LAS VEGAS SUN
By Jerry Fink
W.R. “Billy” Wilkerson was a Hollywood mover and shaker. And that was during the infancy of the film world when it was encased in mystery and populated by glamorous stars who had not yet made it a habit of exposing their warts and scars in print and on television.
The Philadelphia native moved to Southern California in 1930 and started the Hollywood Reporter, which quickly became a showbiz bible read by people in the industry for gossip and the latest film news.
A businessman with a Midas touch, Wilkerson also started some of the most successful nightspots in Hollywood history, including Café Trocadero, Ciro’s, Sunset House, LaRue, LAiglon and Vendome.
Anyone who was anyone made it a point to be seen at one of Wilkerson’s establishments, especially the Café Trocadero or Ciro’s. Studio heads, producers, directors, stars and mobsters — such as Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel — were among those who routinely could be found socializing, dining and drinking (in spite of prohibition) at the nightclubs, where Wilkerson was able to pick up tidbits for his column and news tips for his reporters.
“My father wrote a daily column for 33 years,” W. R. Wilkerson III said. “He influenced the entire motion picture industry.”
In a biography written by the son and published last month, he said his father did much more than influence films and the eating habits of the stars — he invented Las Vegas.
The book, appropriately titled “The Man Who Invented Las Vegas,” tells the story behind the story of the development of the Flamingo hotel-casino, which is often cited as when the city began to change from a minor-league gaming town with dusty streets and a handful of cowboy-theme hotels and casinos to a sophisticated gaming center.
Wilkerson, not Bugsy Siegel, was the initiator of the famed resort, now the Flamingo-Hilton, which opened in December, 1946, his son claimed.
He decided to write about his father after the movie “Bugsy,” featuring Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, was released in 1991. The film was nominated for six Academy awards and won two, for art direction and costume design.
“After watching the movie I came out realizing it was a brilliant feature film, but historically, completely inaccurate,” Wilkerson said. “After the Academy awards ceremony in March 1992 I decided I would sit down and write the entire story and really explore every angle.”
Hal Rothman, a UNLV professor of history, said that Wilkerson might not get the credit he deserves in Las Vegas history, but added: “He is one of a number of people who don’t get enough credit. In essence, though, Wilkerson would be more of a footnote, an answer in a game of Trivial Pursuit. He had an idea but he wasn’t able to pull it off. The Flamingo he envisioned probably was very different from the one Siegel envisioned.”
Wilkerson’s son, who was 10 years old when his father died in1962, explains why Billy Wilkerson failed with the Flamingo when he was so successful with all of his other business ventures. “He was addicted to gambling,” the author explained. According to the biography, Wilkerson decided to build his own casino to feed his gambling habit, which he came by naturally.
The elder Wilkerson’s father, Richard Wilkerson, was a colorful gambler at the turn of the century who once won a 13-state Coca Cola concession in a poker game, traded it for a movie theater, sold the theater and lost the cash in a poker game — all in a period of two weeks.
His son spent years in an assortment of successful business ventures in the Northeast, including movie houses, newspapers and speakeasies, where the suave young man became acquainted with members of the mob.
When the stock market crashed in 1929 he went broke and headed for Hollywood, where he started the Reporter and his various other businesses. He also gambled away almost everything he earned, coming close on numerous occasions to losing the Reporter and the nightclubs. A friend, 20th Century Fox Chairman Joe Schenck, convinced him that if he was going to gamble, he needed to own a casino.
In January, 1945, Wilkerson bought 33 acres of land from Margaret M. Folsom for $84,000. It was miles from downtown, where most of the other casinos were and so would not be perceived as competition to the existing establishments.
According to the biography, Wilkerson — a man of European tastes — envisioned creating the largest, most sophisticated resort in Las Vegas, one that was five stories tall and had 250 rooms. It would be a hallmark of sophistication, geared toward the elite who would wear evening clothes at night and gamble away fortunes surrounded by luxury. Wilkerson hated the desert, but he thought it was an ideal location for a casino. Gamblers would have no sightseeing distractions.
He analyzed himself, according to his son, and designed a place where gamblers such as himself could nourish their compulsion. The biography said he decided to call the resort the Flamingo, after the exotic pink birds he saw once on a trip to Florida.
Even before construction began, Wilkerson began running into financial problems because of his gambling addiction. He needed $1.2 million for the project but, after a number of bank loans, came up about $400,000 short, so he decided to see if he could make up the difference in poker. He couldn’t. He lost almost everything and had to find investors.
Moe Sedway and Gus Greenbaum, who were running El Cortez at the time, had been advising Wilkerson about the developing casino project. Sedway, a lieutenant of crime czar Meyer Lansky, had been sent to Las Vegas in the 1930s to set up a gambling wire franchise for the mob.
Sedway told Lansky about the project and when Wilkerson found himself up against a financial wall, Lansky sent G. Harry Rothberg to Las Vegas with a business proposition. On Feb. 26, 1946, Wilkerson sold two-thirds of the Flamingo project to Rothberg — in effect, to the mob — for $1 million. Siegel, a dapper dresser and a cold-blooded killer who helped start Murder Inc., became the mob’s front man on the project and almost immediately began muscling into the day-to-day management of the construction and trying to force Wilkerson out.
At one point, Wilkerson hid in Paris for several weeks, fearing he would be killed by the psychopathic mob hit man. Wilkerson watched helplessly as Siegel badly mismanaged the construction, running into cost overruns amounting to more than $6 million. When he learned that Siegel had sold 150 percent of the project to investors, he decided it was time to sell out for $600,000. Three months after Wilkerson bowed out of the project Siegel was gunned down in his girlfriend’s Beverly Hills residence and Sedway and Greenbaum immediately took possession of the resort. During the first year under their management the scaled-down casino turned a profit of $4 million.
The junior Wilkerson said it is not certain who had Siegel killed —it could have been the mob, it could have been some other associates or it could have been his father. “He had the connections,” the 49-year-old Wilkerson said.
Billy Wilkerson quit gambling in 1951, when his son was born, and turned his attention to a personal fight against Communism. “My father hated communism,” his son said. “He was the founding father of the blacklist.”
Wilkerson developed emphysema and other health problems around the time of the birth of his son and died 10 years later at the age of 72. His widow, Tichi, who founded the nonprofit advocacy group Women in Films in 1973, managed the Hollywood Reporter until selling it to BPI Communications in 1988.
“One of the things I’ve been asked over and over is why my dad didn’t talk about it,” Wilkerson III said. “Well, No. 1, when someone has threatened your life in a major fashion, especially someone like Bugsy Siegel, it’s not something you really want to talk about.”
Also, he pointed out, if his father had anything to do with Siegel’s death he could be prosecuted even years later, because there is no statue of limitations on murder. “My father certainly had a lot of reasons to kill him, and it was a little suspicious he hung on in Europe for so long. But then, when your life is threatened you make yourself scarce,” Wilkerson said.
His father was hiding out in Paris when Siegel was slain. Although Billy Wilkerson was not a member of the mob, his son said he had a lot of power and influence with the organization because of his paper, his nightclubs and his many connections in all levels of society.
“Members of organized crime knew my father,” his son said. “Some even worshipped him.”
The Palm Beach Post
Sunday, April 2, 2000
He gambled on a dusty Nevada town and won
by Scott Eyman
Billy Wilkerson was part of the secret aristocracy of Hollywood. The founder of the Hollywood Reporter, a promoter of the Legion of Decency, an anticommunist who helped foment the Hollywood blacklist, a successful restaurateur, a lover of beautiful women (he had six wives), a compulsive gambler, Wilkerson was not always admirable, but he was never dull.
His son, W.R Wilkerson III, has written a partial biography of his father titled The Man Who Invented Las Vegas (Ciro’s). The book focuses on Wilkerson’s purchase of the land and his part in the building of the Flamingo Hotel, which he financed by offering advertising in his newspaper at cut rates and by strong-arming the moguls, some of whom were his close friends and all of whom were loath to antagonize him, to let him use their lumber and building supplies.
The hunger for Vegas among the movie colony derived from the fact that California gambling and prostitution had been effectively shut down in 1938 by Earl Warren. Generalized need to relieve those urges had built up mightily by the time Wilkerson swung into action.
Wilkerson correctly figured that the only way an inveterate gambler could win was by owning the house, and the Flamingo was the result. Wilkerson ran out of money partway through construction, and had to give up two-thirds of the Flamingo to Meyer Lansky and Ben Siegel, thereby giving organized crime a firm foothold in Las Vegas.
March 29, 2000
Wilkerson III writes quite well, and the book is worth the attention of those interested in Vegas history. Wilkerson’s own role in Las Vegas, while fascinating, pales next to his part in the social history of Hollywood, and his son should set about filling in the blanks in that historical record as soon as possible.
‘Invented Las Vegas’
By Ellen Jaffe-Gill
W.R. “Billy” Wilkerson Jr., founder and longtime publisher of The Hollywood Reporter, was a man of myriad contradictions: an intensely private man who spent his evenings schmoozing the Hollywood elite at clubs and premieres; a connoisseur of food and wine who dined at home on canned sardines and deviled egg sandwiches; a devout Catholic who divorced multiple wives.
He was also a compulsive gambler who brought himself to the edge of ruin lime after time but who shaped the nightlife of Hollywood during its golden age of the 1930s and ‘4()s and was instrumental in transforming Las Vegas from a little cowtown with legalized gambling to a playground for (lie rich and famous.
In his book “The Man Who Invented Las Vegas,” Billy Wilkerson’s son, W.R. Wilkerson III, effectively limns the portrait of a man in thrall to an addiction as all-consuming as crack — and more expensive. Wilkerson supported his habit with a powerful, thriving trade paper — lie would take loans from studio heads and put them on the books as prepaid advertising in The Reporter —and a string of successful night-clubs.
But lie was going under for the third time in 1944 when Joseph Schenck, the 20th Century Fox boss who had bailed Wilkerson out of debt again and again, gave him the only solid advice he could in the days before Gamblers Anonymous: “Own the house.”
Largely because of the film “Bugsy,” many people think gangster Ben Siegel came up with the concept for the Flamingo hotel and casino, the posh complex that became the cornerstone for America’s glitziest boulevard, the Las Vegas Strip. But it was Wilkerson who thought of creating a gambling venue that brought European elegance to the desert. He brought in top designers to realize his vision of a superbly appointed resort where the elite could watch top talent perform, play golf, swim, ride — and lose their money in a windowless, clockless casino. It was an idea whose lime had come, but when Wilkerson’s habit caused him to seek an infusion of capital from the mob, he found himself in business with Siegel, a man who made Wilkerson look like a model of self-control.
The writing is unadorned and at times repetitious and clunky, not a fatal flaw when the subject and narrative are interesting. Every detail is annotated, as if the author were eager to show that everything he says about his father is supported by a document or an interview.
The younger Wilkerson ends the book with the news that his father quit gambling cold turkey in October 1951, the month he was born. Family life, he says, filled the hole left by saying goodbye to the cards and horses, but he doesn’t relate how Wilkerson managed to quit, what projects he took on late in life and what kind of father he was. The story’s screeching halt cheats the reader of the third act to a compelling drama.
Las Vegas Life
Billy Wilkerson: the first big link to Hollywood
“I have become convinced,” Billy Wilkerson wrote a friend in 1945, “that Las Vegas is too dangerous for me.”
Or maybe just too expensive. Wilkerson is best-known today as the flamboyant founder of the Hollywood Reporter, but he also occupies a special footnote in Las Vegas history. It was he—not Bugsy Siegel—who conceived the Flamingo hotel-casino in the mid-’40s, the prototype of the glamorous resort casinos on the Strip. And while riches and glory eluded Wilkerson here, he still provided the first critical link between Hollywood and Las Vegas.
In some ways, Wilkerson and the city were made for each other. His father, a Tennessee cardsharp who went by the nickname “Big Dick,” once won the Coca-Cola bottling rights in 13 states during a poker game. Billy ran speakeasies in New York before moving west in 1930 to start the Reporter, the first daily trade paper devoted to movie news. He figured out early how to work the system. The paper coaxed ads from MGM by printing favorable items about Clark Gable and other stars.
In person, the publisher was a mix of the vulgar and urbane. He married six times, smoked three packs a day and swore like a longshoreman. But he also put on the airs of a European aristocrat, sporting spats and tails and a waxed mustache. His LA night-clubs and eateries were patterned after Parisian spots (he once instructed the design team at the Flamingo to save space in each guest bathroom for a bidet).
Wilkerson’s real passions, though, were craps, poker and horses. He blew $25,000 and more in card games with 20th Century Fox boss Joe Schenck and other cronies. Unable to cover the losses himself, he raided the Reporter’s payroll. When Schenck suggested that he should own a casino, Wilkerson evidently took him literally.
The publisher reasoned “that if you owned the casino and lost [at the tables], the money was recycled,” says his son, Willie Wilkerson, who has completed a book—with the somewhat extravagant title The Man Who Invented Las Vegas—about his father’s ill-fated casino investment. Las Vegas was the logical choice because it was a few hours’ drive from Los Angeles and offered legal gaming. Wilkerson figured an elegant, European-style casino would lure his high-rolling movie pals across the Mojave.
But the Flamingo was troubled from the start. The site was a dusty, 33-acre swatch of land on Highway 91, several miles south of downtown. Wilkerson, whose plans called for swank amenities such as a mineral spa and a 30-foot waterfall, struggled to raise the $1.2 million construction budget through bank loans and such friends as Howard Hughes. But he was his own worst enemy. Once, in a crazed bid for more capital, he gambled away $200,000.
By early ‘46, with the hotel’s girders already in place, the increasingly desperate publisher turned over a two-thirds stake to an investment group led by mob kingpin Meyer Lansky. Wilkerson believed he retained creative control. The mob’s representative was Siegel, an ex-hit man and would-be movie star who already knew Wilkerson casually from the Beverly Hills social scene.
At first the gangster took on the role of protégé, but soon clashed with Wilkerson over the Flamingo’s design and budget. During press interviews, Siegel began claiming credit for the entire project.
Siegel discarded the original plans and added pointless luxuries, such as private sewer lines to every room. Costs soared fivefold. Wilkerson tried in vain to get the syndicate to buy out his remaining shares for $600,000, and when he refused to walk away empty-handed, Siegel threatened his life during an investors meeting.
Shaken, the publisher hid out in Paris. But his presence was still felt. The acts he booked—Jimmy Durante, Rose Marie and Xavier Cugat—played for the hotel’s opening night in December 1946, at which some Flamingo matchbooks still listed “W.R. Wilkerson” as manager. The chastened publisher finally returned to the United States after Siegel was murdered the following June.
Hal Rothman, a history professor at UNLV, sees a parallel between Wilkerson and Wilbur Clark, whose Desert Inn also foundered before finding mob backing. Both entrepreneurs “had the right idea, but they misunderstood that they were living in a culture that wouldn’t finance [their casinos] for them,” Rothman says. “The only place that you could go to get that money… was in the underworld.”
In the late ‘40s, Wilkerson became one of Hollywood’s leading red-baiters, dispensing tips about movie industry Communists to another old friend, J. Edgar Hoover. Before his death in 1962 from complications of emphysema, he occasionally visited Las Vegas, but pointedly avoided staying at the Flamingo. — S.C.
Las Vegas Sun
March 23, 2000
Back and Forth
Book corrects story of Vegas & Bugsy
By Ruthe Deskin
“The Man Who Invented Las Vegas.”
That is the title of a paperback I just finished reading and, lo and behold, the Man wasn’t Bugsy Siegel.
For years I have been turned off by movies and TV specials that credit the late and little lamented Benjamin Siegel as the first person to realize the great potential of the Las Vegas Strip.
The myths that have developed around the tough and arrogant Siegel are legendary. But to credit him with the original inspiration to build a hotel-casino in the dusty Nevada desert is misleading.
According to this very well-documented story by the subject’s son, it was a well-heeled gambler, notorious publisher and nightclub owner. Billy Wilkerson, who originally saw a future for a glamorous hotel in the desert a few miles out of Las Vegas. Siegel came on the scene at a later date, when Wilkerson was strapped for funds and sought help from G. Harry Rothberg to fund the project The invasion by the Mob was slow and subtle.
I thought I had quite a bit of information about Las Vegas’ history, but I really didn’t have a due about the actual construction of the Flamingo hotel and a fellow named Billy Wilkerson, who became the inspiration for the modem Strip.
Wilkerson, who published the Hollywood Reporter and owned popular nightclubs, was a prime candidate for Gamblers Anonymous. He was an obsessive high-stakes gambler who finally decided his only salvation was to run a casino. He made the decision after a highly nonproductive foray into existing Las Vegas casinos.
If the claims made by the author are all true, and he seems to have done his homework with documentations and interviews, then a fellow by the name of W.R. “Billy” Wilkerson was the man who invented Las Vegas — not Bugsy Siegel.
Surely there must be some old-time Las Vegans who remember the dapper Wilkerson and can set the record straight.
Incidentally, the book is a short read, interesting and chock-full of Strip history.