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Sin City Inc.

November 13, 2005|Marc Cooper | Marc Cooper is a contributing editor to the Nation and a columnist for L.A. Weekly. His latest book is "The Last Honest Place in America: Paradise and Perdition in the New Las Vegas."

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Sharks in the Desert

The Founding Fathers and Current Kings of Las Vegas

John L. Smith

Barricade Books: 400 pp., $24.95

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In the Desert of Desire

Las Vegas and the Culture of Spectacle

William L. Fox

University of Nevada Press: 186 pp., $24.95

ANY doubt that Las Vegas has become America's mainstream cultural capital -- the city that best embodies the nation's corporate ethos -- evaporated this year when the town was neatly chopped (as they say at the poker tables) between two behemoth corporations: Kirk Kerkorian's MGM Mirage acquired the Mandalay Resort Group and Harrah's Entertainment bought out Caesars Entertainment, thus becoming the largest casino company in the world. The two gambling titans now own almost every major property on the fabled Strip, the main attraction in a city that draws nearly 40 million tourists a year. The notable exceptions, Steve Wynn's Wynn Las Vegas and Sheldon Adelson's Venetian, are themselves part of multibillion-dollar publicly traded corporations. Tax receipts from the newly aggregated MGM Mirage and Harrah's alone now account for almost a third of Nevada's general fund revenue.

As the desert metropolis celebrates its centennial this year, it has completed its transition from a Sin City run by gun-toting mobsters to a New Las Vegas run by risk-averse Bluetooth-equipped MBAs. "Consolidation was the way of capitalism, and the gaming industry practiced that philosophy at hyperspeed," writes John L. Smith in "Sharks in the Desert: The Founding Fathers and Current Kings of Las Vegas."

A respected columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and author of several books on his hometown (including an acclaimed biography of Wynn), Smith has compiled an entertaining series of meticulously researched sketches on just about everyone who has ever owned a casino there. What makes his juicy, almost surreal tales of Vegas' founding fathers (roll over, Tom Jefferson!) so engrossing is that for decades, as Smith reminds us, this neon island in the desert was the only place in America where it was legal to be illegal. Indeed, Benny Binion, the founder of Fremont Street's legendary Horseshoe casino, must be the only multiple killer in U.S. history memorialized by a bronze statue of himself on a horse. "Men considered not only notorious but deadly in other communities had evolved into colorful characters in Las Vegas," Smith writes. "Binion admitted killing three men, was suspected of ordering several other murders, and had maintained a decades-long relationship with organized crime, but on Fremont Street, he was a gregarious cowboy gambler who allowed customers to play with as much cash as they could carry into the Horseshoe."

Countless other reprobates laundered themselves in the desert sun, most famously Bugsy Siegel. There was also Moe Dalitz, who came to Las Vegas from the Cleveland mob, partnered with the Teamsters Central States Pension Fund, created the lavish Desert Inn, backed a couple of other such "carpet joints" on the Strip and then went on to build the city's first full-service hospital and become a venerated philanthropist and B'nai B'rith man of the year.

The most richly detailed portraits in "Sharks in the Desert" are of the city's two contemporary mega-players, Kerkorian and Wynn -- the men most responsible for the accelerated modernization and corporatization of America's gambling mecca. Kerkorian, a reclusive but driven tennis-playing octogenarian, has on three occasions in Vegas history built the largest hotel in the world. He now controls a dozen casinos on or near the Strip and heads a $9-billion empire.

Wynn, for his part, revolutionized the casino industry in 1989, when, financed by Michael Milken's junk bonds, he opened the spectacular Mirage and proved that gambling resorts could make as much money, or more, from the shows, shops, restaurants and meeting rooms as from the slots and the card tables. Five years ago, Wynn suffered a humiliating blow when he was forced to sell his Strip holdings to Kerkorian. Now he's back, with the Wynn Las Vegas. Only in the corporate-bloated America of 2005 could his $2.7-billion property be seen as David to Kerkorian's Goliath.

Smith clearly delineates the supine posture assumed by Nevada authorities and regulators, who tolerated not only the unsavory casino operators of the Siegel-Dalitz era but also some of the slippery corporate shenanigans of the present. It's no accident that Vegas today enjoys what the pols like to call "broad bipartisan support": Local county commissioners and city council members accept paid consultancies from the casinos, while in Washington the industry is aggressively represented by Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic minority leader. The head of the casino trade association, meanwhile, is Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., an influential former chairman of the Republican National Committee.

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