I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Gila looked at the photographs and tried to connect them to the man she’d been secretly meeting this past year, but the pictures came from a different order of reality. They were separate from what she knew about him—what she thought she knew about him. His essential self was like his body, which you could only take in one aspect at a time—the belly, the slick gray hair, the small dark pupils of his eyes.
The photographs were in black and white—they were almost kitsch, they were so old—and it required an effort of imagination to see the violence in them as truly real. In one, a man was slumped over on a floral-print sofa in Beverly Hills. One of his eyes had been shot out, his face a clown mask of gore. The blood blended with the darkness of his necktie to cover half his chest in a dark stain. He had been one of Meyer’s oldest and closest friends, Benjamin Siegel—“Bugsy,” the captions always called him. The nickname served to cheapen his murder into something picaresque and quaint.
The next picture was also an antique—17 years ago, 1957. In this one, there was little visible blood, just the body of a man flat on his back on a hairdresser’s floor. His name was Albert Anastasia. He lay there in a near-cruciform position between two barber’s chairs, his legs draped by a sheet and his head, shoulders, and arms by another sheet, or maybe they were towels. The only things exposed were an armpit, a chest covered in hair, a nipple, an outstretched hand.
The photos and the words were sensational, that is they managed to paradoxically both magnify and diminish their subjects. The Meyer she knew was calm, not friendly, fastidiously clean, strategic. There was a reason his body had never turned up in a tabloid newspaper photograph.
On the ride into Tel Aviv, he noticed that the sidewalks were full of people looking up at the sky. His driver came off Kings of Israel Square—the City Hall like an assemblage of cheap building blocks, pigeons in the big asphalt emptiness—and suddenly everything was cast in shadow. Outside the cafés, waiters stood at the edges of mostly empty tables, arms crossed over their pressed shirts. Right on Frischman, past Dizengoff, Ben Yehuda—juice stands, falafel, laundromats—then further toward the beach, where the concierges had come out of the hotels, peering and twisting, finding it. Crowds of people silently looking up at the sky, not looking at the car, not looking at him. They turned to each other over their shoulders, then went back to watching what was above, then slowly resumed their courses, heads still raised. There was no way to see from the car what they were looking at.
“What’s happening?” Lansky finally asked the driver.
“I don’t know,” the driver said. “There must be an eclipse. Something like that.”
He spoke fluent English, though with an Israeli accent that at times sounded oddly German.
“I read the paper this morning,” Lansky said. “There was nothing about an eclipse.”
“Maybe a patch of clouds. Not an eclipse.”
A crowd of men in suits stood outside the lobby doors, the driveway two lanes thick with black cars. Everyone still kept looking at the sky. Lansky waited in the back seat while the driver went in to clear his way. He saw his bag sitting in the sun on the bellman’s cart. The driver returned and he got out of the car and he and the driver walked past the doorman into the brown lobby. The driver nodded as Lansky got into the elevator by himself and the doors closed.
Gila was sittting in a chair, smoking, still in her uniform, slumped like a child in the beige blouse and black skirt, black nylons. Instead of looking at him, she closed her eyes and exhaled. “Yosha took my shift,” she said. “I need the money, but it’s okay. What is bad is the way she makes me grovel for it. She knows I’m coming here, so she makes me grovel.”
He looked over at the bar, the ice bucket, the tongs. “You shouldn’t be begging around like that. You shouldn’t be working here at all.”
“I should be in Ramat Gan, shopping for a new Mercedes. Is that what your wife drives?”
He nodded absently or dismissively and walked toward the window. Beneath them was the Mediterranean, the beach with its spatter of orange umbrellas, green umbrellas, swimmers standing in the shallows. Everything was ordinary—the sun had come back out. He went to the bar and made them both a drink.
“I drove into town and all of a sudden it was very cloudy,” he said. “Like an eclipse, that was how cloudy it was. Everyone looking up. The whole way down here, I’m worrying how I would get in the hotel without everyone seeing, all the cameras lately, but everyone was just watching the sky. There weren’t any cameras anyway. It was just luck—the clouds, no cameras. My whole life I said that people who believed in luck, they lose, period. Fate, luck, whatever. I guess you can’t really get away from it.”
She was taking off her shoes. He watched, sipping his drink. She knew he was watching. She looked up at him, bent forward, her hair falling in her eyes.
“Where will you go if they make you leave?” she said.
“What makes you think I’ll have to leave?”
“Fate, luck. Those are dangerous words. Maybe you should go back to Poland, that would give them a surprise.”
“You should watch your mouth.”
“Watch my mouth.”
“Whatever comes into your head, you just say it. Maybe that’s why you’re still serving cocktails at the Dan Hotel.”
His luggage arrived, five identical changes of clothes. He was tipping the bellman when she put on the bracelet he’d brought her. She looked at it in the mirror, a line bracelet of white gold and small diamonds. Her drink sat untouched on the nightstand. He watched her look at the bracelet and he knew she was already thinking about where to sell it.
Tel Aviv—the sun reflected by water, the coolness between you and it when you looked out the window. The rundown buildings, concrete and stripped paint, the fish lunch in Jaffa, crumbling by the sea.
She had grown up in Foehrenwald, a DP camp not far from Munich. Before that, a year and a half in Bergen-Belsen. When her family had come to Israel, they’d changed her name from Tsilya to Gila. It meant “happiness.” He looked at the flatness of her stomach, her breasts, the faint shadows along her ribcage. Sometimes it was beyond him, an effort of patience, but now he relaxed, slow, cognizant, closing his eyes. The sound of her name and the sight of her body as he let his eyes come open again.
Gangster, racketeer, mobster—she could not get the words to adhere to the physical person. Not that she disbelieved the stories, but the stories’ language glared, whereas the truth of him resided in subtleties. The gray trousers and the pressed shirt, white linen or pale blue linen. The leather shoes and the blue blazer and the Herald Tribune. Everything important was invisible, maybe glimpsed for just an instant when he turned to her in a certain way and his eyes accused her of looking too closely.
Albert Anastasia had been shot ten times, one of the shots blowing open his skull. Ben Siegel sprawled in death as if napping on the sofa, his jacket lapel folded back over his chest, as if he had sought warmth against the onslaught, blood gushing from his eye. Both of them killers before being killed. Both of them Meyer’s partners or vassals or something. She wondered how much of a killer you had to be for others to do your killing for you, to be that separate from the particulars, if that was the truth about him.
A proliferation of rumors, he would say, rumors and lies. He had come to Israel seeking a reprieve from all that—the FBI tail, the false indictments, the subpoenas, the attorney’s fees. In a lifetime of scrutiny, he had never been convicted of a serious crime. That was why he had come here, because they were supposed to accept even someone like him. As a Jew, even he had the Right of Return, the birthright of Israeli citizenship.
They drove the hour from Tel Aviv, barely talking, the journalist watching the road, sleeves rolled back on his tanned arms. His name was Uri Dan; he was a military correspondent, a sympathetic ear, according to Lansky’s lawyer, Yoram Alroy. Dan had long black hair, a Swiss watch, a chalk-striped shirt half-unbuttoned in the heat. An ability to tolerate silence, the first proof of poise.
They parked near the Intercontinental Hotel amid the tour buses and stood for a few minutes by the rail among the crowd. Below them, the Mount of Olives was a huge lunar space of white stone, white sand, dark-gray cedar trees, the cemetery descending like a dusty quarry cut in steps. The old graves looked like part of the hillside, eternal, sloping down in endless terraces toward the valley of Jehosophat, where the dead would rise. Above it glowed the Old City of Jerusalem—the gold Dome of the Rock, the crenellated wall, the remnants of David’s ancient kingdom, bordered now by the Arab district of Silwan, rundown, cubist, hung with laundry.
Dan squinted down at the cemetery. “It’s unfortunate, the neglect,” he said, raising a flat hand at the panorama. “There’s never enough money to restore it, and once you restore some of it, the boys come down from East Jerusalem and smash it to bits again.”
“Arabs,” Lansky said.
“Yes, of course, Arabs.”
A photographer said hello in English and took their photograph.
“You don’t mind?” Dan said, turning his head.
Lansky bowed and lit a cigarette. He shook out the lit match, then slid the book back inside the lower pocket of his blazer, pushing it down behind the flap with two fingers. “I’m not crazy about it,” he said. “I’m not really crazy about any of this.”
He had explained himself to Dan back in Tel Aviv, how he hoped Dan might write a more balanced account of who he was and why he was here, something to counter the tabloids. His grandparents were buried in Jerusalem—when life had become impossible in Grodno, his grandparents had come here to Jerusalem, while he and his family had gone to New York. He had never been able to find the graves before. Maybe Dan could help him—maybe that was a way they could begin the conversation.
They started down the steep hill, the scenery blinding. They passed the Church of the Ascension, Christian tour groups in the garden of Gethsemane. The olive trees with their scarred trunks looked like enormous hunks of driftwood. Benjamin Suchowljansky, plot 15, column B, grave 80. His grandfather Benjamin, whom he had last seen 60 years ago when the languages he spoke were Polish and Yiddish and he was nine years old.
Dogs wandered the rocks, the broken gates, the weeds. A decrepit rabbi led them to the grave, where he bent down and cleaned the dirty inscription with his coatsleeve. Lansky pushed his sunglasses back over his head and wiped his eyes. He looked out across the valley without seeing anything but the brightness. He saw his grandfather in a full-length coat, beard, fur-trimmed hat. The dim shul with its broken Torah scrolls decaying on the shelves. The smell of the spicebox, the moldy smell of men among books, the yahrzeit candle in its glass. In Tel Aviv, you never thought about these things, you lived in 1971. He saw himself at 12, smashing a plate in someone’s face—whores on Madison Street, shtarkes, and pimps. New York faces crammed beneath the awnings, wagons and pushcarts and rain.
He took his sunglasses all the way off and held them folded in his hand. He closed his eyes and said the prayer for the dead, remembering the foreign words from three or four lifetimes ago. “Before we left Poland, there was a big argument,” he said to no one in particular. “I was nine years old, so I remember. My grandfather wanted to be buried here in Israel—he was already an old man. My father wanted all of us to go to America. He thought there would be opportunity there—the old story. Opportunity. In Grodno, one day the rabbi came across a dead girl in the woods, a Polish girl, she’d been raped and killed. So the rabbi ran back for help and they said it must have been him who killed her. He wanted her blood for the Passover—that’s what they said. They cut him up into pieces while he was still alive. They took the four pieces of his body and they nailed them to the city walls of Grodno. It was a brave thing just to take them down and give him a proper burial. We left in 1911, and my parents and my brother and I went to New York and my grandparents came here. My grandfather wanted to die here, just like I want to die here. Die here as a Jew.”
He gave the rabbi some money and asked him to look after the graves, then they walked back up the hill. It was hot and he took off his jacket. Poland, New York—the places of his life had begun to lose their meaning. Their meaning was subsumed by this landscape, religious and shaming. The light was honey colored and the dirt and the trees looked the same way they had looked five thousand years ago. Uri Dan walked through it all like an insouciant guide, watching his feet on the rocks, a native-born Israeli, a sabra, not just a Jew.
If he had come here in 1911, instead of going to New York. The barked orders as they boarded the Kursk, the ignorant silence, food sloshing by in wooden buckets. Seasick, he would walk the decks and look at the people sitting there like pack animals in their blankets and rags.
They drove through the Lion’s Gate and walked across the Arab quarter to the Western Wall. Paper yarmulkes lay in piles on the card tables. Tufts of weeds grew out of the stones in extravagant bushes. He stood in front of the wall with his sunglasses in his shirt pocket, pressing the bridge of his nose, eyes closed. Beside him a boy in a white shawl bowed in rhythm, a prayer book in his hands. Lansky touched his forehead to the stone. You couldn’t take it all in, what it cost in blood.
When he hadn’t returned, they’d revoked his US passport. Extradite him, was the message to Israel. LANSKY, ACCORDING TO DE CARLO, HAS A “PIECE” OF VIRTUALLY EVERY CASINO IN LAS VEGAS DUE TO HIS EARLY ENTRY AS THE “PROTECTION” FOR JEWISH ELEMENT WHO ORGANIZED GAMBLING ELEMENT THERE. HE LISTED FLAMINGO, DESERT INN, STARDUST, SANDS, AND FREMONT AS HOTELS IN WHICH LANSKY HAS INTEREST. The Department of Justice had so much intelligence on him that they no longer knew what was fact and what was myth. Of course it was in his nature that they would never know.
Later, Uri Dan would write that even before he met Lansky he was opposed to those Israeli authorities that wanted to send him back to the US. He would write, “On principle I defended his right as a Jew to come and live in the land of his ancestors.” He would go further: “Israelis had been molded by blood, violence, and a struggle for survival and power in the sands of the Middle East.” Lansky had used his connections to help arm the Haganah during Israel’s fight for independence. He and his men had broken up Nazi rallies in Yorkville in the ’30s. “He fascinated me,” Dan would write, “Meyer Lansky has that type of personality.”
The allure of power, the allure even of its excesses. Of course it is the excesses that account for the allure. Some negative force everywhere present but never seen. The black and white photographs of murdered gangsters. Meyer Lansky walking his shih tzu near the beach on Hayarkon Promenade.
He uncapped the Pernod, listening to Gila translate the article from the Hebrew. It was the usual life summary. He tried to listen, displeased even by the facts once they’d been presented in the funhouse mirror of someone else’s language. No serious criminal convictions—was it because he was innocent or because of his shrewd invisibility? He had spent the last 40 years not commenting on these things. He looked Gila in the eye when she got to the murders of Ben Siegel and Albert Anastasia. He sipped his drink and waited for her to start reading again and then he turned away and listened, staring at the wall.
“I liked Dan all right,” he finally said. “The more I talked to him, the more I did. Very smart. Very close with Ariel Sharon. He’s covered Sharon for 15 years.”
“Sabras,” she said. Her voice was distant, somewhere between a hiss and a sigh. “Big balls like an ox, at least that’s what they think. They spit on people like me. Refugees.”
She was still contemplating the story. It had become more interesting than he was. He stood by the window and looked out at the beach, crowded even at sunset. The coolness of the Pernod on his tongue, the herbal sweetness. He fished for his cigarettes in the pocket of his robe.
“I guess they taught you pretty good English at that DP camp,” he said.
“English. Dressmaking. Lots of things.”
“A real finishing school. Dressmaking.”
“We made dresses and the boys made watches. Useful Jews. We loved the Americans, they were very patient with us. Then we come here and there’s no work, nothing to eat. Lentils, a few cucumbers.”
He exhaled the cigarette and started coughing. Gila folded the newspaper up and laid it on the bed.
“I couldn’t save my friend Ben,” he said, still facing the window. “He had that kind of temperament—he liked a fight. He thought he could cheat people, even the goddamn Italians, and they would back down. I never backed down, but I always used my head. It’s easy to blow yourself up. It happened to Ben, it happened to a lot of people I worked with in those days. The wheel turned, they lost. Not that they were animals, but they were characters, personalities. I used to take a lot of crap for being quiet. I was quiet. I wasn’t any better than they were, but I was quiet.”
He looked at the newspaper on the bed. In English, the title was “Meyer Lansky Breaks His Silence.” Some kind of raffish joke, a stereotype from an old movie. FLAMINGO, DESERT INN, STARDUST, SANDS, AND FREMONT. Useful Jews. Everything secret, everything always at risk. Now Ben was long dead, he himself was 69. If they made him leave, he didn’t know where he’d go.
He walked with his two lawyers through the crowd past the concrete planters full of weeds. The Palace of Justice was in a shabby part of modern Jerusalem near some defunct railroad tracks, the sidewalks hemmed in by dented chain-link fence. Amid the fans and the dark wooden beams, he tried to follow the rhetoric. His Israeli lawyer, Alroy, made an argument in Hebrew, then the State of Israel’s lawyer, Gavriel Bach, made a counterargument in Hebrew. For once, he was not asked to speak. He sat beside his American lawyer, Rosen, and the two of them read along as an interpreter translated on a yellow pad with a ballpoint pen. The five supreme court justices listened to the contradictions. He was the head of the Mafia and had a fortune of 300 million dollars. He was a retired hotel operator and had practically no money at all. It was theater—the robed judges, the lawyers rising and sitting back down. If he was the kind of outlaw they alleged he was, then the only legitimate response would be silence. Either he was guilty of everything and it couldn’t be proved, or he was guilty of nothing and it couldn’t be proved.
The State of Israel in its 23 years had taken in hundreds of thousands of Jewish victims in the service of ending forever the saga of Jewish victimhood. He had ended his own victimhood a long time ago, before Israel existed. There were Israelis, many of whom had fought in wars, who believed that the end justified the means. There were others, many of whom had fought in wars, who believed otherwise.
He had attracted a large following now. The cameras would be there waiting for the next recess, Lansky out smoking in the courtyard with its scraggly palm trees, surrounded by young men who had come to see him. He would sit on a bench or on the steps and look at the restaurant sign across the street with its two red Coca-Cola logos and he could have been in Miami facing trial there.
Mr. Lansky, what is the Jewish Mafia?
Mr. Lansky, have you ever committed a violent crime?
Mr. Lansky, are you a religious Jew? Mr. Lansky, who killed Bugsy Siegel?
He didn’t answer—sometimes he made a joke. After five days, the hearings were over. Fate, luck, whatever. Whatever happened was out of his hands.
She wondered sometimes if she wanted him to be worse than he was. As if to be worse was also to be stronger, and somehow by association for her to be stronger.
She had brought her sketches to show a man named Gelb—he mostly did swimwear—and he had muttered about which factories could make the stitch, private labels, things she already knew, industry talk. He had some acquaintance on Seventh Avenue who did knockoffs of big couture lines, maybe he could put her in touch. The offer was not so much mechanical as scornful. Swimwear when she designed women’s clothes. Seventh Avenue when she was in Tel Aviv.
Her mother napped in the reclining chair, hands like wax, her head covered by a bright orange scarf like some Orthodox housewife. If you had the choice between illness and death, you chose illness. Radiation and chemo, hope and despair. Her mother was younger than Meyer.
She watched him on TV. He looked terrible, weak, except for his eyes, standing in a slouch outside the Palace of Justice, cigarette in hand. He had lost the case—he would have to leave Israel now. When he spoke, he reminded people that just a week ago, in Munich, terrorists had kidnapped and murdered 11 athletes from Israel’s Olympic team. He spoke of it in a strangely poetic way. “Young branches cut down,” were the words he chose. Young branches: by comparison his loss meant very little. He was an old man with a weak chin and a sunken mouth. She tried to see him that way.
He stared at the Old City of Jerusalem from a window of the Tower Suite of the King David Hotel. It would be a maze of narrow alleys this late at night—Armenian restaurants, souks, cracked buildings where everyone lived in a different century. From his room he could see the crenellated wall lit up like a theme park, the Tower of David with its parapets and flag. Egypt would come from the West, Syria from the North—everyone knew it was just a matter of time. You waited for the city to explode but it didn’t. It glowed like something in a nightmare.
They ate in a café up the beach from the Dan Hotel, rows of tables and wicker chairs, oil lamps in glass boxes. Hummus, olives, tabouleh, labneh, baba ghanoush. The moon shone on the water. It was still a shock to have people’s eyes on her when she was with him. She tilted her head back to sip the cold beer from the large glass. He was watching her eat, sitting back a little from the table, smoking.
“I remember when you first came into the lobby,” she said. “People talked about you already. Who is he, he’s someone famous. You would just sit by yourself, drinking coffee, very quiet. Very calm.”
“No one special.”
“Like you owned the world.”
He bowed his head, turning the cigarette slowly in his fingers. “We could go to Caesarea for a couple days. Or maybe just stay here, relax.”
“I like Caesarea.”
She smiled down at her food, but the way she said it was a way of saying no. They never spoke about her mother or her illness. She wondered how he was able to come and go so easily when he had a wife.
The room was blue in the dark and he lay on his back with his fists against his temples, waiting for it to pass. There were times when he couldn’t do much of anything and it made him pound the bed in anger and shame. It was their last time together. He let his hand rest on her thigh and she held it there.
“I’m going to make a Pernod,” she said. “Would you like one too?”
“Just one ice cube to make it turn milky.”
They sipped their drinks and didn’t speak. Afterward, he lay with his head on her bare stomach. He was clean and he smelled like cologne and he moved himself up and they stayed that way for a long time. She had to concentrate— he was concentrating too—they went slowly. His body was not unpleasant. It was a yearning body, and she held him closely in her arms.
They slept late the next morning and then they said goodbye.
She was a cocktail waitress. Businessmen, scotch and gin, some stale pastries in a glass case, no music in the background. One night after he left, the journalist, Uri Dan, came in with a group from the embassies and he halfstood and pointed at each of them with his cigarette, relaying their orders, not seeing her. Of course, he could not have known who she was. Of course, she was nobody. She bent at the knees, serving, back straight, focussed on the glasses, the table. The inventedness of Israel as a country seemed completely transparent at such moments, everything too new to be convincing, but she realized that this was a refugee’s thinking. The real problem was that she had never gotten used to the newness, had never taken her position in the country seriously enough.
She was smoking at the bar in her uniform one day when Meyer’s driver walked into the lobby in his jeans and sunglasses. He had come to check on her and also to give her something—he would explain it to her in the car if she had a few minutes to go for a drive. She remembered him, they had met a few times before.
They left the hotel driveway and started up Frischman Street, past Ben Yehuda, Dizengoff, the sudden open space of Kings of Israel Square— pigeons and litter, discount stores fronted by cafés with white tables. They kept east until it got quieter, a neighborhood of modern apartment buildings, flowering trees, benches in the shade. The lantana grew in hedges, its pink and orange petals dusting the sidewalks like scraps of bright plastic.
“This is where he lived,” the driver said. “Here and in Ramat Gan. He lived in a lot of places.”
She stared at his turned face.
“He said the rent would be taken care of. I told him I would take you here and give you the keys. You can do whatever you want after that.”
She sat there looking at it through the window, the narrow walkway up to the glass door beside the postboxes. It was a gray building like a thousand others in Tel Aviv, built on concrete stilts so cars could be parked beneath it. Inside, there was a tiny elevator with a brass gate that you had to pull back by hand before the door would close. There was barely enough room for the two of them. On the third floor, they exited into a dim hallway with a linoleum floor, mezuzahs on the identical doorframes, a smell of cabbage. It was smaller than her own hallway. It looked like a place to die.
Another war broke out—on Yom Kippur, Egypt and Syria attacked from the west and the north, in the Sinai and the Golan Heights. It meant long weeks of sitting in the TV light, warming soup or just tea, bathing her mother, skeletal and bruised. She wanted to leave, to move to New York, but her mother kept living and so for a long time she forgot about her ambitions and her plans.
She read that in Miami Meyer had been acquitted of all charges: contempt, conspiracy, tax evasion. She felt certain now that it was not because he was innocent but because his life had been lived so invisibly. No one knew who he was, neither had she. Every once in awhile she would go back to the apartment to see that it was still there, still waiting for her. Three empty rooms with marks on the bare white walls from where the furniture had stood, where the pictures had hung. Broken slats in the closet door. The water in the kitchen sink would sputter out brown until it ran clear. Such a strange, unwanted gift, as if he were finally telling her something crucial. The future will not be much different from now. Tsilya. Gila. Look at the odds.
Zachary Lazar is the author of three books, most recently the novel Sway and the memoir Evening’s Empire: The Story of My Father’s Murder. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, and other places. He teaches creative writing at Tulane University.
This issue of First Proof is sponsored, in part, by Amazon, the Bertha and Isaac Liberman Foundation, and the Thanksgiving Fund. Additional funding is provided by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and readers like you.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee