The Dark Side of the American Dream
By Michael Shnayerson
The Hollywood gossip columnist Florabel Muir had him pegged as a “storybook gangster.” With his matinee-idol looks, expensive haberdashery and affable, honeyed manner, he was also likened to a “sportsman,” a playboy and an actor manqué. I’m referring, of course, to Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, the underworld figure who, calling himself an “investment broker,” abetted the postwar transformation of a once sleepy Nevada town into that “American Gomorrah” known as Las Vegas. The man made for good copy and, based on Michael Shnayerson’s fast-paced and absorbing biography in the Jewish Lives series, he still does.
This latest account , written in a rat-a-tat style where money jingles and the American dream is in reach of “anyone with guts, good taste and a gun,” follows the entrepreneurial ne’er-do-well as he made his way from the dreary tenements of New York City to the elegant redoubts of Los Angeles and then Las Vegas. After a potted history of Siegel’s adolescence on the s Lower East Side, where, thanks to his quicksilver temper, the teenage tough acquired his nickname, the book picks up steam, recounting Siegel’s subsequent exploits during the interwar years as a bootlegger, bookmaker and occasional hit man. It culminates in his grand postwar plans for the “Fabulous Flamingo,” a swanky casino-cum-hotel in the Nevada desert. Designed to give Monte Carlo a run for its money, this ambitious venture proved to be his undoing.
Presciently, Siegel persuaded his underworld confreres to finance the Flamingo, pointing to a confluence of local factors — legalized gambling, air travel, the presence of large numbers of male factory workers with time on their hands and money to spend — likely to ensure a constant flow of paying customers. Not so wisely, he overspent by millions of dollars, giving them reason to suspect him of skimming off the top and rendering him a liability.
Shnayerson, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, makes good use of the gossipy published memoirs of the many people, from paramours to attorneys, who consorted with Siegel, as well as of heavily redacted F.B.I. files, their pages smudged with black ink. With a keen eye for the amusing, and humanizing, detail, he enlivens the traditional rise-and-fall narrative.
With one eye on the scale and another on his public image, Siegel exercised like mad and monitored his daily diet, lest he gain a pound or two. He also made sure to expand his vocabulary by dipping nightly into the Reader’s Digest column “It Pays to Increase Your Word Power.”
Siegel’s image-making extended from his person to his hotel, where he insisted that, to add a frisson of exoticism, real flamingos wander the grounds. He reluctantly gave up on that idea, and expense, when the creatures succumbed to the extreme desert heat and died prematurely.
Readers awaiting a new plot twist, a late-in-the-day revelation or, for that matter, a debunking of underworld mythology, will not find it in these pages, which hew tightly to conventional wisdom. But they will come away with an enhanced understanding of, and even sympathy for, the man who, according to at least one of his associates, was the “supreme gangster in the U.S., the top man … the big boss.” When, in the book’s concluding moments, Shnayerson reports that Siegel, age 41, was shot to death one June evening in 1947 while sitting quietly in the living room of his Beverly Hills home, and that his funeral was both sparsely attended and speedy — “It was all over in five minutes,” The Los Angeles Examiner reported — some of us may even feel a twinge or two of sadness.
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