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February 22, 2013

NEVADA YESTERDAYS: William R. Wilkerson, part 2


How are communism, organized crime and Las Vegas related? Here's Senator Richard Bryan to connect the dots:

Flamingo HotelLast time, we were talking about how The Hollywood Reporter did a lengthy story on its role in developing the blacklist during the anti-communist crusades of the late 1940s and 1950s … and the connections to Las Vegas.  The Reporter’s publisher at the time was Billy Wilkerson, now widely credited with originating the idea of building the Flamingo Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip.  But Wilkerson was then better known for being part of the anti-communist crusade.

Howard HughesWhy did Wilkerson do it?  His son thinks he got information directly from J. Edgar Hoover through a mutual ally, Howard Hughes … and that’s another Nevada connection.  Hughes later owned several hotels, a television station, an airport, and a lot of land in Nevada.  Hoover had his own issues with Nevada, including illegal wiretaps of casino operators and a feud with Governor Grant Sawyer.  Wilkerson’s son also said his dad feared that the taint of communism would hurt the movie industry.

There’s also the theory that the mob inspired Wilkerson’s anti-communism.  Wilkerson owned several nightclubs that organized crime figures patronized.  The southern California mob included such prominent characters as Jack Dragna, Mickey Cohen, and Bugsy Siegel.  They got involved in the movie unions, which faced charges of communist ties.  Communists and gangsters apparently had battled in Europe and continued the fight in America.

Bugsy SiegelAbove all, Wilkerson had a special relationship with Siegel.  While the history is murky, Wilkerson started construction of the Flamingo, ran out of money, and lost control of the enterprise to Siegel.  They may have been partners from the beginning, or Siegel may have stepped in.  Whatever happened, Siegel became associated with the Flamingo and vice versa.  You know that story.

What also makes this interesting is how Nevada was tied to the crusade against communism.  The most famous politician associated with that was Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin.  One of his first speeches about the communist threat came in Reno in February 1950.  In 1952, he spoke in Las Vegas on behalf of the Republican ticket at the old War Memorial building downtown … later the site of the Las Vegas City Hall and soon to be the home of Zappos. Hank GreenspunWhen McCarthy spoke, he took some shots at Las Vegas Sun publisher Hank Greenspun.  McCarthy called him an “ex-communist.”  Greenspun wasn’t.  The publisher took the floor and spoke against McCarthy.  He went on to write columns and publish special reports that accused McCarthy of being a Nazi sympathizer and a secret communist.  When Greenspun predicted that McCarthy would be shot, the publisher was indicted for inciting assassination.  He was acquitted.

If any politician ranked with McCarthy in hunting communists, it was Nevada’s own Pat McCarran.  McCarran conducted numerous hearings and investigations in the Senate.  He introduced legislation designed to keep communists from entering the U.S.  Another law, the McCarran Internal Security Act, set up a board to investigate suspected communists or fascists.  It also required communist groups to register with the attorney general.  In the last speech McCarran gave before dying of a heart attack in 1954, he called for Nevadans to back candidates he supported who could help him in the fight against communism.

Historians long have known McCarran as a major figure in that fight.  It turns out Billy Wilkerson played a role, too.  And somehow, Nevada wound up in the middle of it all.

More on News 88.9 KNPR
2/1/13: William R. Wilkerson, part 1
11/29/00: Howard Hughes
8/26/09: Greenspun, Part I
9/27/04: Pat McCarran
8/29/12: Who was Patrick McCarran?
4/26/05: The Las Vegas I Remember

See discussion rules.


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