In the spring of 1995, I took a late flight to Las Vegas, arriving after dark. For the first time, I got an aerial view of the lights of the Las Vegas Strip at night. It was a wonder to behold.
The Las Vegas Strip is a 4-mile-long, half-mile-wide district along Las Vegas Boulevard. It is home to 15 of the 25 largest hotels in the world — a sprawling entertainment and tourist mecca and one of the gaudiest, tackiest, most opulent arrays of casinos, resorts, and teeming humanity known to man.
The Vegas Strip is larger than life and over the top — similar to Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Oktoberfest in Munich, except the Strip is permanent and continuous, around the clock, without end.
The Strip includes such big names as Caesar’s Palace, Bellagio, Mandalay Bay, The Mirage, Luxor, Treasure Island, The Venetian, Paris, The Flamingo, Bally’s, and New York-New York, as well as a plethora of less flamboyant properties.
Technically, the Strip is not in Las Vegas. It’s located just outside the city limits along a section of old U.S. Highway 91, seven miles south of the actual downtown. The site grew up years ago after the established “sawdust joints” in the city closed ranks to keep out competition.
Why and how did the Las Vegas Strip evolve? Therein lies a tale.
The first nightclub on U.S. 91, the Pair-O-Dice Club, opened in 1930. Other clubs followed, all in the small, “sawdust joint” category.
Then in 1945, Hollywood businessman Billy Wilkerson arrived with big plans. Wilkerson, the owner of the Hollywood Reporter and several Sunset Strip nightclubs, purchased 33 acres along U.S. 91, intending to build a luxury hotel and resort that would out-fancy anything ever built.
Wilkerson’s dream property began to take shape, but he faced a wartime economy. Material costs were prohibitive. The project quickly ran into financial trouble, and Wilkerson had to seek new financing.
Enter mobster Ben “Bugsy” Siegel.
Siegel, a nationally-known gangster who had left New York and established himself in Hollywood, wanted to expand his business interests to Las Vegas. So did the New York mob. Siegel’s influential friend Meyer Lansky, AKA the Mob’s Accountant, convinced the syndicate bosses to allow Siegel to be their point man.
Posing as a legitimate businessman, Siegel approached the anxious Wilkerson with an offer of enough cash to complete the project. Bankrolled by Lansky and others in the mob, Siegel made a deal that gave him two-thirds ownership of the property.
Siegel took over from Wilkerson during the final stages of the new resort’s construction. Between Siegel’s utter lack of experience, gouging by suppliers, and skimming by everyone involved, construction costs went off the scale.
When the Flamingo Hotel and Casino opened in December 1946, it was billed as the world’s most luxurious hotel. It was the first deluxe hotel on the Strip — but had cost about $62 million in today’s dollars.
Still, Siegel was optimistic. He described the Flamingo as “a real class joint” and was determined to make it succeed.
Siegel named the resort after his girlfriend, Virginia Hill, a native of Bessemer, Alabama, who grew up in Marietta, Georgia. Because of her long, skinny legs, Hill’s nickname was the Flamingo.
In her teens, Hill had left Georgia to seek her fortune in Chicago. While working as a dancer (some say a prostitute), she began dating a mob underling. From there, thanks to her good looks, brains, and moxy, she worked her way up to become what Time Magazine later described as “queen of the gangster molls.”
Bolstered by her connections, Hill went to Hollywood to become a star. It didn’t happen, but in Hollywood, she met Siegel, who was as brassy and tough and short of fuse as she was. The two began a fiery and passionate relationship.
Like Wilkerson before him, Siegel was in over his head with the fledgling Flamingo Hotel.
The business was showing modest profits, but not enough to satisfy the syndicate bosses. The Flamingo represented their debut on the highly-promising Las Vegas Strip, and they wanted results. They suspected that Siegel was stalling while helping himself to the profits.
By all accounts, that was true. And Siegel’s arrogant attitude only made his situation worse.
Three times, the mob chiefs met in Havana to address the Flamingo situation. Twice, Lansky convinced them to give the enterprise more time.
But by the third meeting, even Lansky relented. The mob voted to take over the Flamingo themselves — which could be accomplished by taking Siegel out of the picture and making an example of him at the same time, if you get my drift.
The deed was done in June 1947 in the Beverly Hills home of Virginia Hill. She had stormed out after a fight with Siegel and flown to Paris in a huff.
As Siegel sat reading the Los Angeles Times, shots from an M1 carbine came through a window and struck Siegel multiple times, including twice in the head.
Twenty minutes later, Siegel’s top lieutenant, accompanied by a representative of New York’s Genovese crime family, walked into the Flamingo Hotel and announced that they were in charge. Nobody objected.
In Paris, when told about Siegel’s murder, Hill reportedly fainted. Later, when the police interviewed her, she was typically unhelpful.
“If anyone or anything was his mistress, it was that Las Vegas hotel,” she said. “I never knew Ben was involved in all that gang stuff. I can’t imagine who shot him or why.”
Today, only a few decades after the mob bosses helped to build the Las Vegas Strip, the place is “family friendly” and going strong.
How much mob involvement remains? As a humble writer, I haven’t a clue. But it would be naive to think their influence has disappeared.
Over the decades, the Flamingo changed ownership often. It is owned today by Caesars Entertainment, an umbrella corporation that controls half the properties on the Strip.
As for the Flamingo’s namesake, Virginia Hill, she continued to serve as a mob courier and sought-after “companion” after Siegel’s murder. But soon, with the IRS closing in, she moved to Europe with her third husband, a former Sun Valley ski instructor.
In 1966, at age 49, Hill was living in Austria, nearly broke. She was still in fear of the IRS and some of her mob acquaintances, deeply despondent over the loss of her youth and ability to turn heads.
One night, she went outside, stretched out in a snowdrift, and swallowed a fatal dose of sleeping pills.
Today, one of the attractions at the Flamingo resort is a 15-acre wildlife habitat, where a flock of Chilean flamingos resides with a variety of ducks, swans, turtles, sturgeon, and koi.
In September 2012, two new residents were added to the menagerie: a pair of brown pelicans that were rescued in Hawaii after being injured by fishing lines. The birds were nursed back to health, but are no longer able to fly. The habitat is now their home.
When the two pelicans arrived, a contest was held among the Flamingo’s employees to name them.
The overwhelming choice: Bugsy and Virginia.