Among the tall tales, excesses and streamlined narratives The Green Felt Jungle entered into the public record 50 years ago, perhaps the most lasting was the legend of Bugsy Siegel. Before the mid-1960s, Siegel, who was murdered on June 20, 1947, was considered just one of many ambitious, disreputable men who’d come to Las Vegas looking for a chance at glory. But authors Reid and Demaris helped set in stone the mistaken notion that he was one of the modern city’s founding fathers.
When Siegel’s Flamingo opened in 1946, newspapers and magazines mentioned it as merely the latest of the Strip hotels—El Rancho Vegas was the first to open, five years earlier. Before and after Siegel, a variety of characters—Thomas Hull, Bill Moore, Beldon Katleman, Jack Entratter, Guy McAfee and Moe Dalitz, to name a few—“created” the city in a far more profound sense than Bugsy did.
Upon Siegel’s death, no one eulogized him as particularly important to the city. Nor did later investigators pay him much attention: When the Kefauver Committee on Organized Crime held hearings here in 1950, it grilled Siegel’s former henchman Moe Sedway about their involvement in the race wire (which is where the real money was in those days), but it didn’t consider Siegel to have had any central role in the city’s development.
Nonetheless, with their characteristic overstatement, Reid and Demaris crafted a simple story: “Before the advent of Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel,” they write, “Las Vegas served principally as a comfort station for tourists fleeing across the desert heat … gambling was legal then, but except for a few ancient one-armed bandits and a couple of homemade crap tables, the action was mainly around a poker table.” It was Bugsy, they insisted, who began “the Golden Age in Las Vegas” when he gambled in 1946 on a grand vision of building the finest resort in America. Never mind that the Flamingo had been started a year earlier by Billy Wilkerson.
Siegel’s story had been known for years—his supposedly fatal insistence on “class” at the Flamingo, the cost overruns, his refusal to pass the race-wire profits to Chicago, his grisly death. But the Flamingo was just one of Siegel’s many ventures, and his story had never been so strongly linked to Las Vegas: Bugsy’s legacy was not ours until Reid and Demaris constructed a hero for the desert underworld and a new origin myth for the city.
Within a few years, the myth had taken root in American culture. In 1967, Dean Jennings published We Only Kill Each Other, a book-length biography that gave Siegel a prominent place in the mob pantheon, and in 1969, Bugsy was canonized once and for all by his depiction as Moe Greene in Mario Puzo’s novelThe Godfather.