Picks and Pans Review: Little Man

updated 11/04/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/04/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Robert Lacey

He was born on an unknown day in about 1902 in the small town of Grodno, which skirted the borders of Russia and Poland. His parents, Yetta and Max Suchowljansky, named their firstborn Meyer. When he was around 10 and had moved with his family to the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville, his father enrolled him in PS 84 as Meyer Lansky.

The young boy had a good head for arithmetic, which would prove increasingly useful after the family moved to the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1914. There, in the crap games that lined Delancey Street, young Lansky encountered an influential group of aspiring hustlers and criminals. They taught him all they knew about gambling, and he, in turn, showed them that the arithmetic he learned in school could be turned to profit with a little ingenuity and a pair of hot dice.

Lansky hooked up with Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel and Charles "Lucky" Luciano, who were to become the most influential men in his life. Later the trio formed a crime syndicate which would stretch across 50 states and into Cuba and parts of Europe.

Little Man (a Lansky nickname) shows us exactly how such a vast criminal enterprise was formed and prospered. The majority of books written about organized-crime figures are anecdotal accounts that offer small sense of history and even less analysis. This one is different.

Robert Lacey (Ford: The Men and the Machine) has done a prodigious amount of research (the partnership between Naval Intelligence and Lansky during World War II has never been better documented). He pieces together the initial plans and methods that led to the birth of Las Vegas (Lansky supplied the brains, Luciano the cash, Siegel the brawn) and shows how Lansky manipulated the IRS and the Justice Department for decades, foiling their every attempt to nail him.

The book also explodes myths. Lansky was not, for example, worth $300 million, as was often reported. He died penniless in 1983; six years later the eldest of his three children was living on charily. Nor was Lansky the much-loved and benign family man of legend. In fact, his only daughter was an FBI informant who spied on her father.

Lacey has delivered a daring and well-written microscopic study of a man who, literally, knew too much about a business shrouded in silence. It would be criminal not to read it. (Little, Brown, $24.95)

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