What other towns consider dirty little secrets, Las Vegas flaunts as selling points. The city’s historic ties to organized crime are one of them: If the showgirl is the female icon, her male counterpart is the mobster. Over the decades, the city’s love affair with the mob has been acted out in countless movies, books and TV shows.
Today, mob killer Bugsy Siegel is revered as a founding father, with companies peddling everything from window blinds to pest control bearing his name and his slick-haired visage adorning bronze plaque and souvenir ashtray alike. But it was not ever thus: In the early days, Siegel’s organized crime ties kept the celebrities from the Flamingo’s grand opening and gave the average tourist qualms—Siegel once pummeled an employee of another casino who was telling his customers to avoid the “gangsters” at the Flamingo.
But, as the ’50s kicked in, shady characters began to have a certain allure. Chalk it up to postwar, post-noir disillusionment or a booming economy’s love of anyone who can make a dollar, but the biggest influence was the Kefauver hearings, a series of televised Congressional hearings on organized crime. It was a reality show rife with crime, violence, money and sex that drew 30 million viewers—in a nation with fewer than 8 million TV sets. Several Las Vegas figures had major “roles” before the committee, including deadpan bootlegger–turned–Desert Inn mogul Moe Dalitz and Siegel’s sweetheart Virginia Hill, a dish in a double-fox stole whose sassy, foulmouthed testimony was a high point.
The possibility of being in the same lounge or steak house with one of the dark-suited men from TV became another Las Vegas titillation. The city provided an easy shorthand of neon backdrops and mob antagonists, whether for the Bowery Boys clowning around the casino in Crashing Las Vegas or Charlton Heston brooding over a craps table in Dark City. It also became fodder for countless pulp novels with covers featuring pouty dames posing beside roulette wheels on the cover and turgid blurbs about gamblers and gangsters on the back. From Ian Fleming to James Ellroy, authors love to send their hardboiled heroes to Vegas, and the “I was in/near the mafia” memoir is a genre unto itself.
Mob guys who ran Las Vegas casinos also found big boosters in the talent they hired—after all, they were generous with paychecks and perks. Eternal headliner Debbie Reynolds once said, “It was a wonderful time, they were great bosses. I miss that loyalty, that respect.” Sometimes it went beyond entertainer-employer: Siegel was linked to Hollywood starlets such as Wendy Barrie and Marie “The Body” McDonald, while Sam Giancana had a long relationship with singer (and Las Vegas socialite) Phyllis McGuire. Frank Sinatra’s alleged mob ties were part of his persona, one that he alternately winked at—as when Joey Bishop introduced Frank at the Sands by saying he was “going to come out and tell you about some of the good work the mafia is doing”—and was infuriated by, as when the Nevada gaming control board revoked his gambling license because he “had associated with hoodlums,” i.e., letting Giancana hang out at his Cal-Neva Lodge.
As the reality faded away, the romance really kicked in: The ’70s were the last days of mob control, as well as the decade of The Godfather. Francis Ford Coppola’s epic referenced real-life incidents, such as the Siegel hit and the Kefauver hearings. Naturally, the Corleone family got into the casino business, birthing the “make him an offer he can’t refuse” cliché. More films featuring Vegas gangsters followed—The Gambler, The Gauntlet, Heat, Nevada Heat, Las Vegas Lady, Las Vegas Caper … as well as two seasons of Crime Story, a ’50s-set series about cops versus crooks in Sin City. The genre climaxed with Martin Scorsese’s Casino, a based-on-a-true-story saga that made the Stardust skim a Shakespearean tragedy.
Nostalgia for the gangster days is nostalgia for a more glamorous Vegas, before “family-friendly” put strollers on the Strip. It’s also a longing for the pre-corporate era, when each casino was independently owned. Sure, that ownership may have had its issues, but, hey, when you compare the evil wrought by a small-time hood to that of your average multinational corporation …
But we’ve still got Goodfellas Bail Bonds and Godfather’s Pizza, the Lucky Luciano burger and gangster-themed weddings—even the Mob Museum is celebrating its fifth anniversary after greeting its millionth visitor in December. As former Mayor Oscar Goodman, whose mob-lawyer mojo helped get him elected, once said, Vegas tourists “don’t want to see Mickey Mouse—they want to see Bugsy Siegel.”