Bugsy Siegel: The Dark Side of the American Dream

Yale Univ. (Jewish Lives). Feb. 2021. 248p. ISBN 9780300226195. $26. CRIME
Though other entries in the “Jewish Lives” series have celebrated lauded figures—Emma Goldman, Irving Berlin, Steven Spielberg—this one focuses on gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel (1906–47). Yet Shnayerson’s (Boom: Mad Money) richly reported narrative is more than the portrait of a criminal; it’s a reminder of the lengths to which children of immigrants have gone in pursuit of the elusive American dream. Growing up in the tenements of New York City’s Lower East Side, Siegel, whose parents had emigrated from what was then Austria-Hungary, formed rudimentary gangs with other kids. As an adult, he and childhood friend Meyer Lansky joined with Charles “Lucky” Luciano to establish the National Crime Syndicate, a large underworld of Jewish and Italian American crime families. In the 1930s, Siegel relocated to Hollywood; despite some talent, his acting aspirations went nowhere—though criminal enterprises such as racketing and extortion thrived. Hoping to become a legitimate businessman, he opened a hotel, the Flamingo, in Las Vegas. But fellow Syndicate members were incensed to discover that he was stealing from the operation. In 1947, Siegel was murdered, and Shnayerson proposes a plausible theory for the killer, but readers will be more interested in learning about Siegel’s life and crimes.
VERDICT True crime fans and history lovers will appreciate this well-researched and nuanced biography of one of America’s most notorious gangsters.
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