4 BUSGY SIEGEL AND VIRGINIA HILL
BUGSY, 1991, USA, Director Barry Levinson
I worked a long time for Jack Dragna. Before Mickey Cohen muscled in, the newspaper boys said Jack was the Capone of LA. The big potatoes for Jack came from what he creamed off the bookies and what he made from his own gambling business. Jack knew the odds. Always. Jack was doing just fine when Bugsy Siegel turned up in LA. Jack Dragna always did fine. He outlived Bugsy and lasted longer than Virginia Hill. Ginny attempted suicide seven times. A defiant dame said Jack. Well, Ginny tried that trick once too often. She was 49 years old that seventh time, success at last, eight years older than when Bugsy took the bullets. Lansky and Luciano set up the hit. The torpedo didn’t even step inside Bugsy’s house. He fired through the window. The couple that hit Bugsy in the head blew out an eyeball. Don’t know what happened to the eyeball. No chance of using it again, I reckon.
I know what they say. Bugsy rated Mickey Cohen over Jack Dragna. The truth is Bugsy and Meyer Lansky always wanted Mickey Cohen to run the LA action. Don’t believe the hoo-hah. Jack was from Sicily, and Mickey Cohen, like Bugsy and Meyer, was Jewish. Lansky wanted his own men in LA and he got them. Lansky would never have got away with it but by then Lucky Luciano was fighting a deportation rap and had his own problems. Fine, says Jack, I’ll pull the plough for Mickey. Lansky may have been a cold fish but one thing he knew, and Jack realised, was how to make money. The tub of ice cream got bigger, and everybody had more scoops. All Bugsy had to do was keep his nose clean. The Bugsy nose was never out of the LA papers. Bugsy knew George Raft, and Raft knew movie stars. Bugsy liked to throw parties. George brought the movie stars along. Bugsy first met Ginny in New York, so I heard. By the time Bugsy met Ginny the dame was making too much money working for the wise guys to be interested in movie making. Ginny found out things for mobsters and passed on stuff. She was like Mata Hari, I suppose, except she swapped more than secrets. She’d go the races and sucker guys into making big bets that the bookies knew would lose. She’d also lay on bets to launder money. Virginia Hill was a busy lady.
Bugsy was handsome. He looked like a bulked up version of that writer. The guy that had the Irish name. That’s right, Scott Fitzgerald. After Bugsy died, there was a piece in the paper about how Bugsy was a real life version of this character that the guy with the Irish name had invented. That’s right, a real life Gatsby. I wouldn’t know. Ginny was not as pretty as Bugsy. Not in my opinion and not considering what you saw every day on the sidewalks of LA. Some would say curvy but to me she was short and dumpy. Ginny looked a little like that actress that came along later, Mercedes Maccambridge. Prettier than her but nobody ever thought Mercedes was a looker. Ginny, though, was smart and she had a way with her. If you didn’t know she was banging mob guys five at a time, you’d think she came from a top drawer family. Ginny could put on the voice, and so at times could Bugsy although he saved that for his movie friends. Nobody talked with apples in the mouth in front of the guys. Ginny was a hooker that could handle herself around the mob, and Bugsy was a tough guy enforcer for Lansky. Bugsy was better at throwing punches than looking after business. He should have stuck to the protection racket. The guy was burning the barrows of market traders when he was thirteen years old. But the phoney charm of Bugsy and Ginny kidded the movie stars.
Jack Dragna was right. Bugsy and Ginny were too much of an item. They thought they could mix the business with how they had fun or something. With Joe Epstein and Rocco Fischetti it was different for Ginny. Epstein was queer, although no one said that to his face, and Fischetti was married. Those guys only wanted Ginny to oil their rackets. Epstein and Fischetti knew how to handle her. They said who she had to screw but not who she couldn’t.
Bugsy slept around but the poor sap still had to know what Ginny was doing. A private eye called Jake Gittes was hired to watch Ginny and tell Bugsy everything she did. Gittes had tried to nail the very rich Noah Cross and was involved in something serious with wealthy oilman Earl Rawley. But Bugsy paid top dollar, and Gittes took on the work although I reckon he gave it to one of his partners. Well before Bugsy and Gittes arrived on the scene, Ginny gave Fischetti and some of his men blow jobs one after the other. Poor Mrs Fischetti had to watch. Jack told me that tale and, I admit, he thought Virginia Hill was pure poison. His point was this. How many females work with their men doing what we do? Bonnie and Clyde ended well, didn’t it? There was that other couple that robbed banks. She was a markswoman working in a circus. No, I can’t remember their names. Laurie and Bart something maybe. Lansky, Luciano and Jack Dragna, all preached the same thing. The woman is there for the little ones. Bugsy, though, had to meet Virginia Hill.
But Jack once said something about Bugsy that surprised me. He said, sure, Ginny had the brain and talked the talk but the flaw was always in Bugsy. He took women too seriously said Jack. He would have always wanted one close. I would never have figured it that way. I relied on Jack Dragna. He usually had it right.
Do we have to talk about Vegas? I know what you’re going to say. Was Jack a dreamer or did he have to build the Flamingo Hotel because Ginny was screwing around with his ego. Me, I never did like Vegas. That dry air did my throat. Meyer Lansky once offered me a weekend at the Flamingo, gave me tickets for a Saturday night show that had Xavier Cugat as top of the bill. I took the tickets because that is what you did with Lansky but I stayed in LA. Xavier Cugat? I have more rhythm than that Brazilian phoney.
All right, I’ll get there. First, there was no Bugsy Siegel vision of Vegas. And there was a lot more than horses and cowboys when Bugsy dropped down in Nevada. He never did pick a piece of desert and say this was going to be the site of a fabulous hotel. The Flamingo was already being built when Bugsy arrived in town. Some dude of a developer called William R Wilkerson had hit upon the idea of opening a fancy hotel. Wilkerson owned The Hollywood Reporter, so he had somewhere to advertise. Imagine it, one big real estate development being run by a guy that should have stuck to movie gossip and a gangster that thought best with his muscles. And, if that was not damned risky enough, there was a fast talking hooker poking her nose in. Wilkerson was out of his depth, and Bugsy kept demanding more building work and alterations. Some hick told me that Ginny was banging the architect and Bugsy asked for the rebuilds just to annoy the guy. Others said Ginny made Bugsy feel such a poor sap he needed a monument.
Jack Dragna never bought any of it. What started as a million dollar project cost, can you believe this, six million smackeroos. Neither could Meyer Lansky. Luciano hit the roof. For a while Whit Sterling was the accountant on the project. Whit was a good looking guy and smart too with a fine place up in Lake Tahoe. But Whit had this yen for some dame that headed for Mexico and who had taken $40,000 of his not so hard earned cash. Whit went and quit. If Whit Sterling had stayed around to watch the accounts, it might have been different for Bugsy. I heard that Whit Sterling took back this dame. She said sorry and shucks and, guess what, the dame later plugs Whit. If Whit had stayed out of Mexico, he would have prevented two of the six million finding its way into a Swiss bank.
There are three theories but I like Jack’s the best. Theory one is that Ginny siphoned off the two million herself. Number two is that it was just Bugsy. And three is that the pair of them did it together. Jack voted for number three and added his own twist. Bugsy was in on it with Ginny. This is why he interfered in the building work and was always asking for more and more. You can’t skim two million off one million but if you can drive up the costs to four million then you have potential. You get my meaning? Jack and no one I know has ever worked out how Lansky and his boys found out about the Swiss account but they did. Take my word, it was all about the two million. The opening of the Flamingo Hotel had been a disaster because the rain poured down. In Nevada, I ask you. But the Flamingo reopened and was making money for Bugsy and the boys, not six million, but a profit. The cost of building the hotel could have been regarded as bygones but there was always that two million. Lansky and Bugsy went way back but two million is a lot of ice to cut. Ginny was hiding in Paris when Bugsy was shot. She paid the money back to the mob two weeks later. Jack Dragna had it all figured. No, I don’t want to see pictures of how the Flamingo looks these days.
Howard Jackson has had ten books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism. His latest travel book No Tall Heels To Tango is now available here.