TAMPA — Fans of American mob history know Meyer Lansky as the wisest of the wise guys, the financier who opened lavish gangland hotels and casinos in Havana, Miami Beach and Las Vegas.
Lansky and his associate, Charlie “Lucky” Luciano, are credited with creating the first national crime syndicate. He was immortalized as the fictional Jewish gangster Hyman Roth in Francis Ford Coppola’s epic film, “Godfather II.”
But to Gary Rapoport of Tampa, Lansky was “Grandpa Meyer,” a warm, down-to-earth mentor who loved books and encouraged his grandson to pursue an education. Rapoport, now 58, followed that advice, graduating from the University of South Florida, got a steady job and raised a family. He recalls Lansky as a regular guy who drove a Chevrolet Impala most of his life.
“You knew exactly where you stood when you talked to him,” Rapoport said in an interview.
Rapoport is the son of Sandi Lombardo, Lansky’s only daughter. In a recent phone interview, Lombardo said a memoir of her life with Lansky is scheduled to be published early next year and reports from Hollywood say a movie deal is in the works.
“In (the book) she tells the whole story from her eyes, growing up,” Rapoport said. “Being the princess with all her famous uncles: Ben (Bugsy) Siegel and Charles Luciano, who she still says are the most handsome men she’s ever seen in her life.”
On the eve of this new wave of exposure for the “mob’s accountant,” Rapoport warmly recalled a man who was silent about his business but forthcoming with wise advice that helped put his young grandson on the right path.
Rapoport’s father was Marvin Rapoport, a New York City restaurateur and breeder of expensive show horses. Sandi Lansky married the elder Rapoport when she was a teenager but the marriage ended when Gary was 2.
At age 26, Sandi married Vince Lombardo, who reportedly gave up his early “made guy” membership in a New York Mafia family at Lansky’s request.
“The story is told he had to ask my grandfather for my mother’s hand in marriage, which is a lovely way for it to be,” Gary Rapoport said.
Rapoport was Lansky’s first and favorite grandson, Sandi Lombardo said. Lansky came to the hospital the morning Gary was born accompanied by Abner “Longie” Zwillman, the longtime crime boss of Newark, N.J. Zwillman, whom the newspapers had dubbed the “Al Capone of New Jersey,” got his nickname “Longie” because he was well more than 6 feet tall.
“They looked like Mutt and Jeff coming into the room,” Lombardo said.
After spending his early years in New York, Rapoport moved with his mother and stepdad to Miami Beach when he was 10. Meyer Lansky had lived in South Florida since 1948, a year after he divorced Sandi’s mother, Anne.
After the move, Rapoport got to see his grandfather on a regular basis. Lansky would come over on Sunday mornings and eat lox and bagels.
“For a little guy, the man loved to eat,” Rapoport said.
Though he loved and respected his grandfather, Rapoport said he didn’t like to trade on Lansky’s name. As a teenager, he worked parking cars at the Singapore in Miami Beach, one of several hotels Lansky owned a piece of. Only a few of the hotel’s managers and customers knew Rapoport was Lansky’s grandson.
One person who didn’t know was David Brenner, the stand-up comedian, who was booked to work the Singapore lounge on a Tuesday night. Brenner, who went on to be a television and comedy recording star, refused to pay the $2 charge to park his car. So Rapaport blocked Brenner’s vehicle with a rental car and wouldn’t move it until the Brenner gave up the $2.
“If you’re not a guest of the hotel, you paid $2; that’s how we made our money,” Rapoport said. “Not that I’m cheap, but it’s the principle.”
An enraged Brenner complained first to the bar manager, then to the desk clerk, but got no help.
“This goes on for almost an hour,” Rapoport recalled, laughing. “Then (Brenner) comes out there and he’s threatening me: ‘You don’t know who I am. I’m connected. If you don’t move that GD car, I’m going to have your legs broken.’”
Finally, Brenner went into the hotel and returned with $2 worth of pennies.
“Now will you move the GD car?” he asked.
“Sure, as soon as I count these,” Rapoport replied.
That spirit of independence and the desire to make it on his own came from his stepfather, Lombardo, Rapoport said.
“He would never take a handout,” Rapoport said. “He was a hard-working guy.”
From his grandfather, Rapoport said he learned humility, toughness and loyalty to friends and family.
“My whole life I’ve been that way,” he said. “If I made a deal with someone businesswise, and I lost my shirt doing it, I lost my shirt and paid it out and moved on.
“You gave your word,” he added. “You’ve got to stand by it.”
Meyer Suchowljansky was 8 when he left Russia with his mother and brother on March 21, 1911. They arrived April 3 at Ellis Island in New York. Meyer’s father had come to America two years earlier to find work and an apartment in Brooklyn.
Like many East European immigrants in the early 20th century, Meyer’s father shortened the family name to Lansky, making it easier to pronounce for native Americans.
Lansky grew up on New York’s tough lower East Side, where he met Luciano and Ben Siegel. Lansky supposedly saved Siegel from a beating or worse by tripping a jealous husband who had caught Siegel in bed with his wife.
After that incident, the two men remained close friends until Siegel was shot to death on June 20, 1947, in his girlfriend’s Beverly Hills, Calif., home. The killers were believed to have been Luciano’s men. Lansky reportedly could do nothing to save his friend, who had been losing mob money in a Las Vegas hotel.
As the Italians and the Jews fought to take over the rackets in New York City, they busted heads with the Irish, who had come to America in an earlier immigration wave.
“My grandfather was a little guy who would take a butt whoopin’ nearly every day,” Rapoport said. “I think that’s what drew him and Charlie Luciano together because Charlie Luciano was giving that butt whoopin’. And (Lansky) had that stamina that, if you knocked him down, he would get back up.”
Lansky was closed-mouth about his business, even with family members. Up until she was 13, Lombardo thought her father was a salesman. She learned the truth when she saw a newspaper story about congressional hearings on organized crime conducted in the public eye by Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver.
One of those hearings was held at the federal courthouse in downtown Tampa in December 1950. Among the committee’s conclusions in a report released in May 1951, was that there were two major crime syndicates in the country, and one was headed by Lansky, Frank Costello and Joe Adonis.
“My grandfather never sat down and discussed organized crime with me one day of my life,” Rapoport said.
And the dutiful grandson had enough respect and smarts not to ask Lansky about his business. Still, he heard the stories from his mother and Lansky’s friends — “a bunch of old retired guys playing pinochle in Miami Beach.”
One thing they did discuss was education and Rapoport’s future. Though Lansky was renowned as a math whiz — legend has it he could mentally recalculate players’ batting averages after every at-bat — he finished only sixth grade. Lombardo claimed her father read the encyclopedia, cover to cover.
“Everything with him was education: ‘What are you reading?’” Rapoport recalled. “He was very big on history, big on reading about famous people in history.”
In a January 1971 letter, Lansky told his grandson he wanted Rapaport and his mother to visit him in Israel, where Lansky was living to avoid testifying in a tax evasion case.
“But I don’t want you to pick a time when you will lose school days. That would be wrong,” Lansky wrote. “School is too important at your age. Now, I don’t know how fully convinced you are of the importance of learning, but in due time you will realize the importance of school.”
During high school, Rapoport worked summers at stables in Pennsylvania and New York where his father, Marvin Rapoport, kept his show horses. Thanks to his father, the teenager got to ride $50,000 horses and meet lots of rich girls. But Rapoport and his father had a falling out, and he wasn’t allowed to ride anymore.
Exhibiting the stubborn streak he said he got from both sides of his family, Rapoport got a job as a photographer, covering the same horse shows where he used to ride.
Rappaport followed his grandfather’s advice. After attending community college in Dade County, he enrolled at the University of South Florida and got a degree in mass communications. He worked his way through his first year of college repairing pinball machines, a trade he learned from his stepfather.
Rapoport liked Tampa and decided to stay. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, he rose from bartender to general manager at the popular Tampa night spot, Mark Twain’s, at Hillsborough Avenue and Dale Mabry Highway. Today, he works as a loan officer in a local bank.
Meyer Lansky, a lifelong smoker, died at age 80 in 1983 after a long battle with cancer. Rapoport found out his grandfather had died at 2 a.m. that morning. Unable to find any commercial flights that time of the morning, Rapoport chartered a plane, landing in Miami at 5 a.m.
Though Lansky was rumored to have tens of millions of dollars stashed in bank accounts around the world, his heirs got much less. Rapoport and his mother blame duplicitous lawyers and accountants.
Sandi Lombardo still visits her father’s grave every year on the anniversary of his death, Rapoport said. Anne Lansky, Sandi’s mother, and Sandi’s brother Buddy, are also buried there.
In a September 1971 letter to Rapoport, Lansky laid out the maxims he hoped would guide his grandson in life:
“When you lose your money, you lose nothing; when you lose your health, you lose something; when you lose your character, you lose everything.”