Meyer Lansky: The Shadowy Exploits of New York's Master Manipulator

Description

142 pages
Contains Bibliography
$9.95
ISBN 1-55265-100-2
DDC 364.1'092

Year

2005

Contributor

Reviewed by Geoff Hamilton

Geoff Hamilton is a Killam Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of
British Columbia.

Review

This quintet of popular gangster histories looks at organized crime and
some of its most prominent figures (mostly New Yorkers) during the
period from roughly the mid-19th century to the mid-20th. Taken
together, the books provide a compelling short introduction to the rise
of organized crime in America, from smaller-scale mob operations in the
last half of the 19th century to the increasing sophistication of
criminal networks through the Prohibition era and after. One can
profitably read these books singly or as a group, though
(understandably) there is some overlap in material from volume to
volume.

Focusing on the rise of New York gangs in the 19th century up to the
beginning of Prohibition, Katz’s volume examines the illicit collusion
of many of the city’s freelance criminals, law enforcement figures,
members of the judiciary, and high-ranking politicians. Along with a
discussion of Italian, Irish, and Jewish gangsters, the major influence
of Chinese gangs, which became less potent in the early decades of the
12th century, is explored in detail. Katz does an excellent job of
evoking the “frontier mentality” of those involved in violent
struggles for power and profit.

Hendley’s volume on Dutch Schultz provides an interesting, fast-paced
account of the man and his career. Schultz was a major player in the
distribution of liquor during Prohibition, and his business savvy is
covered in lively detail. Particularly effective is the author’s
description of Schultz’s fatal hubris, and the drama of the
gangster’s final hours after being gunned down by rivals.

Lucky Luciano, sometimes dubbed “the father of organized crime,”
receives a stellar treatment by Klerks. A remarkably industrious man who
epitomizes the self-made American, Luciano was largely responsible for
professionalizing mob operations in the New York City area, bringing
together rival factions to produce less internecine and more profitable
criminal enterprises. His achievement and personality are memorably
depicted.

Montague’s Meyer Lansky details the mobster’s professional ascent
in the underworld, paying particular attention to his skilful business
dealings. Lansky’s influence, and his relationship to other key
figures, is capably described. However, the author’s conclusion
egregiously downplays Lansky’s lifetime participation in assorted
evils—including multiple murder—in favour of lauding the man as a
loyal friend of Israel and a martyr to overzealous prosecutors.

The volume dedicated to the Castellammarese War, also by Montague,
provides an exceptional synopsis of the bloody dispute in the early
1930s between mob bosses Joe Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano. The roles
of major players, including Schultz, Luciano, and Lansky, are covered in
engaging prose, along with the extraordinary emergence of Luciano from
the aftermath of the World War II. In his epilogue, Montague aptly sums
up the broader significance of gangsters to the darker side of the
nation’s imagination: “The Mob may now appear to have fallen on hard
times, but its outlaw myths, like the Night of the Vespers, continue to
fuel America’s fascination with action, adventure, and the pursuit of
happiness in a frontier context.”

Citation

Montague, Art., “Meyer Lansky: The Shadowy Exploits of New York's Master Manipulator,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed April 13, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/16572.