He looked more like a movie star than a mobster and killer that he was. “My friends call me Ben, strangers call me Mr. Siegel, and guys I don’t like call me Bugsy, but not to my face,” he’d say.
Someone who’d no doubt call him Bugsy shot Benjamin Siegel to death at his girlfriend’s house in Beverly Hills — his head and body riddled with bullets from a military M-1 rifle fired through the window.
They never found the killer.
As teenagers in Brooklyn, Ben Siegel and Meyer Lansky started their own “Bugs and Meyer Gang,” terrorizing pushcart vendors in Manhattan’s Bowery by demanding protection money against ongoing burglary and vandalism. If they turned them down, they’d douse the cart with kerosene and set it ablaze.
The boys would become big-time mobsters working with both Jewish and the Italian-American mobs.
During Prohibition, Charles “Lucky” Luciano would hire the boys to protect illegal shipments of beer and liquor.
The Bugs and Meyer Gang — that also included Louis “Lepke” Buchalter and Moe Sedway — started killing people, and a decade later joined the Italian syndicate to form Murder Inc., a syndicate of contract killers who carried out hits for the Italian and Jewish mafias.
They may have killed as many as a thousand.
Siegel’s parents were Austro-Hungarian Jews who immigrated to the U.S. in 1903 and settled in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Growing up, Ben hated the poverty that surrounded them.
It didn’t take long for him to make big bucks, and he soon was wearing expensive clothes and hanging out at high-class night spots. By 1931, he owned an apartment in Manhattan’s Waldorf Astoria Towers and a Tudor home in tony Scarsdale, N.Y.
By the late 1920s, the young mobsters were linked up with the Italian big-timers — Luciano, Frank Costello, Joe Adonis, Vito Genovese, Albert Anastasia and Tommy Lucchese.
Siegel was their top hit man, who “enjoyed killing, with a glee of a schoolboy on his first date.”
In 1929, Siegel married his childhood sweetheart Esta Krakower, and they had two daughters, but the marriage ended in 1946.
As the Great Depression ravaged the nation, times were changing for the big-time gangsters. Prohibition ended in 1933 with the 21st Amendment to the Constitution, drying up the bootleg liquor racket; Al Capone was languishing in prison and suffering from syphilis and gonorrhea, and organized crime needed new business.
In the mid-1930s, East Coast mob kingpins sent Siegel to California to take over their West Coast rackets — including the lucrative racing wire that reported horse race results to thousands of bookies nationwide. The wires were run by mob boss Jack Dragna, who was threatened by Lansky and Luciano, to step aside “or else…”
Dragna did as he was told.
On Thanksgiving Day 1935, Moe and Bee Sedway married at the New York City courthouse, and honeymooned aboard the cruise ship “Lurline” heading for L.A. via the Panama Canal. Siegel went with them to take up his new assignment in Southern California.
Bugsy was soon friends with Hollywood stars including Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, and actor George Raft — whom he knew from their New York days.
He enjoyed even closer relations with glamor girls Jean Harlow, Wendy Barry, Marie McDonald, Virginia Hill and Italian Countess Dorothy di Frasso.
“Even though Siegel was busy with the broads,” one report said, “he always found the time to do a little killing on the side.”
Then in 1939, Mickey Cohen, another Brooklyn mobster, arrived in Los Angeles to help Bugsy enforce his authority.
That same year, Bugsy put a hit on fellow mobster Harry “Big Greenie” Greenberg, who was squealing to the feds.
Siegel was arrested and charged with the killing, but was acquitted when the star witness against him mysteriously disappeared.
In 1945, Siegel was sent to Las Vegas to scout for a location to build a hotel and casino — gambling being legal in Nevada.
He and several other mobsters bought the El Cortez Hotel, but ran into bureaucratic roadblocks by city officials who didn’t like their gangland credentials. The hotel proved a success anyway through good management by Gus Greenbaum and Moe Sedway.
Then Bugsy heard about a hotel-casino that was being built on Highway 91 outside the city limits by Billy Wilkerson, owner of Sunset Boulevard nightclubs and The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
He dreamed of turning a Nevada cow-town into a Monte Carlo of the West.
The site would make it the first hotel visitors driving from L.A. would see — and hopefully pull into.
Vegas didn’t have more than an airport strip yet, but Bugsy predicted the city would have a million residents, and he personally invested in 800 acres of raw land.
Wilkerson ran out of money because of ballooning building costs and a bad gambling habit, so halfway through construction, Bugsy Siegel bought two-thirds interest in the property — bankrolled by East Coast mobsters as silent partners.
Taking over, Bugsy named it the “Flamingo Hotel & Casino” because of his girlfriend Virginia Hill’s long, slender legs.
Then like Wilkerson, Bugsy overspent and expenses soared from $1 million to more than $6 million.
Nevertheless, Bugsy decided on a grand opening on December 26, 1946, and invited a Hollywood celebrity A-List, but bad weather kept many of them at home — though his old pal George Raft showed up.
Jimmy Durante rasped his trademark songs, and Xavier Cugat’s big band played on, but the construction work was far from complete — with drop cloths still shrouding the lobby, and guest rooms unfinished.
Many of the disappointed A-listers went downtown to gamble and stay the night.
A flock of flamingos perished in the desert climate, causing Bugsy to cancel an order for 100 more, and the gambling tables lost money.
Opening night was a resounding flop and crowds stayed away following bad publicity.
Bugsy closed the hotel for two months to finish construction, and then reopened.
By May the Flamingo began making money — taking in $250,000 that month. But that wasn’t enough to make the boys back east happy.
It was a rocky start for the now world-famous Las Vegas Strip.
Time and again, Meyer Lansky warned Siegel about overspending, but he just ignored it. Both Bugsy and Virginia were suspected of stealing some of the money and stashing it in Swiss banks.
The impatient and temperamental Bugsy Siegel became increasingly annoyed with his old friend, Moe Sedway, who was nagging him to put a lid on the expenses. Finally, he blew up and called a meeting in Vegas of all his associates except Moe, telling them, “I want Moe out — gone!”
The stunned group listened as he said, “I’ll have Moe shot, chop his body up, and feed it to the Flamingo Hotel’s kitchen garbage disposal.”
When that got back to the bosses in the East, they convened a secret meeting in Havana to decide about Bugsy — choosing the Cuba location so Lucky Luciano — who was exiled to Italy — could attend.
The decision was a contract on Siegel — with even Meyer Lansky reluctantly approving the hit.
At about 10:45 on the night of June 20, 1947, Siegel was sitting on the living room couch in Virginia Hill’s home in Beverly Hills, reading the Los Angeles Times with his friend, Allen Smiley. Hill was out of the country on a trip to Paris.
Suddenly, two rifle bullets fired through an open window from a .30-caliber military M-1 rifle struck Siegel in the face.
According to the coroner’s report, he was hit on the right side of his head, and also on the right bridge of his nose. Pressure from the bullet popped his left eyeball out of the socket and it landed 15 feet away on the floor.
More bullets hit him in the lungs, and also shattered a white marble statue of Bacchus sitting on a grand piano.
Within 20 minutes after the murder, Moe Sedway and associate David “Davie the Jew” Berman casually walked into the Flamingo and announced that they were now in charge.
In 1951, a U.S. Senate committee under Sen. Estes Kefauver (D-Tenn.) investigating organized crime, questioned Virginia Hill. She testified that Siegel “Bought me everything I wanted…He paid for everything. And he gave me some money, too, bought me a house in Florida.”
In March 1966 in Koppl, Austria — near Salzburg and close to Switzerland — passersby walking on a footpath beside a picturesque brook found Virginia Hill dead from an overdose of sleeping pills, with her coat neatly folded beside her and a note that said simply, “tired of life.”
Among the murder suspects was Eddie Cannizzaro, said to have been Jack Dragna’s chauffeur and bodyguard. Years later in 1987, while lying on his deathbed, he called federal agents and a reporter to his bedside and confessed to seven murders — one of them Bugsy Siegel — but nothing ever came of it.
In 2012, NBC-TV in Los Angeles broadcast another story, in which Warren Hull, executive assistant at a Nevada law enforcement agency, revealed a long-held family secret that claimed Bugsy’s killer was a troubled World War II vet sharpshooter named Robert MacDonald.
Law enforcement agencies failed to compare his rifle’s ballistics with the bullets that killed Bugsy Siegel.
Mickey Cohen, Jack Dragna and others were suspects in arranging the hit.
The killing remains a cold case to this day.
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Contact Syd Albright at email@example.com.
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“Amongst his possessions at the time of his murder were a billfold with $408 in cash, a watch, money clip, key chain (with six keys, one being a hotel room key), a ring and a pair of cufflinks.
“He was put in a $5000 casket and interred in the Beth Olam section of Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Only five family members showed up to the service, which took place before the cemetery opened.”
“Virginia Hill, born in 1916, was surely something of a mental case, perhaps diagnosed today as bipolar, sociopathic, borderline personality or worse. But while still only a teenager in 1934, she showed her mettle as the beautiful and beguiling redheaded apprentice of Mob bookmaker Joe Epstein in the rough and corrupt city of Chicago. Soon, with incredible ease, using her looks, sexual liaisons and talents for laundering money and stolen merchandise, Hill rose higher than any other woman in the national underworld, an equal among the most infamous male racketeers in the United States.”
— The Mob Museum
Bugsy and Mussolini…
In 1939, Bugsy Siegel and Hollywood socialite Countess Dorothy di Frasso tried to sell explosives to Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. They didn’t succeed, because the supposedly new explosive called “Atomite” that they claimed was more powerful than dynamite didn’t impress evaluators at a demonstration.
While Bugsy was in Italy, he ran into Hitler’s number two — Hermann Göring, who was in town for an audience with Mussolini. Bugsy, who was Jewish, said later that he wished he’d knocked off Göring when he had the chance.
Bugsy the teacher…
Teaching his old friend Moe Sedway’s wife Bee how to be a Mafia wife, Bugsy Siegel told her, “Whenever you walk into any room, you hold your head high and hesitate a little and look all around like you own the place. If you walk in like that, they’ll figure you’re someone important. But if you walk in all hunched up and embarrassed, that’s how you’re going to be treated.”
Land sale a bad deal…
Upon his death, Bugsy Siegel’s 800 acres of desert scrubland was deeded to daughters Millicent and Barbara, and an associate. Selling the land later, each received only $8,000.
In a 2009 TV interview, Millicent said she regretted the transaction. A veteran commercial real estate broker about the time of the interview valued those 800 acres at $8 billion.
FBI and other law enforcement agencies dogged Bugsy Siegel for years, yet he was never convicted of a serious crime — only two charges: gambling and vagrancy, and another for placing bets illegally on a horse race. In both cases, he paid a fine and walked away free.