“East Side, West Side, all around the town …” these lyrics of the old children’s tune about life on the streets of New York City wouldn’t have included playing ring-around-rosin for young Benjamin Siegel who prowled the Lower East Side as a youngster looking to rob, cheat and intimidate.
At an age when other kids were going to school and playing games, young Ben was looking to get into trouble! The Siegel family had fled Hungary in 1903 and settled first in Brooklyn, New York. While his parents probably hoped that life in America would give their son a chance at a better life than they had experienced as persecuted Jews in Europe, young Benjamin Siegel seemed more attracted to crime than anything else.
Siegel moved in some tough circles. He was an associate of young Al Capone and other criminals. By his teens, Ben was roaming New York City’s East Side working with mobster Meyer Lansky and they conscripted other wayward teens to expand their gang pushing bootleg liquor which proved highly lucrative.
The incorrigible teenager had a violent and explosive temper. At times, his bursts of anger were so outlandish that his gang members said he was “crazy as a bed bug” which earned him the nickname “Bugsy”.
Before long, Siegel’s criminal activities as part of the violent “Jewish Mafia” and “Murder, Inc.” were giving him enough ill-gotten gains to wear expensive suits, frequent high class restaurants and nightclubs, and moving up to one of Manhattan’s most prestigious addresses at the Waldorf Astoria.
Despite his moving “Uptown”, Bugsy’s criminal activities grew ever darker. Nothing, however heinous, was out of bounds. Extortion, bookmaking, robbery, prostitution, murder-for-hire were the stock and trade of this young criminal during the 1920s.
Amid the warring gangland battles of the East Coast crime families, Siegel moved his criminal operations west in the 1930’s to Los Angeles where he established illegal gambling operations and pushed drugs and narcotics which he smuggled to California from Mexico. Always one to live the high life, Siegel loved moving with the wild Hollywood crowd. He supplied drugs to actors and rubbed shoulders with producers and directors at the nightclubs in Tinsel Town.
Siegel partied with Hollywood’s leading ladies and actors including Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, Tony Curtis and more. Siegel’s flamboyant style and handsome good looks created the aura of a celebrity despite the ruthlessness of his criminal activities.
Always looking for new ways to increase his criminal empire, Siegel turned to Las Vegas, purchasing the Flamino Hotel and Casino. Bugsy had big plans for his gambling operations in Vegas but needed additional funds and formed a partnership with his old criminal pal from his youth, Meyer Lansky.
Siegel, who had always lived on the edge, seemed to go over the edge when it came to his plans for his fabulous ritzy casino on the Las Vegas Strip. He was spending money from his mobster partners as if it was water and before long had spent more than $6 million dollars on the Flamingo project on he fledgling Las Vegas Strip.
Siegel and his mobster gangs saw themselves becoming the big winners in Vegas. However, Siegel’s luck was about to run out.
On June 20, 1947, at the Beverly Hills home of one of his actress girlfriends, Virginia Hill, Bugsy was relaxing on a chintz sofa reading the Los Angeles Times. He was oblivious that within seconds he was going to be wiped out by a hitman aiming an M1 Carbine military rifle at his head.
As Siegel sat reading the newspaper, his assassin aimed the rifle at Bugsy and pulled the trigger which instantly killed the mobster in a classic gangland hit job.
At the age of just 42, a life of crime and violence ended with the grisly death of Bugsy Siegel. The murder remains an unsolved mystery to this day.