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He Was a Visionary--and 'the Most Dangerous Man in America'

July 14, 1991|ELAINE DUTKA

Benjamin (Bugsy) Siegel was, by any standard, a romantic, a dreamer, an obsessive. A blend of homicidal violence and undiluted charm, he ultimately turned to organized crime to become, in the words of Joe Adonis, a top syndicate boss, "the most dangerous man in America."

Siegel, born in Brooklyn in 1906, joined forces in the '20s and early '30s with Meyer Lansky to form the "Bugs and Meyer gang," running liquor and protecting gambling games. In 1935, leaving his wife and two children in the affluent New York suburb of Scarsdale, Siegel was sent by the mob to Los Angeles. There he and buddy Mickey Cohen established its West Coast headquarters with ties into off-shore casino ships and loan-sharking.

The natty mobster became enamored of the town and was frequently seen in the company of Hollywood glitterati . One countess, a millionaire divorcee, took him on a jaunt through Italy where he met Mussolini, Goering and Goebbels. Reacting to the rampant anti-Semitism, Siegel actually drew up a plan to have them killed.

Being an actor became another of Siegel's dreams: At one point, he took a screen test and had a batch of 8x10 glossies printed up. He also became involved with Virginia Hill, an aspiring, street-smart actress who distanced herself from her impoverished rural Alabama roots through a series of romantic liaisons with organized-crime figures. The passionate, self-destructive duo became not only lovers but savvy partners-in-crime.

Photographs of the man, says "Bugsy" screenwriter James Toback, give particular insight into his character. "He was a handsome psycho. You can tell from the eyes: that look of piercing concentration and desire combined with an icy detachment. His smile may have been mischievous and charming--'Hey, I'm just a nice Jewish guy from Brooklyn'--but his eyes told you that the man was capable of the relentless carrying out of his own will without any compunction whatsoever."

Siegel was a man of contradictions: violent one moment, gentle the next. Supremely self-confident yet longing for respectability. Preoccupied with language, he worked hard to rid himself of his hated Brooklyn accent and, during his latter years, would fly off the handle if anyone called him Bugsy instead of Ben. FBI transcriptions of bugged telephone conversations between Siegel and Hill hit home the inconsistencies even more: Their patter was packed with expletives, yet Bugsy was known to cringe at the sound of a four-letter word in public.

In 1941, Siegel's Hollywood fling was temporarily disrupted when he was jailed for the murder of mobster Harry (Big Greenie) Greenberg, who had revealed some important names to the FBI. Even then, however, connections helped. Since prison food didn't agree with him, he was allowed his own chef. To guard against loneliness, he was permitted female guests in his cell. He was also let out to go to the dentist. Several weeks after his incarceration, the two main witnesses against Siegel died rather abruptly. Stripped of his case, the district attorney was forced to abandon the case.

Siegel was one of the first to envision the gold mine inherent in legalized gambling. In the mid-'40s, when "Bugsy" begins, he took a series of loans from the syndicate and started building the Flamingo in Las Vegas, then an undeveloped expanse of desert. Though gambling had been legal in Nevada for more than a decade, the Flamingo was the first luxury resort-casino on what is now The Strip.

The project was both his inspiration and his undoing. Siegel was unable to keep a lid on skyrocketing construction costs, which soared from $1 million to $6 million, and once the hotel opened, was the victim of con men who pocketed vast sums from the gaming tables. When checks drawn on hotel accounts bounced, mob colleagues back East began viewing the Flamingo as a bad miscalculation--both for their bottom line and for their image. The fact that Siegel was suspected of covering up for Hill, who had skimmed $2 million ($13.7 million in 1991 dollars) off the top, didn't help.

Siegel's luck finally seemed to be running out. The mob, particularly Lucky Luciano, was insisting he pay back its investment. The Chicago police were planning to arrest him for his alleged drug-smuggling operation. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics was also zeroing in.

Shortly before midnight on June 20, 1947, the 41-year-old Siegel was shot in the head while reading a newspaper in Hill's Beverly Hills home. Though the crime was never solved, few doubt it was syndicate-motivated. "Bugsy's murder was almost certainly a mob hit carried out with the approval of Luciano and Lansky," says Toback. "He'd gotten carried away with his vision, as most visionaries do."

Only five people attended Siegel's funeral. Virginia Hill, in Paris at the time, returned the money shortly thereafter. In 1966, after a number of unsuccessful suicide attempts, she took some sleeping pills, walked into a Salzburg, Austria, snowbank and died at the age of 49.

As Siegel had predicted, the Flamingo, under Lansky's control, went on to become an enormously lucrative operation soon after his death and, since the '70s, has been owned by the Hilton hotel chain. And his dream of building a city in the desert? Las Vegas today has more hotel and motel rooms than any city in the nation except Orlando, Fla.

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