In the CBS version of Las Vegas in the 1960s, it’s pretty easy to know who the bad guy is: Michael Chiklis’ mobbed-up Vegas antihero struts around his casino wearing a black fedora, has federal witnesses bumped off, and tries to charm the new sheriff with free champagne. He’s smooth, cunning and completely in control.
In Las Vegas circa 2012, that bad guy’s actually considered a pretty good guy. We’ve rewritten our history to suit the cinematic notion of the mobster as an action hero, a four-color study in pure, brutal power. Most of the real connected guys who settled in Vegas though, were boringly, sometimes devastatingly good at running their businesses. And they left the black fedoras and bloodlust at home. Moe Dalitz was perhaps the most influential of them all.
Morris Barney Dalitz, born in 1899, came of age just as Prohibition went into effect in January 1920. He’d been helping out with his father’s Ann Arbor, Mich., laundry business, and it didn’t take him long to figure out that laundry trucks could double as rum-running wagons, speeding bootlegged liquor from over the Canadian border to Cleveland and Detroit.
Known as the leader of the Mayfield Road Gang, a criminal combine that trafficked in liquor throughout the Lake Erie area, Dalitz held his own in the violent, lawless underworld of the 1920s, but he also maintained “legitimate” businesses, including his father’s and others’ laundries—not exactly the stuff they make movies about. When Prohibition ended in 1933, he moved into running illegal casinos in Ohio and Kentucky; from there, it was a natural step to take over Wilbur Clark’s stalled Desert Inn project in 1949. Nearing the age of 50, Dalitz moved to Las Vegas and, like many other former lawbreakers, became more or less legitimate.
Dalitz’s relationship with Clark is the story of the Strip in microcosm. Dalitz, with cash and connections, actually ran the Desert Inn, while Clark, a preternaturally likable fellow, pressed the flesh and smiled for the cameras. The arrangement suited both men: Clark liked “running” a casino, and Dalitz liked making money for himself and his partners.
That Dalitz had such a low public profile only makes him seem that much more sinister to those who view the past through conspiracy-colored glasses. Surely he was a mob boss along the lines of Tony Soprano, commanding an army of henchmen and giving orders for guys to be whacked: evil and cunning, but with a soft heart and a fondness for his mother’s spaghetti sauce—or, in this case, rugelach.
In all likelihood, it wasn’t nearly that exciting. From what we can tell, Dalitz’s biggest crime in Las Vegas was abiding the ongoing skimming operation at the Desert Inn that directed somewhere in the range of 10 percent of the casino’s gross annual revenues to underworld figures in other cities. Strictly speaking, that’s embezzlement and fraud, and it was hardly a victimless crime: The state was denied tax revenues, and some of that money bankrolled illegal activities elsewhere in the country. But there wasn’t much bloody Hollywood glamor to the skim. Dalitz and his peers didn’t see themselves as criminals; they saw themselves as businessmen trying to make an honest living in a sometimes-dishonest profession. These were often men already in middle age; this was the business they knew, and when they came to the desert, they stayed in it.
And what did it get them? On the casino floor, to be sure, his power was immense, and his wealth allowed him a degree of prestige and influence in Las Vegas that, at first, might seem untoward for a man of his past. When he talked, people listened.
The ever-popular epithet “mob boss” mischaracterizes and romanticizes Dalitz, but “shady businessman” doesn’t do him justice. He was also a legendary philanthropist and a business-and-civic visionary. He saw the Desert Inn Golf Course (which he opened in 1952) as the first step toward making Las Vegas a complete tourist destination—a process that continues today. He founded the Nevada Resort Association with the understanding that the Strip’s dueling personalities had to set aside their differences to work for their common good. Sunrise Hospital and the Boulevard Mall are just two of the better known off-the-Strip projects that Dalitz, with his peers, got built.
None of this is saying that Dalitz’s good deeds in Las Vegas should wash out his crimes here, or that his late-in-life aspirations for respectability absolve him of his violent early days, particularly since it’s likely he was still funneling cash back to Cleveland and Chicago right up until he sold the Desert Inn to Howard Hughes in 1967. But his legacy is more nuanced than today’s wave of antihero nostalgia would have it.
The image of Las Vegas as created by a shadowy network of guys out of The Godfather is a powerful one. In fact, it’s a classic Western motif: Outlaw comes to town, settles down, and makes good. It’s the kind of story that affirms our faith in the civilizing power of civic life. Today, the idea of fearsome mobster as founding father is particularly reassuring to city boosters. Once casino executives stopped worrying about wiretaps and car bombs, Las Vegas started developing a weird longing for the mob.
This only seems to have intensified in the past few years as the city has struggled. It might be a question of identity: Since we’re no longer America’s Favorite Boomtown, we need something to grab onto, a harder edge on the Rat Pack nostalgia that started with Swingers in 1996 and continues to this day. And it makes our own stumbles in community-building easier to take. After all, the last generation had the power of the mob behind it. We mere mortals, there’s only so much we can do.
That’s why it feels so much better to imagine Moe Dalitz as a mob boss—a man ruling a vast criminal underworld barely a step ahead of the law—than to imagine him as a businessman who didn’t much respect the law and perhaps never really reformed, but who also helped build Las Vegas.