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Spoiled by mobsters, Meyer Lansky's daughter recalls family men, not killers

TAMPA

The daughter sits on the front porch of a little bungalow in Seminole Heights, her new home since her husband died a few months ago down south. She misses him, but she's making do.

At 76, she has her health, and friends. And her son, Gary. And she has the memories.

Like the time Frank Sinatra came over to say hello to her father and spilled a champagne bucket of ice in her lap and looked as though he had made a fatal mistake. Or the time her father took her to the Majestic Theatre to see Carousel, the hottest ticket on Broadway, and he bought all the seats in front of them so their view was unimpeded. Or the time she went ice skating on the terrace of her family's 19th-floor apartment at the Beresford at 211 Central Park West. Or the time, later, when she made love to Dean Martin six times in one night.

Central to them all — her charmed childhood, the company she kept, her astonishing life — was her father, Meyer Lansky.

If that doesn't ring a bell, pull up a seat on the porch and let Sandra Lansky ring it for you.

• • •

She always assumed her father was a jukebox salesman because he had shown her a showroom full of Wurlitzers at his office at Emby Distributing Company near Times Square.

And his group of friends, the men with whom he broke bread most often at Dinty Moore's on West 46th Street, were all her uncles. Family.

There was Uncle Frank Costello, and Uncle Abe Zwillman, the kings of New York and New Jersey. There was Uncle Joe Adonis, and Uncle Willie Moretti. There were her father's closest associates, men with whom he'd bonded as a boy: Uncle Benny and Uncle Charlie.

The FBI knew these men as "Bugsy" Siegel and "Lucky" Luciano. And they said her uncles formed the mafia, what the papers called the National Crime Syndicate, and later Murder Incorporated.

In the seat of honor at Dinty Moore's was Meyer Lansky, a stoic, well-dressed Jew, husband and father of two boys and a little girl upon whom he doted. When it was time to talk business, Sandra could see it in her father's face. She'd take her cue and go pal around with the hat-check girl, who gave her candies and let her sort mink stoles and topcoats.

Lansky was the architect of the mob, the brains, the little man in the middle, at home with both the Jews and Italians. He'd had a tough upbringing on Manhattan's Lower East Side. He teamed up with Siegel in his teens, forming the Bugs and Meyer Mob. The mob ran bootlegging operations and gambling rings and the cops would eventually start investigating them for racketeering, theft, extortion, even murder. The Bugs and Meyer Mob, the Feds believed, helped "Lucky" Luciano take control of New York by offing mob kings Joe Masseria, who was found with an ace of spades in his lifeless hand, and Salvatore Maranzano, the "boss of the bosses."

For all the tales of bloodshed and bootlegging in the press linked to her father and uncles, Sandra Lansky has a hundred more about how much they loved her.

They hugged her. Kissed her. Cut her steak.

"They spoiled me rotten," she said.

For the mascot of the mob, ignorance was bliss. The men she knew were not in the business of murder. They were in business. Casinos and night clubs. Tailored suits and penthouse suites. Vacations in Miami Beach and Vegas.

The rubouts and warfare of their youths seemed to be in the past, Sandra said. They found opportunity in America, and as a way of saying thanks, Sandra said, they helped their new country win World War II.

She remembers the day Lansky took her to view the French luxury liner Normandie, which had been sabotaged and was burning on the West Side docks. Then the two went to Dinty Moore's, where Lansky met with Uncle Joe — Joseph Lanza, head of the seafood workers' union and one of the most powerful men on the waterfront — to cook up a patriotic plan to secure the docks and root out traitors who might destroy other ships. All in return for freeing Luciano, who had been sent to prison on prostitution charges.

Sandra's first hint that her father was a made man came when she was 13. She stopped at the news stand and saw her father's picture on a magazine. She secreted it home and read that her father and uncles were the most powerful criminals in the world.

There was no mention of the money the mob raised for orphans or the work they did during WW II. These guys were evil, nothing more.

"But they did a lot of good," said the daughter.

"These guys came to this country with nothing — little education and no opportunity," said her son, Gary Rapoport, sitting nearby. "The boatloads that had come prior to them would beat them up on a daily basis and belittle them. So they just tried to stick together and make money any way they could."

"At the end of the war, he was given a copy of the signing of the surrender, from the Navy department," Sandra Lansky said. "He was very proud of that."

But the momentum had shifted. Sandra watched the Kefauver hearings in 1951 on television, saw her uncles nervously testifying before the Tennessee senator and crusader against organized crime. She worried that the Feds would be coming for her father.

"Don't believe any of this stuff," she recalls her mother saying. "It's all lies."

Meyer Lansky, the man in the middle, was never called to testify. His daughter says she knows why.

Lansky met privately with Kefauver. He knew something few others did. Connections in Hot Springs, Ark., gave Lansky log books from the race track that showed Kefauver had a gambling problem and had run up debt, she said.

"He went in there and pulled out of his pocket an IOU," Sandra said. "Kefauver was a big gambler. And that was that."

Even so, Meyer Lanksy had become a household name. But the man who didn't like being recognized still did business at Dinty Moore's. Sandra recalls one of those meetings in 1951. Her father was talking business with Uncle Willie Moretti when Moretti made an offensive comment.

"Willie, you talk too much," Meyer Lansky said. Then he called for the check.

The next day at school, Sandra recalls, she saw one of the janitors reading the newspaper. There was Uncle Willie in a pool of blood on the floor at Joe's Elbow Room in New Jersey.

"Mob Boss Exterminated in N.J." the headline read.

Moretti was the second uncle she had lost to bullets. A few years before, someone had gunned down her Uncle Benny "Bugsy" Siegel in Beverly Hills. He was accused of squandering mob money building The Flamingo in Vegas.

Sandra Lansky bottled her curiosity. Meyer Lansky had his daughter trained. Never complain, never explain. And never ask to be explained to.

One of the few times she recalls her father explaining his business was in 1953, before he went to jail on gambling charges in upstate New York. He had opted to do a few months time to avoid trial.

"He said to me that he had two choices," Sandra said. "He could walk down one road or the other road. But my brother" — Buddy — "was handicapped and he had no choice which road to take."

Lansky moved to Florida upon his release. Life didn't get easier for the daughter of the mob. The government had cranked up its investigations as the mob's casino ambitions grew. The FBI was watching his gambling operations in Vegas and South Florida and Havana, Cuba, where Cuban President Gen. Fulgencio Batista, had rolled out the welcome mat. Lansky invested big in Cuba. That cost him two years later, when the Cuban revolution brought Fidel Castro to power. Revolutionaries smashed slot machines and shuttered casinos.

Meanwhile, Sandra's uncles were falling. Someone rubbed out Albert Anastasia in the barbershop of the Park Sheraton Hotel. Then her Uncle Abe Zwillman was said to have hanged himself in his basement in West Orange.

Soon Sandra, who had given birth to a son, Gary, got caught up in the mess. She befriended a man who turned out to be an FBI spy. She fearfully told her father, who brainstormed a way to use the daughter's new relationship to keep the FBI off his trail. Sandra began feeding the man bad information.

She'd been betrayed, but she was a Lansky, and Lansky blood was thick.

"I got my vendetta," she said.

In 1964, Sandra married Vince Lombardo, a mobster, who promised her father he'd get out and stay out as long as he was with Sandra.

The FBI tightened its noose on Meyer Lansky. Agents tracked his every move and overheard him boast that organized crime was "bigger than U.S. Steel." That line that would be repeated by Hyman Roth, a character based on Lansky in The Godfather.

Lansky sought asylum in Israel, but was forced back to Miami. When the plane touched down in November 1972, he was arrested on charges of tax evasion, conspiracy and skimming casino profits. But nothing stuck.

Lansky was celebrated in Miami, his daughter said, even if the papers called him Public Enemy No. 1. She remembers getting letters addressed to the "Mayor of Miami Beach."

Meyer Lansky died on Jan. 15, 1983, after fighting lung cancer. Forbes had estimated his wealth at $300 million, but there was very little money in the will. His family still wonders where it went.

Lansky was buried in Mt. Nebo Cemetery in Miami. His daughter visited often, until she relocated to Tampa. Her only connection to Tampa, she said, was "Santo," meaning Santo Trafficante Jr., one of the last of the old-time bosses.

She said her father never betrayed remorse.

"Why should he have remorse for anything?"

After years refusing to talk about her upbringing, the writers Nick Pileggi and Norah Ephron convinced her to tell her story and matched her up with a writer. Daughter of the King: Growing up in Gangland, was published earlier this year. She doesn't love the book. She wanted it to go deeper into the good side of the mob, to tell an American story that brought balance to the Lansky legacy. There's more to the story.

She still mourns her father.

"I adore my dad," she said. "I wish he was here right now."

"It's hard for her to get past his death," Gary said. "But our life moves on."

"You still have the loyalty," Sandra said.

Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8650.

Spoiled by mobsters, Meyer Lansky's daughter recalls family men, not killers 06/13/14 [Last modified: Friday, June 13, 2014 2:12pm]

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