Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Bugsy Siegel

Ben Heads West

Frabazzos murder wasnt one of Bens smartest moves. His victim knew him and Tonys friends knew that Bugsy had been a centerpiece of Frabrazzos tell-all book. Over time Bens alibi, so carefully constructed, began to crumble and he was forced underground.

Other problems were also becoming apparent. Dewey was slowly turning his attention to the Bugs and Meyer mob and it was probably just a matter of time before he got Ben on something. Things werent completely copacetic between Lansky and Siegel, either. Ben and Meyer were as close as brothers, but Bugsy wasnt happy standing in Meyers shadow. In normal gangster behavior, when number two gets tired of being an underling, he conspires to bump off the boss. But even in Bugsys twisted mind, killing Lansky wasnt something he cared to contemplate.

"As time went on Bugsy became a little restless at always being second fiddle to Meyer," recalled Doc Stacher. "I think that was one reason why Meyer set up the West Coast assignment specifically for Bugsy."

It took about four years after Tony Fabrazzo was killed in his parents home, but eventually New York became too hot for Siegel. He would have to leave. The Syndicate board of directors met and conferred about Bugsys fate. It is a testament to the loyalty between Lansky and Siegel that the Syndicate allowed Bugsy to live. Ordinarily, gangsters who become hunted as voraciously as Ben become liabilities to the mob and they are taken out in classic mob style. Regardless of his skill and value to the mob, if Siegel hadnt been a blood brother to Lansky, he probably would have ended up on the bottom of the East River rather than the top mobster on the West Coast. Still, there would come a time when even Lansky wouldnt be able to protect Bugs. But that was almost a decade away.

In the late 1930s, the western United States was almost untapped in terms of organized crime. There were gangs here and there, but the national Syndicate had gotten about as far as Hot Springs, Arkansas (thanks to Owney Madden) and stopped.

Moe Sedway went west with Bugsy
Moe Sedway went
west with Bugsy
The strongest gang in California was headed by Jack I. Dragna, president of the Italian Protective League. The IPL was organized as a benevolent society for Italian immigrants who had come to the Gold Coast. In reality, the League was little more than a Mafia muscle outfit preying on the same immigrants it purported to protect. Dragna and his number two, Joe Ardizzone, had their fingers in gambling, bootlegging, extortion, and smuggling and were still active in the old fashioned "Black Hand" operations that the East Coast Syndicate had abandoned in the days of Lupo the Wolf.

Dragnas real name was Anthony Rizzoti, and like so many others in organized crime, he held Charlie Luciano in the highest regard. Whether that was out of respect, fear or genuine friendship isnt known, but Luciano, uncomfortably ensconced in Dannemora State Penitentiary serving a 30- to 50-year sentence for prostitution, sent word to Dragna that the Syndicate was moving in and he could either take part or be taken apart.

"Ben is coming West for the good of his health and health of all of us," Luciano told Dragna from his cell.

Dragna wisely decided to play ball. Still, Dragna resented the intrusion of the Jewish gangster from New York and bided his time looking to a chance to get rid of Bugsy.

Bugsy, his wife and their two daughters showed up in California and immediately rented a 35-room mansion owned by singer Lawrence Tibbet that was valued at the then-astronomical price of $200,000. The white brick palace in the upscale Hollywood suburb of Holmby Hills was complete with swimming pool and a private marble bath for Bugsy.

Bugsy and George Raft, 1944
Bugsy and George Raft, 1944
When he got to Hollywood, Siegel looked up an old friend from Williamsburg who had made it big in the movies: George Raft, who was known for his gangster portrayals. He and Bugsy had kept in contact with one another over the years and formed such a mutual admiration society that it wasnt clear whether Rafts screen persona emulated Siegel or whether Siegel was styling himself after what Raft portrayed in the movies. Together, Raft and Siegel became regulars at Santa Anita Racetrack, wagering huge sums of money on the ponies. Raft also opened the door to Siegels first West Coast racket.

Taking a page out of the book written by Lansky and Lepke Buchalter, Siegel let Dragna handle the gambling operations while he went after the unions. His first target was the relatively easy-to-tackle extras union. Quickly, Bugsy and his old pal Moey Sedway, who had followed his boss west, infiltrated the union and began extorting money from movie moguls who needed the extras to make their films.

Ketti Gallahan
Ketti Gallahan
Raft also provided entree into the high glamour world of the film stars. Starlets were taken with Bens suave demeanor and good looks, and the men were in awe of his machismo. He quickly became the toast of the town and no party was complete unless Bugsy Siegel was there. Siegel began a torrid romance with a wild French actress named Ketti Gallian. But Bugs was fickle and soon he was moving from starlet to starlet, including Jean Harlow, who was sent to seek her fame and fortune in Hollywood by her childhood friend Longy Zwillman.

Once Siegel and Sedway had control of the extras union, they began to lean on the stars. At one of those Hollywood parties, Ben would approach a highly paid actor and tell him that he was "putting him down for $10,000 for the extras."

"What do you mean," was probably the usual response.

Bugsy would point out that the star would be unable to work on his next picture if the producer couldnt hire any extras.

"What happens if the extras walk out just like that?" Siegel would say, with a snap of his fingers. "You cant get more cause theyre all in my outfit, so no more pictures."

In his first year in Hollywood, Bugsy received more than $400,000 in one-way "loans" from movie stars, the same people who were so desperate to have him at their parties.

 

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