A gambler. A mobster. A muckraker. In 1989, the deaths of three very different Vegas icons closed an era that shaped our modern city
In March 1952, Las Vegas Sun publisher Hank Greenspun met with Flamingo boss Gus Greenbaum and Horseshoe owner Benny Binion. It wasn’t exactly a social call. According to Greenspun, they told him to “quit jabbing the Old Man.” They were referring to Nevada’s powerful U.S. Senator Pat McCarran — whom Greenspun regularly assailed in his front-page newspaper column, accusing McCarran of corruption, anti-Semitism, and red-baiting.
Less than a week later, almost every hotel-casino in Las Vegas canceled its advertising in the Sun. (Binion refused to join the boycott, and Greenspun reportedly removed the Horseshoe ads to protect him.) Greenspun recalled racing to the Desert Inn and asking its top executive Moe Dalitz, “What’s behind these ad cancellations?”
Dalitz replied, “You should know. Why did you have to attack the Old Man?”
It wasn’t the first or last time Greenspun, Binion, and Dalitz crossed paths or made news. And when they died within 155 days of one another in 1989 (Greenspun, July 23; Dalitz, August 31; Binion, December 25), they were remembered as men of another era who adapted to changing times, as philanthropists, and as mythic figures who shaped modern Las Vegas.
An attorney who had fought in World War II, Greenspun accompanied a client to Las Vegas in 1946. He found the town and its weather inviting (one of his first acts on arriving in February was to take a dip in the Last Frontier hotel pool, which would have tempted any New Yorker). He and two friends began publishing a magazine that led to his job as publicist for the Flamingo, and thus for Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel. After Siegel’s murder, Greenspun moved on to the Desert Inn project with his friend Wilbur Clark, invested in a local radio station, and took time away to run guns to Israel, for which he had to plead guilty to violating the Neutrality Act.
By the time of his guilty plea, Greenspun had found another line of work, publishing a new daily newspaper, the Las Vegas Sun. He had little trouble getting attention. His front-page column, “Where I Stand,” railed against such favorite targets as the U.S. Senate’s two leading Communist witch-hunters, McCarran and Joe McCarthy.
Greenspun’s attacks on McCarran prompted the advertising boycott. Greenspun sued him and the casino owners, and won a settlement that restored the Sun’s advertising. He also wound up in court over McCarthy. After a series of columns asking if McCarthy was a secret communist (yes, it concluded) and a Nazi sympathizer (probably, it said), Greenspun wrote a column suggesting McCarthy would be assassinated. (“Really, I’m against Joe getting his head blown off, not because I don’t believe in capital punishment or because he does not have it coming, but I would hate to see some simpleton get the chair for such a public service as getting rid of McCarthy”). He was indicted for inciting assassination and acquitted.
Greenspun went on to become a political power in his own right, and a financial success story. He helped start Las Vegas’s first television station, KLAS Channel 8. He obtained the contract for cable television, which was later sold to Cox Communications. He bought land south of Las Vegas that later became Green Valley.
Dalitz and Binion also spent some time in courtrooms and operating outside of casinos. They were leaders of a generation of Las Vegas gambling operators who had criminal pasts — and faced accusations of bringing those criminal connections to Nevada, then the only state with legal gambling. As Dalitz put it, “Hard times make hard people.”
Dalitz worked in the family laundry business before turning to bootlegging during Prohibition (as he told Senator Estes Kefauver’s committee investigating organized crime, “If you people wouldn’t have drunk it, I wouldn’t have bootlegged it”), and illegal gambling afterward. With other members of Cleveland’s Mayfield Road Gang, he came to Las Vegas, oversaw the completion of the Desert Inn, and helped make it a jewel of the Strip, with a country club and a championship golf tournament. He finished construction of the Stardust Hotel, which opened in 1958 as the Strip’s biggest resort. With Merv Adelson, Irwin Molasky, and Allard Roen, Dalitz formed Paradise Development Company, which basically built Maryland Parkway: They constructed Sunrise Hospital, the Boulevard Mall, and several office complexes, and took over the Las Vegas Country Club and Commercial Center. Dalitz was landlord of the Sundance Hotel in Downtown, now The D.
While Dalitz had little to do with Downtown, Binion tended to stay there. A longtime player in Texas rackets, he came to Las Vegas in 1946 (the same year as Greenspun) when, as he put it, “My sheriff got beat in the election.” He was involved in a few different local casinos before opening the Horseshoe in 1951 on the ground floor of the Apache Hotel (the Silvagni family owned the building, and Binion always leased his space).
Binion proved innovative. Your first bet was the limit. He carpeted the floors, which was new to Downtown. He sent limousines to the airport. He installed a horseshoe of $1 million in currency, creating one of the greatest tourist photo opportunity Las Vegas ever had. With his family, he started the World Series of Poker.
He and Greenspun remained friends until they died. The Sun publisher defended Binion amid allegations of violence and other illegal activity. Binion helped Greenspun financially in the Sun’s early days — not just during the ad boycott.
Greenspun and Dalitz never entirely reconciled. When Greenspun ran for governor in 1962, Dalitz led the charge against him among casino owners upset with his muckraking. Greenspun said casinos spent $250,000 to beat him, and Dalitz allegedly replied, “Ha, it cost almost twice that, but we got results!”
All three of them got results. When they died in 1989, all three were remembered, even by their critics and foes, as crucial figures in the development of Southern Nevada, as philanthropists, and as quintessentially Vegas characters. They helped make it possible for Southern Nevada to become what it is today, for good and ill: a global resort mecca and a bustling desert metropolis. When people say they miss the “old Vegas,” they’re usually referring to generous comps and free-flowing cocktails. These three men embodied a different old Vegas ethos of grit, guts, and vision.