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Meyer Lansky's step-granddaughter speaks ...

Cynthia Duncan grew up enjoying regular sleepovers at the Miami Beach apartment of Meyer Lansky. She was close to her grandmother, Thelma, known as "Teddy," Lansky's second wife, and she adored her step-grandfather. "My grandfather was a really nice guy," she says. "In restaurants, people would come up to the dinner table very respectful, like he was a god. Some came to him and asked, 'Can you loan me money for my son's bar mitzvah?'"

Duncan's father--Teddy's only son--Richard Schwartz, worked in Lansky's multimillion dollar casino empire in Cuba until Fidel Castro came to power in 1959 and closed the casinos. Yet Duncan grew up unaware of the gangster world.

"I didn't know who Meyer Lansky really was until I was walking down the street in New York City in 1968, when I was 18," she recalls. "I saw headlines, 'Lansky Arrested,' 'Mexico,' 'Drugs.' I remember calling my mother from a phone booth. I was hysterical. I said, 'What's this I'm reading about the Mafia?' My mother said my father would call me back. He did; he explained that my grandparents had been vacationing in Acapulco and that my grandfather had been arrested for having one Donnatal pill on him without a prescription. He told me the police and FBI were after my grandfather for any infraction they could find."

Duncan, who was married at the time, was upset to find someone in her family portrayed in such a negative light. "I remember my father-in-law was very cold to me after that article came out," she says. "He implied to me that it would hurt his family and business."

Like many of his fellow New York gangsters, the 5-foot 4-inch Lansky-born in Grodno, Russia, as Maier Suchowjanski-got his start as a bootlegger but used his formidable business acumen to make a fortune setting up and running casinos, first in Cuba, then in Las Vegas. Unlike most of his colleagues, he died a natural death, succumbing to cancer in 1983.

Though Lansky has been dead for a quarter century, Duncan is leading a campaign to clear his name. "Knowing the guy and sleeping in his house since I was a little girl, my conclusion was that 90 percent of the negative stuff was bullshit," she says. "He wasn't in drugs or prostitution. Meyer once sat down with me and said, 'I was a rumrunner in the '20s.' His business was casinos. His pride and joy was the Riviera, that Castro confiscated."

Duncan has launched meyerlansky.com, which she bills as "the only website dedicated to the memory of American icon, Meyer Lansky." On it she displays memorabilia from her family's personal collection.

Lansky, Duncan insists, never forgot he was a Jew. She says he gave a lot of money to Israel and rescued Jews from the Nazis by financing their transport to Cuba. "He never spoke about any of this; that's not the kind of man he was," she says. "He liked to talk about history, mathematics and philosophy. He loved Emerson and Spinoza."

When Lansky died in 1983, he left behind three children from his first marriage, which ended in divorce: Paul, Sandra and Bernard (Buddy), who was born with cerebral palsy and who was disabled all his life. Lansky's relationship with his children was troubled, says Duncan. "Except for Buddy, there was no love lost." She says that Sandra took Buddy's inheritance, leaving him destitute until he died in 1989.

After Teddy's death in 1997, Duncan searched the apartment for the fortune that Lansky had supposedly left her grandmother. "I was ready to take a metal detector to the walls of the apartment if I thought I could find the cash," Duncan told the Miami monthly Ocean Drive in 2005. Although she did not find the fortune of her fantasy, Duncan found a $50,000 certificate of deposit in the laundry basket and jewelry between the sheets in the linen closet. "Good stuff, like from Harry Winston, not dreck," she said.

The true treasure had another kind of value. In a bedside wastebasket, Duncan discovered 200 pages of Meyer's journal, handwritten in spiral notebooks from Woolworth's. And in a kitchen drawer, beneath thousands of S&H Green Stamps, she uncovered 400 pages of Teddy's memoirs.

Some of this material is on Duncan's website, but she hopes to stage an exhibition this winter. She says, "I have approached Christie's about an auction, but I think I'll do the exhibit first to get the curiosity going."
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Author:Orlins, Susan Fishman
Publication:Moment
Date:Jul 1, 2008
Words:745
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