Bugsy Siegel and the Re-birth of Las Vegas

By Joseph Bruno

Bugsy Siegel, American Mobster

Bugsy Siegel, American Mobster

Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel is the man most responsible for the re-birth of the city of Las Vegas, Nevada, as the gambling capital of the world.

Siegel was born Benjamin Siegelbaum on February 28, 1906, in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York. As a teenager, he crossed the bridge to Manhattan and started a gang on Lafayette Street, which skirted the border of Little Italy with another thug named Moe Sedway. Their main racket was shaking down pushcart owners for protection money, and if they weren’t paid quickly, they burnt down the poor owner’s pushcart.

Soon Siegel teamed up with Meyer Lansky, the man who would shape his life and, eventually, his death. Together, they formed the “Bugs and Meyer Gang,” which started in auto theft and ended up handling hit contracts for bootleggers who had their shipments hijacked. This tidy little killing business was the forerunner to the infamous Murder Incorporated, which handled hundreds of contract murders during the 1930s.

In the late 1920s, Siegel and Lansky hooked up with ambitious Italian mobsters Lucky Luciano, Frank Costello, Joe Adonis, Vito Genovese, Albert Anastasia, and Tommy Lucchese. Together, they formed a National Crime Commission, which controlled all organized crime in America for many years. Siegel was the main hitman for the group, and he led the four-man team who riddled Joe “The Boss” Masseria’s body with bullets in a Coney Island Restaurant. Siegel developed the reputation as a man who not only killed frequently but enjoyed killing, with the glee of a schoolboy on his first date.

Meyer Lansky, Mobster

Meyer Lansky, Mobster

In the late 1930s, The Commission sent Siegel to California to take over their West Coast rackets, including the lucrative racing wire, which ran horse race results to thousands of bookie joints throughout the country. Siegel pushed aside West Coast mob boss Jack Dragna, who Lansky and Luciano told if he didn’t step down and hand the reins over to Siegel, bad things would happen to him quickly. Dragna did as he was told.

While in Hollywood, Siegel, who was movie-star-good-looking, was a renowned ladies-man who was sometimes known to bed down three or four starlets at a time. He hung around with movie hunks like Clark Cable, Gary Cooper, George Raft, and Cary Grant. The girls he slept with included Jean Harlow, Wendy Barry, Marie McDonald, Virginia Hill, and Italian Countess Dorothy DiFrasso. Even though Siegel was busy with the broads, he always found the time to kill on the side. In 1939, on orders from New York City Jewish mob boss Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, Siegel whacked Harry “Big Greenie” Greenberg, who was singing like a canary to the feds. Siegel was arrested for murder, but after a witness conveniently disappeared, he was acquitted of all charges.

The bad publicity from the Greenberg trial ruined Siegel’s man-about-town reputation in Hollywood, so The Commission sent Siegel to Las Vegas to scout locations for a hotel/casino they wanted to build. Siegel found the perfect place, and he convinced the boys from New York City, including his pal Lansky, to invest millions in an opulent nightclub he dubbed The Flamingo. The building of the Flamingo was a disaster from the start. His insistence on only the best of everything skyrocketed the costs to a staggering $6 million, which annoyed his partners in New York City more than just a little. Plus, there were concerns that maybe Siegel was skimming a little construction money off the top to fund his actions with the ladies.

Opening night in December 1946 was an unmitigated disaster. Siegel moved up the opening date from March 1947 while the hotel was still in the late stages of construction. Since The Flamingo did not show well (the lobby was draped with ugly drop cloths), the Hollywood crowd stayed away, and in a few months, The Flamingo was more than a quarter of a million dollars in the red. Losing money on gambling was unheard of in the mob, so The Commission made a business decision that Siegel’s days on earth had to end. Longtime pal Lansky had no problem signing off on his childhood pal’s death warrant. Business is business, and Siegel was bad for business.

Flamingo Hotel & Casino, Las Vegas, Nevada by Amy Stark.

Flamingo Hotel & Casino, Las Vegas, Nevada by Amy Stark.

On June 20, 1947, in Beverly Hills, Bugsy Siegel was sitting on the living room couch in the home of his girlfriend, Virginia Hill, reading the Los Angeles Times. Suddenly, two rifle bullets fired from an open window struck Siegel straight in the face. One bullet hit his right cheek and settled in his brain. The second hit him in the nose and pierced his right eye. The eye was found on the floor, fifteen feet from Siegel’s lifeless body.

By Joseph J. Bruno, compiled & edited by Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated January 2024.

About the Author:  A Vietnam veteran in the United States Navy, Joseph J. Bruno started in the newspaper business in the mid-1970s as a sports columnist for the New York Tribune. During the 1970s and ’80s, Bruno was an associate editor for Boxing Illustrated and a monthly contributor to Ring Magazine In 1986-1987, Bruno wrote a sports column for the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, New York. Since then, he has written numerous articles for various magazines and books — both fiction and non-fiction. More information can be seen on his blog here: John Bruno on the Mob. Source:  Ezine Articles (dead link.)

Also See:

Murder Incorporated

Gangsters of the Prohibition & Depression Era

The Kansas City Massacre

History of the FBI

Speakeasies of the Prohibition Era