In a young city like Las Vegas, a journalist occasionally has the good fortune to speak to a true pioneer. My dose of such luck came in 2002, when I was able to spend time with the legendary hotel-casino man Jackie Gaughan, for decades the benevolent king of a Downtown empire surrounding the venerable El Cortez. Below is an excerpt from the Las Vegas Life story that resulted from my conversations with Gaughan, who died March 12 at age 93.
As a young man, Jackie Gaughan was a sinewy redhead with a square jaw and a good-looking smile. In middle age, he had the look of a prizefighter who got out of the ring with his looks and ambitions intact. At 81, he continues to walk his Downtown properties everyday; he still has the ingratiating smile and coiled toughness of a man you want on your side. Gaughan’s magic in the course of his 50 years in Vegas gaming has been to ensure that just about everyone he’s met has been on his side. There have been few others in Las Vegas history so widely respected and genuinely liked by the town’s successive waves of cowboys and wise guys and suits.
In 1984, when state authorities were ready to shut down Moe Dalitz’s Sundance Hotel, they turned instead to Gaughan to run the place, a solution that pleased not only the State, but also Dalitz and his many allies. Gaughan took the gig, in part, out of concern for the hotel’s workers, who would lose their jobs if the place closed. He then proceeded, in the space of a year, to turn the struggling Sundance into a winner. “He had the confidence of everybody,” longtime Las Vegas casino executive Don Williams says. “He saved so many people’s asses.”
“I was friendly with almost all the people who had all the places,” Gaughan says. “From Day One, I never had any problems with any of them. I knew them, and they knew me, and they never bothered me and I never bothered them.” When Gaughan applied for a gaming license in Atlantic City in 1987 and the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement brought up his name in connection with long-ago skimming at the Flamingo, Las Vegas’ major players, from Senator Harry Reid to Steve Wynn, quickly let the New Jersey board know it was chasing the wrong fox.