[On June 20th, 1947, mobster Bugsy Siegel was killed in Beverly Hills. So for the 75th anniversary of that murder, I’m going to AmericanStudy Siegel’s role in the development of Las Vegas, along with other contexts for that tellingly American city. Leading up to a weekend post on Vegas in song!]
On what Siegel’s two earlier settings contributed to his Las Vegas legacies.
1) New York: The son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, Benjamin Siegel (1906-1947) was born in Brooklyn and came of age in New York’s early 20th century Jewish American community. He joined street gangs at a very young age and shortly thereafter befriended Meyer Lansky, just four years older than Siegel but already on his way to becoming the notorious gangster who would help fix the 1919 World Series and become part of the inspiration (along with his compatriot Arnold Rothstein) for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Meyer Wolfsheim. Together, Siegel and Lansky went on to found the National Crime Syndicate, also known as Murder, Incorporated, an organization that linked numerous families in the area and beyond. What Siegel clearly learned in each of these early stages was the role that local relationships, networks, and communities played in building larger and more nationally powerful presences—lessons he would seek to apply a few decades later as he helped build an entire city where there had been no network but the desert a short time before.
2) Hollywood: When the heat got too much for Siegel on the East Coast (thanks to his own role in various famous murders and assassinations, to be clear), he moved both his young family and his crime organization west, settling in Los Angeles in the late 1930s. He would continue and amplify all his Murder, Inc. and related activities out there, but would also become closely associated with Hollywood, associating with stars like Clark Gable and Cary Grant, becoming close enough to the actress Jean Harlow that she was godmother to his daughter Millicent, and throwing parties at his Beverly Hills home for bigwigs like Louis B. Mayer. Although much briefer than his time in New York, Siegel’s Hollywood stage offered a crucial lesson in the intersections between crime and celebrity, with both among other connections being irresistibly appealing to the broader American public. Siegel would help turn Las Vegas into the single clearest symbol of those interconnected layers.
3) Vegas: In 1930, Las Vegas (which had only been incorporated as a city in 1911) was scarcely populated; by 1950, it was one of America’s most booming urban centers, despite that aforementioned location in the middle of hundreds of miles of uninhabitable deserts. There were various factors which contributed to that striking change, but a central one was the role of organized crime in supporting and financing the growth of casinos and the Strip—and no single figure was more instrumental to those efforts than Bugsy Siegel. Siegel saw in William Wilkerson’s Flamingo Hotel a perfect starting point for such rapid expansion, and eventually forced Wilkerson out and turned the Flamingo into a model of the hotel-casino-lounge-theater form that would come to define Vegas. Yet despite its success the Flamingo was constantly in the red, and Siegel’s criminal compatriots accused him and/or his mistress Virginia Hill of skimming from the profits. His June 1947 murder was the result, one more reflection of the intersections of crime and community, commerce and celebrity, vice and violence that defined Siegel’s life and the city he helped create alike.
Next Vegas context tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Las Vegas contexts, histories, stories you’d highlight?