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Surgeon's gifts to Opera Tampa, Morton Plant spark whispers about mob money

Here are a few things I've learned in the months since I wrote a story about Zena Lansky, a Clearwater physician who has made large gifts to Opera Tampa and the foundation of Morton Plant Hospital.

• Don't pay much attention to anonymous sources.

• Family histories can be mysteries, even to members of the families themselves.

• Never underestimate the American obsession with organized crime, the mob, the Mafia, Cosa Nostra, call it what you will.

In September, I wrote a story in the St. Petersburg Times about Lansky and her philanthropy. She gave $1 million to Opera Tampa, the largest single gift in the company's 16-year history. In November, the main building of Morton Plant's Bardmoor Outpatient Complex was named the Zena Lansky Pavilion, thanks to her $1.5 million donation to the hospital's foundation.

But the story also had a lurid twist. About 20 years ago, when Lansky was in the throes of a divorce from her first husband, he tried to hire someone to kill her. Ultimately, her ex-husband went to prison and Lansky continued with her sterling medical career, which included being the first female surgeon at Morton Plant and a stint as the first female chief of the hospital's surgery department. Now retired, she remarried several years ago.

After the story ran, I started getting calls about Lansky, 68. Many of them involved her supposed family connection to the gangster Meyer Lansky, the notorious bootlegger and gambler who lived for a decade in Miami Beach. A judge who once dated Zena Lansky asked darkly, "What does her name mean to you?'' without going into details.

I had, of course, noted the infamous name in the course of reporting the story, but any possible tie to Meyer Lansky never came up, and I didn't investigate it.

Several anonymous callers had elaborate theories. One man scoffed that Lansky's money couldn't possibly have come from her own career, suggesting that her wealth somehow had to come from Meyer Lansky, whose secretive finances have long been a subject of speculation.

A woman called to say I should look into Zena Lansky's late father, Jacob Lansky. The caller claimed Jacob was Meyer Lansky's brother and a gangster in his own right. "Everyone has always wondered what happened to Meyer Lansky's money,'' the woman said. "Wouldn't it be interesting if it ended up with Zena?''

Because these callers were unwilling to identify themselves, I dismissed them as unreliable. Several sounded as if they were physicians, or at least in the medical field, and seemed to have worked with Lansky at some point. I figured envy could be at work. Among the professions, physicians are not conspicuous for their philanthropy.

Sexism could also explain a call or two I got. In 1967, when Lansky graduated from the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania, now part of Drexel University, surgery was an overwhelmingly male field. There may have been some egos still bruised from when she was chief of surgery at Morton Plant.

I didn't give any more thought to the Lansky family tree until I got the announcement of last month's Opera Tampa gala, featuring an appearance by opera legend Plácido Domingo. Zena was sponsor of the event, which was dedicated to the memory of her parents, Thelma and Jacob Lansky.

Just to satisfy my curiosity, I asked a Times researcher to do a public document search on the name Jacob Lansky and see if Zena's father was related to Meyer Lansky. The researcher cautioned that the documents don't prove a family tie, but the two men were pretty close in age and geographic proximity. Zena's father lived in Clearwater for 18 years until his death at 85 in 2000. Because Meyer Lansky, who was 80 when he died in 1983 in Miami Beach, did indeed have a younger brother named Jacob, it appeared that the callers I had dismissed could be right. I made an appointment to talk to Zena about it.

While writing the story on Lansky last year, I had gotten to know her and her husband, Warren Rodgers, and I enjoyed their company. I met with them one afternoon in February in the den of their large house, perched on a bluff overlooking Clearwater Bay, a few blocks north of Morton Plant. After some small talk, I asked Zena if she was related to Meyer Lansky.

"Do I have to answer that?'' she said, but soon added that, yes, her father was the gangster's brother. "If this gets out, it'll ruin my reputation.'' She was concerned that people would think her philanthropy would be somehow tainted.

I assured her that I didn't think that would be the case — she wasn't a gangster, after all — and that I wanted to write a story about the connection. Warren also thought it wouldn't be a big problem. "A lot of people already know,'' he said.

I asked Zena to sleep on it, and the next day she agreed to do an interview with me on what I thought would be a fascinating yarn. Then things turned strange.

To prepare for the interview, I started to read Robert Lacey's 1991 biography of the mobster, Little Man: Meyer Lansky and the Gangster Life. I mentioned the book to Zena, and she got a copy and began reading it, too. One morning, I got an e-mail from her:

"I read through Lacey's book and although my father's name is Jacob Lansky . . . some things do not gel in the book with his history as Meyer Lansky's brother,'' she wrote. "My father told my brother and I that he was Meyer's brother but had nothing to do with him because he was a criminal.'' She concluded: "After reading this book, which is well documented, I think my father's whole story was not true.''

I reached the same conclusion when I finished the biography. The Jacob ("Jake'' or "Jack'') Lansky who was Meyer Lansky's brother and his right-hand man throughout their criminal careers died in 1983, eight months after his older brother's death and some 17 years before Zena's father died.

Why had Zena always believed her father was Meyer Lansky's brother? She explained the mystery to me a few days later.

Apparently, Zena's father, an engineer who worked for General Electric in Philadelphia, was in the habit of letting people think he was related to the gangster. Not only to his daughter and son, but also to friends and acquaintances. It must have made a good story.

Meyer Lansky, a Jewish immigrant from Russia, has a certain prestige among connoisseurs of the mob. As Lacey recounts, he was known as the Godfather of the Godfathers, the Mafia's banker, portrayed by Lee Strasberg in Godfather II as Hyman Roth, "the eminence grise of gambling from Nevada to Havana.'' The image of Meyer Lansky was not that of a murderous thug but as the mob's financial wizard, reputed to have a personal fortune of $300 million.

"The comedian Jackie Mason had a joke about it,'' Lacey wrote. "All those Italians with broad shoulders and dark glasses? (Mason) would ask. How could they possibly have created something like the Mafia — unless they had a Jew to show them how?

"Meyer Lansky? He's their Henry Kissinger.''

So if you were spinning tales about family ties to the mob, then Meyer Lansky was kind of an acceptable relative to claim.

Zena does believe that Meyer Lansky was a distant relative. Her father's ancestors were of Eastern European Jewish stock, just as Meyer Lansky's were. She vaguely recalls being at extended family New Year's Eve gatherings in New York as a girl in the 1940s that included the gangster. Her father had a pal who was supposedly Meyer Lansky's bodyguard, as well as an amateur artist. She now has several of his paintings and other artwork.

But the tale that her father was the brother of Meyer Lansky? No way, it now is clear. Zena wasn't particularly taken aback at the unraveling of long-held family lore, but did say she feels relieved to know the truth after so many years.

"My father was a brilliant, charitable man,'' she said. "And he was a character.''

As for the vast fortune of Meyer Lansky? Almost certainly a fantasy, Lacey documents in the biography. When he died, the gangster left a modest estate. Within a few years of his death, his son was living on welfare.

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716.

Surgeon's gifts to Opera Tampa, Morton Plant spark whispers about mob money 03/08/11 [Last modified: Friday, March 18, 2011 6:03pm]

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