Low Profile

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by Robert Lacey

Little, Brown; 547 pages; $24.95

The late criminal Meyer Lansky was an immigrant math whiz with a hunger for self-improvement. As a poor, dishonest kid on the streets of New York City, he quickly learned that if you can't beat the odds, change them. Using sound business principles, he laid the foundations of modern resort gambling. In his later years he hired tutors, was a regular at the Miami Beach Public Library and a member of the Book-of-the-Month Club. To his retired cronies he was an engaging cafeteria philosopher. His underworld associates found his ethical views sufficiently compatible to still trust him with their swag.

For nearly half a century, Lansky's numbers were his bond. He was, says biographer Robert Lacey, the master of "the share-out," the cash skimmed in the counting rooms of gambling casinos and delivered in tidy, untaxed bundles to silent partners. Some of the scariest, Lucky Luciano and Bugsy Siegel, were his friends from bootlegging days on Manhattan's Lower East Side. After the repeal of Prohibition, Lansky moved into organized gambling, where his pals continued to provide the muscle while he supplied the brains.

The inconspicuous role seems to have suited him just fine. A small man who dressed down and drove rented Chevies, Lansky was described by a former employee as practically invisible. In his business, no news was good news, which may account for the sketchiness of two previous biographies.

The public got an inkling of the Lansky legend from the character Hyman Roth in The Godfather, Part II. Anna Strasberg, widow of Lee Strasberg, who played Roth, recalled listening in on a phone conversation her husband received shortly after the movie opened in 1974. "You did good," said the caller, who did not give his name. "Now why couldn't you have made me more sympathetic?"

Little Man should answer that question. Based on new research and interviews with Lansky's friends and family, the book presents an emotionally cold businessman, a survivor who exacts grudging admiration but little compassion.

The man that headline writers liked to call the Godfather's Godfather does not live up to his unwanted press. Lacey concludes that Lansky's contribution to American outlawry underwent the usual romanticizing. There is no evidence ; that he sat as some sort of chief comptroller of organized crime. Despite years of FBI investigation and surveillance, no serious charges were ever filed against him. Lansky put together casino deals and handled blood money without getting his hands too dirty. He was even a management consultant who could shape up an operation from the craps in the casino to the crepes that came out of the hotel kitchen. But estimates that he was worth $300 million are dismissed as "sheer fantasy."

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