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A bitter mobster's foreboding diaries. Now that gambling and booze have been taken over by big corporations, can sex and drugs be far behind?

The Lansky Diaries

By Eric Dezenhall
Originally published July 29, 2001

Eric Dezenhall is the Washington, D.C.-based author of "Money Wanders," a novel about organized crime in his boyhood home, Atlantic City, N.J., soon to be published by St. Martin's Press.

     FOLKS LIKE vice because it's fabulous. That's right, gambling is a kick, cocktails taste good and porno flicks are arousing. Is it OK to say that out loud? Sure, because I don't do these things, it's other people. But the numbers from the business section and the smiles on American faces suggest a whole lot of other people. Last year, according to industry statistics, Americans spent $95 billion on alcoholic drinks, $10 billion on X-rated movies and, brace yourself, more than half a trillion in wagers.

Meyer and Teddy Lansky
A rare photo of Lanksy and his wife Teddy in Havana, 1958
Courtesy of´┐ŻCynthia Duncan
     Yes, vice is big business. But I'll let you in on another secret, one you won't hear from any of the industry analysts: The growth chart is headed through the roof. How do I know? I got it straight from the CEO, the first venture capitalist of vice who has been widely credited for engineering and marketing consumer sin. Meyer Lansky.

     Long considered the dean of organized crime, Lansky was in essence the business brains of the underworld who personified "the sheer cleverness of it all," as one biographer put it. The "genius who took the mob from convict stripes to pinstripes," UPI reported after his death from natural causes in 1983.

     Lansky's granddaughter Cynthia Duncan, and I are friends. She knew that I had just finished writing a novel about mobsters who seek respectability, and invited me into her Miami Beach home to show me his diaries, which have never been made public or even seen by law enforcement.

     The irony of Lansky's life is that the endeavors that rendered him a gangster -- gambling and alcohol -- are today not only legal but thriving. Reading Lansky's memoirs led to a more ominous thought: that today's sins, such as the sex trade and drugs, might just be tomorrow's blue-chip stocks.

     Lansky's memoirs, which were written between the 1940s and the late 1970s in spiral-bound accountant's notebooks from Woolworth's, betray an unrepentant mobster who was bitter about having been driven out of business by an "Establishment" he felt was better bred, but not more virtuous. "My crime is now accepted and made legal in most of our states," he wrote. "And gambling taken over by the hypocritical mob of stock swindlers with the protection of all law enforcement who until now would call casino gambling immoral.

     "We speak of gambling as though it is a commodity one time and a sin another time. ... Saratoga [New York, the site of two Lansky casinos] was a great example of how gambling was used as a political hammer to satisfy [Estes] Kefauver's [the senator who held hearings on the mob and gambling in the 1950s] desire for the presidency but in Saratoga itself was used for pleasure and economic purpose. ... I was picked as the lamb for Dewey [the New York prosecutor who later ran for president]."

     A frustrated mobster getting muscled by the government? Sure. But the point of muscling a guy is to take over his business. Today, with Class III gaming in 46 states, Lansky's words seem eerily prophetic. In 1998, Americans legally bet more than $630 billion -- compared with $450 billion spent on groceries.

     The central theme of Lansky's notes is his prediction that he would be driven out of business because lucrative vices are perfectly acceptable -- morally, politically and socially -- as long as they are controlled by the American Establishment. It turns out, he was right.

     "How interesting to hear that [the states] have come to the conclusion that gamblers can be clean and nice people. Aren't these the same super patriots that play the race tracks, Vegas and Caribbean islands who claim that they chased organized crime from the business and now intend to reap the harvest themselves. ... They never had the courage to explore Las Vegas or a few other places but when they saw the gambling business was very profitable then they got the machinery working to oust the people who sweated to make it profitable. Suddenly the good churchgoers entered the gambling fraternity, the Rockefellers, the Hiltons, the Loews, Sheratons and many more from 'Who is Who.'

     "When the Establishment doesn't earn the profits in gambling it is run by gangsters, it is immoral, sucking the milk from babies. All this takes on a different twist when it's operated by the big corporations."

     Those corporate casinos operate day care and amusement rides, all to reinforce the notion that wagering one's paycheck squares just fine with our cherished ethic of "family fun."

     "We should know that gambling was first created as a pastime pleasure at first. Later the smart boys turned it into a lucrative business, business for some; a pleasure for those with control. In order to stop the weaklings that would destroy themselves and families it was made a cardinal sin. Not used (sin) for the purpose to reform the man or teach him it is only to be used as a pleasure but to hypocritic Puritans it was the sin; the politician for political hay. This gambling crime is being abused the same as prohibition was."

     Lansky made no bones about gambling's sinister nature but, hey, it's what good gangsters did. "I agree that gambling isn't the most moral habit when you become addicted to it. For that matter what is good when you abuse it?" Lansky's comments about abusing habits also apply to the business that first made Lansky rich: booze. A major bootlegger during Prohibition, Lansky noted: "I didn't sell 1 bottle or case the customer was most of the grown people from the high middle class up."

     Lansky's inclusion of the word "grown" brings to mind recent reports that the moral line in mainstream alcohol marketing may be moving lower. In May, the news media reported the emergence of a new generation of ultra-sweet, fruit-flavored alcoholic drinks targeted toward young people. Said one public health watchdog: "'Alcopops' are gateway drugs that ease young people into drinking and pave the way to more traditional alcoholic beverages." Many of these drinks are being marketed by the nation's largest liquor companies who, Lansky would argue, have the resources to spin their practices into culturally acceptable purchasing behavior.

     As victims go, Lansky was less than sympathetic -- "I am no Yeshiva student," he scrawled. His notes also betray selective morality if not breathtaking chutzpah: He incredibly ascribed his persecution by law enforcement exclusively to bigotry, overlooking his enthusiastic partnerships with men who went by names like Bugsy, Lucky and Icepick Willie.

     But while he readily admitted that "there was much paid for graft" to politicians and police during Prohibition, he added, "I'm sure the police who did take graft did it because they looked upon it [Prohibition] as hypocrisy."

     And, despite the violence that defined his youth, Lansky's battles with the law always stemmed from his gambling and bootlegging activities -- not murder, extortion or narcotics.

     In his notes, Lansky's lament is eminently clear: He regrets his failure to launder the origins of his business as well as he did Mafia money. Unlike the Kennedys, the Bronfmans, Howard Hughes, Kirk Kerkorian and Steve Wynn -- no choirboys -- who became masters of the apparatus of American culture, Lansky, for all of his fabled cunning, was run out of the business by men who were shrewd enough to plant life-sized Pokemon figures in hotel-casino lobbies to greet our little urchins.

     What does all of this bode for the sex trade and drugs?

     The sex trade -- almost always associated with ruffian pimps and sleazy showmen -- is today a $10 billion a year industry in which Hustler magazine's Larry Flynt is a small-time pornographer next to General Motors, AT&T and Time Warner. GM, through its DirecTV cable subsidiary, sells porn by remote control inside millions of households. Half of all hotel guests in the country buy in-room porn from establishments such as Marriott and Hilton.

     And that's just for starters. With a phone line and a laptop you can get access to voyeur sorority cams, live sex shows you direct and a specialized call girl at your door in half an hour. And when the doorbell rings, is it hard to imagine her in a T-shirt with a corporate logo? Corporate annexation of contemporary vices by the same uptowners who outlawed -- and then bought -- his bootleg whiskey wouldn't have surprised Lansky in the least. He saw the moral lines moving in accordance with who got to draw them, which makes this student of American culture wonder if prostitution will be legalized once our, uh, service providers are routinely dressed like, say, Tinkerbell or Snow White.

     And what about drugs? Lansky suggested that bigotry and cultural pasteurization would be the arbiter of the narcotics vice, too: "Instead of blaming Jewish boys lets go to the root of this evil: didn't the English gentleman of high nobility force it on the Chinese. ... Anyone who stoops to make money off the aged is stooping as low as a narcotics peddler or pimp. ..." In fact, he claimed that he and his boys invented the word underworld during Prohibition to illustrate how his high-class booze customers looked down on his gang of immigrants for selling it to them.

     Lansky the moralist drew the line at drugs, but was virtually chased from our shores in his 70s wondering if the rest of us would even see a line in the future. With nothing to gain and no hope of redemption, the private notes of the ultimate American outcast -- who was born on the Fourth of July -- may be a prod to force us to examine our vices.

     Lansky the capitalist, on the other hand, might have run the numbers and concluded that today's vice is tomorrow's IPO, provided that Americans have their worries numbed by the kind of social laundering that Wall Street, Madison Avenue and Washington provide. His notation about casino gambling could just as easily apply to sex and drugs: "The whole thing will be taken over by the Puritan establishment."

CONTACT : Eric Dezenhall


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