Virginia Hill, queen of the mob, mixed it with the most powerful and ruthless gangsters of her day. Streetwise, sassy and shameless, she serviced her bosses every which way.
They in return let her in on their secrets and showered her with cash to fund the lifestyle of ostentatious luxury to which she aspired. She was an impostor who gatecrashed Hollywood and seduced (literally as well as metaphorically) its denizens. It was too good to last.
Virginia Hill’s Hollywood heyday
January 1942, and Virginia Hill is having the time of her life. She’s been in Hollywood for a couple of years and she’s the talk of the town. Now, according to Modern Screen, she’s about to marry actor John Carroll:
It’ll be a great day for Hollywood when John Carroll takes plumpish, black-eyed Virginia Hill to be his blushing bride. If the pair do bounce to the altar, John will bring into the great Movietown family the most fantastic personality it has known since Bogus Prince Romanoff was in his prime.
At 23, Virginia Hill is a woman of mystery. Her wealth is inestimable and untraceable, though it is surmised her three marriages (the first occurred when she was 14) might have had something to do with it. Her extravagances are notorious. A $1,000 evening gown, the gem of Designer Irene’s fall collection, draped her body only three or four times before she gave it to a friend. Other gowns for which she pays from $100 to $400 are often discarded without being worn at all.
Her parties are reminiscent of something that went out with the Romans. Starting with two or three couples, Virginia frequently finds herself winding up the night hosting a mob of fifty. One evening she rented the Mocambo and its entire staff for a private shindig. Conservative estimators say that little social cost her well over $3,000 [roughly equivalent to $50,000 in today’s money]!
It’s always cash on the line for Virginia Hill. She travels with gobs of it tied in a rubber band. She’s never used a checkbook even to pay bills for her Chicago apartment, her New York and Hollywood hotel suites, automobile upkeep, maid and secretary.
There’s no denying, Husband Number Four will have to step fast to keep pace with the mad, exciting Miss Hill. But if anyone can do it, John Carroll is the boy. He’s not exactly a rest cure, himself!
In the event, the marriage never materialises. It’s a lucky escape for John. Virginia’s days of blushing at anything are way behind her. With Miss Hill, John would have got more than he’d bargained for. A lot more. Her past is murky, her future fraught with danger. The truth is she’s entangled with the mob and she’s the girlfriend of notorious gangster, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel.
Virginia Hill’s back story
Virginia Hill grows up in Bessemer, Alabama, an industrial city dominated by steelmaking. One of ten brothers and sisters, she is something of a wild child, perhaps because she’s lonely and insecure. Her father remembers how she tried to buy friendship:
One time Tabby [his nickname for her] charged several alarm clocks to my account, and then gave them away to the playmates who looked up to her, just as her frequent guests of ‘The Nightclub World’ were to do later for Tabby’s generosity.
It’s a pattern that will persist throughout her life. Her parents divorce when she is 14, and she moves with her mother to Marietta, Georgia. She can’t get away soon enough. Age 17, she marries George Rodgers, four years her senior, and heads for Chicago, where she promptly dumps him.
She soon falls in with the city’s mafia, sleeping her way straight to the top. Key to her progress is Joe Epstein, Jake “Greasy Thumb” Guzik’s chief accountant (Guzik is the Chicago Outfit’s treasurer and financial wizard). Epstein takes Virginia under his wing and introduces her to various prominent members of the gang. She’s well able to take things on from there herself.
At a 1936 Christmas party thrown by Charlie Fischetti (Al Capone’s cousin), she gives blow jobs to her host and several other top mobsters right in front of the guests as well as Fischetti’s wife – classy. It’s around this time that she starts keeping a diary of all the financial shenanigans she’s in on.
The following year, she is dispatched to infiltrate the New York mafia and find out whether they’re paying their dues to their Chicago counterparts. She loses no time in embarking on an affair with Joe “Adonis” Doto, one of the New York mob’s two most powerful bosses (the other is Charles “Lucky” Luciano).
In 1938 she becomes a courier and dealmaker. It’s the start of years of zigzagging across the US between New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Mexico, often with her brother Chick, running cash and drugs and sleeping around. In Mexico, among others she sleeps with the son of a Mexican finance minister in order to milk him for information and get him on side. In Hollywood, Errol Flynn is just one of the visitors to her bedroom.
Passing through Alabama in January 1939, Virginia takes the opportunity to seduce, marry and divorce in short order Osgood Griffin, a naive 19-year-old football player and, crucially, a son of one of the state’s richest families. The divorce enables her not just to get her hands on some useful alimony but also to marry (but only briefly) Carlos “Miguelito” Valdez. The big deal here is that it gives Valdez, a Mexican national, the right to enter the US in order to consolidate the drug alliances he and Virginia have established.
While all this is going on, she hitches up with John “Handsome Johnny” Roselli, whom the Chicago outfit have sent out West to work under Jack Dragna, the boss of the of the Los Angeles crime family. Roselli becomes the conduit through which Virginia will report the goings-on she finds out about back to the bosses in Chicago, who in turn will relay the information to their New York counterparts.
Virginia also has a brief affair with Pasquale “Pat” DiCicco, an agent, movie producer, occasional actor and playboy, as well as an alleged mobster working for Luciano. His ex-wife, actress Thelma Todd, died in 1935 under suspicious circumstances.
DiCicco introduces Virginia to actor George Raft, known (like Frank Sinatra) for his mafia connections, who in turn puts her back in touch with Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel – his nickname a reference to his reputation as a thug with a short fuse who gets off on violence and killing. He has graduated from petty extortion to being an associate in the New York syndicate run by Adonis, Luciano and Meyer Lansky.
Virginia first met Bugsy in a Brooklyn bar in NYC in February 1937. They spent the next night fucking each other’s brains out. Even as an experienced practitioner, she will remember it as the best sex she ever had. Later that year, the lovers had to part when Siegel was dispatched by his New York partners to Los Angeles to look after their gambling, racetrack and bookmaking rackets on the West Coast.
Bugsy is regarded as a dangerously loose canon by the mobs in Chicago and New York and not to be trusted. So Dragna instructs Virginia to get into bed (literally as well as metaphorically) with him and report back about what he’s up to. She’s more than happy to oblige and it’s not long before she and her brother Chick move into a house with Bugsy.
It’s the start of probably the best five or so years of Virginia’s life. Not only is she hitched with her favourite (albeit violent and abusive but perhaps that’s part of the attraction) lover, but thanks to her underworld connections she has the spondoolies to fund the lavish parties and publicity on which she thrives. What’s more, Bugsy is a good looking guy who can turn on the charm and whose underworld associations give the Hollywood community a pleasurable frisson. It’s all fine and dandy.
The end of the affair
But all good things must come to an end, and so it proves for Virginia Hill and Bugsy Siegel.
He is a slick operator with delusions of grandeur and an eye to the main chance that will be his downfall. In 1944 he spots the potential to turn an unpromising plot on a dusty road on the edge of Las Vegas into a glamorous casino hotel financed by the mob. Back then the city was nothing like the gambling Mecca it would go on to become.
The plot is being developed by Billy Wilkerson, founder/owner of The Hollywood Reporter, Tinseltown’s first daily entertainment trade newspaper, and various nightclubs. But he’s run into financial problems, which gives Bugsy and his associates the chance to step in. In May 1946, Bugsy, increasingly obsessed with the project and arrogant to boot, engineers Wilkerson’s departure and his own appointment as president with total control.
But whereas Wilkerson has experience of construction projects, Bugsy doesn’t. He’s out of his depth. This combined with constant meddling and insistence on upping the specification at every turn means that costs start to spiral out of control. Meanwhile, in spite of multiple ongoing infidelities on both their parts, he’s still besotted with Virginia. His name for the hotel, Flamingo, is apparently inspired by his nickname for her.
She, though, prefers the razzmatazz of Hollywood to the rudimentariness of Las Vegas and knows which side her bread is buttered. Bottom line: she’s not prepared to move permanently to Las Vegas but she does make regular visits that combine passion (bonking and bust-ups) and business. The business in this case is espionage. The mob are worried about the overruns and suspect Bugsy of taking a cut without telling them. Virginia’s job is to record the costs in her diary and report back on how things are going and how the money is being spent.
Caving in to pressure from his backers, Bugsy opens the Flamingo in December 1946 before it’s finished. It’s a disaster. The hotel has to be closed again post haste and another round of funding agreed. The Flamingo reopens in March 1947 and this time it’s a very different story. The punters and the money pour in. But this brings with it another problem for Bugsy. The mob reckon it’s payback time and they’re not prepared to hang around.
When Bugsy stalls, they lose their patience. Virginia is summoned to Chicago and on 16 June put on a flight to Paris. She tells Bugsy she’s there to buy wine for the Flamingo. In practice, she’s out of the way for the final act of the drama.
Four days later at around 22:30, Bugsy enters 810 N Linden Drive, Rudolf Valentino’s old house in Beverly Hills, now rented by Virginia. He makes his way to the sitting room, turns on the lights and makes himself comfortable on the sofa to catch up on the day’s paper. Perfect for the assassin lurking in the shadows outside. The first shot explodes through the window and hits Bugsy in the head, blowing his eye 15 feet from his body. The subsequent bullets crash into his body, breaking his ribs and tearing up his lungs. It’s like something out of The Godfather.
Virginia Hill gets her comeuppance
From here on, it’s going to be mostly downhill (pun intended) for Virginia. Bugsy’s demise may have come as no surprise to her, but it still leaves her shaken and insecure. She’s still up to her old tricks, including an affair with wealthy 21-year-old heir Nicholas Fouilette. But within months she’s taken an overdose, the first of at least four suicide attempts that year. Rumour has it that she’s terrified that she’ll be next on the mob’s hit list because, with her diary and everything else she knows, she’s just too much of a risk.
Still, she returns to the US and meets her sponsor, Joe Epstein a couple of times. He wants her to hand over her diary; she won’t. The following year, she settles for a time in Mexico City but soon she’s inexorably drawn back to the US. In early 1950, she travels to Sun Valley, Idaho, where she meets and marries ski instructor Hans Hauser, a former world champion downhill skier from Austria. That November she gives birth to a son, Peter, and the family moves to a luxurious home in Spokane, Washington. It’s around this time that the IRS seems finally to have noticed that Virginia’s and her husband’s lavish lifestyle has no apparent means of support.
1951 is the year it all comes crashing down. In March, Virginia is summoned before the Kefauver Committee, which is investigating organized crime. The hearing is televised, and Virginia puts in a performance to fit the occasion. Her cheeky, evasive, sometimes vulgar answers to the prosecution make an entertaining change from the bland, stodgy, often bureaucratic language used by the other courtroom participants. Try this:
Senator Tobey: “But why would Joe Epstein give you all that money, Miss Hill?”
Virginia Hill: “You really want to know?”
Senator Tobey: “Yes, I really want to know.”
Virginia Hill: “Then I’ll tell you why. Because I’m the best cocksucker in town.”
Senator Kefauver: “Order! I demand order!”
Writer and director Robert C Ruark reckoned that Virginia’s testimony “created a new art form” and observed that:
Virginia Hill seems to have been an Alice in a wonderland of illegality…. Any secrets she holds are safe, because this is a girl who don’t know nothin’ about nobody and is little loath to say so.
On her way out of the courtroom when her questioning was over, she slugs Marjorie Farnsworth, a reporter for the New York Journal-American and screams at the others “I hope the atom bomb falls on every one of you!”
She leaves as something of a celebrity but it’s a Pyrrhic victory. The IRS and the Immigration and Naturalization Service have Virginia Hill and Hans Hauser in their respective sights. He is not a US citizen and when he is ordered to leave the US voluntarily, the couple go into hiding. In July the IRS slaps a demand for $161,000 on Virginia for unpaid income taxes for the years 1942 through 1947. In August they seize and auction her personal belongings but the sale raises just $41,000.
By then, Virginia has fled to Europe, never to return to the US.
Curtains for Virginia Hill
Virginia spends the last 15 years of her life in Europe. She’d like to return to the US but she can’t do a deal to avoid prison. She also tries to go to Cuba and Mexico, but her attempts are barred. In the mid-1960s she separates from her husband and moves with Peter to a modest hotel in Salzburg. On 22 March 1966 she leaves her home and fails to return. Two days later, her body is found in the snow, alongside a tree-shaded brook just outside the city. Two days later, the Los Angeles Times reports:
Virginia Hill’s Death Ruled Poison Suicide SALZBURG, Austria (UPI)
Virginia Hill, onetime glamour girl of the American underworld, took her own life by poison, an Austrian court ruled Friday. A farewell note said the 49-year-old auburn-haired beauty was “fed up with life.”
A medical examiner who performed an autopsy ruled she died of poisoning, and a coroner’s court ruled her death was suicide. Her body was found Thursday in a mountain meadow outside the city near a night club. She had been missing two days. Miss Hill, estranged from Austrian ski instructor Hans Hauser, the last of four husbands spent her last years living in a rooming house on a small side street with her 15-year-old son who worked as an apprentice waiter. Friends said she had left a will with a lawyer in Switzerland. Miss Hill was born in Lipscomb, Ala. She rocketed into the headlines when Benjamin (Bugsie) Siegel was shot to death in her Beverly Hills home in 1947. She was in Paris at the time.
Given her previous seven suicide attempts, the pathologist’s verdict is probably correct. But rumours continue to circulate that shortly before her death she tried to blackmail Joe Adonis, then exiled in Italy. And that he subsequently sent his henchmen to force-feed her the drugs.
You’ve probably noticed that the quality of most of the photos of Virginia Hill here is not up to aenigma’s usual standard. Most of the photos on aenigma are studio shots or the product of planned outdoor sessions, taken by great photographers using great equipment. They are posed, lit and enhanced in post-production (typically in the darkroom and/or by retouching the negatives). Their purpose is to promote a movie, a star or a look by creating an aspirational, even iconic, image.
That may have been the case with the head-and-shoulders portrait of Virginia Hill but the print looks like it has been made from a second- or third-generation negative. The print itself has also been heavily retouched and coarsened to make it suitable for reproduction in low-quality newsprint. The cropping marks further detract from the image.
With all the distracting detail in the background, the Hallowe’en party photo, while clearly posed, is an informal snapshot, which could have been taken by a studio or a press photographer. It’s a bit of fun. The photo of Virginia perched on a sideboard console hasn’t been so messed about but again it’s little more than a snapshop, likely taken at her home.
The photos of Virginia at Denver Airport and in Paris are clearly press shots, snapped on location in less-than-ideal conditions and using relatively cheap cameras. The photographers in these cases are the forerunners of the paparazzi.
The shot of Virginia at El Paso airport is a wirephoto. Wirephoto technology was introduced in 1935 and continued to be used by the newspaper industry until the mid-1970s. It involved scanning an original print and transmitting it over telegraph or telephone wires, a bit like a fax. Wirephotos typically suffer from poor contrast and lack sharpness. A wirephoto usually has an extended caption along one of its borders that is integrated into the image itself.
Want to know more about Virginia Hill?
There are lots of accounts of the life and exploits of Virginia Hill and a good many discrepancies between them. I’ve done my best to take a balanced view but who knows where the truth lies.
As part of my research, I read three books:
- Bugsy’s Baby: The Secret Life of Mob Queen Virginia Hill by Andy Edmonds
- Virginia Hill – Mafia Molls – Beautiful Broads With Brass Balls: Volume 3 by Joe Bruno and Lawrence Venturato
- We Only Kill Each Other: The Life and Bad Times of Bugsy Siegel by Dean Jennings.
The former is wonderfully scurrilous and sensational and casts its two protagonists in pretty much the worst possible light. The latter, on which the 1991 movie, Bugsy, starring Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, is based, takes the opposite view. It gives Bugsy and Virginia the benefit of the doubt whenever possible and indeed suggests on the back cover that Bugsy was “The man who invented Las Vegas.”
The TV movie, The Virginia Hill Story (1974) starring Dyan Cannon, takes a similarly romantic view, characterising her as a naive girl eventually betrayed by her movie magazine fantasies of glamour and romance – courageous and vulnerable, sexy and tender.