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The Truth About Las Vegas Legend Bugsy Siegel

Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel
"Mugshot Benjamin Siegel" by New York Police Department - Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

1928 mug shot of Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel

To the world who know bits and pieces of the myth – or perhaps remember actor Warren Beatty’s portrayal, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel is the founder of the modern version of Las Vegas: Opulent hotels, top-grade service and class-A entertainment.

The truth is, Siegel rose from the ranks of a street hoodlum to his perch as the chief of the Flamingo Hotel and Casino before his death in 1947.

Professor Larry Gragg has spent much of the last two years dissecting Siegel’s life, documenting his research in a new book, “Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel: The Gangster, the Flamingo and the Making of Modern Las Vegas.”

Gragg told KNPR's State of Nevada that Siegel did not have the epiphany-in-the-desert moment that has been depicted in movies. Instead, Siegel took over the Flamingo project from a Los Angeles-based nightclub owner who ran out of money.

“I didn’t want to indicate that he didn’t have a vision of what a good resort hotel, he did, he just didn’t have this remarkable vision,” Gragg said.

But his legacy is not one of world-class hotelier. Nor is it strictly that of a gangster.

Like most people walking the planet, Siegel was neither yin nor yang, but a complicated mix of both, especially when it came to his daughters. His daughter Millicent, remembers him as a loving father, which is far from the image of a brutal killer. 

“He is a complicated person who showed evidence of both,” Gragg said. “Most of the depictions are caricatures."

Gragg also found that the myth of how many people Siegel killed is one that has lived on despite there being no evidence. The FBI reported several times that he had killed 30 people but Gragg said his research does not bear that out.

(Editor's note: This story originally ran January 2015)

Copyright 2015 KNPR-FM. To see more, visit

Larry Gragg, author and professor of history and political science, Missouri University of Science and Technology 

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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.