I. HANDOFF AT THE BELLAGIO COFFEE SHOP
It felt illegal and wrong.
It wasn’t, but in the Old Las Vegas my father and I came out of, the move I was about to make was close to unforgiveable. I had—or at least I thought I had—solid reasons for this apparent betrayal of my beloved dad, but if Moe Dalitz were watching from the afterlife, the odds were good that he was about to disown his daughter.
I felt the weight of the velvet jewelry case in my purse. Clinking around inside it were my father’s pocket watch, cuff links, monogrammed gold money clip and early Las Vegas casino coin collection. The larger, less valuable items had already been shipped. I held the bag tight against me as I navigated the Bellagio casino to find Jonathan Ullman, the genial new Mob Museum director, sitting in the coffee shop. I put the bag of loot on the table in front of him. That was the moment, in the fall of 2011, when I put my father’s complicated Vegas legacy back up for grabs.
“Are you doing all of your acquisitions this way?” I asked Ullman, who had just been given the top job at the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement.
“No, not really,” he said, explaining that I was one of a few private donors whose large Las Vegas collections had been acquired by the project. The Mob Museum, as it was already known, was set to open the following year in Downtown’s stately former federal courthouse. It was a key piece in then-Mayor Oscar Goodman’s plan to revitalize the long-blighted urban core, a $50 million bet that the past could energize the future. The museum was not the largest of Goodman’s legacy mega-projects, but it was the most personal—and the most vilified.
As Moe Dalitz’s only daughter, I had dutifully been carrying my dad’s jewelry, awards, family photos, document archives, court depositions and personal letters from storage unit to garden shed, from one life to the next, for decades. Just in case. But other than this ritual schlepping of boxes, I hadn’t done much revisiting of my dad’s storied life—Prohibition-era bootlegger, Vegas casino pioneer, Maryland Parkway visionary—since he died in August 1989.
On the hot, emotionally fraught day of his funeral, I had eulogized him as the loving father and great Las Vegas city father that he was. I pointedly did not eulogize him as the former bootlegger, illegal gambler and racket boss that he also once was—there were plenty of Vegas historians, mob beat reporters and FBI agents poised to do that. And who cared anyway, I thought as I left the Congregation Ner Tamid synagogue that day. Steve Wynn’s Mirage was about to open. The new Las Vegas Strip was rising. Now that the great gaming pioneer was gone, I decided it was time for the last remaining Dalitz to leave the neon city.
II. THE GREAT LAS VEGAS MOB REVIVAL
When I came back 22 years later, I figured my dad had been largely forgotten. Sure, he’d be remembered by his few remaining friends, partners and enemies from back in the day. But I assumed that on the digitized and ever-more-fabulous Strip, the Las Vegas golden age of the 1950s and ’60s was old news. To the Chamber of Commerce, the Gaming Control Board and most of the Vegas old guard, the name Moe Dalitz brought up things best left forgotten. They had diligently tried for years to bury the Vegas mob mystique out in the desert with the rest of the bodies. And, until the mayor decided to build a museum about the epic battles of the bad old days, they almost succeeded.
You can imagine my surprise to find Moe Dalitz and the other late notorious casino bosses of the early Strip to be breaking news in the second decade of the new millennium. The housing market had cratered, but the place was enjoying a festive bull market in nostalgia. A Vegas-style mob revival was in full swing, and it wasn’t just the soon-to-open Mob Museum causing the turn in the zeitgeist. There were mob-themed attractions, mob tours of the town, Rat Pack revivals and Bugsy themes. Former gangsters-turned-snitches-turned-authors were peddling memoirs and lunching at the Mob Bar. After leaving us to wander the post-mob American landscape these many years, Las Vegas had called its lost mob children home.
“You’re not going to get involved with that goddamned Mob Museum, are you?” said a fellow daughter of the Desert Inn Hotel, which my father once owned. “Everyone is against it, you know. Nobody wants them to trot out all of that Mafia crap.”
Ah, yes. The Mafia crap. She had a point. The choice of whether to bring my father’s prized possessions to the Las Vegas Mob Museum had a serious down side:
“Your dad’s a gangster, a hoodlum.” These are the things people in Vegas have always felt free to say, even to very young children.
As members of the casino tribes of Old Vegas, those of us who called the early Strip home (in my case, the Desert Inn and the Stardust) survived our notorious last names by ducking the Mafia crap, soft-peddling our fathers’ affiliations, accentuating the positive. We never thought of our fathers as mobsters. We still don’t.
We knew our fathers as smart, affable Jewish businessmen who lived large in the legal gambling world they invented. They held gaming licenses, were friends of sitting politicians, celebrities and captains of American industry. They gave press interviews and charmed the public. They wanted to golf regularly, run their hotels profitably and raise children safely. There were backroom deals on the Strip and secret trips back East, to be sure. But the famous and dangerous wiseguys with whom our fathers were connected (and by whom they were sometimes funded) were not part of our childhood reality. Yes, they were part of the drama of our lives, but they checked into our hotels under assumed names and inhabited the secret rooms we couldn’t enter. Our fathers may have been “connected guys,” but they weren’t “made men.”
So it’s worth mentioning here, without prejudice, the difference between casino kids and mob children. The fathers of mob children worked the street rackets and black markets; they had to do the dirty work, and many never lived to see their own redemption, the absorption of their life story into some more benign version of Las Vegas history. Their kids, too, had to live without that denouement. Sure, casino kids lived with ambiguity, but mob kids had to live with shadows that never really receded—in the great American story, their dads had been cast as iconic villains. Casino kids were able to hobnob with the city’s political and business elite; mob kids, many of whose fathers were in the Black Book, never got that chance.
The divide survived even as the casino and mob kids grew up and the city reshaped itself around them. From the 1970s to the early 2000s, Las Vegas did its level best to forget its backstory of questionable ties and dangerous dealings. After a while, all that was left was an old cliché—“the town was better when the mob ran it”—and soon enough everyone got sick of hearing it. That included most of the erstwhile kids, the old mobsters, the town’s current city fathers and everyone I still know at the Las Vegas Country Club. Vegas had made its deal, squeezed out the old gamblers like my dad, and moved into the postmodern corporate era with gusto. Most of my fellow casino kids made the transition, adapting to the new normal, getting jobs in the growing city and raising families in the Summerlin suburbs. There was no looking back. But for the mob kids, many of whose fathers died violently, a new normal was not in the cards.
The opportunity to revive my father’s legacy was just too interesting to ignore. Unquestionably, it would have been smarter to ignore it. But I found myself in the mood for a journey, and this was the strange trip fate presented. Anyway, it was the powerful Oscar Goodman who was picking this age-old fight, not me. The conjuring of the spirits of the old Strip was going to happen in the middle of Downtown Vegas, whether any of us liked it or not.
The choice that would eventually lead me to that table at the Bellagio coffee shop was nearly Faustian. How was Moe Dalitz going to be portrayed in this museum? If past was prologue, and if I didn’t offer a counter-narrative, he’d end up as a mug shot on the wall next to a bunch of hit men and sociopaths. But if I collaborated with the museum it would amount to an admission. Yes, there was a mob in Vegas and, yes, my father was in it—two things he always denied. By elevating his important civic legacy in an organized-crime context, I would have to betray the secrets my father spent his later life keeping.
I was way out of my depth. I would need to do my Vegas mob homework, and there was no room for mistakes.
III. THE MAYOR, THE MUSEUM AND THE GHOST OF MOE DALITZ
First, I dropped in on Oscar Goodman in his kitsch-filled office in the old City Hall. The former mob attorney was equal parts welcoming and cagey. He had every reason to be. He knew I was working on a memoir. Historically when Old Vegas daughters like me roll into town with a notebook, mobbed-up résumés get hyper-inflated, and Vegas gets hosed.
“I would think,” Goodman said, “that all of these new people coming to live and play in Las Vegas now have no idea who your father was. I met him on several occasions at the country club and found him to be a dignified and decent man. He did a lot of good for the city, and should be given more credit. The Mob Museum will try to tell the Vegas story as it really happened and give credit where credit is due.”
“But my dad spent his whole life fighting his mob reputation,” I countered. “He wanted to be forgiven for his early life, wanted to be remembered for his later accomplishments, for building the Las Vegas Country Club, Sunrise Hospital and Boulevard Mall. Don’t you think he’d be furious with me for giving his most prized possessions to a mob museum?”
“Are you asking me,” the mayor queried, trying to grasp my meaning, “if your deceased father is going to be mad at you?”
“Yes, Mayor Goodman. I am asking you that.”
At that point, Oscar changed the subject. He was a mensch and a fine mayor in many ways, but he was not going to be any help at all in sorting out my posthumous relationship to my mysterious father.
I then called Dennis and Kathy Barrie, who had been hired to curate the Mob Museum, and introduced myself. I was a fan of their previous project, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They’d been hired to bring to life the epic battle between organized crime and law enforcement—framed as a legal, political and moral battle that defined the modern founding of Vegas and re-set the moral compass of the country. Would they treat it with the respect and historical relevance it deserved, I wondered, or trot out all of the old mobbed-up Vegas clichés?
Kathy came out to my house in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to see my collection, and I liked her immediately. The Barries were arty, fun, well prepared and talking to all of the right people. They grasped the Old Vegas golden age as being about more than gangsters in the count rooms. They saw the iconic nature and cultural nuances of the transitional era, the glamour and danger in it. They saw the good in it.
The museum development team needed to accommodate the city’s concern that organized crime wouldn’t be glorified. To that end, the whole first floor would be given to the law-enforcement side of the struggle. Retired FBI special agent Ellen Knowlton would serve as board chairwoman. She was a well-spoken and calming counterpart to the flamboyant Oscar. Like the bootleggers, the curators were hired to conjure, the Barries were tasked to “give the people what they want.” What the people wanted, the museum board wagered, was the real story of organized crime in America and how it once came West to stake a home in a wide-open desert valley.
Maybe, I thought, we all could use an education on the topic.
IV. NEWFANGLED MOB WAR
Complicating my decision-making, and infuriating the Mob Museum planners, a rival attraction called the Mob Experience was opening up across town at the Tropicana. Its intent was to open first, capture the Strip market, and stick it to Oscar and his new Downtown museum. Many of the mob kids aligned themselves with the Trop attraction. The press was having a field day with the new mob war playing out on Las Vegas Boulevard, and how camp and ridiculous it all was.
The Trop’s Mob Experience was certainly creating buzz, and had to be checked out. The children and grandchildren of notorious men such as Sam Giancana, Allen Smiley, Meyer Lansky, Ben Siegel and Tony Spilotro were landing out at McCarran with suitcases full of family heirlooms. Garages across the country had been emptied out, and Ben’s dinner jacket, Meyer’s golf clubs and Tony’s gun were, once again, Vegas bound. There was a spike in mob memorabilia prices, and eBay was lighting up with more of Mickey Cohen’s cuff links than the L.A. racket boss could have ever possibly worn.
The Mob Experience—part hoodlum theme park and part artifact gallery—tendered generous consulting gigs to the nation’s remaining mob royalty. Antoinette Giancana, Luellen Smiley, Meyer Lansky II, Millicent (Siegel) Rosen, Vince Spilotro and others had considered their options. The big money looked like it would flow through the Trop.
The families were also averse to the law-enforcement element that Oscar’s Downtown museum would validate—the same law-enforcement element that had, in their view, ruined or ended their fathers’ lives. What they wanted, they told me, was for their family stories to be told without a lot of feds around, stories about good fathers and good friends, guys who were human beings and not central casting mob stereotypes. Never mind that the Mob Experience welcomed visitors with pinstriped actors wielding baseball bats and Robert De Niro impersonators doing wise-guy stand-up.
Mob Experience impresario Jay Bloom met me at the Tropicana’s poolside restaurant a few weeks before his attraction was set to open. He was a fast-talking promoter, happy for Moe Dalitz’s daughter to participate—for a price. My collection would have to be displayed there, of course. The conversation segued from artifact sales to investment opportunities—$20 million had been raised already, but there was still room for new investors. His management company was called Murder Inc. You can’t get much cooler than that. Getting in now was a once-in-a-lifetime mob daughter opportunity. It was going to blow Oscar’s museum out of the water.
Often the traps in Vegas are right in the middle of your path, sprung there in the open, waiting for the inevitable misstep. All you have to do is look down.
I demurred on the offer to invest but accepted the invitation to the opening-night gala. I watched from the sidelines as the Mob Experience mob families strolled down a red carpet and gave press interviews in the harsh white light of the TV cameras. Several months later, the Mob Experience closed in a blizzard of fraud lawsuits and contractor liens. It was bought out of bankruptcy by a new outfit and renamed the Mob Attraction. At this writing, the attraction has once again closed, though its spokesman has said that it will return at an undisclosed new location. The fact that mob families came back to Vegas for a restoration and then complained that they had been long-conned out of money and memorabilia played a little in the local news. Apparently this kind of thing happens all the time in the new Las Vegas.
V. THE MOB MUSEUM’S BIG DEBUT
On Valentine’s Day 2012, the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement debuted in its Depression-era neoclassical home on Third and Stewart. The opening celebration was a Proustian party of strange bedfellows and extravagant ironies. Chicago Outfit guys such as Frank Cullotta and Henry Hill mingled with the retired feds and sheriffs who had pursued them. City Council officials, working press and local VIPs jockeyed with mob fans and true-crime writers for their place in line at the bar.
“This is going to be huge, huge!” Oscar Goodman kept saying to anyone who would listen. By then a former mayor, he had some of his legacy at stake. He knew the jury was still out, and there were more than a few people there that night who were scarfing up the heavy hors d’oeuvres and hoping for the worst.
“Here we are, all together,” I said to Ellen Knowlton, as we looked out at the festively dressed crowd. I wondered if she, too, grasped how surreal it all was. “Yes,” agreed the retired special agent opaquely. “Here we all are.” I don’t think she thought she’d ever be standing here either.
On the three floors of the Mob Museum, visitors travel through the early Sicilian Mafia era, the emerging years for immigrant American gangs, through Prohibition, through the era of the great syndicates when rival families met and divided territories at meetings in Havana and Atlantic City. They stroll past the brick wall of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, the barbershop chair where Albert Anastasia got his fatal shave.
Finally, they arrive in the Open City, the rooms dedicated to early Las Vegas. The Dean Martin music swells, the neon glows and the Golden Age roars back to life. Memorabilia from the old hotels, pictures of the casino bosses and celebrity kitsch from the Rat Pack to Elvis are all arrayed and labeled in glass display cases. Bugsy arrives in the whistlestop saloon town! The Desert Inn, the Sands, the Riviera and the Tropicana rise up along the desert Strip! Lido showgirls in feathers arrive at the airport straight from Paris! Jay Sarno opens Caesars Palace! Howard Hughes buys everything!
In the heart of this Old Vegas diorama, visitors can find Moe Dalitz, the great gaming pioneer, as he was at the peak of his powers. The collection conjures the man as I knew him. In photos he holds me as a toddler at the Grand Canyon, wears a John Lennon costume at a Halloween party. My favorite photo is the one of my dad, looking like the Bonanza patriarch he wanted to be, dressed in Western regalia atop his white horse, ready to march in the Helldorado Parade.
In one black-and-white photo, Moe Dalitz, at some point in early middle age, is posed in front of a staged bullet-ridden Packard, offering a fake payoff to an actor-policeman. There is no way to know when it was taken, nor why, but his laughing eyes give it away. He gets the joke. There were parts of his early life that my father loved.
In spite of the museum’s effort to be fair and fun, some Old Vegas survivors still haven’t felt the love and made the trip Downtown. “I can’t believe you dignified that place with Moe’s memorabilia,” said a fellow alumna of the Desert Inn Children’s Club, hissing mad when she realized the enormity of the collection I had provided.
My father’s artifacts, I argued, are in the museum because they belong in Las Vegas. I brought my dad home in this way because I loved him and wanted him to be remembered fairly. But could I have been delusional—and could she have been right? Was this a betrayal? Did I really think I could honor Moe Dalitz in a mob museum and get away with it?
Occasionally, I do press in town about the museum, my dad and his legacy. On one such occasion, I stood in the Mob Museum below a painting of my grandmother, Moe’s Man of the Year plaque and a ceremonial key to the city of Las Vegas. A television reporter peppered me with questions about my life as a mob daughter, which, given the wall behind me, was obviously not my life at all. I tried to make the point about the difference between the casino tribes of Old Vegas and the organized crime families who operated in a distinct (though related) sphere. I talked about our privileged, incredible lives in the old hotels. When the segment aired that night, my interview was spliced with scenes from the reality show and Staten Island bitchfest Mob Wives.
Like my father before me, I am still not sure whether I will be fast enough to outrun my own caricature.
VI. THE SCHOOLING OF AN OLD VEGAS CASINO DAUGHTER
“You are not a gangster’s daughter,” the great Vegas writer and historian John L. Smith once said to me. “You are a racketeer’s daughter. There’s a big difference.” In this corner of the Mojave, that difference means everything.
It was an open question whether history would ever allow my dad to be everything that he was—the bootlegger and the philanthropist, the racket boss and the city father. God knows, it’s a town famous for its own moral paradoxes; it didn’t exactly replace the mobbed-up casinos of yore with bastions of moral purity. But that didn’t mean Las Vegas would extend the same moral flexibility to one of its fathers. Yes, he was a man who once committed crimes and got away with them. Yes, he came to build this place and loved it much as anyone ever has.
“I’m no angel,” Dad once said to me in the coffee shop of the old Stardust Hotel, when I confronted him about a mob story I had read about him in some magazine. “But I’ve always walked between the raindrops. I’ve not always done the legal thing, but I hope I’ve always done the right thing.”
Clearly there is much about my father’s deep history that I don’t yet know. Much that I will never know. But I do know this: Moe Dalitz was an extraordinary and imperfect man who found a home in an extraordinary and imperfect town.
My father would have been apoplectic at ending up in a mob museum. But how unforgiveable was it, really? Would he rather have been forgotten? Or have his accomplishments attributed to others? Or have his history written by exposé artists?
Truth is, my dad was 89 when he died and he never saw the New Vegas coming. He thought Steve Wynn would be bankrupt in a year. He wouldn’t have had a clue what to make of Tony Hsieh’s high-tech hipster Downtown. He couldn’t imagine that Vegas would someday need a therapeutic encounter with the shadows of its founding. Moe Dalitz reached a point where he could no longer see that far down the road. But if there’s an afterlife, I’m praying like crazy that his spirit can.
I came back to pick up my father’s trail and travel it for a while. To be sure, stepping into the crossfire of these ancient Vegas mob arguments was a gamble. I have asked my remaining friends from the old days for a little running room as our era, its people and its stories all pass into history. Some have been generous enough to give me that space and loosen up on the taboos. Others have put up the barricades. And there are some tables at Piero’s where I will literally never hear the end of it. But I hope that my decision to put my dad’s extraordinary story back on the table will—like his own big Vegas gamble—turn out to be a smart bet on the future of the city.
Suzanne Dalitz talks about her father on 97.1 the Point. Listen to the broadcast below.