Green Felt Jungle

The Book That Tried to End Las Vegas

In The Green Felt Jungle, two muckraking reporters described our city as the great American cesspool. Fifty years later, we’re still shaking off the muck.

Green Felt Jungle

Las Vegas is a city in statistics only. In every other aspect, it is a jungle—a jungle of green-felt crap tables, roulette layouts and slot machines in which the entire population, directly or indirectly, is devoted to fleecing tourists. – Opening paragraph of The Green Felt Jungle

When Trident Press released The Green Felt Jungle on December 13, 1963, it promised to tell the real story of Las Vegas. Most residents winced; this could only be bad news.

For $4.95, readers could read tales of cash, crime and corruption. And sex—plenty of sex. Authors Ed Reid and Ovid Demaris meshed gossip, innuendo and rehashed reportage in a book whose premise—that the mob owned Las Vegas, body and soul—was anathema to Nevadans. Two talented writers—Reid won a Pulitzer in 1951 for his investigations into Brooklyn organized crime, and Demaris was in the midst of a string of best-sellers—were tackling the glitzy gambling oasis. It couldn’t miss.

And it didn’t: The Green Felt Jungle jumped onto the best-seller lists and became an instant touch point in a national conversation about organized crime that had been intensifying over the previous decade and a half. The Kefauver Committee, which met in 1950 and 1951, had revealed for the first time to the broad American public the existence of the mafia as a national threat. Throughout the decade, a series of revelations—including the 1957 Apalachin incident, in which a New York State Police roadblock disrupted an alleged mafia grand council meeting—heightened the fear that sinister forces were at work. In his 1960 book, The Enemy Within, Robert F. Kennedy outlined the financial, social and moral threat that organized crime posed to America, a danger worse than that of the communist enemy beyond our borders. And, in October 1963, on the eve of publication, mafia turncoat Joseph Valachi’s testimony before Congress finally tore off the veil of secrecy that had shrouded the mob.

Now that citizens knew the mob existed, they were ready to see mobsters everywhere: not just at the local waterfront or in the backroom of a Brooklyn social club, but taking over legitimate businesses and corrupting the political process. But gangsters next door, while a potent fear, didn’t make a good story. Why, for example, would citizens of Toledo care about corruption in Phoenix? To dramatize the threat that organized crime posed, you needed to find mob corruption at its most brutal and most enthralling, its most sordid and glamorous.

In 1963, that could lead to only one place: Las Vegas.

I. The Vegas Response

There are more “socially prominent” hoodlums per square foot in Las Vegas than in any other community in the world. To fully document the sinister deeds of all these thugs, panderers, thieves, hopheads and murderers would require a shelf of volumes the size of the Encyclopedia Britannica. They hail from every section of the country, and all of them are men of enormous wealth, power, connection, ego, appetite, temper and ignorance.~ Page 184

The Green Felt Jungle hit Las Vegas like a tidal wave. Before the book was off the presses, it seemed, there were copies in every gaming pit in town. Everyone knew that the book was a pack of fabrications, half-truths and tall tales, but they needed to read it for themselves.

Higher up the food chain, Meyer Lansky himself called an emergency meeting at the Fremont casino’s coffee shop, gathering together a small but influential group: Lansky himself, who didn’t officially own a hot dog stand in Las Vegas, but whom had long been alleged to secretly own shares in most major casinos; Eddie Levinson, part-owner and operator of the Fremont; and Bobby Ayoub, casino manager of the Fremont, respected for his skill in protecting the house from cheats.

Ed Walters, then a floorman working at the Sands who had stopped by the Fremont, was invited in to offer some perspective from the younger generation. He recalls that the older generation had already made up its mind: This book was bad news.

“They were furious,” Walters remembers. “They just couldn’t believe it.”

Keep in mind, these were men who, as a rule, checked their emotions. An angry outburst in a public place, in a casino where you owned a hidden stake no less, that was almost unthinkable. Clearly, The Green Felt Jungle had struck a nerve.

You might guess why they were worried: A big chunk of the book is transcripts of clandestine recordings Reid made as a reporter for Hank Greenspun’s Las Vegas Sun in 1954. The recordings had detailed Lansky’s hidden interests in Las Vegas; the Sun articles that followed helped lead to corruption indictments of public officials and, more importantly, to the Legislature’s creation of the Gaming Control Board. The new board was dedicated to chasing “undesirables” out of the industry, and it pursued its job with zeal: The Thunderbird was almost shut down because of its connection to Lansky.

So, another round of this, 10 years on? Who knew where it could lead?

But here’s the strange thing: It wasn’t the book’s allegations—that Lansky secretly owned Nevada casinos, that mob goons ran the rest of the town, that politicians could be bought cheap—that so bothered Lansky and his associates. Because, when they thought about it, those were just rumors that had been floating around for years, and these weren’t men who got upset about a little bad publicity.

No, it was the book’s appendix that had shaken up the wise guys. It contained something worse: a list of the registered shareholders in each Las Vegas casino.

If mobsters hated one thing, it was having their finances exposed. For years, the Tax Commission, then the Gaming Commission, had quietly given owners the thumbs up or thumbs down, with no public exposure to anyone. Now, what if prosecutors decided to start digging through those names? Many of them were really fronts for men known to the police around the country. Sunlight could be the death of them all.

The four men talked about what could be done, what should be done. So much of it was out of their hands. Lansky tasked the Fremont’s Ayoub and Levinson with solving the problem before it really became a problem.

“I don’t want a grand jury here, guys. Handle this properly,” Lansky said to Ayoub before he left.

There was one thing that Walters couldn’t figure out: How had Lansky gotten to Las Vegas? The FBI, he knew, was searching for Lansky, following up on rumors he was in Cuba or Israel. He asked Ayoub how Lansky had managed to make it to Las Vegas.

“Yeah, they looked all over the fucking world for him,” Ayoub said. “They just didn’t look in the coffee shop.”

Walters recalls that, to see whether Jungle was going to spur more government action, Levinson had reached out to former Lieutenant Governor Clifford “Big Juice” Jones, the champion fixer of Nevada gaming. Was the state going to start investigating who was behind the names in that book? In Walters’ retelling, Levinson got the answer he was looking for:

As long as the paper owners are who they say they are, it’s fine with us. What they want to do with their money after they get it is their business.

In other words, anyone caught hiding his interest in a casino by registering under an alias could expect trouble. But if a licensable friend registered in his own name and then decided to kick his share of the profits back to the real investor, well, the state didn’t want or need to know about it.

When word of this gentleman’s agreement trickled out, the owners—and those behind the owners, in and out of town—relaxed.

Other Las Vegans weren’t so easily soothed. Their city’s honor had been besmirched. The Sun’s Greenspun was one of the most outraged, partially because he felt a sense of personal betrayal. Reid, after all, had done his investigations while working for Greenspun. The publisher had campaigned as boldly as anyone against mob corruption in gaming and politics, and he was taken aback by The Green Felt Jungle’s broad-brush condemnation of all of Las Vegas. Worse yet, Reid had used the Sun’s raw files—which mixed legitimate leads with unsubstantiated gossip—and printed them as verified truth.

“I wouldn’t have minded if he just took the verified material,” Greenspun said in a 1979 UNLV oral history interview. “But he took the unverified material. Although Ed at one time was a very good investigative reporter, in his desire to sell a book he had to sensationalize it. Well, that’s worse than McCarthyism, using the raw files.”

So Greenspun, almost alone among the city’s defenders, struck back: He flew to New York City to defend the honor of his city on David Susskind’s syndicated Open End television program. He appeared opposite Reid, Demaris and other known opponents of Las Vegas. But there was more at stake than just wounded pride. The Justice Department was already running roughshod over the Strip in its search for evidence of mob ties. If an ambitious prosecutor got it into his head to convene a grand jury, or Congress decided to tighten the screws, things would be rough for everyone. So, the city held its breath. How would America greet The Green Felt Jungle?

II. Meditations on a Cesspool

Nevada does not have a monopoly on corruption. But it does have somewhat of a special priority. Today there is nothing sacred in Nevada, nothing immune from political corruption. Everything is for sale—from the life-giving force of water to the personal freedoms and human rights guaranteed to every American citizen under the constitution.~ Page 171

Residents of other cities gobbled up The Green Felt Jungle. The authors, The New York Times declared, “performed a service in blueprinting the underworld permeation of [Las Vegas’] gaudy pleasure palaces.” And The Times-Picayune, writing from New Orleans, a city with no passing history of corruption, crowed that Reid and Demaris, through “penetrating research,” had told readers “what Las Vegas really is, a cesspool of crime fed by organized gambling.”

Five Howlers from The Green Felt Jungle

“Unless you are addicted to gambling, drinking, or fornication, the Las Vegas action soon becomes a bore, and most sensible guests find themselves getting restless after two or three days and are ready to call it quits and go home.” – Page 3

“There are eighty-one places of worship in Las Vegas, but there is only one true god—money. In Las Vegas, money is at the root of all evil, legal or illegal.” – Page 5

“There is no one as suspicious as a hoodlum. The bigger the hoodlum, the more suspicious he is. The suspicion is almost intuitive. In the crime business, it is a substitute for brains.” – Page 52

“Whether Nevada admits it or not, it is paying an insidious price for basing its economic structure on the weaknesses of its fellow man. Vice and corruption work from within, and like the genetic effects of radiation, the moral mutation may not be evident until it is too late to reverse.” – Page 97

“There are two things Las Vegas has in greater ratio than any other city in the world: money and whores.” – Page 110

Part of the book’s appeal was its vividness. Names were named, barbarities alleged, and, if not proven, described in close enough detail to make them believable. Reid and Demaris didn’t spare any gratuitous detail to illustrate how disgusting Las Vegas really was. The truth, they assured readers, was worse than anything anyone could have suspected.

For example, it was well known that the mob had its own ways of dealing with cheaters—a vicious beating or a one-way ride out to the desert. But Reid and Demaris wildly upped the ante, offering a yarn about a cheating dealer who first had his hands pulverized by casino security. This lucky fellow was then reportedly taken outside, superficially treated by a mob-owned doctor, who, forswearing the Hippocratic oath, did not set the broken bones. Goons then confiscated his shoes, drove him “to the edge of town” (about a mile or two in those days) and commanded him to walk to Barstow. “No goddamn hitchhiking, either. We’re gonna check on you all the way.”

Reid and Demaris report this absolutely straight, not bothering to look any further into these extraordinary claims. Assuming the traumatized dealer could pace at an ambitious four miles per hour, the trek to Barstow would require nearly 40 hours of nonstop walking—through the Mojave desert, without shoes, food or water.

So you wonder, how could two experienced investigative reporters not ask questions before rushing to print? Was there really a doctor so depraved that he’d willfully maim a patient? And why bother driving a bleeding man a mile or two when you’re going to make him walk 150 miles? And how would the goons check up on him? Would they send a chase car, inching along old Highway 91 behind the dealer? Did they have sentries posted?

The authors didn’t even bother checking into such minor details as the man’s name, or whether anyone by that description had a) ever worked in Las Vegas or b) been reported dead, as certainly he would have ended up. And they certainly didn’t bother following up with interviews of law enforcement, family and friends.

This wasn’t an isolated excess: Reid and Demaris vacuumed up just about every stray anecdote they found and passed it on without verifying a word. And it’s no surprise that the city’s reputation suffered. It was nearly impossible to rebut vague innuendo with facts: How does one prove that a nameless dealer wasn’t abused by nameless thugs? And, while people living in Las Vegas knew much of the book was, at best, exaggerated, those who didn’t had no way to distinguish fact from exaggeration from fiction.

*****
 

Oscar Goodman arrived in Las Vegas in 1964, when the country was still buzzing about Jungle. Even before he’d moved here, he learned that his future hometown had a public relations problem on its hands.

“Everybody in the world,” he says, “gave my father a copy of the book when they found out where I was planning to move. It got to the point that he started telling people that I was moving to Phoenix.”

The book came out at a pivotal point in the American public’s perceptions of Las Vegas, and Las Vegas’ perceptions of the rest of the country. In the 1920s and ’30s, the national press considered the city a tolerable throwback to the frontier of yore. As the federal government started pouring money into the region—first with the Hoover Dam, then the Las Vegas Army Airfield (the future Nellis Air Force Base) and Basic Magnesium during World War II, and finally with the Nevada Test Site in the 1950s—Las Vegans felt that the rest of the country supported them. Occasional sallies against the state’s “peculiar institution” of legalized gambling, such as the Kefauver Committee’s, were seen as isolated outbursts.

But then, in the Kennedy years, the situation changed. Bobby’s Justice Department put the screws to casino owners, with blanket investigations and illegal wiretaps (which ultimately yielded little in the way of convictions). By the 1970s, the IRS would start taxing dealer tokes, leading to more local animosity toward the feds. So if The Green Felt Jungle did its best to stir Americans up against Las Vegas, it also came at a moment when Las Vegans were beginning to long for the federal government to leave it in peace.

In the book, though, that emerging distrust is a one-way street. When Reid and Demaris discuss the misbehavior of federal officials, they place the blame squarely on the all-corrupting nature of Las Vegas. They devote almost an entire chapter discussing how Patrick Mooney, the chief field deputy of the IRS for Nevada, was caught extorting “investments” in a sham corporation from individuals and businesses he had threatened with audits. But rather than treating this as a cautionary tale about the dangers of an overreaching federal government (a danger that would gain new currency in 1964 with the revelation of the FBI’s illegal wiretaps of casino owners), Reid and Demaris depict Mooney’s behavior as yet another sign that Las Vegas turned everything to filth.

III. Image Was Everything

If set to music, Nevada’s political chicanery would rival Guys and Dolls as a smash Broadway musical … The voters, known as citizens in the other 49 states, are mostly indolent transients—temporary lodgers seated at the end of a rainbow, stubbornly waiting for their pot of gold. Except for a few irascible natives, no one takes the state of Nevada seriously.~ Page 149

After the initial furor, Las Vegans did their best to forget about the book.

“There was a hum and a buzz,” Goodman says of the book’s initial release, “but those of us who lived here knew what Las Vegas was about. There were no surprises for locals. Most of us shrugged and went on our way.”

Outside of the city, though, The Green Felt Jungle was received quite differently. For one, non-Las Vegans didn’t have the benefit of seeing the city and its citizens for themselves. And many of them hadn’t heard the old stories before. As the anecdotes piled up, one after another, readers could only conclude, like The Times-Picayune, that Las Vegas was a cesspool. How else were they to react to the authors’ insistence that “the green-felt jungle is one big whorehouse”? What were they to think when they read the unattributed assertion that “a conservative 10 percent” of the entire population was connected, one way or another, with prostitution? And it wasn’t just the whores themselves: Reid and Demaris wrote that cabbies, bartenders, newsboys, casino security—even liquor-store owners—were peddling flesh. The city had its more-or-less professional prostitutes, its hustlers who would bed high-rollers (or even low ones) if the money was right, and its “weekenders”—“normal girls” who came to Las Vegas to make a little extra money. No woman within a casino, according to the authors, was off limits. Any cocktail waitress or showgirl could be had, on the command of the management, if a visitor was betting enough.

What on earth was America to make of this place, this Las Vegas, where even the virtue of tolerance was described in lurid tones? “Homosexuals are … in demand,” Reid and Demaris wrote. “And many have found a new home in Las Vegas, where they can indulge their perversion with dignity and grow wealthy at the same time.” The book also advanced the theory that “most ‘practicing’ Las Vegas lesbians are not physiologically or psychologically lesbians, but rather bisexual through degeneracy. … They are the particular favorites of the wealthy lesbian guests who visit the Strip.”

The people of Middle America could read such sentences and despise Las Vegas. Or they could make it their next vacation spot.

IV. The Afterlife of a Best-Seller

Make no mistake about it, this is war: war against parasites and sycophants who feed and grow strong on human weakness. It is total war, and there is no middle ground … it’s either fight now or let the hoodlum horse dump us into that trench just in time for somebody else to come along and bury us. Remember, Rome succumbed to the barbarians only after it had succumbed to its own decadence.~ Page 231

Reid and Demaris wrote The Green Felt Jungle as a call to sweep the filth of Las Vegas from the Republic. No one picked up a broom.

It’s not that the book wasn’t popular; it was. The Green Felt Jungle stayed on The New York Times best-seller list for 23 weeks in 1964, and it had a long second life in paperback.

And, while the book wasn’t much discussed in Las Vegas by 1967, outside of the city it had a long influence. Into the 1980s, when Oscar Goodman was representing clients in jurisdictions around the country, he could tell within a few minutes of entering the courtroom which judges had read The Green Felt Jungle. It thrived as both a lurid paperback and as something that educated Americans digested and remembered.

“Those who had read the book looked at me like I was a less-than-legitimate lawyer,” Goodman says. “I always knew I’d have to work harder in the first day or two of the trial to overcome that.”

For a generation—until the UNLV basketball team ran to glory in 1990 and megaresorts made the Strip respectable in the following decade—the book continued to define Las Vegas for many outsiders. The Green Felt Jungle had told Americans that Las Vegas was immoral, and they believed it. But they kept on coming. The number of annual visitors to Las Vegas continued to climb—reaching 12 million in 1965—and casino coffers continued to fill. Worse still, the federal government was actually helping Las Vegas; the completion of the span of Interstate 15 linking Los Angeles to Las Vegas in 1966 made it easier and quicker for Angelenos to visit.

Why didn’t the nation heed the Green Felt battle cry? Mostly, timing. Ten years earlier, and the book would have played off of the then-growing vigilance toward organized crime inspired by Kefauver. Had it been published in early 1955, before the Gaming Control Board had been set up, it’s plausible that The Green Felt Jungle could have prodded Congress to take action against Las Vegas casinos—as only the politicking of Nevada’s congressional delegation, particularly Pat McCarran, had prevented it from doing earlier in the decade.

As it was, in December 1963 the country had bigger things to worry about than a few former bootleggers siphoning revenues from casinos in the middle of the desert: John F. Kennedy had just been assassinated, Fidel Castro seemed to have nine lives, American “advisers” were streaming into Vietnam, and the nation was deeply divided over civil rights. Perhaps in some weird alternate reality, Americans would have gathered to burn keno slips instead of draft cards; but in our history, Las Vegas remained a refuge for some, a symbol for others (witness Hunter S. Thompson’s “wave speech” in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), and just beyond the edge of interest for others.

Within a few years, the city that Reid and Demaris hated began to disappear anyway. Howard Hughes arrived and bought a big piece of Las Vegas from the old guard. The Corporate Gaming Acts brought in companies like Hilton and saw local operators such as Showboat—and a little casino company up north called Harrah’s—go public.

Today we look back at The Green Felt Jungle with a curious mix of revulsion and nostalgia. As Las Vegans, we bristle at the charges that we’re a tribe of whores and whoremongers, that our choice of residence or accident of birth has rendered us ethically diseased.

But there’s also a bit of a thrill in seeing our backwater politicians, scheming businessmen and even bisexual prostitutes depicted so menacingly. We might know that things weren’t always better when the mob ran the town, but there were advantages to letting outsiders think they were.

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