Cold Case: How a Babe May Have Helped the Mob Rub Out Bugsy
Admitted mob hitman Eddie Cannizzaro never charged with the death of Bugsy Siegel, despite coming clean to federal investigators
Updated 10:57 PM PST, Fri, Feb 10, 2012
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With all the movies that have been made about it, you may think you already know the story of LA's bon vivant mobster Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel and his glamorous girlfriend Virginia Hill.
Most every Las Vegas visitor, after all, has heard the lore of Siegel's role in launching the first of the mega casinos on the Strip -- a milestone that occurred less than a year before the Bug was rubbed out by a brazen hitman who dared practice his trade on the grounds of a Beverly Hills mansion.
No one has ever questioned that the hit was ordered by an organized crime boss. But absent a prosecution of mob boss or hitman, the Siegel case officially remains officially open and unsolved.
So let's take another look, starting with a little Vegas trivia.
Ever wonder how the Flamingo Hotel got its name? It turns out, "Flamingo" was Bugsy's nickname for his paramour Virginia Hill.
"Virginia Hill was very smart, very sassy, very clever...he thought she was hot stuff," said Andy Edmonds, author of "Bugsy's Baby: The Secret Life of Mob Queen Virginia Hill."
So why Flamingo?
You can choose from several stories, Edmonds said. But her personal favorite is that a drink or two would cause Hill's face to flush on the pink side -- like a Flamingo.
And while we're on the subject of nicknames: "Bugsy" came from other mobsters who thought that captured Siegel's impulsive and sometimes crazy behavior: "He's bugsy in the head!"
It was something you did not say to Bugsy's face, unless you wanted him to go "bugsy" on you.
Brooklyn-born Siegel first got together with Hill in New York, while she was there on business as a courier for the Chicago mob. They reconnected in the late 1930s after different paths brought both to Los Angeles.
They both loved the Hollywood scene. The feeling was mutual.
"He had the pinstripe suit. He would flip the coin. He was a bit of a character, bit of a bon vivant, everybody loved hanging out with him," Edmonds said.
The love affair portrayed by Warren Beatty and Annette Bening in 1991's "Bugsy" created an indelible image. But after her research, Edmonds came to the conclusion that Hill viewed the relationship more as a job with benefits.
"She couldn't have cared less about him. She was there, on a mission, doing her job for Chicago," said Edmonds, explaining that the Outfit wanted her to keep tabs on the Bug.
"So she found out exactly who his contacts were, how he set up his wires, who he was bribing in city hall, who he was bribing on the cops, and she followed him to Las Vegas," Edmonds said.
It was the mid-1940s and Las Vegas was still off the beaten path. What bars and gambling rooms it had were clustered downtown. Siegel was not the first to see the potential of the as yet undeveloped Strip of Las Vegas Boulevard to the south. But he was there at the beginning, ramrodding the construction of the Flamingo for mob investors from New York.
At the same time, cattycorner across the Strip, the Dunes was being built with the encouragement of the Chicago Outfit. Edmonds notes the irony that it was the New York project that ended up being named after Chicago's operative, Bugsy's little "Flamingo."
But mob backers were not happy the Flamingo proved more expensive and less lucrative than Bugsy promised. It was suspected he had skimmed a million bucks or more.
Making matters even worse for Bugsy, his squeeze Hill had once been the moll of top New York mob boss Joey Adonis.
"Adonis hated Bugsy Siegel because of the Virginia Hill thing, and they thought, 'OK, the Flamingo is up and running, get rid of him,'" Edmonds said.
Edmonds believes the actual order came not from Siegel's New York crime family associates, but from the Chicago Outfit, and that Hill cooperated.
"They left it up to Virginia Hill, who was closest to him, to get him in place to make sure the hit would go down," Edmonds said.
Siegel and Hill were renting a mansion in Beverly Hills on North Linden Drive. Bugsy was a creature of habit, reading the paper almost every evening as he lounged on a couch near a window. It was the night of June 20, 1947. Siegel was only 41, and his paramour Hill conveniently was out of town when the hitman took position outside at a wooden lattice.
So, who was the hitman?
Eddie Cannizzaro was long known to law enforcement as a hired gun. In his later years, after retiring to Agoura and devoting himself to cats, he began to talk of his younger days. He copped to a newspaper reporter and two federal investigators it was he who killed Siegel and several others.
Cannizzaro died in 1987 without ever being charged for the Siegel homicide. Nor was Hill, who Edmonds sees as transforming from Bugsy's baby to Bugsy's betrayer.
Virginia Hill moved on, but not for long. In 1950, Tennessee Congressman Estes Kefauver famously went after organized crime, and subpoenaed Hill to one of his hearings. She did not make a good impression and found herself targeted by the IRS for alleged unpaid income taxes.
Hill left for Europe, and tried to start a new life, marrying a ski instructor. But she died suddenly at age 49. At the time, the cause of death was deemed an overdose, but Edmonds, for one, suspects it may have been a mob hit.
Like Bugsy, his little Flamingo never did get to see Vegas after it hit the big time.
But to this day, Bugsy is remembered with lip prints and cigarettes that keep reappearing at his mausoleum crypt at Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
First Published: Feb 9, 2012 9:12 PM PST