Some readers may know him best as a mob character on the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire,” but Meyer Lansky was a real person, famous for pioneering gambling casinos in Las Vegas, Havana and other glittering spots.
The Jewish immigrant wasn’t born to the high life, and what he knew about running high-end gaming establishments he learned in Saratoga Springs in the summers between the two world wars.
“We know the potato chip was invented in Saratoga, but so was the idea of the casino resort,” said Greg Veitch, the city’s current police chief.
Lansky was one of the New York City hoods behind the legendary lake houses around Saratoga Lake, where illegal gambling was an “open secret.” From the 1920s through the 1940s, they were where the action picked up every August evening after the racetrack closed.
The lake houses were for an exclusive clientele of visitors taking in the upstate country air, not the locals. Their hallmark was offering a quality experience.
“Every August, racegoers and owners went out to Saratoga’s lake houses to play and wager in an ambience of fine wine, excellent food, and some of the most spectacular floor shows to be seen anywhere in America,” author Robert Lacey wrote in his biography of Lansky, “Little Man.”
Lansky was born in 1902 in a village on the plains that Russia and Poland have long fought over (it’s Belarus now), in one of the Jewish communities that would be wiped away two generations later. His family emigrated to New York in 1911.
Lansky learned to play craps on the Lower East Side and became a protégé of Arnold Rothstein. Rothstein was the New York crime boss who ran The Brook, one of the first of the classy gambling houses on Saratoga’s outskirts — and the man widely thought to have fixed the 1919 World Series, though Veitch, for one, isn’t sure.
By the 1930s, Rothstein had been gunned down over personal gambling debts and Lansky was on his own. He was a partner in the Arrowhead and Piping Rock clubs, two of the most famous lake houses. He oversaw more or less open games during the August seasons until 1951, when a nationwide investigation finally provoked a crackdown on excessively tolerant communities like Saratoga Springs.
Even though the games themselves had to be honest — word would spread fast if they weren’t — it was a profitable operation for Lansky. Lansky was one of the few mobsters to really understand through math that the natural odds always favor the house.
By the time World War II ended, Lansky had or was developing gambling interests in Las Vegas, Cuba, New Orleans and Florida. He knew the use of violence. He personally signed off on the 1947 mob hit of his childhood friend Bugsy Siegel, whose incompetence in starting the first Las Vegas casino-resort was costing his associates too much money.
While making money illegally and using violence when necessary was Lansky’s stock in trade, he only went to jail once in his life — in Saratoga County, in 1953.
In the wake of the high-profile nationwide investigation led by Sen. Estes Kefauver, Lansky was indicted by a Saratoga County grand jury in 1952 for illegal gambling at the Arrowhead Club.
In May 1953, the mobster pleaded guilty to gambling in return for a three-month jail sentence. He could have taken the case to trial, of course, but Lansky knew better than anyone the embarrassing and dangerous secrets behind how Saratoga Springs gambling was protected that could have come out.
According to Lacey, Lansky spent his time in jail exercising and amazing other prisoners with his ability to memorize numbers and do math in his head.
A New York City lawyer handled his criminal case, but Saratoga Springs lawyer Michael Sweeney — later a state Supreme Court and appeals court judge — helped him get meals brought in from outside and get other favors from Sheriff Willard C. Barker.
Sweeney didn’t recall Lansky as a menacing man, despite his reputation.
“He was polite. He was asking for something, so he had to be nice,” Sweeney, by then a retired judge, told me in a 2003 interview.
Sweeney was trying a case at the county courthouse in Ballston Spa when he was approached with a message: “Meyer wants to see you.”
Sweeney went down to the jail, which was then located just behind the courthouse on West High Street.
“I went in and he stood up and he said, ‘I have a bad stomach.’ He said, ‘I’d like to have my meals brought in.’ I said he’d have to pay for it, and he said, ‘Well, of course,’ ” recalled Sweeney, who died in 2006.
Sweeney approached Sheriff Barker, who agreed to the request.
Another time, Lansky asked for Sweeney because a son who was in the Army was passing through on a day that wasn’t the normal prisoner visitor’s day. Again, Barker accommodated.
But Sweeney said he doesn’t consider that he represented Lansky, and he never sent him a bill.
Lansky would maintain his gambling interests elsewhere for many years, but was done with Saratoga. Saratoga was done with that kind of gambling, too, though there’s now eager anticipation to see what happens if voters change the state Constitution to legalize table games.
The feds would come after Lansky later, but they never got a conviction. He died in 1983 in Miami Beach after years of declining health.