The first time I ever went to Vegas, it was a sleepy little desert town living in the shade of Reno, the way Los Angeles lived in the shade of San Francisco.
I was there to cover the murder trial of an Irish war bride, Bridget Waters, who had come to Nevada to contest the divorce of a Nevadan who had married her and fathered their child while he was in the U.S. Army Air Corps in Northern Ireland.
She contested the divorce, all right. She shot him.
But what I remember most about that trip was the guided tour Bugsy Siegel gave the assembled press to his then-building Taj Mahal of hotel-casinos, the Flamingo.
Michelangelo was never prouder of any of his works than Bugsy was of that pink palace. He lovingly described every crystal in every chandelier. He spoke glowingly of the future of Las Vegas. There were only two hotels on the Strip in those days, but Bugsy predicted they soon would be wall-to-wall. He foresaw the round-the-clock gambling, the building boom, the great show places. Las Vegas would become the live-entertainment capital of the country, he bet. Great sporting events would be held there.
Bugsy's vision for Vegas was right on the mark. Unfortunately, so was the gunman who shot him through the window of his mansion in Beverly Hills the next spring.
Like Bridget Waters' husband, Bugsy got shot to death. Only, no one ever went to trial for Bugsy's death. It had not been a crime of passion. It had been a business deal. His shadow partners had not understood Bugsy's vision or, more to the point, had not become familiar with what was to become a staple of American commerce--the cost overrun. Bugsy wasn't cheating anybody. The honest contractors were. The Flamingo became Bugsy's headstone. In a way, all Las Vegas did.
I bring this up because I had lunch with the new breed of Las Vegas entrepreneur the other day. Steve Wynn didn't come west in a bulletproof car with a satchel of someone else's money. He came out of the prestigious Wharton School of Finance at an Ivy League institution, the University of Pennsylvania, with a degree in business management. He was as yuppie as they come. He was on his way to Wall Street, junk bonds, the BMW, fax machines and a mooring at Rye when he took a detour to run the family bingo business in Maryland.
He met and impressed the insurance tycoon, John D. MacArthur, who sent him on a chase to Las Vegas to check on some property the magnate had acquired there. "I lent a fool some money," MacArthur explained. Notes Wynn: "I found a closed hotel, an expired license." The only thing still operating was the mortgage.
Steve Wynn thought he'd stay a couple of months and then get back to the Long Island Railroad, the World Trade Center and golf in the Hamptons. But the gaming business began to fascinate him. "Wall Street didn't discover the gaming business till Atlantic City and Drexel-Burnham. Atlantic City woke up Wall Street," Wynn admits. Vegas woke up Steve Wynn.
Ownership in Las Vegas has largely passed from early-day hoods to Latter-day Saints, and when Wynn discovered what he called "the usual shenanigans, unlisted partners better known to the Detroit police" in the books, he unloaded the casino and began to buy into a downtown casino, the Golden Nugget. He hooked up with a Mormon banker to build a $14-million 600-room hotel on it. Wynn's aggressive management and attention to promotion made it a highly competitive entity.
State lotteries, off-track betting and local-option gambling are supposed to be turning Vegas into a ghost town, but Steve Wynn is putting the finishing touches on the first new Strip hotel in Vegas in years, the glittering 3,000-room Mirage. And its inaugural event will be the Sugar Ray Leonard-Roberto Duran fight on Dec. 7.
Fights have always been super-important to Las Vegas. They were super-important to Nevada. Reno had the Johnson-Jeffries fight; Goldfield had Joe Gans-Battling Nelson; Tonopah had Gans-Kid Herman. Max Baer fought Paolino Uzcudun and King Levinsky there.
Wynn wanted a big fight for his big opening. Leonard-Duran III became available when negotiations for the fight by Caesars stalled on the point that Caesars wanted a 2-for-1 package. They wanted the next Leonard-Thomas Hearns bout as well. Leonard's camp balked.
Wynn contacted Leonard's manager/lawyer, Mike Trainer. "I don't want a bidding war but I want the fight," he began. "You can have the fight for $8 million, no further commitments," Trainer told him. "Done," agreed Steve Wynn.
Wynn sees the fight as an act of faith in the future of Las Vegas: "They said three things were working against us: (1) the worst recession since 1929; (2) the airline turmoil caused by deregulation; (3) the placing of crap tables only minutes from New York City.
"We think Duran-Leonard will make history and we'll be part of it. Vegas is just growing. We'll have 70,000 rooms and grosses in the billions. If you can't have a good time in Vegas, where can you?"
Bugsy Siegel staked his life on the future of Vegas. Compared to that, Steve Wynn figures, what's a few hundred million?