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On ‘Boardwalk,’ Meyer Lansky Looms Large

The ruthless Jewish gangster is all business on the Prohibition-era HBO show

Alexander Aciman
September 15, 2014
Anatol Yusef as Meyer Lansky on 'Boardwalk Empire.'(HBO)
Anatol Yusef as Meyer Lansky on 'Boardwalk Empire.'(HBO)

On Sunday’s episode of Boardwalk Empire, we heard Steve Buscemi’s character Nucky Thompson imply that a “little kike” was behind his assassination attempt. He is, of course, referring to the 5’0” gangland kingpin Meyer Lansky, played by British actor Anatol Yusef.

Maier Suchowljansky, born in 1902, came to The United States in 1911. Like many Polish Jews, his family settled in New York’s Lower East Side. Lansky, (who unlike most of his fellow mobsters managed to die of natural causes at the ripe age of 81) started out as a cat burglar and low-level gambler, and eventually became a successful bootlegger, loanshark, and gambler.

He was a known associate of Capo di Tutti Capi Lucky Luciano, a major crime boss and drug trafficker, and Bugsy Siegel, one of the engineers of the Vegas Strip and basis for Moe Green’s character in The Godfather.

What Lansky lacked in height, he more than made up for in cunning ruthlessness and business savvy. One estimate placed his net worth at around $300,000,000, and according to his obituary, one FBI agent joked that Lansky “would have been chairman of the board of General Motors if he’d gone into legitimate business.” Like Arnold Rothstein, Lansky’s level-headed and business-like approach to crime allowed him to avoid conviction for any major crime (despite a close call with tax evasion charges), and earned him profitable, lifelong business partnerships. He even tried to persuade the rest of the Mob to organize itself into a criminal’s union known as the National Crime Syndicate. This endeavor only lasted a few years. Even Lansky’s gruesome hit squad was run and developed as though it were a business venture—known as Murder Inc. by the newspapers, Lansky’s squad was responsible for the death of Joe the Boss Masseria.

During World War Two, Lansky made an unlikely partnership with the United States government; Lansky was among the mobsters hired by the OSS to provide security at the naval docks and quell any unrest among the workers in order to prevent sabotage of American ships. Lansky, for all his interest in crime partnerships, was also a snitch, and gave up one of his drug trafficking rivals to the government in order to get him out of the picture.

Lansky, like his Godfather counterpart Hyman Roth, spent time in Cuba in order to evade certain chargers. In the 1970s, during another attempt to avoid conviction, he took a little Birthright trip of his own and went to Israel, hoping to find shelter with the Law of Return. He was extradited, but then cleared of his charges.

On Boardwalk Lansky is a bit of an upstart. He doesn’t think twice about executing someone, or beating an anti-Semite to death. And though the show may have overplayed Lansky’s machismo, it’s clear that the creators did their research: with the smuggling of heroin, the betrayal of Arnold Rothstein, the occasional lies, the show has really driven home the point of what an underhanded, ambitious business partner Lansky truly was.

Alexander Aciman is a writer living in New York. His work has appeared in, among other publications, The New York Times, Vox, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Republic.