Las Vegas Sun

December 20, 2014

Bugsy’ Siegel - The mob’s man in Vegas

Siegel left his mark and myth in Sin City

Bugsy Siegel

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In builder Del Webb’s storied career, he was never more nervous than when he was general contractor for the construction of the Flamingo Hotel.

Webb, who would become a casino and resort owner of note, confided to Flamingo “owner” Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel that he was worried about his well-being because so many sinister types were hanging around the not-yet-completed resort.

Siegel, confessing to Webb that he had committed at least a dozen slayings during his lifelong criminal career, told the developer he had nothing to worry about.

“We only kill each other,” Siegel, a self-admitted mobster, said.

A few months later, Siegel, with two large caliber bullet wounds obliterating his handsome face, lay dead on the floor of the Beverly Hills mansion of his girlfriend Virginia Hill.

Siegel’s life as it has been portrayed in song, story and film, is more myth than fact; more legend than history. The truth is he was a gangster and a ruthless killer — a hoodlum and thug of the highest order.

Contrary to popular belief, he was not a visionary who thought the resort he sought to build — more like stole — in the Nevada desert would be the genesis of today’s booming Las Vegas.

Still, Siegel — both of fact and fiction — is a Las Vegas icon, as synonymous with the neon city as showgirls, the Rat Pack, poker chips and the 99-cent shrimp cocktail.

Siegel was born Feb. 28, 1906, in Brooklyn, N.Y. His parents were Jewish immigrants from what is now Ukraine. He grew up in poverty.

Like many modern youth gang members, Siegel saw crime as a quick and easy way to make a buck. He joined a youth gang and became a thief. As a teenager, Siegel formed a protection racket with Moe Sedway, who would later join Siegel in Las Vegas and become a fairly respected casino executive.

Also during his formative years, Siegel became friends with Meyer Lansky, who would go on to become a major figure in American organized crime. Siegel joined Lansky’s street crime crews and learned about gambling operations.

By the time he was 24, Siegel, through his connection with Lansky, had developed ties to high-ranking New York crime family members such as Charles "Lucky" Luciano, Frank Costello, Albert Anastasia and Vito Genovese.

Siegel got involved in bootlegging during the Depression, supplying liquor to speakeasies in New York, New Jersey and other major East Coast cities. Siegel also was said to be involved in several killings, including the slayings of mobsters Joe “the Boss” Masseria and Sal Maranzano.

In 1929 Siegel married Esta Krakow, his childhood sweetheart and the sister of mob hit man Whitey Krakow. They had two daughters. Despite having a family, Siegel never gave up his life of crime.

Siegel was arrested in 1932 on gambling and bootlegging charges and got away with just a fine.

In 1937 the mob sent Siegel to Los Angeles to set up gambling operations. He established a national wire service to speed up the process of transferring money to East Coast mob associates.

Siegel moved his wife and daughters to California, yet he brazenly kept several mistresses, including an actress and a socialite. Still, his most famous affair was with Hill, a former courier for the Chicago mob.

Siegel befriended celebrities such as Clark Gable, Cary Grant and George Raft and used those contacts and others to muscle his way into the movie industry and shake down the studios.

In 1939, Siegel and Whitey Krakow killed mobster Harry Greenberg because Greenberg had become an informant. A short time later Siegel killed Krakow, his brother-in-law, to make sure Krakow would not give Siegel up during trial. After Siegel was acquitted, he focused on his criminal operations that included a narcotics smuggling operation from Mexico prior to World War II.

In 1941, the mob sent Siegel to Las Vegas to establish the Trans America race wire service as a means of controlling the lucrative and legal horse betting parlor business in the downtown area.

Siegel and Lansky purchased an interest in the downtown El Cortez Hotel in 1945. But Siegel soon had his eye on new frontiers south of the established downtown area. He was impressed with how well the resort El Rancho Vegas was doing on Highway 91 — now Las Vegas Boulevard, which is known worldwide as the Strip. Catching his interest was the Flamingo, which was under construction.

The Flamingo was the brainchild of Hollywood Reporter publisher Billy Wilkerson. When Wilkerson’s construction money ran low, Siegel saw an opportunity to become a partner in that venture and eventually take it over.

Wilkerson and Siegel had been friends since the mid-1930s when Siegel was a regular at Wilkerson’s Ciro’s nightclub in Los Angeles. But Wilkerson, who picked Webb as general contractor, soon found himself reduced to a mere bystander in his dream of building a luxury resort.

Siegel appointed himself president of the Nevada Projects Corp., the Flamingo’s development company, in June 1946, and Wilkerson pretty much was relegated to a footnote in Las Vegas history.

Siegel told his mob superiors the resort could be completed for $1 million more than the original budget of $1.2 million. But Hill pilfered tens of thousands of dollars from mob funds, and Siegel mismanaged construction by making several unwise and costly changes to Wilkerson’s plans, causing costs to swell to $6 million.

The Flamingo opened the day after Christmas in 1946 during a downpour. People stayed away, including many of the Hollywood celebrities Siegel had hoped to attract.

The resort, which had a golf course, trapshooting range and tennis and handball courts, opened as a classy joint, where staff members wore tuxedos. And gamblers, also in formal wear, hit it big, putting the casino another $300,000 in the hole after just two weeks of operation.

The hotel closed for a month in early 1947 and reopened as the Fabulous Flamingo.

Although Siegel knew he was in big trouble for having spent too much of the mob’s money building the Flamingo and for not recouping it quickly at the casino tables, he thought he would be OK because he managed to turn things around. By spring 1947, the Flamingo was making about $300,000 in monthly profit, and Siegel thought his bosses would leave him alone so he could make them big money.

He was wrong. Months earlier, at a meeting in Havana, mob bosses agreed to have Siegel killed. His boyhood chum Lansky reportedly voted with those who wanted Siegel dead and reluctantly gave the orders to make it happen.

On June 20, 1947, Siegel was sitting in the living room of Hill's home reading a newspaper when several shots from a military carbine ripped through the house. One slug blew Siegel’s left eyeball out of its socket and across the room.

Siegel was dead at age 41.

Just two people attended Siegel’s funeral: his brother and a rabbi. Hill was in Europe at the time Siegel was killed. She killed herself in 1966.

No one was ever charged in Siegel’s slaying, although the names of hit men Frankie Carbo and Frankie Carranzo have been mentioned as likely killers.

In the 1991 film “Bugsy,” Warren Beatty played Siegel. Critics said the Hollywood version played fast and loose with the facts surrounding Siegel’s life, elevating him to the level of a genius businessman, albeit one with a short fuse.

In 1993 the operators of the Flamingo Hilton, apparently looking to further distance themselves from its notorious past, demolished Siegel’s poolside private suite during a renovation project.

Today, there is no major monument to Siegel — no school or building with his namesake — in Las Vegas.

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