In this final episode, hear the story of how Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel, through excelling at bootlegging crossed paths with Arnold Rothstein; and how Bugsy took what he learned from Rothstein and Lansky and used it to build the famous Flamingo Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, the first gambling resort of its kind in Nevada and the beginning of the Las Vegas Strip as we know it.
Harry Sultan: This is the third and final episode of the Wheels Keep Spinning. In the beginning of the first episode, I made made the claim that the Las Vegas Strip was built on the Saratoga model, and by the end of this episode, you’ll understand why. But before we get there, we need to know just a little bit more about some of the characters involved.
In the last episode we briefly introduced a couple of these characters, young New York gangsters who Arnold Rothstein took under his wing. In this episode, I’m going to talk with some folks about those young gangsters’ lives leading up to their introduction to Arnold Rothstein and how the lessons that he taught them paved the way for them to create what we know of as the Las Vegas Strip.
Meyer Lansky, a Russian born, New York-Raised, short jewish kid was really the most connected to Rothstein so it makes sense to start with him. To do that, I spoke with someone who knew him pretty intimately.
HS: Could I just have you introduce yourself?
Meyer Lansky II: I’m Meyer Lansky the second, I’m Meyer Lansky’s grandson. And I’m at the Flamingo hotel today, an iconic spot for a name like mine.
HS: To understand why the Flamingo is iconic to the Lanskys, we need to go back to the beginning, Meyer Lansky’s childhood
ML: Yea well my grandfather grew up on the Lower East Side of New York City and in New York City, especially in those days the neighborhoods changed block to block sometimes and there was gangs because it was poor there were a lot of immigrants at the time.
Ya know, and Ben came in the picture down on Delancey street they had, ya know, street games, craps game on the streets down there, and here come the police, Ben’s grabbing a gun, he told him to throw it down, he listened to him.
HS: Not wanting to see this kid who was even younger than himself arrested for shooting at the cops, he told Ben to throw down the gun and run.
While neither of them were strangers to violence, Lansky saw Ben Siegel as someone who could really hold his own in a fight. And for Lansky who even at a young age saw himself as more of the brains, having someone who could act as a sort of enforcer was an invaluable partnership to have. So together they formed the Bugs & Meyer Gang
ML: They all had their abilities. Grandpa with his brains and control, Ben was extremely useful in those days. because he saved his life a few times. There was knife fights, there was gun fights, I mean Ben was just fearless he was known for protection and he would take care of people who were trying to hurt grandpa and he was out there.
HS: Ben Siegel was notorious for his short temper which is how he got his nickname. Meyer Lansky used to say when Ben got mad, he’d go Bugsy, like crazy.
And Between Lansky’s brains and Bugsy’s brute force, they were able to hold their own on the streets; but when Prohibition started Lansky was really able to make a name for themselves
ML: I mean, they started selling illegal everything. And they had to get, this is how difficult it was, they had to take not only liquor and get it by, they had to get into the trucking industry the shipping industry, they had to know how to pay off the police and the government and they had to structure that, that wasn’t easy.
HS: And it was that sort of business-minded approach to bootlegging that got the attention of Arnold Rothstein.
ML: My grandfather at one point met Arnold Rothstein at a bar-mitzvah originally and then they had a meeting he took them under his wing. And taught everybody how to dress and do things without getting caught.
HS: Rothstein trusted Lansky and saw a lot of potential in him, so when the racing season in Saratoga began he brought Lansky in to work at the Brook. He started by running tables, learning how to interact with guests, and learned from Rothstein all the tricks of the trade in operating a casino. How to get people in the door with inexpensive but high quality alcohol, food, and entertainment, how to charm the wealthier people to gamble more than they intended, and how to not cut corners for a quick buck when the long game is more profitable in the end.
Over the first eight years of prohibition, Lansky and Siegel learned a lot from Arnold Rothstein, and when Rothstein was murdered, Lansky was quick to begin planning new ways to make money.
So in 1933 Meyer Lansky sent Bugsy Siegel, one of his oldest friends and partners out West to expand their criminal enterprise. To find out more on that endeavor, I spoke with this man
Larry Gragg: Larry Gragg
HS: Hi Larry, this is Harry
LG: Harry, how are you?
HS: I’m good how are you?
LG: I’ve still got a head cold but other than that I’m okay
HS: Larry Gragg is the meritus professor of history at Missouri University of science and technology in Raleigh Missouri, and he wrote a book on Ben Siegel
LG: Entitled Benjamin Bugsy siegel, the gangster, the flamingo and the making of modern Las Vegas that came out 2015
HS: When he first got to LA in the early 1930s, Bugsy immediately fell in love with the lifestyle and very quickly found himself close to the spotlight.
LG: He was becoming known on both coats, largely because most gangsters were smart enough to stay in the background but he loved the foreground. He loved the attention that he could attract, he was handsome, he was well spoken he liked to meet with reporters. He was the best dressed most fashionable young man in the city. He had all the characteristics, at least on the outside of being a Hollywood star, and he had some ambitions of being a Hollywood star.
HS: He went out to some of the nicest clubs at the time, and even befriended some of the biggest names in Hollywood. He was, in his own way, a celebrity.
And the more he was out in California living like a star, the more he realized that he didn’t want to have to hide in the shadows for his work. he wanted to be able to live like the king he felt like in a legitimate way, and his path to that life was only one state over.
Nevada, the least populated state at the time, in an act of desperation legalized gambling in 1931. Almost immediately small saloons started to offer some sort of card tables or slot machines; and in 1941 a couple of hotels opened on what used to be called, the Los Angeles Highway.
LG: The hope that the builder of the El Rancho Vegas which opened in 1941 and the hotel Last Frontier which opened the following year, was that it would reinforce the notion that if you were a tourist and you wanted to experience a last frontier town, Las Vegas Nevada would be the place to go. Because it would be a welcoming place, it would be reminiscent of an old mining reminiscent of a cattle town and the hotels had that look. For example the chandeliers looked like a wagon wheel - they were wooden, and the employees would wear western attire. They’d wear jeans and western shirts and outside they’d wear cowboy hats. They’d try to persuade the guests that they were reliving an element of the old west; and that was really the circumstance when Ben Siegel saw it in 1941.
HS: And frankly, he saw it as gimmicky. As wasted potential. Remember, Siegel had seen first hand how successful classy places could be, places like the Brook where just by walking in the door you felt like you were on the same level as the John D Rockefellers of the world. When Siegel realized that these hotel owners were more focused on maintaining a western theme than something that would appeal to the rich and famous just a couple hours away, he saw an opportunity and began looking for a way to open his own casino, in his own image; one that was more in the style of the Saratoga Clubhouse, or the Brook, that he could operate using the tricks he’d learned from working with Meyer Lansky and Arnold Rothstein.
He initially invested in another man’s hotel development but when the developer lost his money gambling, Siegel took over the entire project and really changed everything from the design to the name. And from that moment forward, the newly renamed Flamingo Hotel was Siegel’s sole priority.
Not only was it his opportunity to prove himself to the higher ups in organized crime, but it was a way for him to move into the legitimate world of business; operating casino in a state where it was legal to do so, where he wouldn’t have to worry about bribing cops and city officials to keep from being shut down. And because he didn’t have to worry about the cops and the city working against him, he knew that he could make it everything the Brook was and more.
LG: Because he wanted people to come there for an experience that was like no other. But he really kind of tossed cost out the window because he wanted to create this luxury experience and he was deeply in debt when it was completed.
HS: Siegel spared no expense. Every room had to have the nicest linens, the pool had to be Olympic sized, and it had to be surrounded by genuine Florida palm trees. He wanted everything to be top of the line, but that came at a cost.
LG: It probably should have cost in the neighborhood of 1.5 to 2 million dollars but the total cost ended up being over 6 million dollars because he wanted to keep embellishing how luxurious the rooms were going to be.
HS: And for perspective, that’s 6 million in 1947 which today is roughly 70 million dollars. He was a very wealthy man for the time, but had nowhere near 6 million dollars to pay for this himself. So he reached out to Meyer Lansky and the other guys he grew up with who were now all big names in organized crime to ask for money.
And while a lot of these guys said yes, most weren’t nearly as close to Siegel as Lansky was, and especially once they had a financial stake in something, their priorities were to their investment not to their old friend. So as the cost of the flamingo kept going up, and the construction went past deadlines, these mob investors got more and more impatient. And that impatience turned to pressure to see results
Siegel decided to open up the Flamingo Casino early, on December 26th 1946 with one very important issue looming over him.
LG: The hotel wasn’t opened yet. You know, people would come to a gamble for a little-bit but then they would go to another hotel to stay.
HS: So he had this truly remarkable casino that was full of gamblers and celebrities alike, none of whom who had ever seen something quite like this but at the end of the night, at some point they all had to go somewhere to sleep which lost the Flamingo a lot of potential income; and even that would have been redeemable if luck was in the houses favor and the gamblers lost.
LG: When actually the opposite occurred. The place was packed the first three nights and the gamblers won big. Had it been the other way around, had all these high profile gamblers lost a lot of money then Seigel would’ve been in much better shape financially and the pressure on him from the mob leaders in New York would’ve been off his back.
HS: But unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.
Siegel knew that it wasn’t operating at its full potential without the lavish hotel rooms available for the gamblers, so after 6 weeks, he closed down the Flamingo to finish construction and had a grand reopening in March of 1948.
LG: Once the hotel portion opened in march, the Flamingo operation did quite well
HS: People could finally see what Ben Siegel was imagining this entire time. A new level of luxury completely unprecedented in all of Nevada; especially a place like Las Vegas. The top entertainers in the country, people like the Andrew Sisters and Abbot and Costello were performing and enticing people to fly in from all over. And sure enough, when people weren’t in the ballroom watching one of these shows, or laying out by the Olympic sized pool, eating the gourmet food, or spending time in their luxurious modern rooms, they were at one of the many tables, slots, or roulette wheels throwing their money away.
LG: The columnists that came to visit Las Vegas asserted that Siegel had succeed, any of the photos someone sees of the early Flamingo has to be impressed with how beautiful the landscaping is and the hotel is beautiful and the inside is as luxurious as the any hotel in the world at the time, and then when you enter the building you saw the best of the materials. You saw crystal, you saw marble. So what you noticed immediately and all of his contemporaries said it is this is the kind of place Hollywood production companies would build if they had the money.
HS: After a very iffy beginning the flamingos grand reopening in 1947 brought truly unprecedented success. And it didn’t take long for other hotels to see its success and copy it. Within only a couple of years, other entrepreneurs decided to follow Siegel’s path with luxurious rooms and gourmet food, great entertainers and a sophisticated casino to start their hotels on the strip as well.
LG: And it was this new model that emulated by the desert in in 1950, the Sahara in 1952 the sands in 1952 and its a departure from the old western theme. By completing the flamingo he brought a different kind of resort hotel to Las Vegas; but the whole theme changed in the late 40s early 50s and that’s cause the success of the Flamingo.
HS: Ben Siegel had finally gotten the Flamingo to operate like he had always dreamed it to and it set a standard that completely reshaped what was once the Los Angelas Highway into the Las Vegas Strip. But he never got to see it.
Only a couple of months after Siegels dream casino re-opened, he flew to Beverly Hills for the weekend and while sitting on the couch of his rented home, was shot to death through the window.
And while it’s easy to point fingers and assume that it was his disgruntled mob backers who called a hit, we can’t really know for sure. But this isn’t a story about Bugsy Siegel’s Death. It’s a story about the birth of the Las Vegas Strip as we know it today, and the Flamingo was the last of the first steps that started it all.
For nearly two years now I’ve been researching this story. pulling at strings and falling down rabbit holes all to more definitively be able to say that if not for Saratoga Springs, what we now know of as the Las Vegas strip wouldn’t be around. It could’ve been a collection of barely profitable Wild West themed hotels, or it could’ve just been another dusty highway used to bring you from one bustling city to the next. But I can’t say with any certainty that if Ben Siegel never made it out to Nevada, someone else couldn’t have done what he had. I can’t say that someone who had no idea about Rothstein and the Brook, or Morrissey and the Saratoga Clubhouse couldn’t have had a similar idea as Ben Siegel and brought sophistication to an otherwise western frontier town.
What I do know is that by chance or coincidence, or even fate, an Irish immigrant named John Morrissey decided to bring a new caliber of gambling to a small resort town in upstate New York with a racetrack that still runs today, and a gambling club house that stands now as a testament to the city’s history.
I know that these establishments inspired a middle-class Jewish gambler named Arnold Rothstein to try and outperform the entrepreneurial gamblers who had come before by opening his own gambling establishment where he was able to experiment with new and innovative money-making schemes.
I know that a young Benjamin Bugsy Siegel grew up admiring Rothstein and wound up designing, building, and operating a resort in a similar image to the Brook taking many of the principles and making it even grander and more extravagant than anything like it before - even though it wound up costing him his life.
And I know that after the Flamingo opened, it set a new precedent for this soon-to-be city of sin, a precedent that to this day is being built upon, improved and outdone.
It was just a couple of ambitious gamblers who dedicated their lives to the establishments that they built, none of them knowing the true impact of what they had accomplished or what they would inspire.
But I know for me, and hopefully now for you too, whenever I think of Las Vegas, or whenever I hear that signature sound of a ball spinning around the edge of a roulette wheel, I think of a few larger than life men, in a small city in upstate NY and how because of their actions, those roulette wheels keep spinning.