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Monday, Dec. 2-Grandissimo: The First Emperor of Las Vegas

Author’s Talk to feature nationally known, local gaming expert David G. Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, will talk about his newest book Grandissimo: The First Emperor of Las Vegas, a biography of Jay Sarno, who built Caesars Palace and Circus Circus and helped inspire modern Las Vegas, at the Museum’s next Author’s Talk and book signing set for December 13-14. Schwartz is now blogging for the site.

Schwartz will sign books from noon-4 p.m. Friday, December 13, in the Museum’s retail store. The Author’s Talk will take place at 1 p.m. Saturday, December 14, in the Courtroom with book signing to follow.

Q: What’s Grandissimo about?

Grandissimo, my latest book, is a biography of Jay Sarno, the man who brought two of Las Vegas’s most trend-setting casinos—Caesars Palace and Circus Circus—to life. It’s the story of a visionary in the truest sense of the word, who is also one of the legendary hustlers in the history of Las Vegas. With nothing more than a loan commitment from the Teamsters and his own dreams, he remade what Las Vegas is all about—he added fun and fantasy to the Strip. It’s hard to top that.

Q: Why did you write this book?

After I finished Roll the Bones, which is a comprehensive history of gambling, I wanted to focus on something smaller. I thought that telling a story with a beginning, middle, and end would let me do a different kind of writing. Instead of summarizing centuries of history in a few hundred pages, I’d have a chance to tell a story. So I started thinking about important people in Las Vegas history. There are quite a few of them, and most of them already have books. But no one had written a book about Jay Sarno—a huge omission, given his contribution. His influence is simply incredible—the lifetime casino design achievement award, for example, is named for him. So people in the business know who he is. The challenge is to tell his story in a way that connects with today’s readers.

Luckily, Jay led a life that was about as dramatic as you can get. Run-ins with the law, run-ins with the mob, a gambling problem, a lifestyle that “decadent” doesn’t do justice to—he was even in a James Bond movie. The more I learned about him, the more I was convinced this was a book that I had to write.

Q: What does Grandissimo have to do with the mob?

Well, there are those Teamster loans, about which there’s been a lot of conjecture and innuendo. But in Grandissimo, I answer a question that no one (that I’m aware of) has even tried to: how did a small-time Atlanta hotel developer get in front of Jimmy Hoffa? The true story is actually more interesting than anything that anyone’s imagined.

There are several other places where Jay crosses paths with guys with connections to the mob; after all, he was building his casinos in Las Vegas in the 1960s and 1970s. First, when he was begging for money to finish Caesars Palace, some of the funds came with strings attached—that he’d have to appoint a friend of the investor as casino manager. While he was never licensed (and he couldn’t be licensed), Jerry Zarowitz was the de facto boss of Caesars’ casino from the day that it opened. Was there skimming going on? Well, a 1970 federal raid turned up $1.5 million in unreported cash sitting in Zarowitz’s safe deposit box at the Caesars cage. Even though the feds never proved anything (Zarowitz hired a young gun named Oscar Goodman as his attorney, and he ultimately walked free), clearly, there was something going on.

The ironic part is this: Sarno gets spooked by these guys running “his” casino, and decides to start over. These veteran Miami book-makers and gambling guys, genuine tough guys. So he builds Circus Circus and, within a few years, Tony Spilotro is “managing the gift shop” and cutting himself in for a share of the action. That was Sarno’s life—out of the frying pan, and into the fire.

I’ll say that if you like stories of Las Vegas “back in the old days,” you should enjoy this book.

Q: What’s the most gratifying thing about seeing the book in print?

There are two things. First is having readers say that the book reads like a novel, that they can’t put it down. It’s great to know that I succeeded in bringing Jay’s story to life in a way that’s engaging. Second is hearing from people who were there with Jay and who say that I got it right. As a writer you get used to having a thick skin when it comes to criticism, but I’ll confess that when I gave a copy to Oscar Goodman to read, I was pretty nervous. I’d worked very hard on the book and believed in it, but what if I’d gotten it wrong? So when Oscar called me and told me that I wrote it like I’d been there myself, I was really gratified. Last week I heard from a reader who knew Sarno’s wife’s family growing up, and he said that I really got her down right. That kind of feedback really means a lot to me.

Q: Why should people come to the events at the Mob Museum on the 13th and 14th?

On Friday the 13th, I’ll be hanging out in the bookstore talking to visitors and signing books. They’ll have a chance to pick up a book if they don’t have one, get it signed, and talk to me about the book and the museum—I’m featured in a few videos, so this is their chance to get to have a real conversation with me. On Saturday the 14th, I’m doing a reading, discussion, and signing in the Courtroom. That’s going to be a real thrill for me—speaking about the history of Las Vegas in a place where some of that history was made is just a dream come true.

I’m looking forward to seeing people who like the book and getting the chance to tell people who haven’t read it yet about it.

Q: Where can people learn more about Grandissimo?

The book is for sale pretty much everywhere online and at the Mob Museum gift shop. They can find links to buy the book at www.grandissimobook.com. I also have a list of characters there (more than a few of them are featured in the Mob Museum), a video trailer, and even a sample chapter that you can read for free.