“It’s about damn time” was the most common comment we heard in the receiving line that night in the winter of 1976, when Las Vegas was dressed up and ready to honor my father, Moe Dalitz, for his lifetime of contributions to the community.
The American Cancer Research Center and Hospital was presenting him with its Humanitarian Award. On that glittering night, in a ballroom atop the old MGM Grand, overlooking the city he loved and helped to build, Moe Dalitz stood surrounded by the town’s finest citizens: its political power brokers, celebrities, friends, business partners … and me, his then-19-year-old daughter.
He had reached the pinnacle of respectability, of city fatherhood, after half a lifetime spent struggling for it. But that night was also the pinnacle of irony, and Moe knew it.
The Las Vegas of 1976 had been doing its level best to deny the civic paternity of men like my dad, in spite of all of the tracks they had left here, the irrefutable civic DNA. He had been variously labeled “the city’s most notorious gangster,” “mobster,” “racketeer”—this even as he helped to build the heart of the city. Lauded and eviscerated in the local press, he could have gotten a Pulitzer easier than a gaming license.
My dad claimed to have been a legitimate businessman since Prohibition ended. True or not, by 1976 he had been nowhere near the business end of a count room in a decade. But that mobster mystique, once it attaches itself to you, sticks. This was true in spite of the fact that, with his partners in Paradise Development Co., he was building important real estate projects, including condominiums, shopping centers, a country club and a hospital. He was proud of his city. He would tee off in 110-degree midday heat and gloat: “You just can’t beat this climate.”
That night, watching the town pay homage, I could not have been more proud to call Moe Dalitz my father.
The years after my birth in 1957 were spent with Moe and my mother, Averill, in a house built conspicuously in the middle of the Desert Inn hotel, right on the golf course. Most of the other executive families lived in posh mid-century-style houses bordering the fairways—the greens forming our own wild, private park. We swam in each other’s pools, played in the evening sprinklers, stomped barefoot in the sand traps. I had the vaguest sense of the city rising around me from the desert scrub. We went to the other hotels for shows, where we were called onstage to dance with Chubby Checker or to be serenaded by Danny Kaye. We went downtown for the parades and Wild West curios. Otherwise, the DI was the center of our universe.
“Who the hell will ever go all the way out there?” my mother said when the Tropicana opened on the remote “other” end of the Strip.
The play-yard hierarchies of the “hotel kids” mirrored those of our parents. Since my father was “The Man” in Vegas, I was the one with ponies, tricked-out playhouses and a miniature red battery-powered convertible. I heard the word “princess” quite a bit. I was also familiar with “spoiled brat.”
Our mothers reigned over the social life of the country club, decked in silk Capri pants and tight bosomy blouses. Perfectly manicured hands cut cards in an endless series of gin rummy games.
The hotel parties (many of them costumed) were boozy and out of this world. I have the photographs to prove it. My father, his cohorts and their wives were at the peak of their powers, in the hot, swinging middle of the Las Vegas Golden Age. In those old pictures, everyone looks fabulously dressed and drunk as sailors.
Stranger still are the family publicity stills—Moe and Averill posed in our living room, gazing down at me. I don’t know what we were selling then, but now they look like trippy shots of life-size 1950s dioramas. You can almost see the dark foreshadowing. By the early 1960s, powerful political forces were charting a new course for Las Vegas, and the happy Dalitz family days were numbered.
On New Year’s Eve, at the age of 5, I was awakened by my mother before midnight, dressed up as the New Year’s baby with a sash that said 1963, and instructed to drive my red miniature T-Bird around the dance floor to ring in the year. Allard Roen’s daughter Judy was forced to don Father Time’s skullcap and beard and drive an old toy Jeep to the tune of Auld Lang Syne. Revelers hooted and clapped at the sight of us.
The pictures of that night show something else: Moe was forcing his smiles, and Averill looked like she was about to bolt. By spring, I lived with my mother in Mexico.
My parents’ divorce coincided with escalating mob violence as investigations proliferated and power was reshuffled. A few years later, Howard Hughes moved into the upper two floors of the Desert Inn. “A kook,” my dad called him.
When Hughes bought the DI, he ushered in a new era for the delicate social structures of the town and precipitated a noticeable diminishing of gift ponies to me. “You know, it’s not like it was,” everyone began saying.
I came back to Las Vegas from our new home in Acapulco, visiting Dad in his unfamiliar new roles as regular businessman and single father. We lived in a suite at the Frontier until he built the Regency Towers. He got Al Sachs to hire me at the Stardust as a showroom reservations clerk. We lunched at the Las Vegas Country Club. We spent long, boring summers touring the Arizona desert in his RV.
Blindsided by my unexpected bloom of womanhood, my dad considered everyone around me an assassin. He scared my boyfriends half to death. He didn’t take my rebellious years, liberal politics and youthful indiscretions particularly well, either. We made it through, though, and he gamely walked me down the bridal aisle. Twice.
My father never left Las Vegas, though at times he felt it had left him. A realist, he knew there is always a line of new City Fathers waiting to lay claim. The Strip today would be as familiar to him as the mountains on Mars.
Dad watched Las Vegas like he watched me: from a certain distance, with unconditional love, surprise, disappointment, fury and always with a father’s hope for a wide-open future.