Meyer Lansky had to be the most fascinating yet enigmatic person I’ve ever encountered. An infamous and prominent organized crime figure who emerged during the first half of the 20th Century, Lansky was a shrewd businessman known for his keen financial acumen. He was often referred to as the “Mob’s Accountant.” Along with his associate Charles “Lucky” Luciano, Lansky built one of the most formidable crime syndicates with a vast gambling empire. He had stakes in casinos in London, Las Vegas, The Bahamas, and Cuba. Like the Dos Equis beer commercial, Lansky might just have been “The Most Interesting Man in the World.”
The first time I met him was in 1979. My mom and I had gone to a drugstore called Super X (a store similar to today’s CVS or Duane Reade, but independently owned) to pick up some sundry items for the house. The store was on 69th Street and Collins Avenue in Miami Beach, next to Publix Super Markets. So, we’d often go there each week to shop for food and household items. When we entered the store, my mom wended her way from aisle to aisle, making her shopping selections from a list that she had previously prepared before leaving the house, just in case she forgot them when she arrived. After about 30 minutes, she had a full basket, and we headed to the cashier. As we got in line, a short man tugged on my mom’s blouse from behind, and on turning around to see who it was, she uttered with great surprise, “Meyer!” And he replied, “Hiya doing, Ida. It’s been a long time.“
Who was this little man? I was curious to know. He had to be no more than 5 feet tall as I was hovering over him. My mom chatted with him for a few minutes while allowing others waiting in line to pass her and pay for their stuff. After a few more minutes, I started pulling on my mom’s blouse and asking her to tell me who she was talking to, but she said, ”Not now.” “Come on,” I said. “Stop it,” she snapped back. When they ended their chat, my mom paid for her items, and we left the store. As we walked to the car, my mom said, “I’ll tell you who he is when we drive out of the parking area.”
My mom used to work in Havana, Cuba, as a dancer in the early 50s during President Fulgencio Batista’s reign. She once worked at Lansky’s hotel, Habana Riviera, and at the Tropicana Club. During her stint on the Island, she met many other colorful characters, including another mobster named Charlie Tourine, aka “Charley the Blade,” who had an interest in a neighboring hotel called The Capri, and Hollywood leading man, Errol Flynn. When my mom arrived back in the states, she had opened a couple of nightclubs under her name called Ida’s Hangup in New York and Ida’s Eastside in Miami Beach. The comedian Lenny Bruce was a regularly featured act at her Miami Beach location whenever he’d show up. But the real owner of these joints was a high-ranking capo of the Genovese crime family named Anthony Strollo, aka “Tony Bender.”
On another occasion, my mom took me, my sister, and my brother to eat breakfast at Wolfie Cohen’s Rascal House on Collins Avenue and 21st Street. Wolfie’s had several locations and was considered by many to be one of the best Jewish delicatessens in the Southeast. But we always preferred going to their 21st Street location because it was closer to our home. When we arrived and sat down, I noticed Meyer sitting in the corner booth with some friends or associates. I mentioned this to my mom and said, ”Look, it’s your friend again sitting over there.” My mom snapped and said, “Don’t point and mind your own business.” So I tried not to look in his direction for the duration of our meal. When my mom asked the server for the check, the server replied, ”Meyer took care of it.” My mom then looked over to his table and vocalized a whispered thank you in a way that he could understand from afar as she didn’t want to intrude as he seemed rapt in conversation at his table. Meyer then nodded his head approvingly and then went about his business.
The last time I saw Meyer was probably in 1982, but this time it was while I was driving up Collins Avenue in my mom’s car. I noticed him walking his dog near his apartment. He was living at the Seacoast Towers at the time—a set of luxury oceanfront apartment buildings on 51st Street. He had been living a quiet existence there ever since his failed efforts to settle in Israel in the early 70s while trying to avoid the US government’s long reach to arrest him for tax evasion. No one could ever figure out where he socked away all of his supposed wealth. Without much to go on, he was eventually acquitted.
In 1983, while randomly leafing through a copy of Rolling Stone magazine, I discovered that Meyer Lansky had died when I came across his obituary. I had bought the magazine only because it had featured The Stray Cats on the cover, one of my favorite groups at the time. After reading his entire obit, I was then convinced that he was truly “The Most Interesting Man in the World.”
Former restauranteur, musician, concert promoter, producer, publisher, manager, and impresario, Charles Carlini has synthesized these roles to become a dynamic force in the music industry–noted for his ability to bring diverse talent together to create innovative concerts and recordings that reach and move music-lovers everywhere.