Today, the dazzling resort casinos that define Las Vegas in the minds of millions are largely corporate-owned. But despite the advances made by mega-corporations like Caesars Entertainment and MGM Resorts, Sin City’s seeds were planted by brave entrepreneurs who made their own gamble in the casino gambling industry.
From the 1940s onwards, these pioneers saw the potential of a dusty outpost in the Nevada desert by building the first Silver State casinos. In the first installment of an ongoing series, we’ll look at the life and times of Bugsy Siegel, the gangster who became the manager of The Flamingo, one of the first casino resorts on the Strip.
Brief background and biography of Bugsy Siegel
Long before he became the infamous leader of the crime syndicate Murder Inc., “Bugsy” was born Benjamin Siegel in 1906 in a low-income neighborhood in Brooklyn. Like many children of European immigrants during this period, Siegel quickly made the decision to quit school entirely to join a street gang.
Soon after Siegel joined a gang, a series of minor crimes ensued when he and other Jewish youth threatened shopkeepers and shook them off for paid protection. Siegel eventually teamed up with Meyer Lansky to form a small mob that expanded into piracy and other lucrative illegal ventures. By the tender age of 21, Siegel had already committed multiple gangland murders to take down rivals while frolicking with mob legends to be like Al Capone.
Siegel’s skills with a pistol led him to become a sought-after killer, a profession in which he thrived as the leading figure in Murder Inc. When mob families needed a professional killer to do their dirty work, Siegel and his subordinates accepted the contracts in exchange for cash and favors.
Siegel’s skills were not limited to violence, however, but flourished in the murky world of underground gambling. In the mid-1930s Siegel’s boss sent him to “The Godfather” in Nevada a la Fredo Corleone, as his activities at Murder Inc. lowered the “heat” of the large Mafia criminal families.
His goal in Nevada was to allow members of the work team building the Hoover Dam to do illegal night service. Drugs and prostitution were paramount, but with legal casinos catering to workers’ gambling needs, Siegel saw an opportunity to become legitimate.
Before he could profit from legal casinos in Las Vegas, however, Siegel was sent to California to expand the coast-to-coast reach of the mob.
Once there, Siegel successfully took control of the various illegal gambling companies in the Golden State on behalf of his bosses in the East. In an ambitious plan they named the National Crime Syndicate.
After a brief incarceration for bookmaking and extortion, Siegel realized in 1944 that another change of scene was in order. With that he took bets and made his way to neighboring Nevada to make his biggest game of chance to date.
Siegel takes over the Flamingo Casino and starts the Strip
At the time, the beating heart of the Nevada gambling scene was in downtown Las Vegas along Fremont Street.
Siegel initially tried to assert his downtown claim by purchasing the El Cortez casino, but local gambling officials used his criminal background to block the takeover. Siegel was forced to adapt on the fly, expanding the scope of his search to include areas that were technically outside of the city limits and beyond the jurisdiction of the Las Vegas authorities.
Other entrepreneurs came up with the same idea, including a publishing magnate named Billy Wilkerson. In 1945, Wilkerson was working hard to break new ground on what he envisioned as the largest, brightest casino resort in town. Wilkerson’s project was centered around a lot a few miles south of downtown along a largely deserted road that eventually became Interstate 15.
At the time, this undeveloped desert land was only showing promise, plus a handful of “sawdust joints” or old-school arcades that saved on the frills gamblers that gamblers enjoy today.
Wilkerson’s dream was a full-size resort that combined a casino with a hotel tower, swimming pool, golf course, concert hall, and several other amenities previously unknown in Las Vegas.
Unfortunately, those dreams soon drained Wilkerson’s bank account and he was in dire need of six-figure extra funding.
Enter the ambitious Siegel and its East Coast mob connections … Siegel and his staff made Wilkerson an offer he could not refuse without disclosing his true identity or background. No, not that kind of offer, just a half a million dollar infusion to turn Wilkerson’s casino visions into reality.
What began as a joint investment of course quickly turned into a shake-down to end all shake-downs. Siegel was in love with the Las Vegas lifestyle and its lucrative nature and armed Wilkerson from his part in the casino project.
After Siegel named the joint The Flamingo Hotel and Casino, which was inspired by a long-legged lover who loved wearing pink dresses around town, she got to work. Thanks to the investments made by Lansky and the guys in New York, Siegel was soon spending exorbitant sums to complete the most glamorous casino in all of Las Vegas.
In December 1946, the flamingo finally opened its doors after co-opting its partners’ spending of $ 6 million – nearly $ 80 million in 2020, adjusted for inflation. Siegel had spent the last year promising his mob cohorts a huge return on their investment, thanks to The Flamingo’s alleged appeal for rolling “whales”.
Unfortunately, a hasty opening meant that these whales never showed up …
Arrogance and Bad Attitude Sever Mob Ties
After spending thousands hiring celebrity entertainers, Siegel expected wealthy gamers from the southwest to flock to The Flamingo.
When the venue held its much-anticipated opening, only the casino and lounge were fully functional while the hotel tower was still under construction. Gamers were greeted by the constant background noise of construction workers and, unable to stay on site, inevitably chose to stay at downtown casinos where the hotel was operating.
Losses increased almost instantly, and The Flamingo’s casino revenue could not offset the continued cost of building the hotel. Siegel’s temper regularly flared up, and he was even seen berating a family who had the courage to complain about the noise.
Soon after the cash flow its investors had expected to dry up, the mob leadership began to ponder possible explanations for the deficit. Lansky, who was based in Cuba at the time to control the island’s thriving casino industry, began to openly speculate about Siegel’s possible grievances in talks with his criminal cohorts.
In his memoir, fellow East Coast gangster Charles “Lucky” Luciano wrote the following indictment, brought by Lansky during a meeting of mob personalities known as the Havana Conference:
“Bugsy had cut that dough out of his construction budget, and he was sure Siegel was preparing to both skip and skim if the roof fell on him.”
Lansky justified his suspicions with the rumor that Siegel’s girlfriend in Las Vegas had secretly transferred large amounts of money to a shielded Swiss bank account.
Whether or not these rumors were true was irrelevant when it came to the mob’s code of honor. With Lansky abstaining, those attending the Havana conference voted to make a treaty over Siegel’s life.
For his part, Siegel tried to falter in the hope that the Flamingo’s hotel opening would bring the financial gain he had long promised. After the hotel was completed in early 1947, his vision for The Flamingo was finally realized. Well-heeled gamblers emerged from Los Angeles and the east, bringing The Flamingo back into profitability for the first time.
For Siegel, however, it was a classic “too little, too late” story as the treaty stayed in place over his life.
During a 41-year-old evening at his Beverly Hills home, 41-year-old Siegel was murdered by multiple gunshot wounds from a military-grade machine gun. In one apocryphal tale, Siegel is said to have been shot directly through the eye, but autopsy documents confirm that his eye socket did indeed suffer from exit wounds.
In any case, Siegel’s life and death were used by author Mario Puzo in his book “The Godfather” to create greedy casino owner Moe Greene. To this day, Mafia lovers refer to a shot through the eye as a “Moe Greene Special”.
Siegel’s legacy lives on in casino mega-resorts
While he may not have lived long enough to see The Flamingo flourish, Siegel’s vision for a flashy home for high rollers lives on to this day.
The Flamingo soon became Sin City’s most profitable casino resort following the acquisition of the new group of owners, led by Moe Sedway. Top entertainers like Sammy David Jr. and Lena Horne headlined the nightly shows, and the first property-wide air conditioner in Las Vegas kept guests playing comfortably day and night.
Six years after it opened, the Flamingo was followed by a second major casino resort on the Strip when Sahara debuted. Tropicana (1957), Tally-Ho (1963 – now known as Planet Hollywood), Caesars Palace (1966), and Circus Circus (1968) rounded out the Strip’s casino lineup that modern gamblers know and love.
But without Ben “Bugsy” Siegel, who is betting everything on The Flamingo, the world’s leading casino destination along the Las Vegas Strip might not have existed at all.
Modern-day sanitary corporate casinos may not admit it, but their place in Las Vegas history came about with an uneducated gangster who grew up on the streets of Brooklyn. By realizing that casinos can become all-inclusive hubs for all forms of entertainment – dining, dancing, and frolicking with celebrities – Bugsy Siegel revolutionized the industry.
While he ended in a gruesome way and never had the pleasure of watching The Flamingo, Siegel’s concept of a full-fledged casino resort remains the template for 2020. And appropriately, while competitors from Las Vegas are “golden” age “fell by the wayside is, the pale pink facade of the Flamingo is still glowing brightly amidst the strip’s skyline.