Benny didnt "invent" Las Vegas. He wasnt even the first guy to look out over the desert surrounding this two-track railroad junction town and see the possibilities for a gambling mecca. Ben merely saw a standard mob opportunity and decided to move in.
Bugsy Siegel and Las Vegas are forever intertwined; like Bonnie and Clyde or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the story of one cannot be told without including the other. Bugsy Siegel is so synonymous with gambling in Las Vegas that many people are surprised to learn that he had a long and storied professional life before he headed west. In fact, Bugsys work in Las Vegas came at the tail end of his career and probably went a long way in shortening his life.
Modern folklore has it that Ben saw a vision out there in the desert in the days following World War II, that he kicked aside some rocks a few miles outside of town in some sort of gangland groundbreaking and decreed that here would be the Monte Carlo of the Americas, the place where high-rollers and penny-ante operators alike would come to strike it rich, all the while leaving their money for the mob.
In fact, Bugsy didnt see a great deal of worth in a two-bit town like Las Vegas in the days following World War II. There were a couple of dude ranches and resorts there in the desert, but Vegas was pretty much a miserable place. It was hotter than hell in the summer time: hot enough to melt the wires in a car trying to make the two-hour trek from Los Angeles and 18-hours by plane from the East Coast. The only captive audience in Las Vegas were the soldiers from the nearby gunnery and pilot schools.
But Vegas had something else going for it that no place else in the U.S. had at the time. In Nevada it was legal to gamble. In the midst of the Depression, the Nevada Legislature had adopted legalized gambling as a means to raise revenue, although most of the swank joints were up in Northern Nevada near Reno. In the 1940s, the same Legislature expanded Nevadas gaming laws to allow off-track betting on horse races. It was the OTB feature that first attracted Siegel, thanks in part to his interest in Trans America Wire.
Lansky and his buddies on the East Coast ran a number of carpet joints in Florida that operated on the fringe of the law and Jack Dragna and Bugsy managed a couple of floating casinos that operated outside the 3-mile U.S. territorial limit. But setting a permanent, lavish casino in Las Vegas would give the mob an entry into a legitimate business that was almost a license to print money.
After unsuccessfully trying to buy into a couple of already established gambling joints in the city, Bugsy finally managed to scare up a partner who shared his dream of Las Vegas as a gaming paradise. Billy Wilkerson was getting ready to break ground on the most luxurious hotel Vegas had ever seen, complete with individual air conditioners, tiled bathrooms and two swimming pools. Bugsy bought a controlling interest in the venture when Wilkersons cash flow dried up. Siegel had it in mind to create an oasis in the desert where travelers from both coasts could come for sun, fun, gambling and entertainment. He would woo travelers down from Reno with the finest hotels, food and stars at prices anyone in America could afford.
The Flamingo was star-crossed from the start. In post-war America, construction materials were hard to come by and were very expensive. Transportation to and from Vegas was difficult and it took all the muscle Bugsy had to smooth things out with the mob-infiltrated Teamsters Union.
Bugsy was a gangster, not an architect, and some of the builders working on the project were stealing him blind. Legend has it that expensive palm trees were shipped each day from Barstow, California, only to be returned at night, then back to Vegas the next day. Bugsy wound up buying the same trees several times.
Ben had convinced his fellow racketeers to pony up with a little over a million dollars to build the Flamingo. Most of the money had come from the mobs earlier success with two smaller-scale casinos in downtown Las Vegas, but many investors had dipped into their own savings, lured by Siegels siren song of immense wealth and quick profits.
Soon the costs spiraled upward. The $1.2 million price tag quickly became $6 million and Lansky, Luciano and the other investors became increasingly worried about Bens desert dream.
By December 1946, a year after the official groundbreaking, the casino had yet to produce a dollar of revenue and was sucking the mob treasury dry. Not only were mobsters deep in debt, but Siegel was going back to his Hollywood friends to get more cash, telling them, "youre in on the ground floor of the biggest gold mine in the world."
Lansky was asked what the Syndicate should do.
The Little Man paused for a moment, examined his fingernails and for a moment his mind wandered from the bright Havana sunshine and returned to dark, dirty streets of long-ago Brooklyn. What to do about little Benny, the hot-headed boy who had saved Lanskys neck so many times; a friend who was closer to him than his own brother?
Quietly, as was his manner, Lansky spoke.
"Theres only one thing to do with a thief who steals from his friends," Lansky said, his words coming out more like a sigh than a death sentence. "Bennys got to be hit."
The Syndicate chiefs put it to a vote, and with a unanimous verdict, decided to assign the contract to Charlie Fischetti.
Meyer wasnt ready to give up on Bugsy yet. He stood up and recommended that the execution be stayed until after the opening of the Flamingo casino, set for the day after Christmas. If the opening was a success, then there would be ways to make Benny pay back the money he stole. If it didnt make money, then Fischetti could fulfill the contract. Lucky agreed.
"Benny had been a valuable guy for a long time, almost from the beginning with me and Lansky and Costello, so none of us really wanted to see him get it," Luciano said. "But if the Flamingo was a flop, well, thatd be it for him."
Christmas came and went, and as he had promised, Siegel opened the Flamingos casino for action. He pulled out all the stops, hiring George Jessel as emcee and Rose Marie, George Raft and Jimmy Durante as entertainment. Xavier Cugats orchestra provided the music. It was a disaster.
Siegel certainly was making a grand show of things, according to those in attendance. "That was the biggest whoop-de-do I ever seen," said Benny Binion, the downtown gambler who stopped by to check out the competition.
"There were 30 or 40 big stars, people like Clark Gable, Lana Turner, Joan Crawford, Anne Jeffreys, Caesar Romero," Rose Marke recalled on the 50th anniversary of the Flamingos opening. "The show was spectacular, everything was great, but no locals came. Las Vegas was cowboy hotels; this was Monaco."
The weather in Los Angeles didnt cooperate and the two tri-tailed Constellations Siegel had chartered for his Hollywood friends never made it off the ground because of fog. In Vegas, the same cold front produced a steady stream of rain that seemed to dampen everyones spirits.
With no hotel rooms, Siegels guests gambled at his casino and took their winnings back to the Frontier or the other downtown hotels. Most of the celebrities left after the second day, leaving a vacant showroom and empty gaming tables.
"We worked to 9 or 10 people a night for the rest of the two week engagement," Rose Marie said. "The locals just didnt come out to the Flamingo. They were used to cowboy boots, not rhinestones."
Lansky reluctantly reported to his friends that the Flamingos opening had been a flop. There was rage among the gangsters assembled in Havana and a demand that Fischetti fulfill the contract posthaste. Again, Meyer pulled out all the stops to save his friend. He was convinced, he said, that Las Vegas could become profitable. Lansky suggested a short delay. In the meantime, the Syndicate lawyers could investigate putting the original Flamingo corporation in receivership to stop the losses. Then the mob could move in, buy out the legitimate partners with pennies on the dollar. Luciano and the Syndicate heads reluctantly agreed and Bugsy was given another reprieve.