Las Vegas is maybe the only town in the United States that can be said to have essentially been built by one man and nearly destroyed by another man. The man who nearly destroyed Las Vegas was billionaire Howard Hughes. The man who built Las Vegas, of course, was famous gambler Bug-I mean, Benjamin Siegel-he hated to be called Bugsy. The story of how Bugsy Siegel-yeah, that’s right, let’s see him take me down now-found himself in the middle of the desert in a small community one day and foresaw a gambling mecca is the stuff of legend and great movies. Unfortunately, that great movie has yet to be made.
It was the 1930s and the Great Depression had turned more than one man to a life of crime. Bugsy Siegel had been a gangster in New York before taking Horace Greeley’s advice to go west. In this case, of course, the western passage was undertaken to avoid the heat caused by a criminal investigation. The other big time famous Jewish gangster of the time, Meyer Lansky, urged Bugsy to look into a little spot in the desert known as Las Vegas for the potential of moving the gambling operations there. One can picture the good-looking, nattily dressed gangster standing there in the dusty desert and picturing the neon Sodom that it was to become. Meyer Lansky had earlier sent another man out to scope the site, Moe Sedway, and when Siegel independently verified Sedway’s contention that it was perfect, plans quickly got underway.
Acting as a kind of precursor to those annoying timeshare salesmen, Bugsy Siegel convinced the mob to fund a new casino to be named The Flamingo. The Flamingo was chosen because that was Siegel’s nickname for his girlfriend Virginia Hill. (And by the way, did you know that Rosebud was William Hearst’s nickname for a VERY intimate part of the anatomy of his girlfriend Marion Davies? Hearst, of course, was the model for Citizen Kane.) Bugsy Siegel was a man of wild ambition and style and as a result the cost of his little casino soon swelled well past the original estimate. Sensing a disaster in the making, those mob bosses who had bankrolled Bugsy Siegel’s visionary plans soon decided to cut and run. Even worse for Bugsy, they were demanding their money back.
What Bugsy Siegel really wanted to be, however, was a Hollywood player. His stylish dress, good looks, charm and mob ties had bought him connections with many of Hollywood’s elite. As a result, Bugsy was able to stave off an immediate bullet riddling by convincing what at the time was a fairly impressive group of stars to attend the grand opening. These stars-most of whom are unfamiliar to most people today-included Georgie Jessel (think Jay Leno), George Raft (think Joe Pantoliano), and George Sanders (think Hugh Grant). In addition to guys named George, he also brought in Rose Marie (think Rose Marie, the female writer on The Dick Van Dyke Show). George Raft had mob ties of his own and other guests such as Jimmy Durante were well know gamblers. Everything seemed perfect.
Except for two things. The first was that a whole bunch of other big stars failed to show. And the second may be the reason for the first. Perhaps due to the fact that he was Jewish, Bugsy failed to realize that a grand opening of anything between Christmas and New Year’s was the kiss of death. The grand opening of Bugsy Siegel’s Flamingo casino was an unmitigated failure of epic proportions. Making matters worse, the mobsters back home had discovered that part of the reason for the rising costs of the Flamingo were due to Bugsy’s having been-in good old Mafia tradition-skimming off the top and shipping off to a Swiss bank account. In late June of 1947, Bugsy Siegel was at the home of his girlfriend Virginia Hill. Virginia, on the other hand, was in Europe. A rain of bullets fired through the windows killed Bugsy Siegel. Although Siegel was not actually shot through the eye, the murder of Moe Green in The Godfather was inspired by Bugsy’s fateful summer night.
Meyer Lansky dismissed in less violent terms the staff that Siegel had put in place at the Flamingo and proved that with some good old fashioned honest Mafia management money could be made in the godforsaken desert. So much money was made at the Flamingo, in fact, that it took almost no time for every mob in America to build their own casinos. Bugsy Siegel may not have been a smart businessman, but as a visionary gambler he had no peer. Las Vegas became exactly what he had promised the mob it would become. In fact, time even vindicated Bugsy’s seemingly ill-advised choice for opening night. The period between Christmas and New Year’s became the single most profitable week of the year for Las Vegas.
The part that Bugsy Siegel played in building Las Vegas from a tract of dusty land into the paradise for the light bulb industry that it is today cannot be underestimated, though an argument can be made that it has been overestimated. Las Vegas perhaps realizes this more than the rest of the country and as a result much myth and legend has arisen around the city’s real founder. One of those myths-maybe-is that Bugsy Siegel lays buried behind the original Flamingo Hotel. Another myth is that Bugsy Siegel really can’t be credited with building Las Vegas at all. Those wishing to downplay Siegel’s role-as well as the mob’s role in general-point to the fact that the El Rancho Vegas and Last Frontier hotels had already been built by the time Bugsy Siegel came to the area. While that’s true, one must also understand that neither of those two resulted in nearly the influx that the Flamingo did. Being first often isn’t as important as being best and it was the Bugsy Siegel mythos that really turned Las Vegas into Sin City.