Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel was born on February 28th 1906 in Brooklyn, New York. The son of Austro-Hungarian Jews who had moved to America in search of a better life, he grew up in poverty. The family later moved to Manhattan’s lower east side, where the lack of opportunity led many of the residents to turn to crime. It wasn’t long before Bugsy had decided to get in on the racket. Along with another Jewish friend, Meyer Lansky, they formed a gang and began to shake down local traders, setting up a protection racket for regular payments.
Manhattan’s gangs were split between the Jews and the Italians, and they often railed against each other. When Bugsy and Meyer Lansky joined forces with Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano’s Italian mob, they united the two groups under the moniker the National Crime Syndicate and created a crime family with a strength and unity that had not been seen before in America. The syndicate soon controlled all of New York, dividing territory between different gangs and eliminating the turf wars that had hampered the previous growth of organised crime. In 1936, Bugsy relocated to the West Coast where his criminal career went from strength to strength and, as you can read in this blog post, he is even credited with the creation of Las Vegas’s gambling resorts.
Gambling of any kind was illegal in the United States, and many people who wanted to indulge, including mobsters, would travel to Havana for their fill of games. In a bid to try and improve the state’s economy, Nevada officially legalised gambling in 1931, and a few casinos started to pop up in Las Vegas. But Bugsy envisioned something bigger. He had been living in California, rubbing shoulders with the stars of Hollywood’s golden age and enjoying a life of glitz and glamour. He wanted to bring a taste of the same to Las Vegas. Why Vegas? Because the real estate was cheap.
Bugsy convinced his syndicate partners to let him take over the construction of the Flamingo, a resort hotel and casino based on what would become the famous Strip. The project’s original developers had run out of money, but Bugsy saw potential. The original budget was $1.5 million dollars, but by inflating costs, skimming off the top and embezzling thousands, Bugsy ran the budget all the way up to $6 million, and made himself a pretty penny in the process. This angered his backers, including his old friend Meyer Lansky, who felt that Bugsy had betrayed their trust.
When the Flamingo finally opened in 1946 it was an immediate hit with gamblers, who came from all over to see the opulence and lavish design, as well as hit the gambling floor. But they also brought some big winning streaks, which hurt business, and it was a while before the Flamingo started to pull in the big profits. And by that point, Bugsy’s fate had already been sealed. In 1947 he was gunned down while relaxing at his girlfriend’s home in Beverly Hills. While no one knows who is responsible, it is widely believed that his old friend Meyer Lansky was the one who ordered the hit.
But that wasn’t the end of the story as far as Las Vegas was concerned. The success of the Flamingo prompted the mob to look into funding more casinos, including the Riviera and the Stardust. Celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, some of who knew Bugsy from his time on the West Coast, flocked to the desert and added to the glamourous nature of the resorts. When Castro banned gambling in Cuba in 1959, it cemented Las Vegas’ reputation as the gambling centre of the Americas.
Today, Las Vegas is visited by millions every year. Some come for the gambling, others to see the sights and the spectacle that have grown up around the casinos. While many resorts have been knocked down and built over along the way, the legendary Flamingo still stands as a tribute to Bugsy’s dream. And Las Vegas has embraced its colourful history. Rather than trying to brush its criminal links under the rug, the city recognises that it would not be where it is today without the influence of organised crime. Today visitors can even visit the Mob Museum and learn all about the gangsters that brought their money and influence to Nevada. And if you pass through the Flamingo, you can get a bite to eat at Bugsy and Meyer’s Steakhouse, a further loving tribute to the original founders of the hotel.
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