The Flamingo Casino and Hotel was not the first casino in Las Vegas. And nowadays it is hardly special, compared to the many concept casinos that came later. But once it was famous and notorious because of the connection with the mafia and the gangster Ben "bugsy" Siegel. Film makers and book writers used many perspectives from the stories surrounding Flamingo Casino. They thereby contributed to myths, incorrect information and fake news.
The beginning of the myth
In films, for example Bugsy by Barry Levinson from 1991, Bugsy Siegel drives from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. Bugsy will look at how the mafia investments are handled there. He finds a large wasteland, dilapidated pickup trucks, and a few dusty stores with horses in front. In a wave of inspiration he sees the possibility of a casino or even the development of Las Vegas as the gambling city of America.
Books, newspaper articles and earlier films have already described that image of Las Vegas. And the Bugsy story was already told numerous times in 1991. Sometimes his real name is mentioned, just as often the Bugsy-based criminal has a different name. However, the myth surrounding the vision of Siegel and the description of the desolate Las Vegas is reflected everywhere.
In reality, Las Vegas has been a desert city in development since 1931. There is much more "life in the brewery" than is outlined in the stories mentioned above. Until the opening of the Flamingo casino there are several stories about Las Vegas that give a different picture. They are too positive and perhaps too negative stories and everything in between.
For example, in 1939 columnist Chapin Hall of the Los Angeles Times writes in his column about Las Vegas. He confirms that it is a city in the transition from desert to metropolis. Hall sees the contours: the big place in the desert has changed in a few years into a city with good hotels and restaurants ". Other reports from that time praise the fashionable hotels and the clubbing clubs.
Anxiety and incentives
Wesley Stout writes enthusiastically in 1942 in the magazine The Saturday Evening Post about the resort hotels Nevada Biltmore, the Last Frontier and El Rancho Vegas. Luxury hotels with more recreational options than just staying overnight.
The latter is evident from the article "Wild, Wooly and Wide-open", which appears in the magazine Look in 1940. The editor describes Las Vegas as an American Gomorrah, the most arrogantly conceited and self-consciously bad place on earth. It is a place without shame, with open gambling, prostitution and quick divorces. A place too, where you can do what you want as long as you do not interfere with others.
William "Billy" Wilkerson
Bugsy Siegel may have seen opportunities in that environment, but he was certainly not the first. And he does not even initiate the construction of the Flamingo casino. William ‘Billy’ Wilkerson, the owner of The Hollywood Reporter, does that. Billy starts that magazine in 1930. A few years later, he starts building and purchasing multiple night clubs in Los Angeles.
In 1943 he started to realize a dream with the construction of the Flamingo casino. He wants a hotel like the one he has seen in Europe, for example in Monte Carlo. Wilkerson hates the desert, but he sees it as the ideal location for a gambling venue because people are not distracted by sights. He asked architect George Vernon Russel to design a resort, with a hotel, casino, restaurant, fitness rooms, swimming pool and more. Interior designer Tom Douglas is responsible for the interior.
Construction starts at the beginning of 1945. However, building materials are scarce shortly after the war, so that construction costs rise. In addition, Wilkerson is addicted to gambling. He has problems financing his project.
Then Bugsy Siegel comes to Las Vegas at the end of 1945, to look at other investments by the mafia. Of course the man with a past in night clubs, horse races and more lucrative businesses is interested in the city where gambling has been going on for years. He buys the casino hotel El Cortez in the then center of Vegas.
Not much later he hears about Wilkerson's financial problems. Siegel, with money from his Mafia friends, participates in the project. Fairly thereafter the opening takes place on December 26, 1946.
Flamingo casino opens
Wilkerson and Siegel invited several artists and friends from Los Angeles for the opening. However, due to bad weather, the turnout of gambling audiences is low. And many guests who couldn't book a place in the Flamingo casino hotel soon disappear to other gambling venues.
The first week the Flamingo casino makes a loss of 300,000 dollars, more than 4 million in 2018. Two weeks after the opening, the Flamingo casino closes, which is still being built on.
Reopening and the death of …
March 1, 1947 is the reopening of the Flamingo casino. Siegel has renamed it to The Fabulous Flamingo. A month later he works out of Wilkerson from the company. And one month later he writes his first profit figures.
However, the costs of construction have risen from 1 to 6 million dollars. The criminal friends have, according to historians, the suspicion that he has pushed back money from them. Because barely four months after the opening, Bugsy is found murdered in Los Angeles on June 20. In his girlfriend's mansion.
Gus Greenbaum and owners
After the death of Siegel, The Fabulous Flamingo casino comes into the hands of the gangsters Moe Sedway and Gus Greenbaum. They are relations of Mafia accountant Meyer Lansky. The Flamingo casino is a success under their wing. Greenbaum leaves the company in 1955.
The Flamingo resort then has many owners and some small name changes. The current owner, after a few takeovers of organizations in which the Flamingo was housed, is Ceasar Entertainment Group. This conglomerate is the largest gambling organization in the world with more than 50 casinos.
Myth formation and reports
A problem, but pleasant for the myth formation around Flamingo and Ben Siegel, is the closedness of the mafia. Former police commander Thomas Repetto, author of the book American Mafia, writes about this: criminal organizations do not register activities and do not keep records of business transactions. As a result, many stories follow the popular rule "don't let the facts stand in the way of a good story."
And that is what happens after the death of Siegel, who had many friends in the cultural world of Los Angeles. Writings and films are made, which sometimes stay close to the facts, but usually turn a small reality into a big dramatized story with its own truth.
The myths broken
Benjamin Siegel was a charming man with many friends in the showbiz. Nobody doubts that. But he was not a manager. The authors John L Smith and Larry Gragg discovered this independently of each other. They both did extensive research in various archives. Smith wrote the essay "The Ghost of Ben Siegel" in 1997. Van Gragg published the biography "Benjamin" Bugsy "Siegel: The Gangster, The Flamingo, and The Making of Modern Las Vegas" in 2015.
Gragg notes that Siegel was not a casino manager and even a failure in the eyes of his superiors. He lived in the fantasy of a dreamed casino. And his murder? Gragg writes: "The mafia did not accept impulsive and unpredictable individualists, no matter how charming they were."
John L Smith and Larry Gragg carefully study the available sources. Wilkerson's grandson did the same after seeing the Bugsy movie in 1991. He wrote the book "The Man Who Invented Las Vegas." It takes a new look at the history of the city.
It is worth mentioning, after reading his book, the name Flamingo. This is often attributed to Siegel. It would be the nickname of his girlfriend. But the name was given to the project by grandfather Wilkerson right from the start. He had seen the exotic birds on a trip to Florida.
And what about the casual remark that until 1945 it was built in "the center" of Las Vegas. Wilkerson chose to build far beyond to avoid competition. There was of course the bare desert plain, as it is sketched in the popular stories and films.
- The most recent Ocean's Eleven movie from 2001 is playing at the Berlaggio casino. The story was previously filmed with Frank Sinatra. In 1960 the recordings took place in five casinos in Las Vegas, including Flamingo casino.
- In 1931, Nevada introduced legislation to protect the state against the effects of the Great Depression. The law legalized prostitution, quick marriages and divorces, and gambling. Then several entrepreneurs sought their luck in the state.
- Siegel has made a name for himself as the inventor of the gambling city of Las Vegas, probably wrongly. Entrepreneurs who have left their mark on Las Vegas, but are at most a footnote in the history books alongside William Wilkerson include: Tommy Hull, Robert Griffith, William Moore and Bob Brooks.
- "The Ghost of Ben Siegel" from 1997 by John L. Smith
- "When the Mob Ran Vegas: Stories of Money, Mayhem and Murder" from 2005 by Steve Fischer
- "Benjamin" Bugsy "Siegel: The Gangster, the Flamingo, and the Making of Modern Las Vegas" from Larry Gragg
- "American Mafia: A History of Its Rise to Power" from 2016 by Thomas Repetto
- Newspaper reports from 1935 to 1946, including New York Times, the Saturday Evening Post, the Chicago Daily Tribune, the Reno Evening Gazette, and the Los Angeles Times
More casino history
Did you enjoy reading about the Flamingo Casino? Discover the history of the very first Western casino, the Ridotto. You will probably also be interested in the story about William Crockford: from a simple fishmonger he grew into one of the richest people of his time. Francois Blanc was also an interesting personality, he is not called the inventor of Casino Monte Carlo for nothing.
If you prefer to stay at Las Vegas there are 4 articles waiting for you about the history of Las Vegas, start here with part I. Have fun reading!