Bugsy Siegel didn’t look like a bug. In his day,Â Â a slang word for crazy was “bugs.”Â Bugs Bunny was pretty crazy too, but a different kind of crazy. Crazy Eddie was crazy, but he didn’t kill anyone. He just sold a lot of electronic products so cheaply he went out of business (although that’s pretty crazy). Bugsy Â Siegel’sÂ crowd consisted of a lot of gangsters, guys who killed with impunity and sometimes just for the fun of it. It’s a scary thought that even by their standards Bugsy was off his rocker.
If you go to Las Vegas and have a good time playing the slots, you can thank Bugsy for that. In the 1940s, he built the Flamingo Hotel, the first of the Las Vegas palaces. He did it with mob money though, and those guys demanded a rather high return on their investments. When they didn’t appear to be getting it from Bugsy, they became unhappy. In those days, mobsters expressed their disappointment with someone by putting a bullet in their head. That’s precisely what happened to Bugsy on June 20, 1947 while he was sitting by the picture window of a friend’s living room in Beverly Hills when a bullet shattered the glass, entered his brain and blew out his eye, killing him instantly, Â of course. You can see it all reenacted by Warren Beatty in his bio of Bugsy called, appropriately enough, “Bugsy.”
I have a small connection to this, albeit a very tenuous one. Years later when Francis Coppola made the “The Godfather,” he had a great scene where the Las Vegas boss Mo Green gets shot in the eye. That came from the Siegel assassination. The actor who shot Mo Green was a fellow named Lenny Del Genio. Now, when I was in journalism school and was writing my masters thesis on boxing, I got to know Lenny. He had been a great lightweight fighter and had long since retired by then. Now, he was an entertainer and also had extra parts in movies. At boxing dinners, you could often find him strumming his guitar in the corner and was invariably the nicest guy in the room. He always laughed when I would compliment him on his marksmanship.
A few years later when I was writing “You Must Remember This,” I interviewed Lenny a couple of times to record his memories of growing up in East Harlem in the 1920s. One day while we were sitting in his living room, he told me one of my favorite stories in the book. It was about the big Italian families in his neighborhood and their penchant for the cousins all having the same names because they were either named for a close relative or a saint. Want to hear it? Ok, I’ll let Lenny tell it:
My uncle played the violin, his name was Nick D’Amico, the same as my other uncles. They were all named after grandfather. They were also musicians, and they played at nice hotels like the Plaza. One night, they were driving home with their violin cases in the car and the police stopped them for some infraction. Five of them were in there. The cop asked my uncle for his license.
The cop says, “Nick D’Amico, huh.”
And looked at the other four gentlemen, and he says to one of them, “By the way, what’s your name?”
“What do you do for a livin’?”
“I’m a violinist.”
And he went on to the other man. And the same thing happened. His name was Nick D’Amico and he was a violinist also. Now, the policeman is getting a little bit annoyed. He goes to number three, number four Â â€” all the same answer. When he got to the fifth guy, he says, “If you tell me that your name is Nick D’Amico and that you’re a violinist, you’re all goin’ to jail.”
He did, so he took them all down to the station. When they got there, the cop says, “I want to call your father and get to the bottom of this. “What’s his name?”
It was another Nick D’Amico!
So the cop says, “All of ya get outta here!” They all laughed, and they took out their violins and played for them.
I loved Lenny. While we were chatting, his wife told me that Lenny knew the lyrics to all the Mills Brothers songs. I have a thing for the Mills Brothers, so I asked him if he wouldn’t mind playing “Paper Doll” for me. He did so readily. My tapes are now in the hands of the New York Public Library, and sitting in their dusty storage room is a recording of Lenny and me singing “Paper Doll” together. Those few minutes of tape recorded one of the great pleasures of my life. To this day I can never listen to the Mills Brothers without thinking of Lenny and the two of us harmonizing in his home.
Anyway, here’s me in front of the picture window where the Bug got squashed.