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Flamingo Turns 75

Photo of Flamingo Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas building and sign at night
Jakob Owens via Unsplash
Flamingo Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas

We recently said goodbye to 2021. But before it’s too far behind, we wanted to talk about an anniversary at the end of the year. The Flamingo Hotel turned seventy-five. It opened on December 26, 1946.

Let’s face it: The Flamingo’s origins have been the subject of endless myths and endless study. The Mob Museum hosted a discussion involving authors who have done a lot to straighten it out: W.R. Wilkerson the third, grandson of the original builder, and Larry Gragg, a historian who wrote a biography of the ultimate builder, Bugsy Siegel. There were plenty of news stories about the anniversary, too. But let’s provide a little background.

The original idea apparently was Billy Wilkerson’s. He was a force in Hollywood. He founded The Hollywood Reporter, the first paper that really covered the film industry. As for Las Vegas connections, he got some financial help from Howard Hughes… and helped start the Hollywood blacklist in the McCarthy era, when one of the big anti-communists was Nevada’s Pat McCarran. Wilkerson was big on the nightclub scene, too. He opened Ciro’s and LaRue’s, both top southern California spots to see and be seen.

He wanted to replicate that sort of thing in Las Vegas. He had the idea for a resort on Highway 91 where he and his Hollywood friends could hang out. Wilkerson also liked to gamble, so that attracted him. He got construction started on the Flamingo.

This is where it gets even more interesting. Wilkerson needed money. Siegel invested on behalf of his organized crime friends. Eventually, Wilkerson was out of money and Siegel took over. He got the property completed and opened it. Does that mean it really was Wilkerson’s idea? Almost certainly. But remember that organized crime figures never have been big on writing things down. So we don’t know for sure just what Siegel was up to before he became the official boss.

You know the rest of the story pretty well, despite the myths. When the Flamingo opened, the hotel wasn’t ready. The claims have included that the casino was deserted, that torrential rain kept people away. Neither was true. But it was hard to run the casino without the hotel. After it reopened, the Flamingo did better, but Siegel died at his lover Virginia Hill’s Beverly Hills home in June 1947. Whodunnit? We still don’t know. There’s plenty of speculation, ranging from mobsters upset with a lack of profits to Hill’s brother resenting Siegel’s treatment of her. We may never know… The Beverly Hills police department still lists it as an open case, but there don’t appear to have been many recent leads.

The night Siegel died was probably best described by Robert Lacey, a biographer of Meyer Lansky. Into the casino walked Gus Greenbaum, Moe Sedway, and other associates of Siegel and Meyer Lansky. Lacey described them as looking like “generals mopping up after a coup.” Whatever it was, the mob had controlled the Flamingo, and still did. They made it into a big success. Lansky’s allies operated it for the better part of two decades, followed by Kirk Kerkorian, who then sold it to Hilton. Through mergers and buyouts, it’s owned by Caesars Entertainment, which Eldorado Resorts out of Reno recently took over. None of the original building stands, but the history and the legends remain fascinating.