For several years now, I’ve had an odd contact in my cell phone: the Miami Beach address of the long-deceased gangster Meyer Lansky.
I’d been planning to write about Lansky in some way—I wasn’t sure yet how—and before the drudgery of writing, I sometimes like to create a kind of scavenger hunt for myself, visiting locations that might illuminate the story. I went to Lansky’s childhood home in Brooklyn, for example—it’s now a vacant lot across the street from a juvenile detention facility. I went to his family’s next residence, just a few blocks away, a brick box with garbage cans chained in front, adjacent to what is now the Olutunu Cherubim & Seraphim Church. As I photographed that particular scene, a homeless man in an army coat asked me, somewhat gnomically, “Can it be saved?” I’m not exactly sure what he meant, but salvation—and more often its opposite, damnation—began to emerge as a theme as I pursued Lansky’s trail. I felt a strange sense of damnation as I peered into the dark lobby of an apartment building on Tel Aviv’s Be’eri Street, where Lansky had lived in the early 1970s. I felt it in the empty lounge of the city’s Dan Hotel, where he’d also lived. He’d wandered his way through a lot of places—Poland, New York, Havana, Las Vegas, Tel Aviv—a kind of ghost in his own life, perpetually in exile.
There was something ghostlike for me as well, as I carried out this scavenger hunt. I sometimes felt like a “spook”—like a spy, but also like something more spiritually pernicious—even if the object of my curiosity had been dead since 1983. My previous book, Evening’s Empire, had been another kind of gangster story—it was about my father’s murder, in 1975, after his complicated involvement with, and eventual testimony against, a man who had committed vast land frauds in Arizona. On a similar expedition for that book, I had driven up a mountainside in Scottsdale, looking for what had been the home of the land-fraud artist who had ordered my father’s killing. It had been more than 30 years since all this happened, yet when I got lost that day and had to ask someone for directions, the woman who happened to pass by at that exact moment—she was very helpful—turned out to be a close friend of the man’s family. She offered to introduce me to his daughter. It was “spooky,” of course. I’ve learned that if you go looking into dark places, seeking answers, sometimes those dark places will reveal their own mocking surprises.
The man who ordered my father’s murder had many things in common with Meyer Lansky—he was where my interest in Lansky had begun. They were both Jews involved in organized crime, both allied with men who killed for them. They also both avoided paying for their worst offenses and died not of violence but of old age. Lansky sought asylum in Israel in the early ’70s. He believed that as a Jew, even he had the right of return, the birthright of Israeli citizenship. It was the only place in his life that he’d truly felt at home—not just for legal reasons but, I would come to believe, also for spiritual ones. There in the Jewish homeland, he achieved as much as someone like him could have hoped for a kind of temporary salvation, but in 1972 the Israeli Supreme Court forced him to leave.
His final destination was Miami Beach, at the address I’d plugged into my phone, the Imperial House on Collins Avenue. When I pulled into the parking lot, there was an attendant on duty, a Cuban-American man in shorts and a bright teal polo shirt with the Imperial House logo on it. I explained my presence, and it turned out that I was far from the first to make this pilgrimage. A lot of people come looking for the final dwelling place of Meyer Lansky.
Inside, it was as dreary as I’d expected—a gray floor, fake French chandeliers, some cheap statuettes of classical gods so dingy that the bronze had almost turned black. In the photos I took that day, the lobby looks bright and cosmic, à la Stanley Kubrick, but in truth it is as gloomy as a tomb. At the front desk, a large man in a vest—like some “heavy” left over from a Raymond Chandler novel—explained that several people, “owners in the building,” had “written books” about Lansky. He wrote the name of one of these authors on a Post-it note. I was familiar by then with the Lansky bibliography, and I told him I’d never heard of this particular biographer, and he said that some of these books were “hard to find, but they’re around. Try the library, you’ll find them.”
I had “tried the library” many times by that point. What I’d found in almost all of the nonfiction about Lansky had been remarkably unilluminating, and this was a large part of what I felt justified my own novelistic project. A person’s life, of course, is not a story. A story has a central drama, and a central drama requires deeper characterization than I was finding in the Lansky bibliography. What I was finding were clichés about “the mob’s accountant,” or “the underworld’s man of mystery.” Beyond these clichés were some simple facts: He was gifted with numbers, he had a strategic mind, he was able to persuade the more colorful (and overtly violent) figures around him that treating crime as a rational business was more profitable than treating it as an endless turf war. But perhaps preeminent among Lansky’s traits was his knack for silence. The problem for me as a storyteller was that this reticence, which enabled him to avoid prosecution throughout his life, had the side effect of making him as a human being nearly a cipher, all but invisible. I’d pored over pages of his FBI files, and they made for some oddly comical reading. A bloviating paragraph from a loudmouth like Bugsy Siegel would be answered by Lansky with a simple “yes” or “no.” It was tempting to mistake his taciturnity for simple-mindedness.
But I knew he was far from simple-minded. What finally began to resonate for me was the plaintive ineloquence of some of the letters Lansky wrote late in life from his home in Miami Beach. They were letters to Israel, to Menachem Begin, seeking reconsideration of his status there.
Mr. Begin, I have a very keen desire to live in Israel, but unfortunately I am verboten. To begin with, when I spent time in Israel, I fell more in love with the country than I was before. My one wish is to be able to spend the rest of my life—which, I presume, can’t be too long, as I am 75 yrs. old …
… how much harm can an elderly, sick man do to Israel. … I can enter, as I have, any other country without criticism, except the place of my heritage …
For all their plainspoken ineptness, these letters indicated to me that there was something more to Lansky’s yearning for Israel than what may have started out simply as a cynical desire to avoid prosecution in the United States. At the time of these letters to Begin, he had already faced prosecution and had been exonerated in federal court for lack of evidence. I don’t mean to imply that Lansky was an innocent man. I think he was far from innocent, though we can never know the explicit truth of his deeds for, again, he was a master of the art of secrecy. And yet he was haunted—haunted by a lifelong sense of displacement and embattlement that dated back to when he left Grodno with his family at the age of 9 for a new life in the United States. The Promised Land. The Golden Land. There, like so many other Jewish immigrants, his father ended up doing piecework in the garment trade, barely managing to support his family. Life as the Lanskys encountered it first in Brooklyn, then in the tenements of the Lower East Side, turned out to be even more brutal than it had been in Poland.
It is a familiar story: The young immigrant, in an effort to better his position, chooses a life of crime. A high-school dropout, Lansky was working in a tool-and-die shop for 10 cents an hour, 52 hours a week, when he made his decision. His allegiance with the dark side took him from the tenements of the Lower East Side to the luxury towers of Central Park West, where he lived in two buildings that are still prestigious, the Majestic and then the Beresford. By the age of 75, he was free to live out the rest of his life in the relative comfort of the Imperial House in Miami Beach, and yet this wasn’t enough for him. He wanted to return to Israel. And as I reflected on this desire, it did not seem so far-fetched to me to imagine that the central drama in the life of this most earthly of men was a spiritual drama. It was the permanent outcast’s yearning for an authentic home.
One could argue that it’s naïve to attribute such aspirations to a mobster like Meyer Lansky. But as a novelist, one of my jobs is to look for the depths that exist in anyone—to begin with the assumption that although many people are inarticulate, few are shallow. One could argue that advocating for a figure like Lansky is a way of romanticizing evil—that is, romanticizing someone very like the man who ordered my father’s murder. But a novelist is not a judge, or at least not a preemptive one.
When I went back out to my car at the Imperial House in Miami Beach that afternoon, the parking attendant approached me. He appeared to be in his fifties, with a mustache and slightly crazed eyes—a face that had been through a lot. He insisted on giving me a religious pamphlet, “How To Be Saved and Know It.”
“When you buy a house,” he explained to me, “maybe it’s a good decision, maybe it’s a bad decision. You never know. But this decision”—the decision to accept Christ—“will change your life. Because it is eternal. Because it is eternal life.”
I realized in that moment that he was sincerely concerned with the state of my soul. It was unclear to me at first why. Then he asked if I was “family”—that is, if I was related to Lansky. I had been furtive before, taking my photographs, and something about the way the attendant asked if I was part of Lansky’s family caused me to see myself for a moment through his eyes, as one of the damned. You go looking into dark places, seeking answers, and sometimes those dark places reveal their own mocking surprises.
I told him no, then, I was just a writer, and I finally drove away.
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Zachary Lazar is the author of four books, including his new novel I Pity the Poor Immigrant.
Zachary Lazar is the author of four books, including his new novelI Pity the Poor Immigrant.