Thirteen Ways of Looking at Meyer Lansky

Join author Jonathan Lang as he shares how digging into his family history and years of research culminated in Meyer—a new graphic novel from Humanoids about notorious Jewish mobster Meyer Lansky. Bonus: Read through and comment on the post below to enter for a chance to win a copy of Lang’s Meyer.

“I was of three minds

like a tree

in which there are three blackbirds”

– Wallace Stevens

 

I build stories in the same way a bird builds a nest. Scraps of truth and fiction are collected in bits and pieces, strung together in haphazardly fashion until something new, and hopefully beautifully functional is formed.

After completing my Master’s degree at the University of Amsterdam in Film Studies in 1999, I had a paper in my hand and no idea of who I was supposed to be. In Amsterdam, I was a would-be Tarantino, an American Goddard. I was now sleeping in my childhood bedroom, staring at my Bar Mitzvah signing board each night that hung over the combination phone/fax machine.  I went to where I usually went to figure things out: the library. While scanning the shelves for the free copy of What Color is My Parachute at the Broward Country branch in Fort Lauderdale, I stumbled across a book, Bloodletters and Bad Men I had used for research in 6th grade for an Al Capone report.  It was the pictures that drew me in then. It was the pictures that called to me now.

One grabbed me by the nose and slammed my head on the table. It was a photo of Meyer Lansky in Miami Beach, sunglasses strapped to his head, walking his dog Bruiser, looking over his shoulder, the Feds not too far behind.  Where was Meyer going? Who was he running from? He was hiding out in Miami Beach, a place I frequently visited my Bubbie and Zeida in the 1980s.

A central scrap came from my time as a volunteer when I was at Brandeis University. Once a week, I would visit a 101-year-old man named Fred Flagg. He was from the first graduating class of Tufts University, a true mensch whose stories were captivating. He lived by a central question he saw inscribed on a headstone of a child’s grave in Newton, Massachusetts. It read, “If I was so soon to be done for, what on earth was I begun for.” Somehow, that existential question merged with the image I now held in my hands. What if I was visiting Meyer Lansky in a retirement home all those years ago? What if Meyer was trying to make sense of the life he had led, for an audience of one? You’d have one hell of a buddy-picture/mentor’s story.

The specter of Meyer Lansky had always hung over my home. If you were a Jew in Brooklyn in the 1940s, even if you didn’t work for the Jewish mob directly, you knew someone who did. Some family members were more deeply involved. A great uncle had to have the dagger tattoo of Murder Inc. removed before he could be buried in a Jewish cemetery. My grandfather, Duke, among his many jobs, was just a numbers runner. These were the Tough Jews, the ones that broke the stereotypes of the bookish Mama’s boys, who’d crack you in the jaw before the second hard “K” in kike fell out of the mouth of an anti-Semite.

My paternal grandfather, Herschel Lang, embodied the modest genius of immigrant Jews. He worked in a jewelry store in Queens, he spoke four languages, and read five newspapers a day. Back in Poland, he was a Talmudic scholar whose job was to learn. Now, in the new world, he had to study the clarity of diamonds through a loop. Meyer existed, even then, as the central point between these two men. He existed at the nexus of Jewish immigrant possibility, the cross-section of genius and moxie. And man, did he have style.

The last bullet to the head came from my father, Arnold Lang, then a resident neurosurgeon at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. He remembers seeing Meyer Lansky in the early 1980s in the hallway of the hospital asking about his son post-surgery. Though Meyer was apparently a little pischer, who was five foot nothing, his aura didn’t just fill the room, it smashed every windshield in the parking lot. My dad is impressed with no one, barring the founder of neurosurgery, Harvey Cushing, and Lawrence Taylor and Mickey Mantle in their primes. To hear him speak about this man in hushed tones like Meyer was standing behind him, that type of perceived greatness sparked both my envy and curiosity. To understand what impresses my father remains an ongoing concern as it still gives shape to the effort I put into writing.  I now realize it’s why the father/son dynamic of fictional Meyer and David Greene is the narrative engine of Meyer.

I chased my family’s ghosts, moved to Brooklyn in 2000 believing the path to immortality was on the G Train, and still struggled with the story in my head like luggage that wouldn’t quite fit into an overhead compartment. But, I temporarily moved on. I began chasing genre (horror at the time) “hooks” based in reality, and drawn from genuine curiosity and compassion.  I had moderate success as a comic writer. My first book, Feeding Ground, a book I wish was not still relevant that tackles immigration and Mexico, received solid reviews and was optioned: a lot for a first-time comics writer. As a neophyte to the industry, I had mistaken this as normal. My second book, Plunder, revealed the realities of the comic industry, and was far truer to the writer’s life. The setting of the boat (The Seeker), the reviews, and my nom de plume, Swifty Lang, had all sunk.

So I retreated to a comics studio in Gowanus, Brooklyn penning screenplays and comics pitches. Feeling like a failure and a fraud, I leaned into my role as primary provider for my son, Henry. My friend and mentor Dean Haspiel asked a very important question during the resulting period. He asked, “Where are you in the work?”

Shortly after, he introduced me to creator/editor Fabrice Sapolsky, and everything changed. Fabrice, an immigrant Jew from France, instantly picked up on my passion for the project. He knew I wasn’t just writing a pulp crime story. I was writing a Jewish immigrant’s story. I was trying to write the story only I could tell.  Much like the fictional Meyer hiding out in a retirement in Miami Beach, it was time to break out of hiding before I wasted away.

Meyer was the perfect fictional figure for my book, an imaginary biography, on many levels. He was a real man who most people, including myself, knew little about. They knew he was a Jewish mobster who was friends with Lucky Luciano. They knew his quote, “we’re bigger than U.S. Steele”, but beyond that, he was Hyman Roth in The Godfather II, he was the Mob’s accountant and the brain behind Murder Inc., and the only Jew who was refused the Right of Return in Israel by Golda Meir (possible true fact: they were neighbors in a tenement on the Lower East Side).

I read multiple biographies of the man, and I reached the same conclusion. Who the hell was this guy? The claims were outrageous: he invented the lottery, he founded Las Vegas and the casinos in Cuba, he helped the US defend the docks in New York City against U-Boat attacks during World War II. How could one man, who looked like my Zeida, accomplish all this? Yet, despite the fact that I found him unknowable, his fictional voice was unmistakable. He talked to me from the beginning. His patois of hard-nosed gangster slang and Yiddish wisdom stoked an endless fever of inspiration. Now, if only someone would pick up the phone and call so I could put Meyer’s voice on speaker for the world.

Before the project was greenlit, I constantly looked at my phone, pulled Tarot cards from an app, trying to prognosticate possibility. The anticipation of a call can be agonizing, especially one that could be life-changing. This idea of “waiting for the call” is a central conceit in Meyer as he languishes in Shadybrooke Retirement Home waiting to be sprung free to recover his treasure and both the fictional “he” and the reborn “I” could not exist without the phone ringing. And then Fabrice called to say Humanoids would publish the book.

My passion for the project led to my desire to do some small-scale, shot-in-the-dark digital marketing campaigns that are often how modern market testing goes. Throw in some hashtags, boost a post, and see what sticks. I was tied to the phone yet again, as I posted through my mobile Instagram. I tossed in a #MeyerLansky, thinking there may be some crime-bio fan who happened to be Jewish that wanted to break up the stream of endless beachfront family photos. I rarely post personal IG posts, cobbler’s shoes from working in marketing, so any private direct message gets my attention. Only this message wasn’t from anyone I knew, really. It was from someone I had been thinking about for 20 years. It was from Meyer Lansky?! It read, simply, directly, “This is Meyer Lansky. I need to talk to you about your book.”

A cacophony of curiosity exploded in my head. Meyer Lansky is still alive?  Meyer Lansky is on Instagram?  What do I say to my publisher? I never got the rights to his life, believing that he was now in the public domain. I knew “my” Meyer was far removed from the “real” Meyer in terms of his physicality (courtesy of my artistic genius partner-in-crime, Andrea Mutti) and his action-oriented approach to problem-solving. Meyer Lansky ran things with his head, always doing the math and never leaving evidence behind. My Meyer used the butt of his gun.

I did some quick Google research and learned this was actually Meyer II, Meyer’s grandson. He and his wife, Dani, controlled all of the rights to Meyer’s life. With his family legacy, his current ties to Las Vegas, and the directness of his message, I did not think things were copacetic. But when Meyer reaches out, real or imagined, you listen. He had been talking to me for 20 years. He just decided a DM might be more efficient.

I called Fabrice, and he calmed me down. Still seeking a quote that would decorate the beautiful cover of the graphic novel (courtesy of the incredible Shawn Martinbrough), Fabrice offered a reassuring, “Maybe he’ll like the book.”

I then wrote the most sincere email I had ever written to a stranger:

“What always struck me about the public figure of Meyer was his humility and brilliance. He reminded me of a possible window into my Zeida’s (who the book is dedicated to) life. My grandfather kept a very low profile, lived almost in secret. His physical stature was not much different than your grandfather’s. But your grandfather took risks and his impact is legendary.”

I didn’t hear anything right away. I was terrified. The book I had been working on for a year would never see the light of day. A tagline for the book, for Meyer’s life, is “Keep it under your hat.” I had spoken boldly, openly about Meyer’s life, strung together fantasy and reality into some weird genre concoction that was now my truth. This is cosmic retribution when you have a loose lip. I should have followed Meyer’s advice. I should have followed my own.  Would he come after me legally? Would he come after me personally? Are cement shoes a real thing?

I was sitting beside my infinitely patient wife, Sara, when my phone rang. 702 area code. Goddamn telemarketers, that’s the last time…but wait. 702 is Las Vegas. Who do I know in Las Vegas? It couldn’t be. “Hello, Meyer?”

It was Meyer II. His grandfather was marked by secrecy, revealing little in the press and his voice barely heard in public. With Meyer II, we were on the phone for an hour and a half.  His voice had a warmth that was unexpected. He could not have been any kinder, more forthcoming, more generous. He spoke about his grandfather with an energetic enthusiasm and love for the man that was contagious. He was capable of holding two contradictory visions in his head simultaneously (the root of Talmudic thought): Meyer, the criminal, who kept things under his hat, and Meyer the grandfather, who loved and protected his family above all else. Meyer II offered to share over 400 letters, postcards, and photos from Meyer in his possession, a treasure of information about this man who the world knew so little about.  He invited me to Vegas to see some of the artifacts. Ultimately, he offered one of the highest endorsements: he offered to blurb the book.

I told Meyer II, and I believe this with all of my heart, the book is already a success because we were having this conversation. I tried my hardest to pay attention at the old age home in Waltham, Massachusetts, at the age of 20. I did my best to listen to Meyer II on a phone call at 42. Even after following Meyer’s trail and receiving the call that, in a way, freed me, I am left with more questions than answers. However, I have learned this: in a world where everyone is out to “amplify” their voice, keeping your lip buttoned and your ears open may be the wisest thing you can do.

In a very strange way, I believe Meyer is all of our Zeidas, belonging to every smart Jewish kid who didn’t listen to their mothers. A fictional account of a real man that a younger version of me thought was “my” story, that was an attempt to define “me” through writing, had transformed into what fiction can and should be; a singular path towards some universal understanding that belongs to us all.

The whole thing feels beshert, Yiddish for preordained.  I’d like to think Meyer and I meeting was more than a lucky roll at the table. I like to imagine that just maybe the real Meyer and my Zeidas are having a drink somewhere, in a well-apportioned cocktail lounge in the great beyond, saying, “we should get the grandkids together sometime. Maybe they’ll figure out how to make a couple of shekels.” All those men wanted was what was best for their families. Don’t keep that under your hat.


About Meyer by Jonathan Lang, art by Andrea Mutti:

A fictional biography of the legendary Jewish mobster, Meyer Lansky, as he attempts to organize his very last con job.
Meyer Lansky is dead … or at least that’s what he wants his enemies to believe. But the old man has one last job to pull off, and he can’t do it alone. Once he recruits an innocent bystander, their journey propels them headlong into an adventure filled with murder and malice, towards an ending neither could possibly have foreseen. For fans of Breaking Bad.
An immigrant’s story in the guise of an old mobster’s tale.


Comment below for a chance to win a copy of Meyer by Jonathan Lang!

To enter, make sure you’re a registered member of the site and simply leave a comment below.

Meyer Comment Sweepstakes: NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN.  A purchase does not improve your chances of winning.  Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States, D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec), who are 18 years or older as of the date of entry.  To enter, complete the “Post a Comment” entry at http://www.criminalelement.com/thirteen-ways-of-looking-at-meyer-lansky/ beginning at 3:00 p.m. Eastern Time (ET) September 24, 2019. Sweepstakes ends at 4:59 p.m. ET October 8, 2019. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Macmillan, 120 Broadway, New York, NY 10010.

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Comments

  1. Pam Sowers

    One of Meyer I’s sons was an employee of the federal government. He worked with my father in the 1950s on through to the ’70s (approximately) as civilian accountants for the US Air Force at the Boeing Company in Seattle. How Meyer Lansky’s son received a top federal security clearance is another of the Lansky mysteries.

  2. Roxana Garcia

    Looking forward to reading it.

  3. Deborah Lane

    I need this book! Thank you for the opportunity!

  4. Michael Carter

    Yes, please count me in.
    Thanks!

    • zabby

      The book sounds fascinating!

  5. Desmond Warzel

    Count me in, please!

  6. Anne

    Intriguing and fascinating.

  7. Pearl

    A legend. Great!

  8. Julie McDonough

    The story is fascinating, thank you for the chance.

  9. carloshmarlo

    Thanks for the insights. I’d love to have a copy of Meyer.

  10. Glen Davis

    A fascinating story. Count me in!

  11. Jeannine

    I heard stories of Meyer Lansky and others while growing up in NY and FL, I know I would enjoy this.

  12. Tiffany

    This looks great! Added to my tbr!

  13. susan beamon

    This sounds like an interesting story.

  14. Kelli

    Very interesting! Would like to read this.

  15. Karen Terry

    Looks interesting.

  16. Saundra K. Warren

    Pick me!! Pick me!!!

  17. Karen Parisot

    I had never heard of the Jewish mob or Meyer Lansky until I read this article about, “Meyer,” Jonathan Lang’s new graphic novel. Fascinating concept and what a sinister looking cover!

  18. Lori Byrd

    Sounds really great. Would love to win.

  19. Janet Gould

    Wow, great article.

  20. Shirley Pinczewski

    What style do to speak might he have brought to crime?

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