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Bugsy Siegel finally gets a serious biography

Las Vegas historians spend too much time talking and writing about Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel. Consider that Siegel was involved with Las Vegas in one way or another for about five years, and he focused intensely on Las Vegas for only two. Plenty of important stuff happened before and after Siegel’s cameo.

But there’s a reason Las Vegas historians give Siegel more attention than they should: He’s what book buyers, cable networks, civic groups and library audiences want to read and hear about. Siegel’s brief role in Las Vegas history features mystery, drama and danger. We have a twisted sort of pride that one of the public’s hall-of-fame mobsters took an interest in our little town.

Larry Gragg, a Missourian who focuses his academic attention on Las Vegas, has written the first serious Siegel biography, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel: The Gangster, the Flamingo, and the Making of Modern Las Vegas (Praeger, $48). It joins his previous book, Bright Light City: Las Vegas in Popular Culture, as a welcome and worthy addition to the local history canon.

Gragg, of course, traces Siegel’s entire life, including his early years as a hot-tempered hoodlum on the gritty streets of New York’s Lower East Side; his alliance with Meyer Lansky and other young Jewish and Italian gangsters in the bootlegging racket under the tutelage of Arnold Rothstein; his emergence as one of the “elite of the underworld” in the 1930s; and his move to Los Angeles to improve New York’s grip on mob activities there.

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But Siegel’s midlife foray to Las Vegas is what captures Gragg’s primary interest, and rightly so, because for all of Siegel’s infamy before then, he had yet to make a unique mark in the annals of organized crime. He wasn’t one of the brainy guys like Rothstein or Lansky. He wasn’t a national Mafia boss like Lucky Luciano or Frank Costello. What was his claim to fame, other than good looks and a catchy nickname that he hated?

Siegel seized his opportunity when he took over construction of the Flamingo Hotel on the burgeoning Las Vegas Strip. The project was in trouble. Billy Wilkerson, the Los Angeles nightclub owner who conceived the Flamingo, had plenty of money coming in but blew most of it at the gambling tables. He found some investors to help out — a group that included Lansky and Siegel. As Siegel started spending more time overseeing the syndicate’s investment, he eventually pushed Wilkerson into a subordinate role.

Gragg carefully documents what is known of the months leading up to the Flamingo’s premature opening on Dec. 26, 1946, its abrupt closure in early February due to lackluster performance, and its reopening in March. In the process, he introduces a neglected factor in the Flamingo’s rough start: It faced stiff competition from other Las Vegas resorts, especially in attracting top-drawer entertainment.

“The competing properties in Las Vegas did not make Ben’s situation any easier,” Gragg writes. “Over the first five months of 1947, the Hotel Last Frontier had singing star Rudy Vallee and pianist Liberace; the El Rancho Vegas had the Will Mastin Trio and Tin Pan Alley veteran Benny Fields; the Nevada Biltmore brought in Chico Marx, R&B group the Deep River Boys, comedian Ben Blue, comic actress and singer Martha Raye, actor Leo Carrillo, and comic Buddy Lester; and the El Cortez offered popular crooner and songwriter Gene Austin.”

In order to compete, Siegel hosted high-profile entertainers such as Jimmy Durante, Lena Horne, the Andrews Sisters and Pearl Bailey. According to Gragg, “Ben attracted the glittering stars, but the high cost of booking the top headliners exacerbated his debt problems.”

No one has ever served a day in jail for Siegel’s murder on June 20, 1947. To this day, the Beverly Hills Police Department considers it an open case. So, does Gragg reveal, at long last, who killed Bugsy? It’s hardly a spoiler alert to reveal that he does not. But he does work hard to outline and evaluate the various theories. Unfortunately, Siegel’s assassins appear destined to remain subjects of conjecture for eternity.

The only misstep with Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel is not Gragg’s: It’s the expansive subtitle that promises more than the author intended to deliver. Gragg expends only modest effort addressing the role Siegel played in the “making of modern Las Vegas.” Though a small piece of that larger story, Siegel was a one-hit wonder who didn’t even write the original melody.

Further study

Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel is a meticulous work of research. For a more literary account of Siegel’s life, Dean Jennings’ We Only Kill Each Other (1967) is worth reading. And despite its historical distortions, Warren Beatty’s Bugsy biopic (1991) is an admirable attempt to understand Siegel’s anxieties and ambitions.

 

Geoff Schumacher is the director of content for the Mob Museum and the author of Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue.

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