The "Inside" on Bugsy
For a managing editor who likes a good, splashy crime story, the murder of Benjamin ("Bugsy") Siegel in a Beverly Hills mansion (Time, June 30) had everything. Last week the tabloids of Manhattan, the sensational papers of Los Angeles and, to a lesser degree, papers all over the U.S. played it high, wide & handsome.
Among the sure-fire ingredients were Hollywood names, hints of big-time crime and some intriguing reports about Bugsy's women friends, one a countess. The papers knew just enough about Bugsy's love affairs to write headlines about "mystery women." There were few solid facts to get in the way. And almost anything could be written about most of those involved. They were not the suing kind: courtroom discussion of their shady reputations was the last thing they wanted.
The tried-&-trusted clichés came tripping out of typewriters: "gigantic underworld combine"; "imported triggermen"; "multimillion-dollar gambling empire"; "mob biggies." Florid Florabel Muir, the New York Daily News's specialist in Hollywood crime, at least tried to be different. She wrote: "Bugsy was cut down amid the overwhelming perfume of blossoming jasmine...."
Hearst's Los Angeles Herald-Express headlined: BUGSY RUBOUT LINKED TO LOVE TRIANGLE. The story began: "Revelation of a quarrel and breakup between... [Siegel] and Virginia Hill, beauteous mystery-veiled heiress, and the disclosure of a 'No. 1 boy friend' in her romantic life led police to the theory that a 'love triangle' rather than an underworld 'double-cross' may have touched off the gangland czar's rubout."
Hearst's morning Examiner the same day had been just as certain that Bugsy was slain by two imported gunmen because he had paid too much attention to a New York gang leader's girl. By next day the Examiner had still another theory: the murder was ordered by the leaders of a national narcotic ring.
In fact, readers could take their pick of a dozen theories: the murder involved a fight over stolen jewelry; it was gang war for control of a news service to bookies; it was tied up with a West Coast shipping strike; it was war over distribution of a certain brand of Scotch whiskey; it was "The Syndicate," roiled over Bugsy's losses as manager of its $6,000,000 Flamingo Club at Las Vegas. To some confused readers it seemed that there must have been a lot of people standing outside the rose-trellised window that night, contending for the privilege of drawing a bead on Bugsy.
Columnist Westbrook Pegler, who writes for Hearst, got off an angry piece which lashed at "some of the guttersnipes who cover the saloon beat and never bring in any news but write free advertising about some of the dirtiest criminals out of prison." Hearst's Manhattan movie critic Lee Mortimer (who recently took a couple of punches from Frank Sinatra) assured his readers that he knew Bugsy. Bugsy's death warrant, he wrote with an air of absolute authority, was signed last winter in Havana by Procurer Charles ("Lucky") Luciano.
A Choice of Virginias.
It took a couple of days for the wire services to find out what had become of "Heiress" Virginia Hill, in whose house Bugsy was murdered. They finally reached her in Paris for her opinions. Sample: "It looks so bad to have a thing like that happen in your house." The United Press found her looking pretty chipper, with a new French boy friend and a pair of silver slippers. But Hearst's I.N.S. had her afloat in tears of grief. Both apparently neglected to ask Virginia how Bugsy happened to have a golden key to her house.
The New York Daily News's Ed Sullivan, who likes to remind his readers that he knows all about everything long before it happens, solemnly reported: "Bugsy Siegel, problem child of the mobs... hit Page 1 as expected." He quoted one of his 1941 columns: "Secret of the unlimited cash of Virginia Hill, mystery girl who tossed bales of dough around Miami Beach this winter, is a Chicago bookmaker." The AP, however, gallantly continued to refer to her as an heiress.
Earl Wilson began a column: "I want it understood that I am one newspaperman who knows absolutely nothing about Bugsy Siegel's murder." But he couldn't resist the urge a few paragraphs further to be on the inside too: "Word was passed around about three weeks ago that he was going to get himself into a lot of trouble."
Getting anything straight was obviously pretty tough. Said a headline over a United Press story: BUGSY'S BLONDE EX-WIFE GIVES CLUES TO HIS KILLERS. Said a headline over the I.N.S. story: BUGSY'S EX NO AID IN HUNT. Even the details of Bugsy's funeral became a matter of disagreement among the romancers. The New York's Mirror had a picture identified as $5,000 SILVER-PLATED COFFIN FOR BUGSY. Said New York's Daily News: BUGSY'S WOOD COFFIN FOOLS 'EM AT FUNERAL. Where the truth was, no one seemed to know -- or care -- but a wonderful time was had by all.