Who Owns Bugsy?

Bugsy Siegel

Every city has its so-called founding father, the iconic figure who strides through tales repeated, exaggerated or downright fabricated. Philadelphia, for instance, has Benjamin Franklin. Las Vegas has Benjamin Siegel. “Novelists, filmmakers, biographers and journalists have created an extraordinary narrative about Bugsy Siegel and his role in the development of Las Vegas in the nearly seven decades since his death,” says author Larry Gragg in his recent book, Benjamin “Bugsy“ Siegel: The Gangster, the Flamingo and the Making of Modern Las Vegas. 

Through all the falsehoods perpetuated about Bugsy’s role in shaping Las Vegas, one thing is true: His fingerprints are on two of our oldest casinos, the Flamingo and El Cortez. So, we got to thinking: Who’s got the best claim to The Bug? We’ll let you decide …

El Cortez Flamingo
The hotel was built in 1941. That same year, Nevada legalized betting on out-of-state racetracks, a great interest of Siegel’s. In 1945, along with fellow reputable citizens Meyer Lansky and Moe Sedway, Siegel purchased an interest in El Cortez. In 1946, he and his cronies sold the hotel back to J. Kel Houssels, the same man they had bought it from the previous year—a sale which helped finance the Flamingo.

How did Bugsy come to be the boss?

Siegel, ahem, convinced Billy Wilkerson to sell the under-construction hotel to him in 1946. Siegel wanted to make the biggest, swankiest casino in Las Vegas, and he succeeded. However, he had also wasted millions of the mob’s money, and the Flamingo showed more glamor than profit. All of which may or may not have had something to do with Siegel’s murder in Los Angeles on June 20, 1947, less than six months after the resort’s opening.
“For years, Ben had wanted to own a hotel. In 1943 he had repeatedly tried to purchase the El Rancho. … Seeing a good opportunity Downtown, Ben used his front, Moe Sedway to buy the El Cortez.” Siegel invested significant sums in improving El Cortez, but always with Sedway as a front.

What does historical record (courtesy of Gragg’s book) say about his involvement?

“It remained for him to guide the [Flamingo] to completion, which he did, at least the casino, restaurant and shops portion of the project. Then the challenge was to prove that he could likewise complete the hotel portion and demonstrate that he could successfully manage the property.”
“It was his first casino in Las Vegas—it was an opportunity for him and his colleagues to get a better sense of a gaming property,” says Alexandra Epstein, general manager of El Cortez. “For better or worse, he left a lasting impact on Las Vegas. The El Cortez is one of the places he’s tied to, and we have an appreciation for our history and authenticity.”

Statement from the keepers of the flame.

“Bugsy saw the Flamingo as a place to enjoy yourself for a weekend and leave your money behind,” says Frank Otto, production engineer of digital signage for Caesars Entertainment and a resident Bugsy expert (his parents knew Siegel). “He may not have been the father of Las Vegas, but he opened the Flamingo, and he’s the one who put Las Vegas on the map.”
The recently opened Siegel’s 1941 is a high-end coffee shop with red leather booths and crystal chandeliers. The white-glossed walls are adorned with jumbo-sized black-and-white glamour shots of Bugsy and his beloved Virginia Hill in their Hollywood days. Bugsy would certainly approve of the décor, but we’re not sure how he’d feel about 24-hour breakfast.

Current on-site places bearing Bugsy’s name.

Bugsy’s Bar is a casino-floor spot topped with a knockoff of the pink flame/feather neon of the Flamingo sign—which, of course wasn’t put up until more than two decades after Bugsy’s demise. There is also Bugsy’s Cabaret (home to the X Burlesque and X Comedy shows), although there’s nothing specifically Bugsy about it—aside from the deco font on the sign.
There’s a Bugsy Siegel burger, with cheese, sautéed onions and, um, bacon. A nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn, Benjamin Siegel probably would lean more toward the matzo-ball soup.

What would Bugsy have ordered?

Bugsy wasn’t much of a drinker, mostly because of vanity. (This was a guy who wore a chinstrap while sleeping to prevent wrinkles.) However, his main squeeze Hill made up for it by ordering doubles. She was particularly fond of stingers and tequila shots.
Quite a bit of it, actually. The marquee and signage was added in 1952, and a new hotel tower went up in 1980, but most of the interior building is very similar to what it was in Bugsy’s day.

How much of the actual building that Bugsy owned remains?

The property has undergone numerous renovations, reconstructions and ownership changes over the decades. Not a beam, pillar or paving stone of Siegel’s original hotel remains.