10/8/12 - the little, dusty town of las vegas

In today's selection - Las Vegas was a wasteland that crawled to life when the Nevada legislature legalized gambling and eased divorce laws as a way to prop up revenues during the Great Depression. The target was the workmen from a Depression-era public works project just down the road -- Boulder Dam. Then in the late 1930s and 40s, when Attorney General, then Governor (and later U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice) Earl Warren cracked down on gambling in California, Las Vegas was the beneficiary:

"Las Vegas, of course, had been nothing, a forgotten Pueblo wasteland that the white man had not even passed through until 1829. In 1911, when it was incorporated as a city, its population had been barely fifteen hundred. Gambling, which had been out­lawed in Nevada in 1915, had been legalized again in 1931, the year that state legislation also eased divorce laws to increase state revenues. The first legal casinos, most of them located downtown in a two-block area around Fremont and Second streets, had drawn much of their profits from the paychecks of the workmen who were building the Boulder Dam southeast of town. It was [mobster Bugsy] Siegel who had believed that the little desert town in the middle of nowhere could become the air-conditioned Eden of every dirty dream.

"In the summer of 1939, as the state attorney general of California, Earl Warren, had organized a fleet to crack down on the Rex and other seaborne casinos that operated beyond the three-mile limit at Santa Monica and Long Beach harbors. Siegel, who held a piece of every west-coast gambling boat, had sent his henchman Little Moe Sedway to reconnoiter the Nevada territory in the summer 1941. Sedway, whose real name was Morris Sidwirtz, had been with Siegel since the old days back in New York, and had been one of those involved with the Copacabana in its early years. By the end of the war, after Warren had become governor and renewed his crusade against gambling, Siegel's Las Vegas interests, held in cahoots with [organized crime figures] Frank Costello, Meyer Lansky, and others back east, had come to include pieces of the Frontier Turf Club, the El Cortez Hotel, the El Dorado Club, the Golden Nugget, and the Las Vegas Club. ...

"Ground had been broken in December 1945 for what Siegel envisioned as the greatest gambling casino in the world. It was to be called the Flamingo. 'We thought up the name one day when we were at the Hialeah Race Track in Florida,' Lansky would re­call. 'There's a pretty, little lake there and in the evening you can watch the flocks of pink flamingos rise in the sky. There's a local legend that flamingos are a sign of good luck and anyone who shoots the birds will have seven years of misfortune. So because of the good-luck connection, Bugsy had the idea of naming our Las Vegas project.'

"A budget of $1,000,000 had been set. Bugsy and his wife, Esther, had divorced in July 1946; he had agreed to pay her $32,000 a year. That fall, forty-year-old Bugsy had married thirty-year-old Virginia Hill. By then, more than $2,000,000 had been spent and the Flamingo was still unfinished. The hotel had re­mained largely unfurnished on the night of its grand opening, De­cember 26, 1946. Siegel had relied on George Raft to round up some Hollywood glamour, but all Raft had been able to come up with were himself, Vivian Blaine, Charles Coburn, Georgie Jessel, George Sanders, and Sonny Tufts. There was music by [Cuban sensation] Xavier Cugat. Jessel served as the master of ceremonies, and Jimmy Du­rante, who knew Siegel, Raft, and the rest of them from Prohibition days in New York, was the Flamingo's christening act.

"The Flamingo had been a bust. Siegel had drained the Nevada Project's shareholders of roughly $6,000,000. In the casino's first weeks, its six bank-crap tables, six blackjack tables, three roulette wheels, and one hazard game had taken a beating for $774,000. By late January, there had been no choice but to shut it down. From George Raft and others, Siegel had raised the money to reopen the Flamingo on March 27, 1947. In May, the casino had cleared over $300,000, and things had been looking up for Siegel. But his days had been numbered since the previous December, before he had opened the joint.

"There had been a meeting that December at the Hotel Nacional Havana, where Frank Sinatra was performing as the Christmas attraction. They had all been there: Lansky, Costello, the exiled Luciano, in from Italy; Joe Adonis, Vito Genovese, Charlie Fischetti, and more. At that meeting, it had been decided that Bugsy had f**ked them, and that he was wood. Charlie Fischetti had been entrusted with the job, and he had said he would take care of it through Jack Dragna in Los Angeles. ...

"Within twenty minutes of the carbine blasts [that killed Siegel in Los Angeles], three men had strode through the lobby of the Flamingo: Little Moe Sedway, Morris Rosen, and Gus Greenbaum. They had gathered the casino staff and announced that the Flamingo was now under new management. In the year that followed, the casino showed a profit of over $4,000,000. Only the three Elohim of death and Meyer ben Samael's friends in New York knew how much profit there was that had been kept from showing. Bugsy lay in a mausoleum in Beth Olam Cemetery in Hollywood; but his dream, the Flamingo, was alive and well."


Nick Tosches


Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams


Dell Publishing a division of Random House, Inc.


Copyright 1992 by Nick Tosches, Inc.


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