Low Profile

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The antihero of this lively deconstruction of the gangster life does not even qualify as an outcast Bernard Baruch. Lansky's best investments -- in the gambling hotels of Las Vegas and pre-Castro Havana -- were either sold too early or held too long. Like other Florida retirees, he saw his income from oil and gas leases greatly reduced by the petroleum glut of the early '80s. Lansky died in 1983. If there were secret millions, they do not seem to have changed the lives of his family. After a life limited by cerebral palsy, elder son Buddy died a pauper at 60.

So how did Meyer Lansky, a money skimmer who stood barely 5 1/2 ft. tall in elevator shoes, get so notorious? Partly because of the company he kept, and partly because the temptation to overestimate another person's wealth and power can be irresistible, especially when exaggeration provides a dramatic contrast to appearances. A low profile can attract as much attention as a high one.

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