Who Killed Bugsy Siegel?
On June 20, 1947, gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel was slain in Beverly Hills, his body riddled with bullets. One family claims to know who did it. Is one of the nation’s most famous cold cases heating up?
This is not your Ozzie and Harriet family, needless to say,” Robbie Sedway tells me one afternoon in May. We are sitting together in the dining room of his Pacific Palisades condo. In front of him is a cardboard box, and he is riffling through its contents: photos of made men, murderers convicted and otherwise, even a bona fide movie star. For Robbie, this is what passes for family memorabilia. Adjusting his glasses, he pulls out a posed portrait of his mother, Bee. Once she was a gangster’s wife. She married Jewish mobster Moe Sedway when she was 17 and he was 41, and soon she became the confidant of Sedway’s old friend and business partner, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel.
Robbie, a 71-year-old realtor, hands me a sheaf of yellowed newspaper clippings about his dad, Moe (“Czar of Vegas,” reads one headline). A treasured business card is embossed with Moe’s name and a glossy red bird. “The Flamingo,” it says. “Vice-president.” In the 1930s and ’40s, Bee and Moe lived a glamorous L.A. life. They had a huge Beverly Hills mansion with maids upstairs and down, a Cadillac custom painted to match Bee’s copper hair, a 5-carat diamond that hung on a chain around Bee’s neck. Now Robbie’s parents and their fortune are long gone, and he is the keeper of the artifacts they left behind. His second wife, Renee, joins us at the table as he pulls out a taped two-hour interview that his mother granted to documentary filmmakers in 1993. Most of the interview ended up on the cutting room floor, but there’s good stuff there, Robbie says. Next he offers me a ragged Xerox copy of a 79-page typewritten book proposal, which his mother called Bugsy’s Little Lunatic. The book was not written; the proposal never went to market.
In 2007, Robert Glen Sedway was diagnosed with throat cancer, which he beat. It’s been dormant, but suddenly it’s back. His build is still solid, and he has most of his thick silver hair, but he has begun moving more slowly and wipes his eyes often with a tissue. The time is right, he’s decided, to tell me the story he’s heard again and again but that has never been repeated outside his family. There is no one left to tell him no. Not his father, whose heart failed in 1952 while on a cross-country flight to Miami when he was just 57. Not his mother, who died in a Corona rest home in 1999 at the age of 81. Not Robbie’s only sibling, Dick, a sometime heroin user with multiple sclerosis who died in 2002, when he was 65.
“I’m at a point in my life where my health is not good,” says Robbie, shrugging when I ask him, Why break your silence now? “Everyone’s been wondering for 67 years. I mean, why not?”
That’s about the moment when the front door of the condo pops open, swinging wide. Robbie’s wife is startled and gets up from the table. After 20 seconds, the door shuts again, seemingly of its own accord, and Renee goes to see if there’s anyone outside. There’s not. Renee turns to her husband. “Your mother was here,” she whispers to him. “Bee just entered the house.”
Everyone knows that the longer a case remains unsolved, the harder it is to crack. That’s why most of us raise an eyebrow whenever someone steps up decades after the fact and announces that they can identify the Zodiac Killer, say, or take you to the exact spot in the Bermuda Triangle where Amelia Earhart’s plane is rusting away. Today Robbie is that someone. He says he knows who killed Bugsy Siegel. He says he can close the Beverly Hills Police Department’s most famous open case—a murder that, except for perhaps the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa, is America’s greatest unsolved Mob mystery. Contrary to speculation, he says, Siegel wasn’t killed in a dispute over money. He was killed for love. “It’s a love story,” Robbie says. And his mother, Bee, was at the center of it all.
More than 50 years ago, Robbie says Bee told him the identity of Siegel’s killer. Several weeks ago he promised to tell me. Since then, I’ve been striving to temper my excitement with skepticism. So when Robbie’s wife insists that 15 years after Bee died, she remains a ghostly presence in their house, I try not to roll my eyes. Renee and Robbie may believe that Bee is as domineering in death as she was in life, but I’m not so sure. Still, I have to admit: I feel as if I’ve been chasing phantoms.
Returning to Renee and Robbie’s condo a few weeks later, I tell them that I’ve stumbled across a photo of Bee, taken backstage at the Paradise Cabaret in New York in the mid 1930s. I found it during that most mundane of reportorial exercises (a Google search) after I set out to envision the world that the teenage Bee inhabited when she was a vaudeville dancer. I didn’t think I’d find Bee herself—just images of the Paradise, where she performed two shows a night. But then in an uncaptioned photo there she was, bright-eyed and bare shouldered, a grinning sprite of a 17-year-old girl. When her face appeared, I tell Renee with a laugh, I was a little spooked, as if Bee were reaching out from the other side. I’m joking, and I almost expect Renee and Robbie to roll their eyes. But instead Renee nods solemnly.
“That’s why you’re here,” she says, reminding me of how, during my last visit, she felt Bee’s presence enter the room. “I believe Bee brought you here.”
Nobody killed Ben over money,” Bee says. She is 75 years old when the documentary film crew brings her into focus, a tiny lady in a flowered housedress who lives in a ranch house way out in Corona that swarms with rescued cats. Once she was married to the Mob. Now she’s a widow twice over, living on bologna sandwiches, two-for-one hot dogs from Der Wienerschnitzel, and the pull of her memories.
“I still love him—not like a lover, but I miss him,” she says as tears wet her eyes. She is thinking of Ben Siegel—the azure-eyed rogue, part charmer, part sociopath, and the father of modern Las Vegas. Half her lifetime ago, on the night of June 20, 1947, he was shot dead in his girlfriend Virginia Hill’s rented Beverly Hills home on Linden Drive, just south of Sunset Boulevard. At about 10:45 p.m., as Siegel sat on a floral couch reading the Los Angeles Times, an unidentified gunman fired a .30-caliber military M1 carbine through the living room window, hitting him several times in the head and torso. One bullet penetrated his right cheek and exited through the left side of his neck. Another struck the bridge of his nose and blew his left eye out of its socket. He was 41 years old.
Bee and Ben had been close, she says, remembering how he’d fed her caviar for the first time, bought her Agatha Christie novels, and called her his “little lunatic.” Her curls are dyed a dull red. She has arthritis in her hands. To look at her, you wouldn’t suspect that she knows the answer to a question that has confounded historians and law enforcement agencies for decades: Who killed Bugsy Siegel?
In the top drawer of her nightstand, Bee keeps her first husband Moe’s .32 revolver. Nearly two decades later, her son Robbie will donate it to the Mob Museum in downtown Vegas, where it will join dozens of other artifacts devoted to the Jewish Mafia and, in particular, to Siegel’s unsolved murder. Every year 250,000 people pay as much as $19.95 apiece to visit the museum. Some plunk down another $24.99 for a “Wanted” T-shirt featuring Siegel’s mug shot, which is among the museum store’s best-selling items. “Bugsy is definitely who our guests first think of when they think of the Mob and Vegas,” store director Sue Reynolds tells me.
Partly that’s because of our limitless curiosity about gangsters—the complicated men, so brutal and yet so tender, that we know from some of the most lauded films and TV shows ever made. Partly, too, it’s due to our abiding fascination with the gory, real–life details of Siegel’s final night, captured in iconic black-and-white police photos: Siegel slumped backward, his head lolling to the side, his face ravaged and oddly incomplete; a bloody close-up of the empty socket where his left eye used to be; his face, cleaned up at the morgue, with cotton covering his eyes and plugging his wounds; his body on a slab, the big toe of his right foot looped with a tag: “Homicide,” it reads, his last name misspelled with the e before the i.
Back on the video, Bee reaches for a photograph of herself and Warren Beatty. While he was shooting his film Bugsy in 1990, Beatty invited Bee to visit his Hancock Park set to help him capture Siegel’s mannerisms. Her role as a consultant on the movie led to many interviews—TV’s 20/20, for one. It also attracted the documentary team that has put their camera in her dining room. Later, when they are assembling Loyalty & Betrayal: The Story of the American Mob, the filmmakers will include several snippets of Bee’s memories of her Mafia pals. But the unused footage reveals something striking: Though she never names the triggerman in the Siegel murder, Bee seems bent on implying that she knows who he is.
It has long been presumed that Siegel’s massive overspending on the Flamingo—the Vegas hotel-casino that he and Bee’s husband built on behalf of a handful of other Mafia investors—led Mob boss Meyer Lansky to order Siegel’s execution. In this video interview, Bee says that’s not right. “He would have never been killed for money,” she says. “Never.” More than once she hints that she knows the real reason for the hit. Which is why she’s writing a book, she says. All she needs is a publisher, the sooner the better, because when Bee dies—“which could be any day,” she says urgently into the camera—“who else is going to tell the truth?”
Bee would die, all right, but not until six years later and not before her son Robbie shut down her book project. He’d grown up nagged by a rumor: Clinton H. Anderson, the longtime Beverly Hills police chief who directed the investigation of the Siegel murder, was known frequently to say, “If you want to know who killed Bugsy Siegel, talk to the Sedways.” But just because everyone suspected Bee had answers, Robbie felt that didn’t mean his mother should go public. Not yet. According to H. Read Jackson, the journalist turned TV producer who collaborated with Bee on her book proposal, Robbie contacted him and said Bugsy’s Little Lunatic was too dangerous to publish: The Mob might take revenge.
It was the mid-1940s when Bee Sedway, 80 pounds and a hair shy of five feet tall, gazed for the first time on the deserted, dusty landscape that would become the Vegas Strip: no paved roads, just grooves where the tires slashed the dirt; a train station on Main Street; a tiny dive, the Las Vegas Club, with only three gaming tables; a lunch counter, a liquor store, and “a little red light district with maybe like 20 little cubicles made out of logs,” as she recalled it. Why in the world, she wondered, would her husband and Ben Siegel bet a fortune on a hellhole like this?
The answer, of course, was opportunity. Gambling was legal in Nevada, and Siegel and the Mob wanted to establish a foothold. In late 1945, Siegel and several other Mob investors bought a club in the city, the El Cortez, but his attempts to expand were foiled by local officials who were wary of his criminal background. So when Siegel heard that a hotel outside the city limits had been stalled midconstruction for lack of funding, he tracked down the owner and bought a two-thirds stake.
Siegel would preside over the completion of the Flamingo Hotel & Casino (named for Siegel’s girlfriend, Virginia Hill, whom he called “Flamingo” because of her long, slender legs). He had bankrolled the project by persuading several underworld associates to invest, and the stakes couldn’t have been higher: Vegas was clearly not a tourist destination; it was in the middle of a scrubby wasteland, with no airport. Even with a heavy foot, the drive from L.A. could take five hours in 1946. Luring the glitzy clientele Siegel envisioned (who would in turn lure average folks) wasn’t going to be easy. No wonder his investors worried as Siegel blew through between four and six times his $1 million budget.
With Moe as his day-to-day managing partner, Siegel opened the 105-room property—the Strip’s first luxury resort—in 1946 the day after Christmas, with movie stars including Clark Gable, Judy Garland, and Joan Crawford giving the celebration A-list clout. But the hotel was unfinished, and Siegel soon shut it down to complete the job, running up more costs. Some in the Mob suspected he was stealing money.
“There was no doubt in Meyer’s mind,” Charles “Lucky” Luciano recalled in his memoir, referring to Lansky, “that Bugsy had skimmed this dough from his buildin’ budget, and he was sure that Siegel was preparin’ to skip as well as skim, in case the roof was gonna fall in on him.” Nevertheless, Luciano—the Sicilian architect of the American Mafia—wrote that at a meeting of Mob kingpins in Cuba, it was agreed that if the Flamingo were a success, Siegel would be allowed to make amends. Despite its bumpy start, success seemed within Siegel’s reach in May 1947, when the resort posted a $250,000 profit.
According to Bee’s book proposal, however—and to the handful of people she told this story to before she died—two months earlier, in March 1947, Siegel had done something that angered Lansky: He had threatened the life of Bee’s husband, Moe. “Moe was the point guy to keep track of the money Lansky was fronting for running the casino and other businesses,” Bee’s proposal says. “He reported all the numbers to him. The take from the tables. The cost of the construction. Moe knew where every dime was, how it was spent…. It was his job. Ben had grown weary of being watched. Being treated like a kid.”
Siegel called a March meeting in Vegas, Bee explains, of all his associates except Moe. “I want Moe out,” he announced. “Gone.” As some of those present later told Moe, “the discussion became heated as some of the boys tried to calm Ben down.” But Ben seemed to have thought the hit through. “Simple,” he said, when asked how he’d cover his tracks. “I’ll have Moe shot, chop his body up, and feed it to the Flamingo Hotel’s kitchen garbage disposal.”
Many at the meeting were frightened, according to Bee’s book proposal. If Ben were crazy enough to take out his childhood friend—an affable man who was known to offer help to those who’d fallen on hard times with the phrase, “How much do you need?”—then they were all in danger. So someone alerted Moe to Ben’s threat, and Moe immediately called Bee. Come to Vegas, he said. After she arrived in her big red Cadillac, they headed into the desert, parked the car, and walked into the night to ensure they wouldn’t be overheard. A seemingly resigned Moe told Bee he might not be around for much longer. But Bee was having none of that.
“I’m calling Moose,” Bee said. “He’ll stay with you day and night.”
Moe was surprised. He knew all about Moose Pandza. Moose was Bee’s lover. “Will he do that for me?” Moe asked.
“He will do it for me!” Bee responded.
Robbie was four years old when his father’s best friend, Ben Siegel, was gunned down, signaling the beginning of the end of the era of the glamorous Hollywood gangster. But Robbie remembers his childhood being punctuated with reminders of what had come before—reminders who traveled in pairs. “One guy would ask my mom questions about the case,” says Robbie, recalling the FBI agents whose home visits came about once a year. “The other guy would watch the faces of myself and my brother.”
We are back at the condo in early June, sitting upstairs in a whitewashed bedroom. The cancer has weakened Robbie so much now that he spends much of his time in bed. Today he’s sitting on top of the covers in shorts and a T-shirt. He looks handsome, if depleted, when I ask about Moose.
After Moe Sedway died in 1952, Bee’s lover, Mathew “Moose” Pandza, did the honorable thing: He married Bee. A truck driver and crane operator, Moose never sought to take Moe’s place, but as Robbie grew up, Moose taught him manly things, such as how to shoot a gun and how to win a fight. “Hit him first,” Moose would say. “And if you get him on the ground, don’t ever let him get up.” Once, when a Beverly Hills High School administrator told Robbie’s brother, Dick, “We don’t like your gangster tactics here,” Moose went down to the office and gave the man a stern talking to, Robbie recalls. “He never bothered my brother again.” Moose “treated us like we were his children,” Robbie says. “He was my mother’s guy. There was a trust there. He would have done anything for this family. Anything at all.”
“I remember my dad telling me Moose was deathly afraid of Bee,” says Steve Pandza, Moose’s nephew. “My dad said, ‘Dynamite comes in small packages.’ ”
Bee had inherited half of Moe’s estate, which was worth $382,000 and included a 39.5 percent share in the Flamingo Hotel. Also among Moe’s holdings were numerous other pieces of property in Vegas—lots up and down the Strip that would soon be worth millions. Bee didn’t need to work, but she opened a store on North Beverly Drive called Beatrice Sedway Originals, where she sold tchotchkes and little decorated straw purses that she and Moose assembled together. A 1955 directory lists Mathew Pandza as the store manager.
Robbie was 12 then and already a good-looking young man. He was proud of being a Sedway, but he knew that some people—not just those FBI agents—found his family suspicious. He’d heard from some kids that their parents prohibited them from visiting his house. Beverly Hills was, and is, a small town. People talked, and Robbie heard the chatter just like everyone else. So one night when he was 16, he asked his mom whether she knew who killed Bugsy Siegel. “She said, ‘Moose.’ And I’m like, ‘Moose?’ She said, ‘Don’t ever tell anybody.’ ”
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This feature originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of Los Angeles magazine.