October 13, 2019

‘The Last Jewish Gangster’ Pulls No Punches

Myron Sugerman is 80 years old and according to his biography is “the last Jewish gangster.”

For Sugerman, though, age is but a number. The New Jersey octogenarian is about to embark on a Chabad-organized Southern California tour during which he’ll speak at 10 sites over nine days.

The blurb on Sugerman’s 2017 self-published memoir, “The Chronicles of the Last Jewish Gangster: From Meyer to Myron,”  states it covers the “story of his nearly 60-year career as an international outlaw in the field of slot machines and casinos.”

You can learn about Sugerman’s highly checkered career — including a 19-month stint in federal prison starting at age 57 — in his book. However, his talks in the Los Angeles area will be about his father Barney Sugerman’s work with mob figures such as Meyer Lansky, and how Sugerman was involved in helping smuggle weapons into the nascent State of Israel.

Sugerman believes that there always will be a fascination with the world of gangsters and Hollywood always will make movies about them because “you want to see movies that are authentic, about people that broke laws and danced to their own tune.” Most people, Sugerman said, “live in very quiet desperation. They don’t have lives of their own, so they live vicariously through gangster stories.”

He also believes he’s constantly in demand as a speaker because, “I’m unbelievable. I’m awesome and I’m modest at the same time.”

It’s those kind of quips that make speaking with Sugerman via telephone from his New Jersey home feel akin to stepping into a Raymond Chandler novel. With his New Jersey accent and his penchant for calling this reporter “honey” and “sweetie” (not to mention threatening to “dispatch some of my guys” to find me if I don’t attend one of his Los Angeles-area talks), Sugerman responds to tough questions lickety-split, pulls no punches and doesn’t suffer fools gladly.

“If your readers don’t come hear my speech, they’ll regret it for the rest of their lives.” — Myron Sugerman

When asked about a newspaper report alleging that after his stint in prison he became deeply religious and is now a changed man, Sugerman sputtered, “That’s bull—-!”

Nevertheless, Sugerman does have deep connections to Chabad, and reveres the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. And Sugerman’s son is a rabbi. Of the Rebbe, Sugerman said, “He was the greatest tzadik of our generation. That man single-handedly took the Jewish people from the ashes of the Holocaust and restored our dignity, our nobility and our pride.”

Sugerman said he’s not “a born-again Jew, but I was born a proud Jew, raised a proud Jew and I’ll die a proud Jew.”

So, how does he reconcile his Judaism with “dancing to his own tune” and living outside the law?

“I live outside man’s law,” he stated matter-of-factly. “It’s fluid and changes from day to day.” He gave the example of marijuana use: It is now legal in California but before this year, was illegal. “You reconcile by living according to your own principles and your own standard of morality. The only thing you need to reconcile is, if your conscience bothers you, don’t do something.”

He also added that despite his illicit dealings, he never hurt anybody. “I just ran an illegal gambling machine business all over the world. I was a pioneer. After I pioneered the industry, the legitimate people came in and took over.”

With six decades of dealing in the murky waters of the underworld, Sugerman said he never feared for his life. “I was dealing with hundreds and hundreds of different personalities and a sufficient percentage of those people were mental cases,” he said, “so I was always aware of that. But I always had reputation for being fair.”

Sugerman is excited about his upcoming talks. “If your readers don’t come hear my speech, they’ll regret it for the rest of their lives. They’ll be on Prozac and on their therapists’ couches regretting it.”

He might also have an ulterior motive for his West Coast jaunt. “You never know,” he quipped. “One of those famous directors might want to give me a screen test and put me in the movies. Have you seen my picture? Have you seen how handsome and charming I am?”

Sugerman finally hung up after making me raise my right hand and swear on a Bible that I’ll come and hear him speak.