Meyer Lansky holds a significant place in America’s underworld mythology. Most often characterized as the financial brains of the Jewish underworld, he has been portrayed in fiction, film, and television as the epitome of the gangster-as-businessman, a cold, rational man who employed violence only when all other means of logical persuasion failed. In THE GODFATHER, PART II, Lansky inspired the character of Hyman Roth, Michael Corleone’s chief nemesis. In the recent film BUGSY, Lansky’s calculated calm is contrasted with manic volatility of his friend Benjamin Siegel, and the film implies that he arranged for Siegel’s death after Siegel went too deeply into debt with the mob’s money. In each case, Lansky is shown, underneath his dapper, fastidious facade, as a vicious and ruthless mobster.
LITTLE MAN, Robert Lacey’s study of Lansky, gives a markedly different picture of both the gangster and the world he inhabited. Lacey shows that although Lansky certainly lived outside the law, he was primarily a consultant and private entrepreneur, and not always a successful one at that. A friend and partner to such notorious figures as Bugsy Siegel, Lucky Luciano, and Frank Costello, Lansky himself preferred to remain anonymous throughout most of his career. When the 1951 Kefauver Senate Crime Committee hearing made his name known throughout the country, he found the inflation of his reputation both amusing and appalling. Towards the end of his life, when he was in desperate straits both financially and physically, he was bedeviled by the government’s often self-serving portrayal of him as a major player in a sinister and all-powerful criminal syndicate.
Lacey’s investigation is a remarkable demythification of the popular concept of the Mafia. As recounted here, Lansky’s life is much more conventional and sympathetic than one would expect. His attempts to enter legitimate business mostly fail; his family is a disaster, completely dysfunctional at a level of almost comic tragedy. Small in stature, Lansky comes across as a “little man” who tries to maintain his dignity in a coarse and ultimately pathetic world.