I was 26 years old when the company I worked for sent me to Miami to investigate, The Carriage House, a residential property assigned to my management portfolio. One of the partners discovered the rents hadn’t been raised in five years and blew his top. My mission was to evaluate how much we could raise the rents. My father said as long as I was in Miami, I should meet his good friend Guy.
“I haven’t seen the little guy in a long time. It’s safe now. Teddy and Meyer want to see you.”
“Have they met me before?”
“You were too young to remember.”
“Meyer’s retired now right?”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Nothing. You said it was safe, I just wondered if he was still working.”
“Sweetheart, don’t try and outsmart your old dad, and by all means, don’t embarrass me and try and out smart Meyer. He’s a mind reader. You’ll fall on your face. Just be yourself, and listen, you’ll never meet another man like him.”
The Carriage House on Collins Avenue was miserably neglected. The paint peeling, the carpet frayed, and the glass windows smudged with dirt. The lobby was a centerfold of action; women dressed in Tahitian bathing wraps and high-heeled sandals, and men in melon and lime colored suits converged on the sagging sofas. There was a distinctive smell of chicken soup as great numbers of retired Jewish men and women shuffled through the lobby carrying big beach bags, and transistor radios.
Dinner was prearranged through Dad and Meyer. All I had to was stand in front of the Carriage House at seven o clock. At precisely seven a vintage four-door gray Mercedes pulled up in front. Neither one of the passengers moved. As I moved to open the back door, Teddy reached out and grasped my hand.
“Oh my God! Look Meyer, she is exactly like her mother!”
Meyer turned around once, and grinned. His face was a historical map: the lines were carved like mountain roads, and the curve of his nose twisted like a sharp curve, but his eyes– unmistakable eyes that hooked you to his.
“Oh darling I’m so thrilled to see you. Meyer isn’t she just exactly like Lucille?” Teddy peered through twinkling brown eyes, radiating warmth and eagerness. She had a rapacious smile, petite frame, with lovely blonde hair pulled back at the nape of the neck. My father called her Tiger because he said she was untamable.
“No. She looks like Allen,” Meyer protested.
“Oh Meyer, she’s her mother’s image, she would be so proud of you, wouldn’t she Meyer…”
“Teddy will you please shut up so Luellen can speak.” Meyer never turned around. He studied me through the rear window. They continued to argue about whom I looked like. They hoped I took after my mother because she was a saint. Meyer drove tentatively, hitting the brakes every few feet, while Teddy chided him about his driving.
When we arrived at the restaurant, Meyer turned around and faced me directly for the first time. He just stood there and examined me without speaking. Though his face was creased with deep permanent lines, when he smiled they all melted together, and he looked almost youthful.
“So tell me, is your father still as sensitive as he used to be?” I didn’t know how to answer Meyer. I had never thought of my father as sensitive.“Well, he yells a lot.” I answered. Meyer chuckled and nodded his head in agreement. Teddy took my hand and we went inside the restaurant. It was like meeting family. They made so much fuss over me, I felt remiss in not visiting sooner. They wanted to know everything about my life. Meyer sat very still; Teddy was kinetic and consumed with the turmoil of emotions.
“So, he yells a lot does he?” Meyer continued once Teddy stopped talking.
“Yes, in fact his friends call him the “Warden.” They both burst out laughing. They were sharing a private history beyond my understanding. Meyer was methodical in everything he did; his mannerisms, the direction of conversation, and ordering food. Teddy sat beside me intermittently squeezing my hand and dabbing her eyes with a Kleenex. She immediately wanted to talk about my mother. She could not even mention her name without a tear.
“Your mother was ravishing, and I don’t mean her looks, though she was prettier than any movie star, she was beautiful on the inside. She had a quality of kindness and sincerity every one adored.” Meyer’s eyes bonded to mine, and I felt him almost whispering to me. He was examining my character, what I was really thinking, if I was hiding conflict, what was in my heart, and if I could be trusted.
“We loved Lucille, everyone did,” Meyer interjected sadly. He changed the subject and spoke about my father in the very same praiseworthy fashion my father talked about Meyer. I did not sit there thinking, this is the Meyer who collaborated with Frank Costello, Lucky Luciano, and Ben Siegel to operate organized crime in America. I did not think of him as any sort of criminal, mobster, or organized crime boss. My interest was in what he knew about my father and mother. After a glass of wine it was my turn to ask a question.
“When did you meet my mother?”
“I can’t remember,” he answered. “A long time ago.” Meyer skirted over my question just as my father did.
“How do you like your job?” he asked.
“I love it.” His eyes narrowed and darkened as I spoke. He encouraged the discussion and yet I felt he was displeased with my answers. I wanted to impress Meyer Lansky, because I wanted to make my father proud.
“What exactly are doing on this trip?” he asked.
“I’m reviewing the rents of the Carriage House, and looking over the condition of the property.” I answered. Teddy smiled supportively but Meyer suddenly went silent.
“I have a number of friends who live at the Carriage House.” Meyer looked into my eyes.
“You do?” I replied dumbly.
“Yes I do—and they live on social security every month–fixed income. Are you going to raise their rents?” he asked. I blushed red as the tablecloth.
“NO NO! I can exclude them somehow,” I said in haste. Teddy pressed at Meyer’s side with her delicate hands.
“No, you cannot do that. I just wanted you to know is all,” he said in finality.
It was just like my father, that crescendo of stupidity that follows a mob trap. Teddy interjected something to break the seriousness, and we returned to lighter conversation. I could think of nothing else than the inconvenience of my job at that moment.
“I lived at the Carriage House before we moved to the Imperial.”
“ It needs a lot of work.” I said.
“ Your people haven’t made any improvements.”
I thought he hated me. Teddy kept close and sort of held me up while he pulled me down.
Later that night I allowed myself to recall the stories I heard and read over the years, shaved by years of denial. I shuddered to think how Meyer felt about my raising the rents on his friends. Guys he played poker with once a week, while Teddy sliced corn beef sandwiches. I wanted to bury my head in the Miami sand. My father’s words reclaimed my denial.
“This is what life is about, making decisions that you can face years later.”
I called my father the next day and he said, “ Don’t call me from the hotel and hung up.”
I knew not everyone who assumes the veneer of affluence has money. Not even Meyer Lansky who reporters allege was worth millions. My father facilitated a wealthy lifestyle, but he lived month to month. Meyer may have had a million one day, maybe he had it a year, but eventually the bankroll is gambled on some long shot dream. That is what they do with money. If these men invested their money wisely, they would be richer than the government. The next time I called Meyer and Teddy to have dinner, Meyer was gratuitously polite,
“We don’t want to interfere with your job.” I sensed a twitch of sarcasm; just enough to let me know that he was on to me.
We exchanged more than an exaggeration of emotions the second night. I could not extort any specific information from either one of them. Meyer was interested in discussing my job again.
“Are your people going to convert the Carriage House to condominiums?” Meyer caught me off guard again. I knew he and my father had talked. My company specialized in condo-conversion.
“I haven’t heard that. Why do you ask?” I said.
“I want to protect my friends,” he answered. A ripple of a smile passed over his lips.
“I’ll tell my father right away if I hear anything Meyer. And about the rents; I m not recommending an increase on any units, until we refurbish the place. It needs a lot of work.” Teddy took hold of my hand.
“That’s very thoughtful,” she said.
“Don’t let me interfere with your job,” Meyer emphasized.
“I hope I can interfere on your account.” He nodded acknowledging our little understanding. I got a glimpse of the Meyer that negotiated peace treaties between different factions of the underworld, with Cuban emissaries, Army Generals, and the Israeli government. Meyer emulated power, without any gestures or expression. It came from inside. At the end of the evening I dove for the check like I’d seen my father do a thousand times.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Meyer, my father will kill me if I don’t pick up this check.” I said in jest. Meyer chuckled, captured my focus, and snapped the check right out of my hand.
I could see how difficult it would be to cross this man. Part of America’s history was sitting with me that night. He was a man that could extract the truth from a thousand lies and no one would know. When I met Meyer I’d heard stories about “Murder Inc,” and his friendship with Lucky Luciano, Benjamin Siegel and Frank Costello.
When I returned to Los Angeles my father made me sit for hours and recount every detail of the meeting. He assured me Meyer was not disapproving of me or my job, but, he would be grateful if I didn’t raise the rents.
“My daughter had to go up against Meyer. What a story.” My father laughed uproariously.