Lucky” Luciano, who would later become one of the most powerful figures of organised crime in America. 

[00:03:50] Legend has it that Luciano was the child leader of a gang of boys originally from Italy who would pick on Jewish children, like Lansky and Siegel, forcing them to pay them protection money. 

[00:04:04] This practice is also known as an extortion racket

[00:04:08] It’s a common criminal activity, “protection”. You pay me otherwise I’ll beat you up. It’s one of the simplest Mafia extortion techniques, making it an easy way for most gangsters to get started.

[00:04:24] Despite his short height and younger age, landscape refused to give in to surrender to Luciano. His plucky, his brave, refusals led to Luciano respecting him and they then became friends, and later business associates. 

[00:04:44] His partnership with Luciano would open the door to working with high-ranking, older mob members such as Arnold Rothstein, a man nicknamed “The Brain”, who was rumoured to have fixed the 1919 World Series in Major League Baseball. 

[00:05:02] At the time, the Jewish and the Italian mobs were the two main criminal groups operating in New York, and they didn’t get along, they were not friends. Each side stuck to their ethnic roots and competed for power, money and territory. 

[00:05:20] Unlike previous generations who formed these independent criminal groups based on their ethnicity or nationality, Lansky, Luciano and Siegel were part of a new generation, one where criminals from different backgrounds would work together to maximise their profits. 

[00:05:40] When Lansky finished school, aged 14 as was common at the time, he got his first real job working in the manufacturing industry.

[00:05:50] Later, he progressed to working on cars as a mechanic, but he still kept his street gambling habits from his school days and still kept contact with street gang members. Before long, he took up a second job in the evening, working as a strong-arm man at a gambling parlour

[00:06:11] Aside from providing security, strong-arm men were also often very violent, using threats, force and intimidation as required by their bosses. 

[00:06:24] At this time, organised criminals mainly made money from illegal gambling and extortion, but in 1920 there would be a new, incredibly lucrative money-making opportunity: Prohibition, or the banning of alcohol.

[00:06:42] We actually did an episode on Prohibition a couple of weeks ago, it was one of our member-only ones, so if you’re interested in that one I’d recommend checking it out.

[00:06:53] In 1920, when Prohibition came into effect, sales of alcohol were forced underground, and a golden opportunity was presented. 

[00:07:04] Naturally, people didn’t stop drinking altogether, and the illegal supply of alcohol, or bootlegging, as it was known, was taken over by criminal gangs. Bootlegging often went hand-in-hand with the illegal gambling industry, with drinking now forced to take place behind locked doors. 

[00:07:26] Lansky decided to leave his day job altogether and go full-time with his illegal activities. 

[00:07:34] Lansky and Siegel became partners specialising in bootlegging, in the distribution and sale of illegal alcohol. 

[00:07:43] But Lansky wasn't only involved with bootlegged alcohol. 

[00:07:48] His Bugs and Meyer Mob, as it had became known, had developed a violent reputation, specialising in assassinations - performing hits, or murders, to order, as well as illegal gambling, truck hijacking and protection rackets

[00:08:06] Lansky was reportedly the brains, organising the criminal activities while Siegel would handle the violent crime.

[00:08:16] Lansky and Siegel worked in close partnership with Luciano, as well as providing him with the hitmen he needed to reorganise the mafia. 

[00:08:26] Lansky also became a protégé of the powerful Rothstein, the man nicknamed The Brain. 

[00:08:33] Clearly Lansky was on his way up in the criminal underworld. 

[00:08:39] He was Jewish, not Italian, which would mean he would struggle to ever be accepted at the very upper echelons, right at the top, but his brains and his business sense meant that he became trusted by many major mob figures. 

[00:08:55] This became a winning formula and Lansky was known for his honest and fair dealings

[00:09:03] Given his new status, it is no surprise that Lansky was an influential presence at the now infamous mafia conference in Atlantic city in 1929.

[00:09:15] The Atlantic City Conference was the brainchild, the invention of, Lucky Luciano who wanted the Italian and Jewish mobs to pool their resources and talent, and work together rather than in competition with one another. 

[00:09:34] The conference was attended by all of the big mafia kingpins and led to the creation of something called the United Crime Syndicate. 

[00:09:43] The logic was simple. We’ll all make more money and have less trouble with the police if we work together rather than fight each other.

[00:09:53] After Prohibition ended in 1933, and alcohol was suddenly legal again, Lansky and his other mob colleagues needed to find another way to make money.

[00:10:05] Illegal money, of course, as making money legally is just… well, it's hard and boring.

[00:10:13] For Lansky, this would be gambling, which was still illegal.

[00:10:17] He had experience from his school day street corner gambling games and his superior mathematical skills meant that he understood the basics of gambling much better than some other criminals who were simply out to make cash by cheating.

[00:10:35] From the very beginning, Lansky was determined to set up his gambling business fairly. 

[00:10:42] Even though this might sound like a contradiction, Lansky wanted his customers to have confidence in his gambling establishments. 

[00:10:50] He knew that the house, the business, the casino always wins in the end.

[00:10:56] So rather than rigging his tables so that they paid out quickly, Lansky made sure that his establishments were always fair. 

[00:11:06] Thanks to his honesty in this respect, Lansky's gambling ventures really began to take off and with them, his profits. 

[00:11:16] But, not content with illegal gambling dens and bootlegging, Lansky wanted to open what was known as a "carpet joint".

[00:11:26] “Joint” in this context means a place, but it can also be slang for a prison or a cigarette containing marijuana - it's a great example of the different contextual meanings of slang words in English.

[00:11:41] Going back to what Lansky wanted to open it was a “carpet joint” - and "carpet joint" is a slang term for a luxury casino. 

[00:11:52] Lansky's first big venture was the creation of a casino in Saratoga Springs, New York. 

[00:11:59] He partnered with Mafia bigwigs, or VIPs, Frank Costello and Joe Adonis. 

[00:12:06] Like numerous other illegal gambling establishments, their casino was protected by corrupt local politicians. 

[00:12:14] In fact, it was due to his illegal gambling operation in Saratoga Springs that Lansky would spend his only time in prison, - a total of just 24 days. This was due to a widespread crackdown on illegal gambling which officials and local residents had previously turned a blind eye to

[00:12:36] Lansky decided to head south, for sun, sand, and easily-bribed politicians. He went to Florida, and opened a series of casinos in the state with the unofficial agreement of the local government. Illegal gambling had become a major source of income for some local governments. 

[00:12:57] Criminals would make huge donations to local synagogues, churches, hospitals and city organisations. Local residents and politicians, many of whom benefited directly from this illegal industry, would often turn a blind eye to these casinos. Lansky's reputation as someone who was able to build well-run, respectable casinos meant that he was invited to Cuba in the late 1930s, by a then military colonel, Fulgencio Batista.

[00:13:30] Batista had a vision to make Cuba into a playground for the rich and famous, and sought Lansky's services as someone who would be able to rebuild the country’s corrupt casino industry.

[00:13:44] This would be just the start of a project that was later to become his main focus in life, but there was a spanner in the works when Batista unexpectedly lost power and influence after his appointed political successor lost the 1944 election.

[00:14:03] Lansky, without a sympathetic ear in Cuba, focussed his attention back on the US, and he was instrumental in planting the seeds for what would become America’s gambling capital.

[00:14:17] In 1946, he helped his childhood friend and partner Bugsy Siegel to take control of the mob’s interests in Las Vegas, where Siegel would create the Flamingo Hotel. 

[00:14:31] However, this hotel ran massively over budget, and suspicions were running high that Siegel was on the take, that he was syphoning money off for himself.

[00:14:44] Lansky is said to have spared his friend the mob's wrath, their anger, but he wasn't able to do so forever. 

[00:14:54] Eventually it seems that Lansky had little choice but to agree with the growing demands to have Siegel taken out or killed. 

[00:15:03] Now up until now, you might have thought that Lansky sounded like any other gangster running protection rackets being involved with bootlegged alcohol and violent crime. 

[00:15:15] Sure, he did all that, and he was certainly not a very nice man. But the reality was that he was quite unlike the typical mafioso of the time.

[00:15:28] Lansky had always been particular about money, both his own and the profits that he collected and shared with or on behalf of his various partners. 

[00:15:39] In an attempt to avoid prison, Lansky is said to have channelled money through Swiss banks and various holding companies in order to hide his wealth and that of his partners.

[00:15:53] It’s for this reason that he is still known today as the “Mob’s Accountant”, as someone who knew how to read a balance sheet, how to squeeze the maximum amount of money out of a business, and most importantly, how to hide it from the authorities to avoid getting caught.

[00:16:13] However, Lansky was not completely against taking risks, and despite being spectacularly wealthy, it never seemed to be enough.

[00:16:23] After returning to power in a military coup in 1952, Cuban President Fulgencio Batista invited Lansky back to Cuba to further reform the gambling industry, after his early stint, or stay, in Cuba several years before. 

[00:16:41] As gambling had become increasingly cracked down upon in America during the 1940s, and with many of his casinos being closed down, Cuba seemed like a golden opportunity for Lansky. 

[00:16:55] Batista and Lansky worked out a deal together, Batista and Lansky would control Cuban gambling in return for secret payments or kickbacks, and favourable treatment from the government. The mafia would also be free to control everything that came along with gambling: alcohol, prostitution, drugs, essentially turning Cuba into a den of iniquity only a short flight away from Florida.

[00:17:24] Lansky had already made clear that he believed Cuba was a golden opportunity for the mafia, and several years before coming back, he had organised the Havana Conference - the biggest mob meeting since the Atlantic City Conference in 1929. 

[00:17:41] Batista and Lansky' business arrangement would last for 10 years. Aside from taking over casinos Lansky also built his own, including his crown jewel, the Riviera hotel.

[00:17:55] The hotel's grand opening starred the award-winning actress Ginger Rogers and was even shown on American TV. 

[00:18:04] However, as the saying goes all good things come to an end. 

[00:18:09] Following the Cuban Revolution in 1959, when Fidel Castro took power and the country became communist, all American-owned businesses were nationalised. Casinos were closed down and property seized. 

[00:18:24] It is estimated that Lansky lost around $7 million at the time, approximately 44 million euros in today's money. 

[00:18:33] In Lansky's own words, he crapped out. He lost it all on a gamble. 

[00:18:38] This phrase, by the way, crapped out, comes from the dice game craps, which was the first form of gambling that Lansky encountered on the streets of New York as a child. 

[00:18:51] After losing everything in Cuba, Lansky had no choice, but to move back to the U S, where he was put under surveillance, under watch, by the tax authorities for suspected income tax fraud. 

[00:19:06] After coming under continued pressure from the US authorities, Lansky decided to sell all of his business interests, leave America and moved to Israel under Israel's law of return programme. 

[00:19:21] However, given Lansky's criminal record and America wanting to press tax evasion charges against him, Lansky was deported, he was sent back to the USA just two years later.

[00:19:34] Back in the USA Lansky faced criminal charges.

[00:19:39] He was cleared of the tax evasion charges and given his poor health and old age, the judge suspended, or stopped, the other charges from being brought to court. 

[00:19:51] He died in 1983 of lung cancer at the age of 80. 

[00:19:56] No mean feat for one of the most powerful organised criminals in 20th century America, and it is certainly quite something that he only spent less than a month in prison, lived to the age of 80 and died a free man. 

[00:20:12] You couldn’t say the same about many of his business associates.

[00:20:16] But while he might have lived a long and free life, and certainly would have made vast amounts of money from everything from bootlegging to extortion, then later the drugs and casino trade, after his death this money seemed to have vanished into thin air.

[00:20:35] His family, reportedly I should say, were surprised to say that his estate amounted to little more than $35,000, around 100,000 euros in today’s money.

[00:20:47] So what exactly happened to the hundreds of millions of dollars that the U S federal authorities believed Lansky had hidden? 

[00:20:57] Did they ever exist? Are they still sitting in a Swiss bank somewhere?

[00:21:02] Or did he really lose everything in Cuba, he put everything on black and he wasn’t expecting communist “red”?

[00:21:11] Before his death, despite Forbes magazine suggesting that he was one of the richest men in America, Lansky had claimed that he was almost broke, almost out of money. 

[00:21:23] He openly stated that he lost almost everything he had in Cuba, but there does seem to be a large difference between his estimated 300 million dollar fortune and the 7 million dollars that he lost in Cuba. 

[00:21:38] I don’t think you need to be an accountant to see that, as far as the Mob’s Accountant is concerned, something doesn’t quite add up.

[00:21:49] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Meyer Lansky.

[00:21:54] I hope it’s been an interesting one, and you’ve learned a bit about the life and times of the so-called “Mob’s Accountant”.

[00:22:01] As always, I would love to know what you thought about this episode.

[00:22:05] What do you think of Meyer Lansky, was he really any different from any other mob boss?

[00:22:11] Do you really believe that Lansky lost all his money?

[00:22:15] And do you think that these gangsters of the 1930s and 40s are really any different from the organised criminals of today?

[00:22:24] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started. 

[00:22:28] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting to other curious minds.

[00:22:36] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:22:41] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]

Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Meyer Lansky, the man known as the “Mob’s Accountant”.

[00:00:31] Meyer Lansky was a legendary figure in American Mafia circles. So much so that he even had his own character in the all-time classic Mafia film the Godfather - Hyman Roth. 

[00:00:44] At one point, his total wealth was estimated at around $300 million.  

[00:00:50] Yet when Lansky died, there was no trace of these hidden millions. 

[00:00:56] So, in this episode we’ll look at the life of Meyer Lansky, how he managed to become a well-respected member of the mob, despite not being Italian, how he befriended the Cuban president and helped build Las Vegas all while spending very little time behind bars.

[00:01:16] OK then, let’s get started.

[00:01:21] Meyer Lansky was born in 1902, in what is modern-day Belarus, to Jewish-Polish parents. 

[00:01:30] The family emigrated, they relocated, to New York in 1911, under pressure to escape the anti-semitic, the anti-Jewish environment that was widespread in Imperial Russia.

[00:01:46] Lansky's father found work in Brooklyn, where the family first settled. 

[00:01:51] Lansky was a good pupil at school and appeared to take his lessons in his stride. Later on in life, his excellent mathematics skills would help him to earn a fortune and propel him to the top tier of the mob

[00:02:09] While he may have had more money than he knew what to do with later on in life, as a young boy there was never much money around. 

[00:02:18] In an effort to cut costs, Lansky's family moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan's Lower East Side. 

[00:02:26] During the early 1900s, the Lower East Side was home to a large number of Jewish families from Eastern Europe, often working in garment manufacturing or selling goods from pavement stalls

[00:02:41] At the time, the Lower East Side was one of the most densely populated places in the world, with families living in cramped, overcrowded apartments with very basic sanitation facilities.

[00:02:56] It was here that Lansky began to deviate, to stray from the straight and narrow.

[00:03:04] While Lansky continued to do well at his new school, he quickly became involved in local kid’s street gangs and illegal street gambling. 

[00:03:14] While Lansky was at school, he became friends with another Jewish boy called Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel. The pair would form a long-lasting friendship and go on to create the Bugs and Meyer Mob - a very violent Prohibition-era gang. 

[00:03:34] Lansky's move to the Lower East Side was also responsible for his close relationship with the Italian Charles “Lucky” Luciano, who would later become one of the most powerful figures of organised crime in America. 

[00:03:50] Legend has it that Luciano was the child leader of a gang of boys originally from Italy who would pick on Jewish children, like Lansky and Siegel, forcing them to pay them protection money. 

[00:04:04] This practice is also known as an extortion racket

[00:04:08] It’s a common criminal activity, “protection”. You pay me otherwise I’ll beat you up. It’s one of the simplest Mafia extortion techniques, making it an easy way for most gangsters to get started.

[00:04:24] Despite his short height and younger age, landscape refused to give in to surrender to Luciano. His plucky, his brave, refusals led to Luciano respecting him and they then became friends, and later business associates. 

[00:04:44] His partnership with Luciano would open the door to working with high-ranking, older mob members such as Arnold Rothstein, a man nicknamed “The Brain”, who was rumoured to have fixed the 1919 World Series in Major League Baseball. 

[00:05:02] At the time, the Jewish and the Italian mobs were the two main criminal groups operating in New York, and they didn’t get along, they were not friends. Each side stuck to their ethnic roots and competed for power, money and territory. 

[00:05:20] Unlike previous generations who formed these independent criminal groups based on their ethnicity or nationality, Lansky, Luciano and Siegel were part of a new generation, one where criminals from different backgrounds would work together to maximise their profits. 

[00:05:40] When Lansky finished school, aged 14 as was common at the time, he got his first real job working in the manufacturing industry.

[00:05:50] Later, he progressed to working on cars as a mechanic, but he still kept his street gambling habits from his school days and still kept contact with street gang members. Before long, he took up a second job in the evening, working as a strong-arm man at a gambling parlour

[00:06:11] Aside from providing security, strong-arm men were also often very violent, using threats, force and intimidation as required by their bosses. 

[00:06:24] At this time, organised criminals mainly made money from illegal gambling and extortion, but in 1920 there would be a new, incredibly lucrative money-making opportunity: Prohibition, or the banning of alcohol.

[00:06:42] We actually did an episode on Prohibition a couple of weeks ago, it was one of our member-only ones, so if you’re interested in that one I’d recommend checking it out.

[00:06:53] In 1920, when Prohibition came into effect, sales of alcohol were forced underground, and a golden opportunity was presented. 

[00:07:04] Naturally, people didn’t stop drinking altogether, and the illegal supply of alcohol, or bootlegging, as it was known, was taken over by criminal gangs. Bootlegging often went hand-in-hand with the illegal gambling industry, with drinking now forced to take place behind locked doors. 

[00:07:26] Lansky decided to leave his day job altogether and go full-time with his illegal activities. 

[00:07:34] Lansky and Siegel became partners specialising in bootlegging, in the distribution and sale of illegal alcohol. 

[00:07:43] But Lansky wasn't only involved with bootlegged alcohol. 

[00:07:48] His Bugs and Meyer Mob, as it had became known, had developed a violent reputation, specialising in assassinations - performing hits, or murders, to order, as well as illegal gambling, truck hijacking and protection rackets

[00:08:06] Lansky was reportedly the brains, organising the criminal activities while Siegel would handle the violent crime.

[00:08:16] Lansky and Siegel worked in close partnership with Luciano, as well as providing him with the hitmen he needed to reorganise the mafia. 

[00:08:26] Lansky also became a protégé of the powerful Rothstein, the man nicknamed The Brain. 

[00:08:33] Clearly Lansky was on his way up in the criminal underworld. 

[00:08:39] He was Jewish, not Italian, which would mean he would struggle to ever be accepted at the very upper echelons, right at the top, but his brains and his business sense meant that he became trusted by many major mob figures. 

[00:08:55] This became a winning formula and Lansky was known for his honest and fair dealings

[00:09:03] Given his new status, it is no surprise that Lansky was an influential presence at the now infamous mafia conference in Atlantic city in 1929.

[00:09:15] The Atlantic City Conference was the brainchild, the invention of, Lucky Luciano who wanted the Italian and Jewish mobs to pool their resources and talent, and work together rather than in competition with one another. 

[00:09:34] The conference was attended by all of the big mafia kingpins and led to the creation of something called the United Crime Syndicate. 

[00:09:43] The logic was simple. We’ll all make more money and have less trouble with the police if we work together rather than fight each other.

[00:09:53] After Prohibition ended in 1933, and alcohol was suddenly legal again, Lansky and his other mob colleagues needed to find another way to make money.

[00:10:05] Illegal money, of course, as making money legally is just… well, it's hard and boring.

[00:10:13] For Lansky, this would be gambling, which was still illegal.

[00:10:17] He had experience from his school day street corner gambling games and his superior mathematical skills meant that he understood the basics of gambling much better than some other criminals who were simply out to make cash by cheating.

[00:10:35] From the very beginning, Lansky was determined to set up his gambling business fairly. 

[00:10:42] Even though this might sound like a contradiction, Lansky wanted his customers to have confidence in his gambling establishments. 

[00:10:50] He knew that the house, the business, the casino always wins in the end.

[00:10:56] So rather than rigging his tables so that they paid out quickly, Lansky made sure that his establishments were always fair. 

[00:11:06] Thanks to his honesty in this respect, Lansky's gambling ventures really began to take off and with them, his profits. 

[00:11:16] But, not content with illegal gambling dens and bootlegging, Lansky wanted to open what was known as a "carpet joint".

[00:11:26] “Joint” in this context means a place, but it can also be slang for a prison or a cigarette containing marijuana - it's a great example of the different contextual meanings of slang words in English.

[00:11:41] Going back to what Lansky wanted to open it was a “carpet joint” - and "carpet joint" is a slang term for a luxury casino. 

[00:11:52] Lansky's first big venture was the creation of a casino in Saratoga Springs, New York. 

[00:11:59] He partnered with Mafia bigwigs, or VIPs, Frank Costello and Joe Adonis. 

[00:12:06] Like numerous other illegal gambling establishments, their casino was protected by corrupt local politicians. 

[00:12:14] In fact, it was due to his illegal gambling operation in Saratoga Springs that Lansky would spend his only time in prison, - a total of just 24 days. This was due to a widespread crackdown on illegal gambling which officials and local residents had previously turned a blind eye to

[00:12:36] Lansky decided to head south, for sun, sand, and easily-bribed politicians. He went to Florida, and opened a series of casinos in the state with the unofficial agreement of the local government. Illegal gambling had become a major source of income for some local governments. 

[00:12:57] Criminals would make huge donations to local synagogues, churches, hospitals and city organisations. Local residents and politicians, many of whom benefited directly from this illegal industry, would often turn a blind eye to these casinos. Lansky's reputation as someone who was able to build well-run, respectable casinos meant that he was invited to Cuba in the late 1930s, by a then military colonel, Fulgencio Batista.

[00:13:30] Batista had a vision to make Cuba into a playground for the rich and famous, and sought Lansky's services as someone who would be able to rebuild the country’s corrupt casino industry.

[00:13:44] This would be just the start of a project that was later to become his main focus in life, but there was a spanner in the works when Batista unexpectedly lost power and influence after his appointed political successor lost the 1944 election.

[00:14:03] Lansky, without a sympathetic ear in Cuba, focussed his attention back on the US, and he was instrumental in planting the seeds for what would become America’s gambling capital.

[00:14:17] In 1946, he helped his childhood friend and partner Bugsy Siegel to take control of the mob’s interests in Las Vegas, where Siegel would create the Flamingo Hotel. 

[00:14:31] However, this hotel ran massively over budget, and suspicions were running high that Siegel was on the take, that he was syphoning money off for himself.

[00:14:44] Lansky is said to have spared his friend the mob's wrath, their anger, but he wasn't able to do so forever. 

[00:14:54] Eventually it seems that Lansky had little choice but to agree with the growing demands to have Siegel taken out or killed. 

[00:15:03] Now up until now, you might have thought that Lansky sounded like any other gangster running protection rackets being involved with bootlegged alcohol and violent crime. 

[00:15:15] Sure, he did all that, and he was certainly not a very nice man. But the reality was that he was quite unlike the typical mafioso of the time.

[00:15:28] Lansky had always been particular about money, both his own and the profits that he collected and shared with or on behalf of his various partners. 

[00:15:39] In an attempt to avoid prison, Lansky is said to have channelled money through Swiss banks and various holding companies in order to hide his wealth and that of his partners.

[00:15:53] It’s for this reason that he is still known today as the “Mob’s Accountant”, as someone who knew how to read a balance sheet, how to squeeze the maximum amount of money out of a business, and most importantly, how to hide it from the authorities to avoid getting caught.

[00:16:13] However, Lansky was not completely against taking risks, and despite being spectacularly wealthy, it never seemed to be enough.

[00:16:23] After returning to power in a military coup in 1952, Cuban President Fulgencio Batista invited Lansky back to Cuba to further reform the gambling industry, after his early stint, or stay, in Cuba several years before. 

[00:16:41] As gambling had become increasingly cracked down upon in America during the 1940s, and with many of his casinos being closed down, Cuba seemed like a golden opportunity for Lansky. 

[00:16:55] Batista and Lansky worked out a deal together, Batista and Lansky would control Cuban gambling in return for secret payments or kickbacks, and favourable treatment from the government. The mafia would also be free to control everything that came along with gambling: alcohol, prostitution, drugs, essentially turning Cuba into a den of iniquity only a short flight away from Florida.

[00:17:24] Lansky had already made clear that he believed Cuba was a golden opportunity for the mafia, and several years before coming back, he had organised the Havana Conference - the biggest mob meeting since the Atlantic City Conference in 1929. 

[00:17:41] Batista and Lansky' business arrangement would last for 10 years. Aside from taking over casinos Lansky also built his own, including his crown jewel, the Riviera hotel.

[00:17:55] The hotel's grand opening starred the award-winning actress Ginger Rogers and was even shown on American TV. 

[00:18:04] However, as the saying goes all good things come to an end. 

[00:18:09] Following the Cuban Revolution in 1959, when Fidel Castro took power and the country became communist, all American-owned businesses were nationalised. Casinos were closed down and property seized. 

[00:18:24] It is estimated that Lansky lost around $7 million at the time, approximately 44 million euros in today's money. 

[00:18:33] In Lansky's own words, he crapped out. He lost it all on a gamble. 

[00:18:38] This phrase, by the way, crapped out, comes from the dice game craps, which was the first form of gambling that Lansky encountered on the streets of New York as a child. 

[00:18:51] After losing everything in Cuba, Lansky had no choice, but to move back to the U S, where he was put under surveillance, under watch, by the tax authorities for suspected income tax fraud. 

[00:19:06] After coming under continued pressure from the US authorities, Lansky decided to sell all of his business interests, leave America and moved to Israel under Israel's law of return programme. 

[00:19:21] However, given Lansky's criminal record and America wanting to press tax evasion charges against him, Lansky was deported, he was sent back to the USA just two years later.

[00:19:34] Back in the USA Lansky faced criminal charges.

[00:19:39] He was cleared of the tax evasion charges and given his poor health and old age, the judge suspended, or stopped, the other charges from being brought to court. 

[00:19:51] He died in 1983 of lung cancer at the age of 80. 

[00:19:56] No mean feat for one of the most powerful organised criminals in 20th century America, and it is certainly quite something that he only spent less than a month in prison, lived to the age of 80 and died a free man. 

[00:20:12] You couldn’t say the same about many of his business associates.

[00:20:16] But while he might have lived a long and free life, and certainly would have made vast amounts of money from everything from bootlegging to extortion, then later the drugs and casino trade, after his death this money seemed to have vanished into thin air.

[00:20:35] His family, reportedly I should say, were surprised to say that his estate amounted to little more than $35,000, around 100,000 euros in today’s money.

[00:20:47] So what exactly happened to the hundreds of millions of dollars that the U S federal authorities believed Lansky had hidden? 

[00:20:57] Did they ever exist? Are they still sitting in a Swiss bank somewhere?

[00:21:02] Or did he really lose everything in Cuba, he put everything on black and he wasn’t expecting communist “red”?

[00:21:11] Before his death, despite Forbes magazine suggesting that he was one of the richest men in America, Lansky had claimed that he was almost broke, almost out of money. 

[00:21:23] He openly stated that he lost almost everything he had in Cuba, but there does seem to be a large difference between his estimated 300 million dollar fortune and the 7 million dollars that he lost in Cuba. 

[00:21:38] I don’t think you need to be an accountant to see that, as far as the Mob’s Accountant is concerned, something doesn’t quite add up.

[00:21:49] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Meyer Lansky.

[00:21:54] I hope it’s been an interesting one, and you’ve learned a bit about the life and times of the so-called “Mob’s Accountant”.

[00:22:01] As always, I would love to know what you thought about this episode.

[00:22:05] What do you think of Meyer Lansky, was he really any different from any other mob boss?

[00:22:11] Do you really believe that Lansky lost all his money?

[00:22:15] And do you think that these gangsters of the 1930s and 40s are really any different from the organised criminals of today?

[00:22:24] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started. 

[00:22:28] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting to other curious minds.

[00:22:36] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:22:41] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Meyer Lansky, the man known as the “Mob’s Accountant”.

[00:00:31] Meyer Lansky was a legendary figure in American Mafia circles. So much so that he even had his own character in the all-time classic Mafia film the Godfather - Hyman Roth. 

[00:00:44] At one point, his total wealth was estimated at around $300 million.  

[00:00:50] Yet when Lansky died, there was no trace of these hidden millions. 

[00:00:56] So, in this episode we’ll look at the life of Meyer Lansky, how he managed to become a well-respected member of the mob, despite not being Italian, how he befriended the Cuban president and helped build Las Vegas all while spending very little time behind bars.

[00:01:16] OK then, let’s get started.

[00:01:21] Meyer Lansky was born in 1902, in what is modern-day Belarus, to Jewish-Polish parents. 

[00:01:30] The family emigrated, they relocated, to New York in 1911, under pressure to escape the anti-semitic, the anti-Jewish environment that was widespread in Imperial Russia.

[00:01:46] Lansky's father found work in Brooklyn, where the family first settled. 

[00:01:51] Lansky was a good pupil at school and appeared to take his lessons in his stride. Later on in life, his excellent mathematics skills would help him to earn a fortune and propel him to the top tier of the mob

[00:02:09] While he may have had more money than he knew what to do with later on in life, as a young boy there was never much money around. 

[00:02:18] In an effort to cut costs, Lansky's family moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan's Lower East Side. 

[00:02:26] During the early 1900s, the Lower East Side was home to a large number of Jewish families from Eastern Europe, often working in garment manufacturing or selling goods from pavement stalls

[00:02:41] At the time, the Lower East Side was one of the most densely populated places in the world, with families living in cramped, overcrowded apartments with very basic sanitation facilities.

[00:02:56] It was here that Lansky began to deviate, to stray from the straight and narrow.

[00:03:04] While Lansky continued to do well at his new school, he quickly became involved in local kid’s street gangs and illegal street gambling. 

[00:03:14] While Lansky was at school, he became friends with another Jewish boy called Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel. The pair would form a long-lasting friendship and go on to create the Bugs and Meyer Mob - a very violent Prohibition-era gang. 

[00:03:34] Lansky's move to the Lower East Side was also responsible for his close relationship with the Italian Charles “Lucky” Luciano, who would later become one of the most powerful figures of organised crime in America. 

[00:03:50] Legend has it that Luciano was the child leader of a gang of boys originally from Italy who would pick on Jewish children, like Lansky and Siegel, forcing them to pay them protection money. 

[00:04:04] This practice is also known as an extortion racket

[00:04:08] It’s a common criminal activity, “protection”. You pay me otherwise I’ll beat you up. It’s one of the simplest Mafia extortion techniques, making it an easy way for most gangsters to get started.

[00:04:24] Despite his short height and younger age, landscape refused to give in to surrender to Luciano. His plucky, his brave, refusals led to Luciano respecting him and they then became friends, and later business associates. 

[00:04:44] His partnership with Luciano would open the door to working with high-ranking, older mob members such as Arnold Rothstein, a man nicknamed “The Brain”, who was rumoured to have fixed the 1919 World Series in Major League Baseball. 

[00:05:02] At the time, the Jewish and the Italian mobs were the two main criminal groups operating in New York, and they didn’t get along, they were not friends. Each side stuck to their ethnic roots and competed for power, money and territory. 

[00:05:20] Unlike previous generations who formed these independent criminal groups based on their ethnicity or nationality, Lansky, Luciano and Siegel were part of a new generation, one where criminals from different backgrounds would work together to maximise their profits. 

[00:05:40] When Lansky finished school, aged 14 as was common at the time, he got his first real job working in the manufacturing industry.

[00:05:50] Later, he progressed to working on cars as a mechanic, but he still kept his street gambling habits from his school days and still kept contact with street gang members. Before long, he took up a second job in the evening, working as a strong-arm man at a gambling parlour

[00:06:11] Aside from providing security, strong-arm men were also often very violent, using threats, force and intimidation as required by their bosses. 

[00:06:24] At this time, organised criminals mainly made money from illegal gambling and extortion, but in 1920 there would be a new, incredibly lucrative money-making opportunity: Prohibition, or the banning of alcohol.

[00:06:42] We actually did an episode on Prohibition a couple of weeks ago, it was one of our member-only ones, so if you’re interested in that one I’d recommend checking it out.

[00:06:53] In 1920, when Prohibition came into effect, sales of alcohol were forced underground, and a golden opportunity was presented. 

[00:07:04] Naturally, people didn’t stop drinking altogether, and the illegal supply of alcohol, or bootlegging, as it was known, was taken over by criminal gangs. Bootlegging often went hand-in-hand with the illegal gambling industry, with drinking now forced to take place behind locked doors. 

[00:07:26] Lansky decided to leave his day job altogether and go full-time with his illegal activities. 

[00:07:34] Lansky and Siegel became partners specialising in bootlegging, in the distribution and sale of illegal alcohol. 

[00:07:43] But Lansky wasn't only involved with bootlegged alcohol. 

[00:07:48] His Bugs and Meyer Mob, as it had became known, had developed a violent reputation, specialising in assassinations - performing hits, or murders, to order, as well as illegal gambling, truck hijacking and protection rackets

[00:08:06] Lansky was reportedly the brains, organising the criminal activities while Siegel would handle the violent crime.

[00:08:16] Lansky and Siegel worked in close partnership with Luciano, as well as providing him with the hitmen he needed to reorganise the mafia. 

[00:08:26] Lansky also became a protégé of the powerful Rothstein, the man nicknamed The Brain. 

[00:08:33] Clearly Lansky was on his way up in the criminal underworld. 

[00:08:39] He was Jewish, not Italian, which would mean he would struggle to ever be accepted at the very upper echelons, right at the top, but his brains and his business sense meant that he became trusted by many major mob figures. 

[00:08:55] This became a winning formula and Lansky was known for his honest and fair dealings

[00:09:03] Given his new status, it is no surprise that Lansky was an influential presence at the now infamous mafia conference in Atlantic city in 1929.

[00:09:15] The Atlantic City Conference was the brainchild, the invention of, Lucky Luciano who wanted the Italian and Jewish mobs to pool their resources and talent, and work together rather than in competition with one another. 

[00:09:34] The conference was attended by all of the big mafia kingpins and led to the creation of something called the United Crime Syndicate. 

[00:09:43] The logic was simple. We’ll all make more money and have less trouble with the police if we work together rather than fight each other.

[00:09:53] After Prohibition ended in 1933, and alcohol was suddenly legal again, Lansky and his other mob colleagues needed to find another way to make money.

[00:10:05] Illegal money, of course, as making money legally is just… well, it's hard and boring.

[00:10:13] For Lansky, this would be gambling, which was still illegal.

[00:10:17] He had experience from his school day street corner gambling games and his superior mathematical skills meant that he understood the basics of gambling much better than some other criminals who were simply out to make cash by cheating.

[00:10:35] From the very beginning, Lansky was determined to set up his gambling business fairly. 

[00:10:42] Even though this might sound like a contradiction, Lansky wanted his customers to have confidence in his gambling establishments. 

[00:10:50] He knew that the house, the business, the casino always wins in the end.

[00:10:56] So rather than rigging his tables so that they paid out quickly, Lansky made sure that his establishments were always fair. 

[00:11:06] Thanks to his honesty in this respect, Lansky's gambling ventures really began to take off and with them, his profits. 

[00:11:16] But, not content with illegal gambling dens and bootlegging, Lansky wanted to open what was known as a "carpet joint".

[00:11:26] “Joint” in this context means a place, but it can also be slang for a prison or a cigarette containing marijuana - it's a great example of the different contextual meanings of slang words in English.

[00:11:41] Going back to what Lansky wanted to open it was a “carpet joint” - and "carpet joint" is a slang term for a luxury casino. 

[00:11:52] Lansky's first big venture was the creation of a casino in Saratoga Springs, New York. 

[00:11:59] He partnered with Mafia bigwigs, or VIPs, Frank Costello and Joe Adonis. 

[00:12:06] Like numerous other illegal gambling establishments, their casino was protected by corrupt local politicians. 

[00:12:14] In fact, it was due to his illegal gambling operation in Saratoga Springs that Lansky would spend his only time in prison, - a total of just 24 days. This was due to a widespread crackdown on illegal gambling which officials and local residents had previously turned a blind eye to

[00:12:36] Lansky decided to head south, for sun, sand, and easily-bribed politicians. He went to Florida, and opened a series of casinos in the state with the unofficial agreement of the local government. Illegal gambling had become a major source of income for some local governments. 

[00:12:57] Criminals would make huge donations to local synagogues, churches, hospitals and city organisations. Local residents and politicians, many of whom benefited directly from this illegal industry, would often turn a blind eye to these casinos. Lansky's reputation as someone who was able to build well-run, respectable casinos meant that he was invited to Cuba in the late 1930s, by a then military colonel, Fulgencio Batista.

[00:13:30] Batista had a vision to make Cuba into a playground for the rich and famous, and sought Lansky's services as someone who would be able to rebuild the country’s corrupt casino industry.

[00:13:44] This would be just the start of a project that was later to become his main focus in life, but there was a spanner in the works when Batista unexpectedly lost power and influence after his appointed political successor lost the 1944 election.

[00:14:03] Lansky, without a sympathetic ear in Cuba, focussed his attention back on the US, and he was instrumental in planting the seeds for what would become America’s gambling capital.

[00:14:17] In 1946, he helped his childhood friend and partner Bugsy Siegel to take control of the mob’s interests in Las Vegas, where Siegel would create the Flamingo Hotel. 

[00:14:31] However, this hotel ran massively over budget, and suspicions were running high that Siegel was on the take, that he was syphoning money off for himself.

[00:14:44] Lansky is said to have spared his friend the mob's wrath, their anger, but he wasn't able to do so forever. 

[00:14:54] Eventually it seems that Lansky had little choice but to agree with the growing demands to have Siegel taken out or killed. 

[00:15:03] Now up until now, you might have thought that Lansky sounded like any other gangster running protection rackets being involved with bootlegged alcohol and violent crime. 

[00:15:15] Sure, he did all that, and he was certainly not a very nice man. But the reality was that he was quite unlike the typical mafioso of the time.

[00:15:28] Lansky had always been particular about money, both his own and the profits that he collected and shared with or on behalf of his various partners. 

[00:15:39] In an attempt to avoid prison, Lansky is said to have channelled money through Swiss banks and various holding companies in order to hide his wealth and that of his partners.

[00:15:53] It’s for this reason that he is still known today as the “Mob’s Accountant”, as someone who knew how to read a balance sheet, how to squeeze the maximum amount of money out of a business, and most importantly, how to hide it from the authorities to avoid getting caught.

[00:16:13] However, Lansky was not completely against taking risks, and despite being spectacularly wealthy, it never seemed to be enough.

[00:16:23] After returning to power in a military coup in 1952, Cuban President Fulgencio Batista invited Lansky back to Cuba to further reform the gambling industry, after his early stint, or stay, in Cuba several years before. 

[00:16:41] As gambling had become increasingly cracked down upon in America during the 1940s, and with many of his casinos being closed down, Cuba seemed like a golden opportunity for Lansky. 

[00:16:55] Batista and Lansky worked out a deal together, Batista and Lansky would control Cuban gambling in return for secret payments or kickbacks, and favourable treatment from the government. The mafia would also be free to control everything that came along with gambling: alcohol, prostitution, drugs, essentially turning Cuba into a den of iniquity only a short flight away from Florida.

[00:17:24] Lansky had already made clear that he believed Cuba was a golden opportunity for the mafia, and several years before coming back, he had organised the Havana Conference - the biggest mob meeting since the Atlantic City Conference in 1929. 

[00:17:41] Batista and Lansky' business arrangement would last for 10 years. Aside from taking over casinos Lansky also built his own, including his crown jewel, the Riviera hotel.

[00:17:55] The hotel's grand opening starred the award-winning actress Ginger Rogers and was even shown on American TV. 

[00:18:04] However, as the saying goes all good things come to an end. 

[00:18:09] Following the Cuban Revolution in 1959, when Fidel Castro took power and the country became communist, all American-owned businesses were nationalised. Casinos were closed down and property seized. 

[00:18:24] It is estimated that Lansky lost around $7 million at the time, approximately 44 million euros in today's money. 

[00:18:33] In Lansky's own words, he crapped out. He lost it all on a gamble. 

[00:18:38] This phrase, by the way, crapped out, comes from the dice game craps, which was the first form of gambling that Lansky encountered on the streets of New York as a child. 

[00:18:51] After losing everything in Cuba, Lansky had no choice, but to move back to the U S, where he was put under surveillance, under watch, by the tax authorities for suspected income tax fraud. 

[00:19:06] After coming under continued pressure from the US authorities, Lansky decided to sell all of his business interests, leave America and moved to Israel under Israel's law of return programme. 

[00:19:21] However, given Lansky's criminal record and America wanting to press tax evasion charges against him, Lansky was deported, he was sent back to the USA just two years later.

[00:19:34] Back in the USA Lansky faced criminal charges.

[00:19:39] He was cleared of the tax evasion charges and given his poor health and old age, the judge suspended, or stopped, the other charges from being brought to court. 

[00:19:51] He died in 1983 of lung cancer at the age of 80. 

[00:19:56] No mean feat for one of the most powerful organised criminals in 20th century America, and it is certainly quite something that he only spent less than a month in prison, lived to the age of 80 and died a free man. 

[00:20:12] You couldn’t say the same about many of his business associates.

[00:20:16] But while he might have lived a long and free life, and certainly would have made vast amounts of money from everything from bootlegging to extortion, then later the drugs and casino trade, after his death this money seemed to have vanished into thin air.

[00:20:35] His family, reportedly I should say, were surprised to say that his estate amounted to little more than $35,000, around 100,000 euros in today’s money.

[00:20:47] So what exactly happened to the hundreds of millions of dollars that the U S federal authorities believed Lansky had hidden? 

[00:20:57] Did they ever exist? Are they still sitting in a Swiss bank somewhere?

[00:21:02] Or did he really lose everything in Cuba, he put everything on black and he wasn’t expecting communist “red”?

[00:21:11] Before his death, despite Forbes magazine suggesting that he was one of the richest men in America, Lansky had claimed that he was almost broke, almost out of money. 

[00:21:23] He openly stated that he lost almost everything he had in Cuba, but there does seem to be a large difference between his estimated 300 million dollar fortune and the 7 million dollars that he lost in Cuba. 

[00:21:38] I don’t think you need to be an accountant to see that, as far as the Mob’s Accountant is concerned, something doesn’t quite add up.

[00:21:49] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Meyer Lansky.

[00:21:54] I hope it’s been an interesting one, and you’ve learned a bit about the life and times of the so-called “Mob’s Accountant”.

[00:22:01] As always, I would love to know what you thought about this episode.

[00:22:05] What do you think of Meyer Lansky, was he really any different from any other mob boss?

[00:22:11] Do you really believe that Lansky lost all his money?

[00:22:15] And do you think that these gangsters of the 1930s and 40s are really any different from the organised criminals of today?

[00:22:24] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started. 

[00:22:28] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting to other curious minds.

[00:22:36] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:22:41] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]