February 21, 2014
The end of 2013 marked an anniversary some Las Vegans would rather forget. Fifty years before, in December 1963, Trident Press published a new book: The Green Felt Jungle, by Ed Reid and Ovid Demaris. As historian David Schwartz wrote recently, it hit Las Vegas like a tidal wave.
The book built on Reid’s decade as a reporter and editor at the Las Vegas Sun, and Demaris’s background in writing about the mob. It spent nearly six months on The New York Times best-seller list, and the paperback edition, with additional material, did well.
Las Vegans felt differently. Casino owners resented how they were portrayed. To be fair about it, they were used to that kind of thing. But they also didn’t like that the book listed who owned the hotel-casinos and the percentages they owned. Interestingly, one of those upset about the book was Hank Greenspun. Reid had worked for him and used information printed in the Sun, most notably material the paper had published a decade before. The Sun had done a series that revealed Meyer Lansky as a hidden investor in the Thunderbird Hotel on the Strip. But Greenspun resented that Reid used material that had not been published or even confirmed. He also felt Nevada at least had been trying to clean up its act. So he went on national television and criticized the book.
The criticism of the book and the criticism in the book … ultimately didn’t amount to much. By the time The Green Felt Jungle was published, the Justice Department had already been targeting Las Vegas. The book had nothing that Bobby Kennedy and J. Edgar Hoover didn’t already believe.
But The Green Felt Jungle also should be seen as part of a trend. In the next couple of years after its publication, other books focused on Nevada. A New York Times reporter, Wallace Turner, published Gamblers’ Money, covering some of the same ground. Another veteran reporter, Sandy Smith, had a series of articles on the mob in the Chicago papers and in national magazines like Time and Life. A political scientist, Gilman Ostrander, wrote Nevada: The Great Rotten Borough, attacking the state as a cesspool of political corruption. The Green Felt Jungle roughed up Nevada and Las Vegas, but it wasn’t the only one. It wasn’t even the only mob book Reid and Demaris were involved in. Reid wrote about organized crime for another newspaper, the Brooklyn Eagle. Demaris published several books, including one on mob hitman Jimmy the Weasel Fratianno.
In the half-century since The Green Felt Jungle came out, Nevada has teamed with federal and local officials and the media to drive out the old mob ownership. Indeed, the book was still on everyone’s mind three years after it came out when Howard Hughes came to town, and then-Governor Paul Laxalt began pushing for reforms to allow corporations to be able to own casinos. But think of movies like The Hangover and ad campaigns like “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” We may have been less sinful than Reid and Demaris claimed at the time, and we certainly are now … but it helps the bottom line if we’re at least a little bit bad.
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