Happy 100th Birthday Benjamin Bugsy Siegel
Centennial Celebration of the Original Vegas Gangster
Benjamin 'Bugsy' Siegel - east coast hood, racketeer and gangster turned failed movie mogul, visionary impresario hotelier and finally legend cementing mafia casualty. While it is often believed that Bugsy 'invented' Las Vegas, the oft told but never heard truth is Bugsy was a mafia muscle man who stepped into history in the right place at the right time - wrestling control of Hollywood Reporter publisher Billy Wilkerson's floundering construction project on Highway 91 and manically transforming it into a visionary project that would define the concept of gaming entertainment globally forever.
A made man in the Meyer Lansky crime syndicate, Benjamin Siegel's greatest achievement in life was his attempt to move mafia gaming operations from backrooms and basements of shady clubs into Nevada where they could be "legit." Benny's vision for the Flamingo was grand, healthy dollops of top notch entertainment , sumptious food, five star acommodations, air conditioning and heaping handfuls of posh elegant lifestyles and sub-economy was born. Unfortunately, Bugsy's less-than-astute business acumen and hypermanic attention to detail regardless of the negative affect it had on the 'bottom line' to his trigger happy gangster investors affected his bottom line.
The Flamingo wasn't Benny's first taste of the action in Nevada. As operator of a nationwide bookmaking wire service, he horned in on the action in Vegas' burgeoning precursor to the sports book, pulling in hefty vig money each week in out of state action. The income from the bookmaking operation income and power base enabled Benny to break off a little piece of the jewel of downtown - The Golden Nugget and the oldest original gangster still standing on the strip - The Frontier.
Seeing infinite opportunity in The City of Paradise, Nevada, Benny approached Meyer Lansky and other members of the east coast crime syndicate to underwrite the take over of Wilkersons faltering Flamingo's construction to the tune of $1.5 million dollars - about a quarter of what it actually cost when all was said and done. But what a place it was, plush carpeting, the best furnishings and accoutrements money could buy, the best entertainers (Hollywood pal George Raft, Comedienne Rose Marie, Xavier Cugat and Jimmy Durante were at the Flamingo's grand opening on Christmas Eve 1946), the poshest casino and the best rooms in Vegas or even the whole western United States. Add a volcano and you've got the Mirage - 1940s style.
After running his burgeoning Flamingo Hotel and Casino into heavy debt, Lansky's boys got worried their investment into this desert money pit was going to ever see a profit. Seigel begged off, and Meyer gave him a temporary reprieve... only if the Flamingo opening was a success.
When opening day arrived on December 26, 1946, so did the annual Vegas monsoon - the very same one that turns the Imperial Palace parking lot into roaring rapids and closes off the freeway to Los Angeles. The much ballyhooed Hollywood premiere Benny had obsessed about washed away along with the rain. But Benny made the best of it, Hollywood buddies Clark Gable, Lana Turner, Joan Crawford, Caesar Romero (who was in Oceans 11) and downtown casino giant Benny Binion were amongst the guests. Binion described the event as "the biggest whoop-de-do I ever seen." The guests who did arrived were greeted with the news that the hotel was still incomplete to a chorus of flickering lights - its still untested electrical system being decimated by the storm. To make matters worse, the luck at the tables ran completely in the gamblers direction - a massive stream of chips were lost last night. With accomodations in arrears, gamblers simply cashed out their winnings and headed down the street to El Rancho and the Frontier where they promptly booked a room and lost their dough the next morning. Benny was devastated.
December 26th's perfect storm of unbelievable bad luck rained nothing but disgust onto Bennys imagined desert triumph, he closed the Flamingo for three months in early January 1947 so construction could be completed properly. The Flamingo re-opened in March and steamed towards profitability in three short months - 50 years later it has proven to be the best $6 million dollars ever spent in this or any other planet.
In early 1947, such optimism wasn't the case with Benny's syndicate backers. When it was discovered that Benny's girlfriend, Actress Virginia Hill, was making regular trips to Europe depositing large sums of the Flamingo's construction budget into numbered Swiss bank accounts the boys in the Syndicate decided that enough was enough. Benny Siegel's marker was called in with a hail of bullets, crushing his lungs, blowing his 42 year old brains out and shooting his eye clear across his Los Angeles bungalow as he sat on the couch reading the newspaper. Within minutes of Siegel's asassination, Lansky's boys took control of the Flamingo's now-profitable operation.
To further underscore the hot water Benny was in at the time he was offed - a grand total of 5 people attended his funeral, despite his murder being front page news. Time has slowly faded on the legend of Benny Siegel, but his shadow still looms large in the history of Las Vegas. Benny Siegel was the original Vegas wiseguy - he defined and invented the blueprint of shifty Vegas mobster who eventually got swallowed up in his own manic mythology and paid the ultimate price for his gamble in the desert.
Happy 100th Birthday Benny, thanks for Vegas.
- February 28, 2006