Murdering the Mayor of Paradise
Sixty years ago, the grisly killings of the Riviera Hotel’s president and his wife stunned Las Vegas — and would haunt the casino industry for a generation
The ranch-style home at 1115 Monte Vista in the upscale Encanto neighborhood of Phoenix was quiet when the housekeeper arrived just before noon on Wednesday, December 3, 1958. High blood pressure and a bad heart kept Mrs. Pearl Ray from working full-time, but she enjoyed cleaning and cooking for Gustave “Gus” Greenbaum and his wife, Bess. Greenbaum was president of the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas, but when he returned frequently to Phoenix, he liked her home cooking. Mrs. Greenbaum was very busy with her charities, but she took time Tuesday evening to give the maid a ride home at the end of a long day. They were awfully nice people, the housekeeper believed, and she’d liked working for their daughter, Mrs. Harold Tenenbom, too.
Glancing at the kitchen she had cleaned a day earlier, Ray would recall to an Arizona Republic reporter, “I saw that there were some things out of the freezer, just like when I left the night before, and that seemed strange.” Then she pushed open the door to the den.
A few feet from the fireplace, Bess Serinopskie Greenbaum lay facedown on the sofa, a newspaper spread beneath her head with pillows on either side. Still fully clothed from the night before, her hands were bound behind her back with one of her flashy-dressing husband’s neckties. It was immediately obvious the defenseless 63-year-old society matron was dead. A large bruise was visible on her head. The sight set Ray’s ailing heart racing.
“God, I just ran out of there and went to a neighbor’s,” the housekeeper recalled to a reporter after being hospitalized for shock. She didn’t set eyes on the body of Gus Greenbaum, and it was just as well. Phoenix police found him in the couple’s bedroom, sprawled across merged twin beds, an electric heating pad meant to soothe his aching back still plugged in nearby. A television glowed a few feet away. He was dressed in beige silk pajamas. Although he kept a chrome-plated .38 revolver handy, it had done him no good. The multiple, crushing, blunt-force traumas he suffered to the back of his head might easily have been fatal. But also, Greenbaum’s throat was cut from ear to ear, so deeply he was nearly decapitated.
Although the family’s loyal maid concluded, “The Greenbaums didn’t seem worried about anything” beyond superficial appearances, the Riviera’s reckless boss had gone far off the deep end with the violent men who controlled his life and monitored his increasingly erratic behavior. The ugly truth was, he’d been living on borrowed time for years.
Within a day, gruesome details of the double murder, called “vicious, brutal, and thorough” by the chief of detectives at the scene, burned across the front pages of the nation’s newspapers. Little more than a decade after the shooting death of his friend and business partner Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, the movie star-handsome psychopath whom he’d replaced at the Flamingo, Chicago native Greenbaum and his Poland-born wife had also experienced the mob’s forced retirement plan.
After the murder of his friend and businesss partner Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, Gus Greenbaum took over management of the Flamingo. But not for long.
Their bodies barely cold, Phoenix police weren’t yet prepared to conclude professional killers had eliminated the Greenbaums, but the signs were clear enough. With the victims unconscious from the blows to the head, the nine-inch knife ensured a silent death that would go undetected by the neighbors after dark on the quiet street. Although a three-carat diamond ring turned up missing, many other valuables were untouched. Not even the cash from their wallets was taken. Police found shoe prints and cigarette ashes pointing to the presence of two men who may have waited for Bess Greenbaum to take the maid home for the evening before entering the house.
Then there was the crime itself. Slashed throats sent a clear message that someone couldn’t be trusted to keep his mouth shut, and by several reliable accounts the arrogant casino boss had grown garrulous. The fractured skulls? Perhaps it was a coincidence, but the use of a blunt instrument was a trademark of Greenbaum’s silent partner in the Riviera, Chicago mob boss Anthony “Joe Batters” Accardo.
Led by affable Riviera executive Ben Goffstein, the Vegas crowd quickly announced a cash reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the killers. But they were streetwise enough to know no one was likely to collect a nickel. It was an awful thing that the Greenbaums were gone, but the faster the story faded the better.
The bosses quickly chartered a plane to Phoenix to pay their respects at the Greenbaums’ funeral service and burial at Beth Israel Cemetery. As a sign of the deep affection the “boys” had for the so-called “Mayor of Paradise,” the Riviera remained closed from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on the day memorial services were held in Phoenix and Las Vegas. As a side benefit, the closure also prevented a robbery or takeover at the casino. Those who understood the truth about Greenbaum’s rise to power in Las Vegas knew such things were not only possible, but to be expected. They would take no chances.
With 300 people in attendance at the funeral, and U.S. Senator and future presidential candidate Barry Goldwater of Arizona among the notables, Rabbi Albert L. Plotkin exercised his appreciation of the nuance of language. “The lives of good people need no eulogy,” he said. “They speak for themselves. Gustave Greenbaum was loved and respected as a friend. He had an inner warmth and kindness to his soul. He gave of himself humbly and simply, and without notoriety.”
A funeral was no place to convey darker truths.
Pallbearers included Las Vegas casino executives Goffstein, Elias Atol, Joe Rosenberg, Sam Pop, J.K. Houssels, and brothel owner Al Abrams. They didn’t sit shiva long. Within hours, the green-felt mourners flew back to Las Vegas and waited for what came next.
Now that 60 years have passed, we can reflect on Greenbaum’s life, his pivotal role in the development of Las Vegas, and his unsolved murder, too. Because a strange thing happened on the way to burying the memories of Gus and Bess Greenbaum: Their ghosts refused to remain silent, and haunted the mob and the casino crowd for the better part of a generation. For crime writers and government agents, those awful deaths became a touchstone for the dangerous shadows that still existed just beyond legalized gambling’s bright lights. Their names were dropped whenever the casino business was discussed in-depth, and the failure of the Nevada Tax Commission’s Gaming Control Board to put the murders in focus exposed a tragicomic flaw in the system.
The Greenbaum murders created a challenge back in Las Vegas, where the state’s largest newspaper, the Review-Journal, gave scant news coverage to the casino industry, preferring to concentrate on crime stories and business news that often lapsed into boosterism. Gushing show reviews and gossip columns were the order of the day. Readers might be left to wonder whether there was any gambling going on in the new Casablanca.
Faced with the Greenbaum murders, the newspaper’s response was simultaneously sensational and understated. While the banner headline declared, “RIVIERA PRESIDENT, WIFE FOUND SLAIN,” the story beneath ran just a dozen paragraphs and was sourced through Goffstein, who “discounted the gangland slaying theory.” Readers were reminded that while “Greenbaum was well known to Las Vegas and eastern gambling circles,” it was important to remember he “was frequently associated with benefit and charitable organizations.”
But few nonprofits solved problems with blunt instruments and nine-inch butcher knives. Before the week was up, Goffstein’s $25,000 reward offer was written into an “exclusive,” and Clark County law enforcement leaders appeared almost relieved that the murders had taken place outside their jurisdiction. Clark County Sheriff W.E. “Butch” Leypoldt opined, “We have no reason to believe Las Vegas was involved in any way. ... We cannot find any Las Vegas angle to the murders.” His undersheriff, Lloyd Bell, added, “All we can do is make routine inquiries,” since the homicides happened out of state.
With a few notable exceptions, the double murder vanished from Nevada newsprint. The problem wasn’t a lack of journalistic sinew, historians have observed, but was an example of the state’s split personality when it came to the casino industry. “Officially, state and local political and law-enforcement leaders considered Las Vegas, like Reno and the rest of the state, off-limits to mobsters,” academics Michael Green and Eugene Moehring wrote in Las Vegas: A Centennial History. “Unofficially, they quietly accepted gang-related and former gang-related operators like Gus Greenbaum and Moe Dalitz. While out-of-state newspapers often echoed the views of critics like Senator Estes Kefauver that Las Vegas was mob-run, the local media, for the most part, tended to minimize the problem by ignoring it or trivializing it.”
But there wasn’t a casino rug big enough to cover two bloody homicides that made headlines from coast to coast.
Although fans of The Godfather movies will recognize an amalgam of his name in the character Moe Greene, Gus Greenbaum remains the most important forgotten man in early Las Vegas casino history. Siegel was a well-known quantity when he opened the Flamingo in 1946, and vaulted into legendary status after his June 1947 murder in Beverly Hills — but it was Greenbaum who was the superior businessman. He bossed the rackets in Phoenix, invested in the Flamingo, and had owned pieces of the El Cortez and Las Vegas Club with Siegel and Meyer Lansky. Greenbaum’s sudden appearance at the Flamingo, by some accounts just hours after Siegel’s demise, was big news, but no big surprise to insiders. With Moe Sedway and Joe Rosenberg at his side, Greenbaum signaled the beginning of a new era.
At a glance, Greenbaum and Siegel couldn’t have been more different. Slight-framed and as handsome as the actors he cultivated in Hollywood, Siegel could make a loud sport coat look like a million bucks. The balding Greenbaum was thick-chested, apish, and large-jawed. In photographs, the best-tailored clothes didn’t seem made for a man with that face. It’s little wonder that when the sharpies at the new-generation El Cortez went looking for the face of Vegas nostalgia, they chose Siegel over Greenbaum.
Although he looked more like an undercard pug than an impresario of gaudy glamour and the “Mayor of Paradise” — the designation given the boss of the area around what’s now known as the Strip — he’d soon become its darling. At the Flamingo, Greenbaum’s influence was undeniable after Siegel’s murder. With a large personal investment, $500,000 according to the Review-Journal, and an infusion of as much as $1 million from underworld sources for additional amenities, in no time the Flamingo emerged as the biggest winner in town, with a $4 million reported profit in the first full year post-Bugsy. They didn’t call it the “Fabulous Flamingo” for nothing.
Siegel would be remembered as a visionary, but he wasn’t a reliable accountant. It was Greenbaum who made the Flamingo fly, with a focus on customer service, popular showroom headliners, and a greater attention to the bottom line. Operating out of Phoenix kept him out of the glare — if not always out of the headlines.
Gustave Greenbaum was born in Chicago in 1893, the son of Austrian immigrants. Although some sources report he spent time in New York City making his bones with Lansky’s syndicate, he came west from Chicago to Arizona in the late 1920s with brothers Charlie and Sam. By then, Greenbaum was a well-connected bookmaker, and Phoenix soon became an important relay point in the mob’s race-wire service. The Greenbaum brothers owned a grocery store and a smoke shop, managed the racing wire that provided bookmakers with information, and opened a string of betting parlors. For many years brother Charlie ran the store and Sam operated Bond Service Co., a bail company that kept his money on the street and gave him valuable insight into the local criminal element.
Life was good. Throughout much of their comfortable life in Phoenix, Bess Greenbaum made the pages of The Arizona Republic as much as her husband, but for very different reasons. In the early years, even the construction of their home in the Encanto development made news. Bess was a society-page regular as a respected contributor to Jewish charitable organizations and the Red Cross. Gus and his brothers were known as soft touches for good causes, and that reputation would follow Greenbaum to Las Vegas. But when the Greenbaum brothers hustled $800,000 worth of stock in the Arizona Clarence Saunders Stores, a branch of the grocery chain started by the man who invented the American supermarket, they drew a criminal mail fraud investigation from federal authorities. The ensuing legal battle lasted throughout much of the 1930s, through three jury trials with multiple convictions and successful appeals.
It was far from Greenbaum’s only challenge. Greenbaum’s comfortable run of luck was interrupted by law enforcement and state legislators on a reform kick. Proposed legislation called for bookmaking and betting to be branded with felony status. It was another headache to fix. Greenbaum’s headquarters, known locally as the Western News Exchange and based out of the St. James Hotel on East Madison Street, once again had been interrupted by Phoenix police. With the phone service clipped and the doors once again padlocked, it was time to let his surrogates untangle the mess. Although he maintained his home in Phoenix, he moved the lion’s share of his game to Las Vegas about the time Siegel made his untimely exit.
Within a year of taking over the Flamingo, Greenbaum put the trouble in Phoenix mostly behind him. Trouble of another kind found the casino man as he slipped into compulsive gambling and heavy drinking. Two night clerks robbed his personal lock box of $47,000, and once they were tracked down and brought into custody, he did something extraordinary — he let them work their way through the legal system and saw them receive prison sentences. Others who crossed him wouldn’t fare as well.
To outsiders Greenbaum was the gregarious new face of the casino industry. His notorious reputation in Phoenix was rarely worth a line in a Las Vegas newspaper. His easily traced connections to Siegel and the mob weren’t discussed. Although a young Susan Berman, in her memoir of life with her father, gangster casino man Dave Berman, would recall Greenbaum as a grouch, longtime Downtown sandwich shop owner Max Corsun would rave about the refinement “Mr. G” exuded, calling him a classy dresser and big tipper. In his Siegel biography, Dean Jennings summarized Greenbaum’s public persona: “For the so-called respectable citizens and the high rollers with class, Gus was as friendly and sincere as a Bible salesman. He knew the percentages of both gambling and public relations, and he made them work.”
Once he moved his action across the Colorado River, the reinvention of Gus Greenbaum didn’t take long in the forgiving light of the Las Vegas press and police department.
In some ways, 1950 was Greenbaum’s best year. Las Vegas had not overwhelmed him yet. Although he drank and caroused more, and gambled hard, he wasn’t yet addicted to the opium prescribed for his asthma. He’d turned over day-to-day operations of his Phoenix bookmaking operation to Mike Newman, and had operated the Flamingo so profitably that the stigma created by the bloody Siegel hit had at last begun to fade.
In Las Vegas, local news stories generally portrayed Greenbaum as something of an anti-Bugsy, an affable gladhander with a ready smile, a Runyonesque quip, and a penchant for hitting the green-felt tables. He was also a vocal spokesman for Strip interests, moved in powerful political circles, and assured skeptical reporters that, contrary to the headlines in one Los Angeles newspaper, there would be no “shooting war” in Las Vegas casinos.
He even made a cameo appearance in the legendary dice tale of “Mr. Anonymous” at the Desert Inn. As an Associated Press story enthused, a young man stepped up to a craps table at the D.I. on the evening of Saturday, June 10, dropped $2 on the layout, and called for the dice. Over the next 80 minutes he rolled 28 straight passes — against 10-million-to-1 odds — before shooting a loser. At the table, according to the report, was Zeppo Marx of Marx Brothers fame, who won $28,000. But the biggest winner was Greenbaum, “owner of a rival club,” who strolled into the night $48,000 richer. Given his itch for action, it’s sure the money didn’t stay in his pocket long.
Gus Greenbaum, second from left, appears at an event to donate land for the construction of the Guardian Angel. Greenbaum gave generously to churches and charities.
He gave generously to charity, especially to the local synagogue and Catholic Church, and didn’t mind the word getting around. In an only-in-Vegas moment, a late 1950s photo lineup commemorating the gifting of the land for the Guardian Angel Cathedral on the Strip, Greenbaum was pictured with Benny Binion, Moe Dalitz, Willie Alderman, and other casino men, along with Monsignor James Empey, Cardinal James McIntyre, and other members of the clergy.
Greenbaum opened his bankroll even more to Nevada politicians, who helped him with everything from preventing the city’s annexation of the burgeoning Strip casino corridor, christened Paradise Township in 1950, to fixing a pending income-tax-evasion investigation through his ally (and Siegel’s secret pal) U.S. Senator Pat McCarran. It’s no wonder that by 1950 he’d picked up the nickname “the Mayor of Paradise.” Playing the small-town mayor on a local tax issue, he enthused, “We hope this move will bring you better roads, better schools, and better everything.”
The move also helped ensure a lower tax burden for the casino kings.
Behind the smile and swagger was a compulsive gambler who understood a balance sheet. “To many people in Las Vegas, even today,” hard-hitting authors Ed Reid and Ovid Demaris wrote in their Green Felt Jungle, “Gus is regarded as one of the sharpest and toughest punks ever to operate there.”
It wasn’t all rosy. The Las Vegas Sun was making trouble for the boys’ biggest front man, Senate powerhouse McCarran. In his now-classic 1966 memoir Where I Stand: The Record of a Reckless Man, the late Sun publisher Hank Greenspun devotes scant space to mob violence, but he skewers his mortal enemy McCarran by describing the politician’s proximity to the mobbed-up casino men. Under the increasing heat of a deposition, “He (McCarran) had to admit that he had long enjoyed carte blanche privileges at various Strip hotels, where he had never paid a bill, even when using hotel space for campaign headquarters. He had to confirm that he had interceded in 1950 with Charles Oliphant, counsel for the Bureau of Internal Revenue, in connection with the tax difficulties of two casino operators, Gus Greenbaum and Moe Sedway of the Flamingo.” McCarran was so far in the pocket of the mob that he openly battled immigration officials to prevent the deportation of gangster Joe Adonis and other felons despite his anti-immigration histrionics in the Senate.
Greenbaum understood the power of making friends in high places. And he knew how to return a favor. Not only did McCarran enjoy the Flamingo’s complimentary services, but also when the senator became the subject of regular searing commentary from Greenspun’s front-page “Where I Stand” column, Greenbaum was one of a few casino bosses to approach the publisher in March 1952 with a request to turn down the heat.
“Hank, you’ve got to lay off,” Greenbaum implored. “The Old Man has the power of life and death over us.” After making the mistake of raising his voice to Greenspun, the casino man added, “Look, Hank, I like your paper. I want to support it. But I’m afraid that you’re going too far this time. I’m just warning you: They’re driving us crazy from Washington!” Greenbaum temporarily canceled the Flamingo’s advertising contract with the Sun. Greenspun would survive the assault and come back stronger.
Even when the spotlight on interstate gambling and organized crime grew most intense during the national tour of Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver’s so-called “rackets committee” hearings, Greenbaum caught a big break. Although subpoenaed, for some reason the man who was arguably second only to Dalitz in importance on the Strip wasn’t called to testify. He dressed in a suit and reported to the federal courthouse, now the site of the popular Mob Museum, and cooled his heels in the hallway.
In 1951, Los Angeles-based hoodlum heisters Anthony Trombino and Anthony Brancato made the fatal mistake of robbing the Flamingo in 1951, at the height of Greenbaum’s power. Brancato failed to wear a mask during the heist (which netted only $3,500 in cash) and was positively identified by a Flamingo employee. Both men were smart enough to surrender to the authorities in California, but dumb enough to leave police custody. On August 6, 1951, they were shot to death in Los Angeles. The Flamingo didn’t get its money back, but you might say it paid to advertise: Stickup men would think twice before trying their luck again.
Greenbaum’s reputation for toughness grew. As Jennings, author of We Only Kill Each Other, later observed, “If there was a way to skim money off the top without having the Internal Revenue Service men snooping around, Gus could do it. If there were unwelcome visitors at the hotel — maverick hoodlums — Gus would grab the seat of their pants and propel them to the nearest exit.”
But even the strong can stumble. As Greenbaum’s drinking, drug use, and gambling worsened, his accounting grew increasingly suspect. He also made a life-changing mistake that would become one of the enduring mysteries of his decline: He hired a new entertainment director named “William Nelson,” who was the spitting image of the Hollywood labor fixer-turned-mob informant Willie Bioff. Some investigative reporters have surmised that the hiring of Bioff, whose testimony put away several high-profile Chicago mobsters, forever made Greenbaum the enemy of Tony Accardo.
In a business where loose lips were never wise, Greenbaum made it clear he was the man to see on the Strip. As the pressure to produce increased, his small group of trusted allies shrunk in 1952 with the heart-attack death of Moe Sedway. And his own health was failing, too, with ulcers, a bad back, and recurring asthma.
Whether his 1955 exit from the helm of the Flamingo was fully forced or merely strongly encouraged mattered little. He wasn’t out of the Las Vegas headlines long. When the sparkling new Riviera Hotel and Casino, the Strip’s first high rise, foundered and entered bankruptcy just three months after its April 20, 1955, opening, he was repeatedly asked by his Chicago associates to come back and run it; despite his problems, they needed someone to set things right. He repeatedly declined.
Greenbaum began to reconsider after the suffocation “by human hand” of Leone Greenbaum, brother Charlie’s wife. The 75-year-old woman for months had told friends, family, and even her hired help that she feared for her life from men associated with her brother-in-law, Gus. With the possible exception of a single missing ring, nothing was taken from the house and no suspects were arrested.
Then it was Bioff’s turn. On November 4, 1955, in Phoenix, he started his pickup and was blown to pieces. Getting the message, Greenbaum, with what remained of his loyal crew around him, went back to work.
The wheel of fortune being what it is, Las Vegas never skipped a beat. But the violence had been noticed. When Arkansas Senator John McClellan commenced the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in Labor and Management, Teamsters President James Riddle Hoffa felt much of the heat. Some of the committee’s investigative trails led straight to Las Vegas, where the Teamsters had begun lending money from its Central States Pension Fund. The committee’s chief counsel, Robert F. Kennedy, was intrigued — some would argue obsessed — with the complex connections of Chicago labor lawyer Sidney Korshak, who was particularly close to the management of the Riviera, where it was rumored he held points in the operation.
With so much pressure being brought to bear in Washington, it’s hard to imagine those associated with the Teamsters and the hidden interests of Las Vegas had much faith in Greenbaum’s ability to hold up under the strain. By then he was using heroin daily.
Greenbaum was less and less the affable “Mayor of Paradise” and more a morose man in the throes of his addictions. He lost his trusted friend Berman during surgery on Father’s Day 1957, and attended the funeral with Joe Rosenberg, Israel “Icepick Willie” Alderman, Nick the Greek Dandalos, and a rogue’s gallery of members of the sporting crowd. Berman, a killer and kidnapper-turned-Las Vegas casino man, had died of surgical complications at age 53.
Gus Greenbaum’s world was getting smaller.
That Greenbaum was stealing from his fellow investors has been widely suspected. But when the end came in December 1958, following a clandestine meeting of mob leaders in Tucson, where it’s been reported the final decision to kill him was made, few seemed angry enough to pursue justice in his name. While several hundred would attend the Phoenix funeral, a smaller crowd turned out in Las Vegas for a memorial at Temple Beth Shalom.
Not everyone was satisfied to let the murders fade away. Riviera publicity man Ed Becker, who’d been hired by Greenbaum and liked the troubled casino man despite his failings, began inquiring into the shadowy politics surrounding the hits, in a call for justice that lasted the rest of his life. Becker would eventually become a private investigator, pivotal researcher for Ed Reid’s blistering 1969 state-of-the-mob analysis The Grim Reapers, and co-author with Charles Rappleye of the biography of mob fixer Johnny Rosselli, All-American Mafioso. In an interview with fellow investigative author Gus Russo, Becker recalled, “When my boss Gus Greenbaum got killed at the Riviera, everybody took off, all the owners, everybody, we all left. But I stayed around town and commuted between Las Vegas and Beverly Hills.” When Becker later dug up dirt on behalf of Reid, as Russo observed, powerhouse mob attorney Sid Korshak “was not happy with their probings and the repercussions of Becker’s knowledge for Korshak’s friends.” Las Vegas, the consummate off-the-record company town, was still being haunted by Greenbaum’s ghost.
Becker died in 2007 with the double murders unsolved but still on his mind. When it came to the Greenbaum murders, the words of Reid and Demaris remained as true after more than five decades as the day they were printed in 1963: “There was much official speculation concerning the crime, but as in the Siegel murder in Beverly Hills, nothing of any importance was ever added to the basic facts. No clue, no suspicion, no arrests.”
The killings set the Nevada Tax Commission on its heels. Its Gaming Control Board was tasked with keeping an eye on the casino, but balked at taking up an independent investigation of the links between the homicides and the darker interests of Las Vegas. When control board member William Deutsch made the suggestion in a December 19, 1958, meeting, he was countered by Chairman Robbins Cahill, who had no law enforcement training but offered, “the crime doesn’t look like a Syndicate job. ... It was too messy. It was more like a crime of passion.”
Grant Sawyer, in his oral history, does not say that the Greenbaum murders influenced his decision as governor to separate the casino regulators from the tax commission and create a two-tiered system that created a new standard of modern gaming control. But three individuals with whom Greenbaum was well acquainted were among the first 11 names added to the state’s “List of Excluded Persons” — Sam Giancana, Murray Humphreys, and Marshall Caifano. All three Chicago mob titans were banned from setting foot in a gambling hall.
Although reports conflict over who gave the final nod on Greenbaum’s demise, Accardo and Lansky are mentioned most often in published reports. The fact the sawed-off psychopath Caifano paid Greenbaum a visit, reportedly to remind him to sell out his piece of the Riviera pronto, makes Accardo a strong favorite. But various investigative reports, some published by Reid and Demaris, and another offered by nationally syndicated columnist Drew Pearson, note that two professional hitmen departed from Phoenix less than 24 hours after the homicides. Other accounts put the blood on the hands of Caifano, whose reputation included the murder of at least one woman.
Was his murder ordered by the mercurial Accardo and carried out by the maniacal Caifano? Perhaps Greenbaum’s harboring of the snitch Willie Bioff sealed his fate, or his embarrassing proximity to future Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. Authorities differ. Some say Lansky himself gave the final approval. A credible case can be made for Greenbaum being eliminated to prevent him from being caught in the investigative probe of the McClellan Committee and perhaps informing on the Chicago mob’s greatest fixer and consummate casino-industry insider, Korshak. Despite the unconvincing conclusion of Nevada gaming authorities, no one makes the case that the murders weren’t ordered by Greenbaum’s closest associates in the underworld.
Greenbaum’s death cemented the image that the mob was beyond the reach of the law, that the tentacles of organized crime could strike its members without impunity. The findings of the McClellan Committee aside, when The Green Felt Jungle was published in 1963, Greenbaum’s murder figured prominently — and his ties to Goldwater caused the GOP’s rising star to denounce the book as “trash, and the American people won’t want to have anything to do with it. In fact, it might even be libelous. We’re looking into that.” Although Goldwater liked to believe his associations with Greenbaum and Bioff wouldn’t have an impact on his presidential dreams, he was wrong. The connection would dog Goldwater to his obituary in 1998.
The theme repeated itself every few years. Published in 1966, Wallace Turner’s Gamblers’ Money: The New Force in American Life centered its reporting on the business activities of Dalitz, but the specter of the Greenbaum murder loomed. When Jennings published his 1967 Siegel biography, Greenbaum emerged as capable and obviously connected. Reid’s later-published work further cemented the Greenbaum legend, which became even more indelible in 1972, with the release of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. The character Moe Greene was drawn from several notorious Jewish gangsters of the era, including Greenbaum.
Greenbaum’s immense but not unlimited influence in the underworld were detailed even further in the new century with the 2001 publication of The Money and the Power: The Making of Las Vegas and Its Hold on America. Although Siegel’s handsome “baby blue eyes” image was best remembered, it was Mr. G. who paid attention to detail.
In the new Las Vegas, Siegel rates a plaque in a rose garden at the Flamingo, and his image has even been used to promote the classic El Cortez casino Downtown. Greenbaum’s name has faded like old newsprint. In the new Phoenix, a drive through the Encanto neighborhood now finds it listed as “historic.” It’s aged well and still bucolic. The curious will find a well-kept house at 1115 Monte Vista, a place so peaceful visitors will may wonder if they’d discovered their own piece of paradise.
John L. Smith is a longtime Las Vegas journalist and a member of the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame. He is writing a book on the Greenbaum murders and other mysteries of Las Vegas.