Wednesday, April 6, 2016

From Rackets to Resorts

From contract killer to bookmaking kingpin to Las Vegas resort developer, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel took a roller coaster ride to the top before meeting an untimely demise at the hands of those who brought him there. Widely considered the father of modern day Las Vegas, Bugsy’s indelible mark on Sin City is still prevalent today. Nightclubs, showgirls, spas, upscale restaurants and golf courses were all introduced to the Mojave Desert by Bugsy. His dream to create a European resort-style oasis in the desert has since blossomed into to something of which he could have only dreamed.

Siegel memorial honoring the casino's developer
Memorial plaque honoring Benjamin Siegel stands in the casino's courtyard.
Born Feb. 28, 1906, in Brooklyn, New York, Siegel fell into organized crime that infested his childhood home. Extortion, gambling and bootlegging propelled Siegel to the top ranks of Charles “Lucky” Luciano’s gang. He went on to rake in hundreds of thousands of dollars annually for the mob through bookmaking rackets. In an effort to expand this business nationwide, Luciano sent Siegel to the West Coast.

By 1945, Siegel bought and sold one of Las Vegas’ first casinos, El Cortez, for a nearly $200,000 profit. He went in with Sunset Strip mogul Billy Wilkerson to build the Flamingo, approximately 2 miles south of the Las Vegas city limits and away from the prying eyes of city officials. With a lavish showroom, plush rooms, pool, spa and plenty of glitz, Siegel’s Flamingo laid the foundation for the $6 billion-a-year machine that is the Las Vegas Strip.

The courtyard of the Flamingo Casino
Flamingo statues adorn the fountains throughout the Las Vegas Strip casino.
Siegel’s mistress Virginia Hill, a longtime courier for the mob and allegedly the inspiration for the property’s name, stuck by the gangster through a series of unfortunate events in the run up to the Flamingo’s opening. Construction materials and workers were in short supply due to the country’s involvement in World War II. Flamingo’s budget and construction schedule ballooned. In order to fund the remaining work, Siegel held a grand opening gala that was botched from the start. Frustrated with these events and convinced that Siegel was skimming money from the project, the East Coast mob decided to “part ways” with their man in the desert.

A little more than two months after the Flamingo’s opening, Siegel was found shot dead in Hill’s Beverly Hills apartment on June 20, 1947. That same day, Siegel’s fellow mobsters walked onto the Flamingo casino floor and announced their takeover. Hill left for Paris only ten days prior to Siegel’s murder. His death remains a mystery, and the extent of the mob and Hill’s involvement is unknown.

For more compelling stories on the mob’s influence over Las Vegas’ early days, book a tour of the Mob Museum in Downtown Las Vegas.


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