Some time back, I read something where Benjamin “Bugsey” Siegel had been voted as one of the Top Ten Entrepreneurs because of his dream to build The Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas. I wanted to throw up! Here’s the REAL story and I’m certain you’ll feel the same.
Siegel was a two-bit thug! He was part of Meyer Lanski’s Murder Incorporated and was best known as a killer and enforcer. He moved to the West Coast when things got too hot back East and was in charge of a number of mob-backed gambling ships that operated off the coast of Southern California.
Siegel came to Las Vegas to knock some heads together. After gaming was legalized in 1931, the Mob moved into Nevada, not to operate casinos but to use it as a place to launder money. Remember, there were gambling ships off all US coasts as well a casinos near the border with Canada and in Tijuana, Mexico.* Various “families” began to squabble over territories and the West Coast Boss sent Siegel to stop the fighting which had gone to a couple of actual shootouts – they didn’t want violence to draw attention and scare away the players.
It was during this trip that Siegel and a couple of partners bought a downtown hotel, The El Cortez. Siegel knew as much about operating a casino as a slug and ran an otherwise profitable property into a disaster. The partners put it up for sale and it was bought by a man who’d operated gambling places in the Midwest – we won’t name him here but locals will know who I’m talking about.
During this time, Siegel owned several other properties, including something called The Bingo Barn on the corner of California Street and the highway from Los Angeles – now the site of The Sahara Hotel.
A restaurateur by the name of Billy Wilkerson was the real dreamer behind The Flamingo. He wanted a Monte Carlo style class operation in Nevada and bought the land to start construction. To finance it, he borrowed money from less than reputable people, paid for a well-known architect to design it, and got another well-known contractor, Del Webb, to build it. He quickly got into financial difficulties which Siegel and his partners were only too willing to help him with. Before he knew what was happening, Wilkerson found himself out and Siegel took over. Times were tough what with WWII going on and it was hard to get qualified construction personnel, equipment, and supplies. Stuff would be delivered by day and stolen by night – often sold for exorbitant prices that went into you-know-who’s pockets. Another problem was Bugsey’s paranoia – he had a separate building erected to house his personal apartments and office. When the old part of The Flamingo was razed several years ago, a series of intricately hidden tunnels and passages were found. Siegel knew he was marked man and made sure he ha
d an escape hole in case. It also didn’t help that he reputedly ripped off his partners for an estimated $128,000 – big money back in those days.
From the start, The Flamingo was a disaster. Siegel couldn’t make up his mind as to when the Grand Opening would be and not a lot of people wanted to travel to a sleepy dump in the middle of the desert. The hotel wasn’t designed with common people in mind. Siegel was looking for high class types with lots of money, dining in a fine restaurant and enjoying class entertainment. There were no accommodations for the average Joe. From the minute the doors opened, the place lost money in huge amounts. His partners told him to fix things “or else”. That’s the real reason Bugsey found himself facing a shotgun in his girlfriend, Virginia Hill’s apartment in Hollywood. They didn’t come after him in Vegas because they knew about his bolt holes and security.
With Bugsey gone, the partners stepped in and made major changes to the operation; a coffee shop for the common visitors, a lounge with a bar just off the casino floor so people could gamble while well known entertainers performed.
The name? It’s rumored that it came from Virginia Hill’s nickname as “The Hollywood Flamingo” for her flaming red hair. It’s also interesting to note that Hill lasted less than a year after Bugsey’s demise, supposedly a suicide.
So that’s the REAL story. Hope you enjoyed it.
* I can’t pass up this opportunity! Ever had Caesar’s Salad? Wonder where it came from? It was created by a Chef in a posh restaurant patronized by Hollywood types in the 20’s and 30’s – in Tijuana – his name was Caesar and it was “his” salad.
This is an interesting tale that can be revisited again and again that is still regularly discussed among gambling experts with a nice game of Poker where you get to find out the explicit details of Bugsey Siegel was in the world of businessmen and entrepreneurs.