Bugsy Siegel: The Dark Side of the Amer­i­can Dream 

Michael Shnay­er­son

  • Review
By – July 19, 2021

Between World War I and World War II, there was a sig­nif­i­cant Jew­ish pres­ence in crim­i­nal activ­i­ty in vir­tu­al­ly every major Amer­i­can and Cana­di­an city. There were Arnold Roth­stein, Louis Lep­ke” Buchal­ter, and Mur­der, Incor­po­rat­ed in New York City, as well as many oth­ers. Their crim­i­nal behav­ior spanned the entire spec­trum, includ­ing mur­der, extor­tion, loan­shark­ing, gam­bling, and espe­cial­ly boot­leg­ging. This under­side of Amer­i­can Jew­ish his­to­ry has been fea­tured in many nov­els and films, and it has also been exten­sive­ly exam­ined by historians.

Michael Shnayerson’s jour­nal­is­tic biog­ra­phy of Ben­jamin Bugsy” Siegel is the lat­est con­tri­bu­tion to this genre. Siegel was, along with his close friend and men­tor Mey­er Lan­sky, among the most noto­ri­ous of America’s Jew­ish crim­i­nals, and his life is famil­iar to many because of Bar­ry Levinson’s Gold­en Globe – win­ning 1991 film Bugsy.

Siegel (19061947) grew up in pover­ty on the Low­er East Side of Man­hat­tan and was deter­mined to seize his share of the Amer­i­can Dream. Sta­tus, not mon­ey, drove Siegel, and although he made tens of mil­lions of dol­lars dur­ing his life­time, he left an estate of less than $115,000. His income had been spent on the hous­es, cloth­ing, and enter­tain­ment required to cre­ate a per­sona far dif­fer­ent from that of his pover­ty-strick­en immi­grant parents.

Siegel was the black sheep of the fam­i­ly and an embar­rass­ment to his par­ents, sib­lings, wife, and two daugh­ters. Yet he sup­port­ed them through­out his life. Yet he could not escape from his past. If he could not be a doc­tor — the dream of every immi­grant Jew­ish par­ent for their chil­dren — at least he could help his broth­er be one. He paid his brother’s med­ical school tuition and the expens­es of estab­lish­ing an office. He also under­wrote the liv­ing expens­es of his par­ents in their last years and con­tributed to Jew­ish char­i­ties, although there is no men­tion by Shnay­er­son of any atten­dance at syn­a­gogue ser­vices or mem­ber­ship in Jew­ish organizations.

Sev­er­al biogra­phies of Siegel have been pub­lished pri­or to Shnayerson’s vol­ume, and there is lit­tle here that will sur­prise those famil­iar with his life. Much of what Siegel did took place behind closed doors or in the shad­ows, and any biog­ra­ph­er must nec­es­sar­i­ly resort to guess­work. One of the great mys­ter­ies of Siegel’s life, for exam­ple, con­cerns who was respon­si­ble for his mur­der in June, 1947. There are mul­ti­ple sus­pects, includ­ing crime lord Lucky Luciano, busi­ness rivals of Siegel, and Siegel’s mis­tress, Vir­ginia Hill, whom Shnay­er­son believes was the most like­ly cul­prit. No one was ever arrest­ed and we are left with spec­u­la­tion, as is often the case when deal­ing with indi­vid­u­als such as Siegel.

Edward Shapiro is pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry emer­i­tus at Seton Hall Uni­ver­si­ty and the author of A Time for Heal­ing: Amer­i­can Jew­ry Since World War II (1992), We Are Many: Reflec­tions on Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­to­ry and Iden­ti­ty (2005), and Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews, and the 1991 Brook­lyn Riot (2006).

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