Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel (February 28, 1906 – June 20, 1947) was a Jewish American mobster. Siegel was known as one of the most "infamous and feared gangsters of his day". Described as handsome and charismatic, he became one of the first front-page celebrity gangsters. He was also a driving force behind the development of the Las Vegas Strip. Siegel was not only influential within the Jewish mob but, like his friend and fellow gangster Meyer Lansky, he also held significant influence within the Italian-American Mafia and the largely Italian-Jewish National Crime Syndicate.
Siegel was one of the founders and leaders of Murder, Inc. and became a bootlegger during Prohibition. After Prohibition was repealed in 1933, he turned to gambling. In 1936, he left New York and moved to California. His time as a mobster (although he eventually ran his own operations) was mainly as a hitman and muscle, as he was noted for his prowess with guns and violence. In 1939, Siegel was tried for the murder of fellow mobster Harry Greenberg. He was acquitted in 1942.
Siegel traveled to Las Vegas, Nevada, where he handled and financed some of the original casinos. He assisted developer William Wilkerson's Flamingo Hotel after Wilkerson ran out of funds. Siegel took over the project and managed the final stages of construction. The Flamingo opened on December 26, 1946, to poor reception and soon closed. It reopened in March 1947 with a finished hotel. Three months later, on June 20, 1947, Siegel was shot dead at the Beverly Hills home of his girlfriend, Virginia Hill.
Benjamin Siegel was born on February 28, 1906 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to a poor Jewish family from Letychiv, Podolia Governorate of the Russian Empire, in modern Ukraine. However, other sources state that his family came from Austria. His parents, Jennie (Riechenthal) and Max Siegel, constantly worked for meager wages. Siegel, the second of five children, vowed that he would rise above that life. As a boy, Siegel he of school and joined a gang on Lafayette Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He committed mainly thefts until he met Moe Sedway. With Sedway, Siegel developed a protection racket where pushcart merchants were forced to pay him a dollar or he would incinerate their merchandise. Siegel had a criminal record that included armed robbery, rape and murder dating back to his teenage years.
Bugs and Meyer Mob
During adolescence, Siegel befriended Meyer Lansky, who formed a small mob whose activities expanded to gambling and car theft. Lansky, who had already had a run-in with Charles "Lucky" Luciano, saw a need for the Jewish boys of his Brooklyn neighborhood to organize in the same manner as the Italians and Irish. The first person he recruited for his gang was Siegel.
Siegel became involved in bootlegging within several major East Coast cities. He also worked as the mob's hitman, whom Lansky would hire out to other crime families. The two formed the Bugs and Meyer Mob, which handled hits for the various bootleg gangs operating in New York and New Jersey – doing so almost a decade before Murder, Inc. was formed. The gang kept themselves busy hijacking the liquor cargoes of rival outfits. The Bugs and Meyer mob was known to be responsible for the killing and removal of several rival gangdom figures. Siegel's gang mates included Abner "Longie" Zwillman, Louis "Lepke" Buchalter, and Lansky's brother, Jake; Joseph "Doc" Stacher, another member of the Bugs and Meyer Mob, recalled to Lansky biographers that Siegel was fearless and saved his friends' lives as the mob moved into bootlegging:
Bugsy never hesitated when danger threatened," Stacher told Uri Dan. "While we tried to figure out what the best move was, Bugsy was already shooting. When it came to action there was no one better. I've never known a man who had more guts.
Siegel was also a boyhood friend to Al Capone; when there was a warrant for Capone's arrest on a murder charge, Siegel allowed him to hide out with an aunt. Siegel first smoked opium during his youth and was involved in the drug trade. By age 21, Siegel was making money and flaunted it. He was regarded as handsome with blue eyes and was known to be charismatic and likeable. He bought an apartment at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and a Tudor home in Scarsdale. He wore flashy clothes and participated in New York City night life.
In 1929, Lansky and Siegel attended the Atlantic City Conference from May 13–16, representing the Bugs and Meyer Mob. Luciano and former Chicago South Side Gang leader Johnny Torrio held the conference at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey. At the conference, the two men discussed the future of organized crime and the future structure of the Mafia crime families. At the conference, Siegel stated, "The yids and the dagos will no longer fight each other."
Marriage and family
On January 28, 1929, Siegel married Esta Krakower, his childhood sweetheart. They had two daughters. Siegel had a reputation as a womanizer and the marriage ended in 1946. His wife moved with their teenage daughters to New York.
By the late 1920s, Lansky and Siegel had ties to Luciano and Frank Costello, future bosses of the Genovese crime family. Siegel, along with Albert "Mad Hatter" Anastasia, Vito Genovese, and Joe Adonis, allegedly were the four gunmen who shot New York mob boss Joe Masseria to death on Luciano's orders on April 15, 1931, ending the Castellammarese War. On September 10 of that year, Luciano hired four gunmen from the Lansky-Siegel gang (some sources identify Siegel being one of the gunmen), to murder Salvatore Maranzano in his New York office, establishing Luciano's rise to the top of the Mafia and marking the beginning of modern American organized crime.
In 1931, following Maranzano's death, Luciano and Lansky formed the National Crime Syndicate, an organization of crime families that brought power to the underworld. The Commission was established for dividing Mafia territories and preventing future gang wars. With his associates, Siegel formed Murder, Inc. After Siegel and Lansky moved on, control over Murder, Inc. was ceded to Buchalter and Anastasia. Siegel continued working as a hitman. Siegel's only conviction was in Miami. On February 28, 1932, he was arrested for gambling and vagrancy, and, from a roll of bills, paid a $100 fine.
During this period, Siegel had a disagreement with associates of Waxey Gordon, the Fabrizzo brothers. Gordon had hired the Fabrizzo brothers from prison after Lansky and Siegel gave the IRS information about Gordon's tax evasion. It led to Gordon's imprisonment in 1933.
Siegel hunted down the Fabrizzos, killing them after their assassination attempt on Lansky as well as Siegel himself. After the deaths of his two brothers, Tony Fabrizzo began writing a memoir and gave it to an attorney. One of the longest chapters was to be a section on the nationwide kill-for-hire squad led by Siegel. The mob discovered Fabrizzo's plans before he could execute it. In 1932, Siegel checked into a hospital and later that night snuck out. Siegel and two accomplices approached Fabrizzo's house and, posing as detectives to lure him outside, gunned him down. According to hospital records, Siegel's alibi for that night was that he had checked into a hospital. In 1935, Siegel assisted in Luciano's alliance with Dutch Schultz and killed rival loan sharks Louis "Pretty" Amberg and Joseph Amberg.
Siegel had learned from his associates that he was in danger. His hospital alibi had become questionable and his enemies wanted him dead. In the late 1930s, the East Coast mob sent Siegel to California. Since 1933, he had traveled to the West Coast several times, and in California, his mission was to develop syndicate-sanctioned gambling rackets with Los Angeles family boss Jack Dragna. Once in Los Angeles, Siegel recruited gang boss Mickey Cohen as his chief lieutenant. Knowing Siegel's reputation for violence, and that he was backed by Lansky and Luciano — who, from prison, sent word to Dragna that it was "in [his] best interest to cooperate" Dragna accepted a subordinate role. — Siegel moved Esta and their daughters, Millicent and Barbara, to California. On tax returns, he claimed to earn his living through legal gambling at Santa Anita Park near Los Angeles. In LA, he took over the numbers racket and used money from the syndicate to help establish a drug trade route from the US to Mexico and organized circuits with the Chicago Outfit's Trans-America Wire service.
By 1942, $500,000 a day was coming from the syndicate's bookmaking wire operations. In 1946, because of problems with Siegel, the Chicago Outfit took over the Continental Press and gave the percentage of the racing wire to Dragna, infuriating Siegel. Despite his complications with the wire services, Siegel controlled several offshore casinos and a major prostitution ring. He also maintained relationships with politicians, businessmen, attorneys, accountants, and lobbyists who fronted for him.
In Hollywood, Siegel was welcomed in the highest circles and befriended movie stars. He was known to associate with George Raft, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper and Cary Grant, as well as studio executives Louis B. Mayer and Jack L. Warner. Actress Jean Harlow was a friend of Siegel and godmother to his daughter Millicent. Siegel bought real estate and threw lavish parties at his Beverly Hills home. He gained admiration from young celebrities, including Tony Curtis, Phil Silvers, and Frank Sinatra.
Siegel had several relationships with actresses, including socialite Dorothy DiFrasso, the wife of an Italian count. The alliance with the countess took Siegel to Italy in 1938, where he met Benito Mussolini, to whom Siegel tried to sell weapons. He also met Nazi leaders Hermann Göring and Joseph Goebbels, to whom he took an instant dislike and later offered to kill them. He relented because of the countess's anxious pleas.
In Hollywood, Siegel worked with the syndicate to form illegal rackets. He devised a plan of extorting movie studios; he would take over local labor unions (the Screen Extras Guild and the Los Angeles Teamsters) and stage strikes to force studios to pay him off, so that unions would start working again. He borrowed money from celebrities and didn't pay them back, knowing that they would never ask him for the money. During his first year in Hollywood, he received more than $400,000 in loans from movie stars.
Greenberg murder and trial
On November 22, 1939, Siegel, Whitey Krakower, Frankie Carbo and Albert Tannenbaum killed Harry "Big Greenie" Greenberg outside his apartment. Greenberg had threatened to become a police informant, and Buchalter, boss of Murder, Inc., ordered his killing. Tannenbaum confessed to the murder and agreed to testify against Siegel. Siegel and Carbo were implicated in the killing of Greenberg, and in September 1941, Siegel was tried for the murder. Krakower was killed before he could face trial. Siegel's trial gained notoriety because of the preferential treatment he received in jail; he refused to eat prison food and was allowed female visitors. He was also granted leave for dental visits. Siegel hired attorney Jerry Giesler to defend him. After the deaths of two state witnesses, no additional witnesses came forward. Tannenbaum's testimony was dismissed. In 1942, Siegel and Carbo were acquitted due to insufficient evidence but Siegel's reputation was damaged. During the trial, newspapers revealed his past and referred to him as "Bugsy". He hated the nickname (said to be based on the slang term "bugs", meaning "crazy", used to describe his erratic behavior), preferring to be called "Ben" or "Mr. Siegel". On May 25, 1944, Siegel was arrested for bookmaking. Raft and Mack Gray testified on Siegel's behalf, and in late 1944, Siegel was acquitted again.
In 1945, Siegel found an opportunity to reinvent his personal image and diverge into legitimate business with William R. Wilkerson's Flamingo Hotel. In the 1930s, Siegel had traveled to Southern Nevada with Lansky's lieutenant Moe Sedway to explore expanding operations there. He had found opportunities in providing illicit services to crews constructing the Hoover Dam. Lansky had handed over operations in Nevada to Siegel, who turned it over to Sedway and left for Hollywood.
In the mid-1940s, Siegel was lining things up in Las Vegas while his lieutenants worked on a business policy to secure all gambling in Los Angeles. In May 1946, he decided the agreement with Wilkerson had to be altered to give him control of the Flamingo. With the Flamingo, Siegel would supply the gambling, the best liquor and food, and the biggest entertainers at reasonable prices. He believed these attractions would lure not only the high rollers, but thousands of vacationers willing to gamble $50 or $100. Wilkerson was eventually coerced into selling all stakes in the Flamingo under the threat of death, and went into hiding in Paris for a time. From this point the Flamingo became syndicate-run.
Las Vegas' beginning
Siegel began a spending spree. He demanded the finest building that money could buy at a time of postwar shortages. As costs soared, his checks began bouncing. By October 1946, the costs were above $4 million. By 1947, the Flamingo's cost was over $6 million ($74 million today). By late November of that year, the work was nearly finished.
According to later reports by local observers, Siegel's "maniacal chest-puffing" set the pattern for several generations of notable casino moguls. His violent reputation didn't help his situation. After he boasted one day that he'd personally killed some men, he saw the panicked look on the face of head contractor Del Webb and reassured him: "Del, don't worry, we only kill each other." Other associates portrayed Siegel in a different aspect; he was an intense character who was not without a charitable side, including his donations for the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund. Lou Wiener Jr., Siegel's Las Vegas attorney, described him as "very well liked" and that he was "good to people".
Defiance and devastation
Problems with the Trans-America Wire service had cleared up in Nevada and Arizona, but in California, Siegel refused to report business. He later announced to his colleagues that he was running the California syndicate by himself and that he would return the loans in his "own good time". Despite his defiance to the mob bosses, they were patient with Siegel because he had always proven to be a valuable man.
The Flamingo opened on December 26, 1946, at which time only the casino, lounge, theater, and restaurant were finished. Although locals attended the opening, few celebrities materialized. A handful drove in from Los Angeles despite bad weather. Some celebrities present were Raft, June Haver, Vivian Blaine, Sonny Tufts, Brian Donlevy, and Charles Coburn. They were welcomed by construction noise and a lobby draped with drop cloths. The desert's first air conditioning collapsed regularly. While gambling tables were operating, the luxury rooms that would have served as the lure for people to stay and gamble were not ready. As word of the losses made their way to Siegel during the evening, he began to become irate and verbally abusive, throwing out at least one family. After two weeks, the Flamingo's gaming tables were $275,000 in the red and the entire operation shut down in late January 1947.
After being granted a second chance, Siegel cracked down and did everything possible to turn the Flamingo into a success by making renovations and obtaining good press. He hired future newsman Hank Greenspun as a publicist. The hotel reopened on March 1, 1947,—with Lansky present—and began turning a profit. However, by the time profits began improving, the mob bosses above Siegel were tired of waiting. Although time was running out, at age 41, Siegel had carved out a name for himself in the annals of organized crime and in Las Vegas history.
On the night of June 20, 1947, as Siegel sat with his associate Allen Smiley in Virginia Hill's Beverly Hills home reading the Los Angeles Times, an assailant fired at him through the window with a .30 caliber military M1 carbine, hitting him many times, including twice in the head. No one was charged with the murder, and the crime remains officially unsolved.
One theory posits that Siegel's death was the result of his excessive spending and possible theft of money from the mob. In 1946, a meeting was held with the "board of directors" of the syndicate in Havana, Cuba, so that Luciano, exiled in Sicily, could attend and participate. A contract on Siegel's life was the conclusion. According to Stacher, Lansky reluctantly agreed to the decision. Another theory is that Siegel was shot to death preemptively by Mathew "Moose" Pandza, the lover of Sedway's wife Bee, who went to Pandza after learning that Siegel was threatening to kill her husband. Siegel apparently had grown increasingly resentful of the control Sedway, at mob behest, was exerting over Siegel's finances and planned to do away with him. Former Philadelphia crime family boss Ralph Natale has claimed that Carbo was responsible for murdering Siegel, at the behest of Lansky.
Although descriptions said that Siegel was shot in the eye, he was actually hit twice on the right side of his head. The death scene and postmortem photographs show that one shot penetrated his right cheek and exited through the left side of his neck; the other struck the right bridge of his nose where it met the right eye socket. The pressure created by the bullet passing through Siegel's skull blew his left eye out of its socket. A Los Angeles' Coroner's Report (#37448) states the cause of death as cerebral hemorrhage. His death certificate (Registrar's #816192) states the manner of death as a homicide and the cause as "Gunshot Wounds of the head."
Though as noted, Siegel was not shot exactly through the eye (the eyeball would have been destroyed if this had been the case), the bullet-through-the-eye style of killing nevertheless became popular in Mafia lore and in movies, and was called the "Moe Greene special" after the character Moe Greene—based on Siegel—was killed in this manner in The Godfather. Siegel was hit by several other bullets including shots through his lungs. According to Florabel Muir, "Four of the nine shots fired that night destroyed a white marble statue of Bacchus on a grand piano, and then lodged in the far wall."
The day after Siegel's death, the Los Angeles Herald-Express carried a photograph on its front page from the morgue of Siegel's bare right foot with a toe tag. Although Siegel's murder occurred in Beverly Hills, his death thrust Las Vegas into the national spotlight as photographs of his lifeless body were published in newspapers throughout the country. The day after Siegel's murder, David Berman and his Las Vegas mob associates, Sedway and Gus Greenbaum, walked into the Flamingo and took over operation of the hotel and casino.
In the Bialystoker Synagogue on New York's Lower East Side, Siegel is memorialized by a Yahrtzeit (remembrance) plaque that marks his death date so mourners can say Kaddish for the anniversary. Siegel's plaque is below that of Max Siegel, his father, who died just two months before his son. On the property at the Flamingo Las Vegas, between the pool and a wedding chapel, is a memorial plaque to Siegel. Siegel is interred in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Hollywood, California.
In popular culture
- Siegel was the basis for the character and personality of the Moe Greene character in Mario Puzo's novel The Godfather (1969). In the 1972 film adaptation, he is portrayed by Alex Rocco.
- Sergio Leone's film Once Upon a Time in America (1984) is loosely based on the lives of Siegel and Lansky.
- In the movie Atlantic City, the real-life mobsters and gangsters that central character Lou (Burt Lancaster) said he knew, or had worked for, were Dutch Schultz, Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel and Al Capone.
- Bugsy (1991) is a semi-fictional biography of Siegel, featuring Warren Beatty as the mobster.
- The 1991 crime drama Mobsters, depicting the rise of The Commission, features Richard Grieco as Siegel.
- The Marrying Man (1991) has Armand Assante playing the role of Siegel.
- Tim Powers imagined Siegel as a modern-day Fisher King in his novel Last Call (1992).
- He is portrayed by Michael Zegen in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire.
- He is a central character in Frank Darabont's television series Mob City, portrayed by Edward Burns.
- In the 12th episode of the second season of Sliders, Siegel has succeeded in making a gambling empire in California and the mob controls most of the state. In the season four episode "Way Out West", Siegel's grandson Ben "Bugsy" Siegel III (Jay Acovone) planned to turn Las Vegas into a Mecca for gamblers in the same manner as his grandfather did on Earth Prime. The universe in question is approximately 150 years behind Earth Prime in terms of technology and the United States resembles the Wild West into the late 1990s.
- Siegel was one of the primary foes of Greg Saunders, DC Comics' first Vigilante.
- He is portrayed by Jonathan Stewart in AMC's series The Making of the Mob: New York, a docudrama focusing on the history of the mob with the first season about Charlie "Lucky" Luciano's life story.
- In the Stephen Hunter novel Hot Springs, Siegel plays a major role. He is a partner of crime boss Owney Maddox and gets into a physical confrontation with former Marine Sergeant turned Detective Earl Swagger after Swagger lights Virginia Hill's cigarette. Swagger attempts to avoid confrontation with Siegel but beats him in a fist fight, earning his wrath. Later Swagger's former subordinate-turned-CIA agent Frenchy Short assassinates Siegel with an M1 carbine, paralleling the real-life murder.
- Philadelphia rapper Beanie Sigel once signed to Jay Z's Rocafella Records, took his stage name from Bugsy Siegel.
- Famous actor Matthew Perry voiced the character Benny from the 2010 Bethesda Softworks and Obsidian Entertainment game Fallout: New Vegas who is based on, and heavily inspired by Bugsy Siegel.
- Joe Mantegna portrayed Siegel in the 2015 film Kill Me, Deadly.
- Sam Rockwell portrayed Siegel in Drunk History