He was a man who loved Israel, but not enough to behave in it.
There was this time a few years back when Meyer Lansky, living in Florida, decided that a prosecutor’s questions could best be answered with movement, and Meyer left the United States, went to Israel, and asked for asylum. Which he received for a while, and Meyer could be found in the Dan Restaurant, Ben Yehuda Street, in Tel Aviv. He ordered the food for those who sat with him, and if somebody ever tried to order on his own, Meyer would frown. The waiter would inform the guest that the whole restaurant would be happier if people ate exactly what Meyer Lansky ordered.
When the Israeli government announced one day that they were sending Lansky back to Florida, the rumor was that the United States was holding up an order of Phantom jets until Israel shipped Lansky back. But then one day I was at the bar of a place called Fink’s in Jerusalem and I asked the guy from the Israeli government about this and he said, “Please, we sent him away because he doesn’t believe in laws. He was causing trouble with taxicab fleets and nightclubs and women. Prostitutes. We don’t need him.”
He lived under the name of Meyer Lansky on Collins Avenue in Miami and he died yesterday. His true name was Maier Suchowljansky and he was born on July 4, 1901, in Russia, and he came through Ellis Island on April 4, 1911.
He lived on Avenue A and knew a kid named Salvatore Lucania, who was called Lucky. On April 24, 1918, Lansky was arrested for the first time, for a felonious assault, on Ludlow Street. The matter was discharged. On November 18, 1918, he was convicted of disorderly conduct and paid a two-dollar fine in Manhattan court. On March 7, 1928, he was arrested for homicide, but this, too, was thrown out and he was able to become a citizen later that year. On January 6, 1929, he had a narcotics arrest; heroin is at the bottom of every known criminal career. He was twenty-seven by now and known for violence.
In those years, people who became famous criminals went from cold-water flats on the East Side to Sing Sing and then to Central Park West. Lansky did not like cold water and didn’t like prisons. He stayed out of jail in New York and went to Florida, Cuba, Las Vegas, and Israel. He was in jail only once in his career, for three months in the Saratoga, New York, city jail. That was in 1952. His legend is that he was the genius of the underworld, the man who ran everything with his brains. But this, of course, was a fable: Lansky was the boss because he probably was the most vicious.
I don’t know where Barney Baker is now, but when he was around he always was considered the finest witness, allowed to remain alive, of Meyer Lansky’s temper.
It happened when Baker, who had boxed as a heavyweight, decided to stop fighting and start eating. He grew to 385 pounds and became a registered gorilla. He went to work as a muscleman for a gambling place in Hollywood, Florida, called the Colonial that was owned by Lansky, Frank Costello, Joe Adonis, and Benjamin (“Bugsy”) Siegel, with Lansky at all times in charge.
On his first day at work, Baker was told to go over to Lansky’s motel and wake him up. The other hoodlums lived in hotel suites and slept until it was time to make the first race, but Lansky, living alone in a cheap hotel, wanted to be on his feet early, for he counted the money, haggled with purveyors and liquor salesmen, and booked the acts for the gambling club. He did very well at this, mainly because salesmen were afraid of him. On his first morning, Baker took a key from the motel room clerk, went to Lansky’s room, and opened the door. He walked over to wake up Meyer, who appeared to be quite asleep, except for a right hand which went under the pillow and brought out what Baker said was the one largest gun he ever had seen.
When Lansky focused his eyes and saw who was in the room, he put the gun back under the pillow. A picture of it, however, remained pasted on the front wall of Barney Baker’s brain.
There then came a late night and Baker, hanging around the bar, had a few drinks and began arguing with a customer who had just walked out of the gambling casino. The customer appeared drunk and he also got on Barney’s nerves, and Barney took him out with a left hook. The customer wandered out of the place with his hands holding his jaw, which appeared to be at least broken.
When Lansky arrived at the club the next day, the porter said to him, “What a shot Barney hit a guy with last night.”
At a table, having morning coffee, Barney Baker glowed. You bet it was a good shot, Barney reminded himself.
“What guy did he hit?” Lansky asked the porter.”
“This guy Al. You know him. The guy who’s always here.”
“Al from the hotel?”
“That’s the one, Mr. Lansky.”
“The guy is the best player we ever had in this place,” Lansky said. His voice turned into a high, dangerous whine. “Did you hit that man?” he yelled to Baker.
When Baker didn’t answer, Lansky started for him. A small man, perhaps one third of Baker’s size, and with eyes made in a freezer. Inside Barney Baker’s head, the gun pasted on his brain wall began to pulsate. Barney was up from the table and going backward. This little Jew coming at him was berserk. You touched my money, you big slob. Baker kept moving around the tables and Lansky kept chasing him. Once, Lansky stopped and pounded his hands against his pockets in anger. He had left that gun of his in the office. Lansky made one quick pass into the kitchen, coming back out with a meat cleaver, but Baker was gone now. Out on the street in a dead run.
If Lansky had any redeeming qualities, they probably can be found in his three children, one of whom went to West Point and did well and can be best left alone here. And then there was one night, years ago, when Meyer worked his way into a charity party run by somebody named Mrs. Vivienne Wooley-Hart Akston on Park Avenue. And he busted everybody out with crooked dice. There was a major investigation, instead of the proper action, which should have been to award Meyer a medal.
Otherwise, if he leaves anything, it is the memory of his eyes.
There was a day when Sid Zion, writing his book, Read All About It, sat with Lansky and said to him, “Tell the truth, didn’t you give the okay to get Ben Siegel hit?”
“Lansky had been smiling, and now his face became straight. The eyes became small ice ponds.
“He was the best friend I ever had,” Lansky said. “His grandchildren are coming to visit with me. Why don’t you stay here a few days and see for yourself? How could I get a guy killed if I have his grandchildren coming to visit me?” Lansky’s eyes kept staring.
“That was when I knew that he had Siegel killed,” Zion said.