Cover image for Little man : Meyer Lansky and the gangster life
Little man : Meyer Lansky and the gangster life
1st ed.
Publication Information:
Boston : Little, Brown, c1991.
Physical Description:
547 p., [30] p. leaves of plates : ill., map ; 24 cm.
Personal Subject:


Material Type
Shelf Number
Book 364.1092 LAC 1

On Order



Based on interviews with Lansky's close friends and criminal associates, with law enforcement experts, and with members of Lansky's own family, and using previously unpublished documents written by Lansky himself, this is both the biography of a mob boss and a social history of American crime.

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

This biography of the notorious hoodlum by the author of The Kingdom succeeds in deglamorizing a gangland figure around whom all sorts of mythology was created, both during his lifetime and after. A product of the ghetto on Manhattan's Lower East Side, Lansky (1902?-1983) spent his adolescence developing the conviction that, if there were an honest and a dishonest way of achieving a goal, the dishonest way was preferable. Like many members of organized crime in his era, he became a specialist, working with casinos. He was rigidly honest about not cheating the public and paying his partners their due. His family life was a horror: Lansky's first wife became semi-psychotic and their three children had miserable lives; his second marriage was somewhat better. The media-generated image of a financial eminence grise worth hundreds of millions of dollars, the gangland chairman of the board, was largely fictional. A major contribution to the history of organized crime in the U.S. Photos not seen by PW. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Kirkus Review

Superb revisionist biography not only of Meyer Lansky but also of the supposed American-Italian crime corporation called the Mafia; by the author of The Kingdom (1981) and Ford (1986). Lacey's larger message is that the Mafia is really like local groups of Freemasons, with sometimes quite active links between one another but not congealed into a centrally structured organization. There is ``no shadowy General Motors of crime.'' Moreover, the Mafia's way of life, Lacey shows, is less than mythic: ``The average mafioso, and much of his self-esteem, stem from the stereotypes that have been created by the media...Their lives are pale copies of the vigor and creativity of the straight world--and the clever ones like Meyer Lansky learn to copy its honesty as well.'' Lansky several times tried to set up businesses in the straight world, only to have them go under and find himself still stuck in the world of gambling. He suffered a brutal youth on New York's Lower East Side but early was taken under the wing of Arnold Rothstein, a.k.a. ``The Brain,'' who kept all his criminal businesses discrete--and kept their books in his head. Lansky, too, became famed for his head for figures, as well as for his lack of greed and his honesty in sharing. He was misquoted as saying that ``the Mafia'' was bigger than US Steel (he said ``organized crime'' was), and his reputed $300 million nest egg was fantasy, as Lacey makes clear. Lansky was a genius among his fellow thugs, but died almost broke while living modestly in retirement in Miami and caring for his ulcers and triple bypass. In 1974, he phoned Lee Strasberg to tell him, ``You did good'' (as the Hyman Roth/Lansky character in Godfather II): ``The deep voice on the phone was flesh and blood seeking contact with the celluloid image....'' Shoots huge holes in the great American gangster myth--and its many bad reporters. Enthralling. (Thirty-two pages of b&w photographs--not seen.)

Booklist Review

Something about the perverted, American-dream romanticism of gun-toting, amoral hoodlums and "wiseguys" captures the popular imagination, and America's love affair with the gangster continues to grow, revitalized annually by the myth-making machinery of Hollywood (e.g., the recent Mobsters and Warren Beatty's forthcoming Bugsy). In encountering the choice between the fantastic myths and the more banal reality, most would rather believe the myths. Take the case of Meyer Lansky, friend and colleague of Lucky Luciano and Bugsy Siegel. Immortalized as the character Hyman Roth in Mario Puzo's Godfather, in reality, Lansky never came close to the embodiment of evil depicted by the press and the federal government. The government's cases against him rested on flimsy or illegally obtained evidence, so Lansky spent very little of his life behind bars. When he died in 1983, no "hidden empire" materialized, leaving his heirs with little. In fact, according to Lacey, Lansky's life was "shadowy, passive, essentially bloodless." Born in Poland around 1902, Lansky came to New York when he was nine. At an early age, he was intrigued by the neighborhood crap games, and soon determined how to profit from them. He graduated to bootlegging during Prohibition, and later made his biggest killing in the casino trade, losing most of his stake when Castro ousted Batista in Cuba in 1959. (Lansky was no killer, but associated with many.) Lacey details Lansky's rather pathetic family life as well as his failed efforts to gain citizenship in Israel. In life, Lansky was modest, extremely meticulous, and, by Mob standards, honest; Lacey's well-documented, thorough, almost sympathetic account will correct many of the misperceptions about an enduringly fascinating bad guy. (Reviewed Sept. 1, 1991)0316511684Benjamin Segedin

Library Journal Review

In this intelligent, thoroughly researched biography, Lacey argues that Jewish gangster Lansky was primarily ``a professional gambler . . . caught dodging his taxes,'' rather than the eminence grise of the Mafia as portrayed by the media. Maybe so, but Lansky was a master at keeping secrets and it is unlikely that his full criminal role will ever be known. Following the loss of his casino to the Cuban revolution in 1959, Lansky was denied Israeli citizenship in 1972 and died in a hospital in 1983. This sympathetic but objective account is brought to life with interviews of Lansky's family and friends. Superior to Dennis Eisenberg's Meyer Lansky ( LJ 10/1/79), it is recommended for crime collections. Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 11/1/90.-- Gregor A. Preston, Univ. of California Lib., Davis (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.