John Buntin, author of L.A. Noir, looks behind the story of hit TV drama Mob City to the startling truths beyond.
Mob City begins with tommy guns blazing. Wielding the weapons are three youthful gangsters: Ben (Bugsy) Siegel, Meyer Lansky and Sid Rothman. Rothman (played to perfection by the actor Robert Knepper) is the fiction creation of Mob City showrunner Frank Darabont. (Knepper’s performance is one of the dark delights of the show.) Siegel and Lansky, however, were real.
Siegel and Lansky were among the founding fathers of what would come to be known as ‘the Syndicate’, the criminal cartel that controlled American organised crime. During the 1920s, Siegel and Lansky made names for themselves in the New York City underworld as fearless stick-up men, bootleggers and muscle-for-hire – in short, they were just the sort to undertake a heist like the one that opens Mob City. Lansky stayed on in New York before eventually relocating to Florida. However, in the early 1930s Siegel moved to Los Angeles.
Today, Siegel is perhaps best known as the man who founded Las Vegas. But when Siegel first came West in 1933, he did so not with an eye toward creating a Sin City in the desert. Instead, he came to enjoy the good life in Hollywood. Ben Siegel returned to a life of crime only after he himself became a mark.
Siegel first visited Los Angeles in 1933 to see his childhood friend George Raft. Raft, a nightclub dancer in New York, had become a Hollywood star by playing gangsters like Bugsy in the movies. (His breakthrough role came in the 1932 movie Scarface as the coin-flipping sidekick to the Al Capone-esque Paul Muni.)
It was not the most auspicious moment for a first visit to LA. That spring, a massive earthquake had levelled a wide swathe of Long Beach, killing more than fifty people and badly shaking the confidence of the region. A quarter of the working-age population was unemployed. A vast hobo encampment (nicknamed ‘The Jungle’) had spread along the Los Angeles River. But Siegel was entranced. He was receptive to Los Angeles for another reason as well.
The same year that Siegel made his first visit to the city, the US Congress repealed the Twentieth Amendment, ending national Prohibition. This was something the Syndicate had long feared. What happened next, though, caught Siegel and his associates off guard. Almost overnight they became wealthy – and quasi-legitimate – businessmen. Underground distribution networks became legal liquor distributorships. Syndicate steamers loaded with booze suddenly had a future as legal importers. Speakeasies like the 21 Club and the Stork, that had once operated behind barred doors with lookout holes, now hung out Welcome signs.
Siegel emerged as a partner in one of the biggest liquor distributorships in New York City. He had an apartment at Broadway and 85th and a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria, as well as a house in Scarsdale for his wife and kids.
Wealth and the possibility of legitimacy had a profound psychological effect on Siegel and his associates. ‘Viewed from their luxurious apartments and ducal estates, jailhouses became utterly repugnant,’ wrote Florabel Muir, a prominent newspaper columnist who’d known Siegel in New York and who would eventually follow him West. ‘There is nothing like a million dollars to bring about a conservative point of view.’
Los Angeles offered the chance for a new start. If a Lower East Side tough-turned-speakeasy ‘hoofer’ like George Raft could transform himself into a movie star there, then perhaps a former gangster could transform himself into a gentleman of leisure.
And so in 1934 Siegel moved his wife, his two daughters, and the family German Shepherd to Beverly Hills and promptly set out to join the movie colony elite. He rented a luxurious house on McCarthy Drive in Beverly Hills that had once been the home of opera star Lawrence Tibbett. He enrolled his two daughters in an elite private school and an exclusive riding academy. He became a member of the Hillcrest Country Club, the social center of the film colony.
He shed his New York City gangster attire (hard-shelled derby hat, fur-trimmed coats, rakish lapels) in favour of two-hundred-dollar sports coats and cashmere slacks. He took as his mistress the most flamboyant hostess in Hollywood, Dorothy di Frasso, a New York leather goods heiress married to an Italian count.
Unfortunately, Siegel then ran into a problem – an embarrassing one. He got taken – for a million dollars.
At the end of Prohibition, Siegel had about $2 million in cash. Unfortunately, he invested much of it in the stock market. In short order, Siegel had cut his fortune in half. ‘If I had kept that million,’ Siegel later mused to a friend, ‘I’d have been out of the rackets right then. But I took a big licking, and I couldn’t go legitimate.’
Instead, he went back to what he knew best: organised crime. Los Angeles, which Siegel had once viewed as a playground, was now an opportunity.
Ben Siegel’s real-life stock market loss would start him down the path that led to the creation of Las Vegas. By returning him to a life of crime, it would also set in motion the events explored by Mob City.
John Buntin is the author of L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City, published by Orion. It is the inspiration for the new TV series Mob City, airing on Fox every Friday at 10pm.