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Virginia Hill: The Mob Queen Who Died with Her Secrets

In the testosterone-fueled world of the 20th century American Mafia, few women managed to rise above the role of arm candy or tragic victim. But one unlikely figure towered over even the most infamous male mobsters of her day, blazing a defiant trail all the way from the backwoods of Alabama to the neon-lit strip of Las Vegas. Her name was Virginia Hill, and this is her story.

Escaping "Bugsy"

Born on August 26, 1916, Virginia Hill spent her first years on a hardscrabble Alabama farm, the eldest of 10 children born to a sexually abusive father and a mother ground down by poverty. By age 8, her parents had split up, and Hill was already working odd jobs to help support the family. But she dreamed of bigger things.

At 17, the auburn-haired beauty fled her miserable home life for the big city temptations of Chicago. There, like many poor young women of the Great Depression era, she found work as a prostitute and occasional waitress. But Hill‘s striking looks and sharp mind soon caught the attention of the city‘s powerful crime bosses, and she began working as a courier—ferrying critical messages, documents, and large sums of cash between mob circles in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles.

Over the next decade, Hill became a key cog in the underworld machine, trusted by the likes of Frank Costello, Joe Adonis, and Meyer Lansky to keep her mouth shut and get the job done. She used her body and charm to seduce powerful gangsters, all while keeping a steel trap mind for numbers that made her indispensable when it came to laundering the mob‘s dirty cash. Some historians estimate Hill‘s network handled upwards of $50 million in ill-gotten gains over her career—equivalent to nearly $1 billion today.

But it was Hill‘s fateful entanglement with Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel that would come to overshadow everything else in her life—including her own independent success in the underworld. The dashing Siegel and streetwise Hill seemed a perfect match when they became lovers in the late 1930s, but their fiery romance would end in tragedy.

In 1947, Siegel was gunned down in Hill‘s Beverly Hills mansion, shot through the head while reading the newspaper one night. He had recently opened The Flamingo Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas—named after Hill‘s famous long legs. But construction cost overruns had put Siegel deep in debt to his mob backers, and they wanted their money back.

Many have long suspected that Hill knew the hit was coming—and may have even had a hand in setting Siegel up, worried he would bring them both down with his reckless gambling habit and mismanagement of mob funds. Just four days before the assassination, Hill abruptly boarded a plane to Paris and was conveniently out of the country when her lover met his grisly end. She would spend much of the next two decades living abroad in Europe, one step ahead of U.S. tax collectors and her own memories.

Taking the Fifth

Hill‘s talent for survival was on full display during the infamous Kefauver hearings of 1951. Dragged in front of the Senate committee investigating organized crime in America, Hill cut an icy figure in a wide-brimmed hat and gloves, her porcelain skin shielded behind black cat-eye sunglasses. The TV cameras rolled as she repeatedly invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, sneering, "I don‘t know anything about anybody" in the face of detailed questioning about her ties to the mob.

After refusing to answer a single substantive question, Hill shoved her way out of the packed hearing room, at one point slapping a reporter trying to block her path. The jazzy, declarative notes of Fred Fisher‘s "Chicago" provided a weirdly upbeat soundtrack to Hill‘s combative performance of underworld omerta, or silence. But the public spectacle marked the beginning of the end of her improbable reign as Queen of the Mob.

Living and Dying in Exile

After fleeing to Europe and being indicted on tax fraud charges in absentia, Hill embarked on a final chapter living in gilded seclusion in Austria. She married a champion skier named Hans Hauser, gave birth to her only child, Peter, and used her mob riches to fund a life of leisure and luxury. But behind the carefree jet-setting facade, Hill remained a deeply damaged woman, burdened by the weight of her secrets and a lifetime of debasement by the men to whom she had hitched her star.

Even her adored son Peter could not save Hill from her demons in the end. On the morning of March 24, 1966, her lifeless body was found crumpled in a snow drift near her Austrian chalet. Hill had apparently taken a lethal dose of sleeping pills and stumbled outside to die, leaving behind a terse note reading: "I am unable to go on." She was just 49 years old.

A Defiant Path to Power

In the decades since her death, Hill‘s improbable journey from backwoods poverty to the highest echelons of power in the American underworld has continued to fascinate writers, filmmakers and the public at large. She has been memorialized in books, tabloid exposes, and Hollywood movies, portrayed by the likes of Dyan Cannon and Annette Bening as a seductive femme fatale ultimately destroyed by her proximity to evil men and their dirty deeds.

But to simply dismiss Hill as a tragic casualty of the mob—or a conniving bimbo who slept her way to the top—does not do justice to her fierce intelligence, ambition and defiant drive to succeed on her own terms, by any means necessary. At a time when even most respectable professions were completely closed off to women, Hill managed to infiltrate the hyper-macho sanctums of organized crime and bend some of the most powerful men in America to her will.

By ferrying secrets and cash between mob crews on both coasts, Hill made herself utterly indispensable to the smooth functioning of the mafia‘s illicit empire. One FBI agent marveled at the time that "If Hill had been a man, she would have been a top boss in the mob." Even in the chauvinistic culture of La Cosa Nostra, Hill‘s prodigious money-laundering and networking skills—as well as her discretion—earned genuine respect among kingpins like Costello and Lansky.

Of course, being a woman in the underworld came with its own unique risks and indignities. Like many of the era‘s gun molls, Hill was routinely pimped out and passed around between mobsters in brokered arrangements that had little to do with romance or consent. She endured physical abuse and sexual assault at the hands of the dangerous men she courted, often turning to alcohol and pills to numb the pain.

Even Hill‘s great love affair with Siegel was shot through with unequal power dynamics and the ever-present threat of violence. She bankrolled much of the Flamingo‘s construction from her own riches when Siegel ran afoul of his mob investors—something he repaid by conducting numerous affairs and mooning over other women, including socialite Countess di Frasso and actress Wendy Barrie.

The Price of Complicity

In the final analysis, Hill‘s story reveals both how far a determined woman could rise in the pre-feminist underworld—and the brutal limitations and costs of wielding that power in the service of evil men. Hill may have started out as a victim of her traumatic upbringing and lack of options, but she soon became an active agent in a vast criminal conspiracy of theft, corruption and murder.

While she apparently never dirtied her own hands with the blood of mob hits, Hill‘s expert money-laundering skills and omerta made their smooth execution possible. Like many of the gun molls and mob wives of her era, she enjoyed the spoils of the mafia‘s predations on society—furs, jewels, champagne—while turning a blind eye to the misery they inflicted, including the scourge of drugs and despair unleashed on her own impoverished community.

In the end, Hill died the way she had lived—shrouded in mystery and innuendo, taking her secrets to the grave. Did she set Siegel up for a fall out of justified fear—or cold, calculated greed? Why did she really flee the country just days before his murder? And was her "accidental" overdose actually a suicide—or something more sinister? We will likely never know for sure.

But one thing is certain: Virginia Hill‘s meteoric rise and fall in the American underworld marked her as a true original—a woman who defied the odds and the strictures of her time to reach unprecedented heights of power in a man‘s world, only to pay the ultimate price for her vaulting ambition. Her legacy endures as a cautionary tale about the hidden costs of complicity, and the uniquely treacherous path that women like her were forced to walk in a society that offered them precious little agency over their own destinies.