The Legend of Bugsy Siegel and Las Vegas

The Las Vegas Review-Journal recently wrote about the mob's role in the evolution of Las Vegas, describing Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel once again as the gangster with the vision to create America's greatest gambling mecca.

They ought to have known better.

 Bugsy believed in the Flamingo and Las Vegas, and for this, he was indeed murdered.
Benjamin (Bugsy) Siegel

According to the myth, Siegel drove his car across the open Nevada desert under a pale-blue sky with nothing but sun-scorched sand on either side.

He stopped the car to relieve himself -- and a vision flooded his brain of a fantastic hotel-casino sprouting up out of the barren wasteland like a flashy mirage, where people could gather to enjoy in upscale splendor the best food and entertainment as well as first-rate service and, of course, gambling, all kinds of gambling, from felt-covered card-gaming tables to ever-hungry slot machines into which anxious patrons thumbed their coins, gleefully awaiting the ringing bells and flashing lights of the jackpot while sipping a martini.

Siegel, filled with mad inspiration, raced back to civilization, the myth goes, and started straightaway to develop the Flamingo hotel/casino, a gambling destination that would set the mark for gambling resorts across Las Vegas.

Let's get the story straight once and for all. As much as we love the tragic tale of Bugsy Siegel creating Las Vegas and getting killed for it by greedy, shortsighted gangsters -- a story brimming with dazzling details and immortalized in cinematic award-winners such as "The Godfather" and "Bugsy" -- most of the stories are fabrications.

We will give credit where credit is due: Bugsy did save the hotel/casino called the Flamingo; he provided the needed funding and saw construction through to completion. His death, in fact, is believed to have done more to put Las Vegas on the map than anything else. And he wasn't even killed in Las Vegas!

Bugsy believed in the Flamingo and Las Vegas, and for this, he was indeed murdered. To an extent he should be honored.

But let's recognize the true role he played and not the myth as spun by filmmakers and the corporate marketing departments of the hotel-casino behemoths now populating the fabled Strip.

Bugsy (a name only the bravehearted said to his face) was actually carrying out the vision of another man, an entrepreneurial businessman who was indeed the true visionary of Las Vegas.

Unsolved Gangland Slaying in Beverly Hills
Let's begin at the end. Based on the thousands of news reports over the years, we can all agree on the details regarding how, when and where the well-groomed gangster known for his flaring temper met his grizzly fate. (We still don't know who; likely, we never will.)

The Flamingo opened on December 26, 1946 to poor reception (the place was still under construction). The hotel soon closed, then reopened in March 1947, once construction was completed.

Three months later, at 10:45 pm on June 20, 1947, at least one gunman crept up to a French window with a 30-30 carbine, resting the rifle on the lattice work of a trellis outside the Moorish‐style mansion Siegel shared with Virginia Hill at 810 North Linden Drive in Beverly Hills, California.

Siegel sat on a couch, his back facing the gunman, adjusting his aim outside the window about 15 feet away. Siegel flipped through a copy of the Los Angeles Times he had picked up after dining at Jack’s on the Beach, when the gunmen squeezed off nine shots, two hitting Siegel in the head and two more tearing through his chest. During the hail of fire, Siegel's left eyeball was blasted out, an unintended symbolic flourish for the man called the "visionary" who created Las Vegas.

He died nearly instantly, and the high-profile murder, subjected to an intensive investigation, remains unsolved to this day.

The two most common theories identify the shooters as either Frankie Carbo, a former associate who helped Siegel commit an early murder, or Eddie Cannizzaro, a low‐level operative for LA gangster Jack Dragna, the boss Siegel had squeezed out of the lucrative wire-racing racket.

But is the identity of the shooter as important as who was at the other end, the man who gave the order?

Here's something interesting I learned while researching this story: Bugsy was not alone when he was killed. 

Trusted friend and associate Allen Smiley was with him that night, sitting on the other end of the couch. Little has been written about Smiley or what he knew about the murder. His daughter, Luellen Smiley, has written a book about the her father. Excerpts and stories about Smiley can be read here, on her blog.

Smiley and Siegel had met in Hollywood; Bugsy had begun vising the West Coast city in the 1930s to run rackets for the East Coast Mafia. Smiley's friendly demeanor supposedly served as a soothing balm capable of mitigating Siegel's notorious mercurial outbursts.

Smiley owned a piece of the Flamingo hotel, as did other mobsters (many other mobsters, in fact), and these business partners, according to the prevailing wisdom, are most likely responsible for Siegel's death. Meyer Lansky was part of this group of investors and the man who probably gave the order to whack Bugsy, although a deported Charley "Lucky" Luciano may have originated the order. This is definitely a topic worth taking a closer look at, perhaps in a later article.

The motive, in any case, was quite obvious -- too much cash had disappeared. Construction of the Flamingo had run into huge cost overruns. Girlfriend Hill was allegedly skimming (with or without Bugsy's knowledge).

Allen Smiley, who amazingly escaped injury, is the only eye witness. Luellen attributes her father's escape to luck. "It went right through his jacket, the bullets. The only reason he was saved is that he acted quickly and dove to the floor," she said.

After the murder, Smiley went on the lam for about a year. Some believe he had known about the hit in advance. His daughter doubts that. "Did he know it was coming? No, I don't think he'd be sitting there," she said. Luellen gave the New York Post an interview a few years back.

The original Flamingo, completed by Siegel, who died three months later.

Smiley told police that it was too dark for him to identify the shooter(s). He said something quite different to a longtime friend, according to said friend, Lem Banker, the Las Vegas sports gambler still at it today, apparently.

Banker says Smiley confided to him that the shooter was Chick Hill, the brother of Siegel's troubled girlfriend Virginia Hill. Chick Hill was in the house that night, as well, supposedly upstairs. Smiley told Banker that the mob didn't retaliate against Chick Hill because it wanted Siegel dead anyway. This instance of luck is difficult to believe and has been refuted. In the well-researched book Bugsy's Baby about Virginia Hill, the portrait of her brother, who ran errands for Bugsy and looked up to him as a big brother/father figure, makes Banker's positing nearly incomprehensible.

Interestingly, former Lansky associate Joe Stassi also said he had information that Chick Hill was the shooter. At least that is what Stassi, who played a large role in the mob's Havana operations before they were chased out, told GQ magazine in September 2001 (the issue dubbed him "The Oldest Living Mobster"). He added more detail, noting that Virginia's brother was an expert marksmen, having learned his trade in the U.S. Marine Corp. Stassi's version of events has also been refuted. Firstly, Chick Hill was in an upstairs bedroom on the night in question with Jerri Mason, a lady friend whom he planned to marry. Also, published works have noted that if Chick had a problem with anyone, it was his sister, Virginia, who was constantly disrupting his relationships with women.

When the gunfire began punching through the house, the first thought in Chick's mind was that someone was coming for Virginia's diamonds, a haul worth hundreds of thousands of dollars that was stashed in a secret wall safe in Virginia's bedroom, down the hall -- as were the guns, both Chick's and Ben's.

"Ben!" Chick cried out upon hearing the blasts. This is according to "We Only Kill Each Other," an early account of Siegel's life with Virginia Hill as written by Dean Jennings.

Smiley shouted back: "Chick! Douse the lights! Jesus!"

It is interesting that the two theories pointing to Chick Hill were proposed by two separate people, however. Less interesting if Smiley had also been Stassi's source.

Separating Fact from Fiction

To accept the Bugsy-created-Vegas myth as fact would require one to ignore all the evidence about what Las Vegas had to offer tourists before the  Flamingo opened its doors in 1947. There is extensive evidence in the form of published accounts in newspapers and magazines, as well as other material from the time period. Why waste time here proving water is wet? Read the work referenced below, and decide for yourself.

"Siegel’s property was indeed luxurious. Beautifully landscaped lawns with palm trees, a lobby with deeply cushioned chairs, thick carpeting and luxurious drapes throughout a property with a green and pink color scheme did add glamour to Las Vegas, but it was an incremental improvement over the other properties. Developers like Tommy Hull, Robert Griffith, William Moore, Bob Brooks, and especially Billy Wilkerson" are really the ones who set the stage for the Vegas we know of today, as noted in the Center for Gaming Research Paper on The Powerful Mythology Surrounding Bugsy Siegel.

Wilkerson is the real "visionary" behind Las Vegas. He "developed the idea for a luxurious hotel‐casino called the Flamingo, had set the stage for the emergence of truly glamorous properties like the Desert Inn and Sands hotels in the 1950," the Center for Gaming noted.

Bugsy the gangster merely stole the role from him, as well as the hotel/casino, from an historical perspective.

Wilkerson is a fascinating man in terms of his other achievements, as well, but let's stick to Vegas.

Copy of the $9,500 check Wilkerson wrote to Margaret Folsom

The Flamingo [the original that Bugsy took over] occupied 40 acres originally owned by one of Las Vegas's first settlers, Charles "Pops" Squires. Squires paid $8.75 an acre for the land. He sold the tract In 1944 to Margaret Folsom for $7,500 and she later sold it to Wilkerson, the owner of the Hollywood Reporter as well as some very popular nightclubs in the Sunset Strip.

In 1945, Wilkerson purchased 33 acres on the west side of U.S. Route 91, about one mile south of the Hotel Last Frontier, for $9,500. Wilkerson hired George Vernon Russell to design a hotel that was more in the European style, as Wilkerson's plan was to open a hotel with luxurious rooms, a spa, health club, showroom, golf course, nightclub and an upscale restaurant.

Due to high wartime materials costs, Wilkerson ran into financial problems nearly immediately -- he was in absolute need of funding to the tune of $400,000.

This is the part when the gangster usually shows up in his shiny suit, his pockets figuratively bulging with cash generated steadily by street rackets.

And so it happened that toward the end of 1945, Siegel and his "partners" showed up on Wilkerson's doorstep. The fledgling resort city of Las Vegas had indeed caught Bugsy's attention. Legalized gambling! Off-track betting! He already had a huge piece of the race wire racket, so he knew the immense profits that could be generated.

Siegel began purchasing property on Fremont Street but due to unfriendly city officials aware of his criminal background, he had to go off the then-main strip and find a site outside the city limits. Hearing that Wilkerson was in dire need of funding, Siegel and friends, saying they were just businessmen, approached him and bought a two-thirds stake in the hotel.

Siegel took over the final phases of construction and convinced more of his underworld associates to invest in the project, keeping alive the dream -- and supposedly even the name -- that Wilkinson had developed as part of his vision for the new-style Las Vegas hotel that would served as a model for later hotel casinos that opened there.

When Siegel finally opened the Flamingo on December 26, 1946, a large sign stood in front of the construction site announcing it was a William R. Wilkerson project, with Del Webb Construction as the prime contractor and Richard R. Stadelman the architect.

Another little detail I was not aware of was that a memorial has been erected to commemorate Bugsy Siegel's "role" in the development of Las Vegas.

The Siegel memorial is located outside the wedding chapel at the Flamingo Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip and was erected when the new Flamingo hotel debuted..

So, they waited until the mob was gone before acknowledging organized crime's participation in Las Vegas's evolution. And now they use Mafia hype to sell Las Vegas to affluent more adventurous types of gamblers. The "Disneyland Vegas" didn't work, so they are seeking inspiration elsewhere. In fact, it seems like they want the very guys who once populated their infamous Black Book to populate their casino floors...