Hank Greenspun, iconoclastic Las Vegas newsman who played both sides of the Mob, died 30 years ago

Hank Greenspun, iconoclastic Las Vegas newsman who played both sides of the Mob, died 30 years ago

Greenspun took on two U.S. senators and won, defeated three Mob-tied casino men over alleged advertising boycott

Hank Greenspun, left, crusading publisher of the Las Vegas Sun, alternately supported and clashed with Mob-connected casino operators until his death 30 years ago. Courtesy of Las Vegas Review-Journal

In the spring of 1952, Hank Greenspun, publisher of the Las Vegas Sun newspaper, embarked on one of his many journalism crusades. To do it, he dragged Mob-tied Las Vegas casino executives Gus Greenbaum, Moe Dalitz and Marion Hicks into federal court to testify in his lawsuit against them and Nevada’s powerful Democratic U.S. senator, Pat McCarran.

In court filings and his Sun columns, Greenspun accused McCarran of overseeing a boycott by about 20 casinos against advertising in the Sun, in violation of federal anti-trust laws. That the publisher inserted these top casino men — alleged at the time to be working with the criminal underworld — as defendants in the suit to embarrass McCarran was no accident. Greenbaum and Hicks — and Dalitz indirectly — associated with Florida-based top mobster Meyer Lansky, who didn’t like the attention Greenspun’s suit attracted.

Senator Pat McCarran, Nevada’s powerful U.S. senator, was accused by Greenspun of orchestrating an advertising boycott of his Sun newspaper in 1952. Courtesy of Library of Congress

In the end, Greenspun, who died 30 years ago on July 23 at age 88, prevailed in an out-of-court settlement against McCarran and the casino bosses. With that fight, and many others, Greenspun made his mark on Las Vegas, and American journalism itself. He did it, however, in part by brazenly ignoring professional news standards. Under his leadership, the Sun often was more of a bludgeon than an objective information source.

In his early years in Las Vegas, Greenspun associated with known mobsters, starting by working for Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel at the Flamingo Hotel in 1946, then investing in the Mob-run Desert Inn.

Greenspun traded his Desert Inn investment for large land holdings that helped him build a fortune of $2.5 million by the late 1950s. At that time, the rival newspaper, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, wrote a story on his intended investment with Chicago Outfit hoodlum Marshall Caifano (aka Johnny Marshall) in a Las Vegas shopping mall. He requested and obtained a substantial loan from the Teamsters Union pension fund run out of Chicago by Mob-connected labor chief Jimmy Hoffa.

Until their deaths (and his own) in the late 1980s, Greenspun protected and defended the likes of Dalitz — the former rumrunner, boss of Cleveland’s Mayfield Road Gang and lead investor in the Desert Inn — Hoffa and former Dallas numbers king and murderer Benny Binion, a Las Vegas casino man and convicted tax cheat who loaned Greenspun money to keep the Sun afloat.

His legal battle with McCarran established his brazen style, a willingness to wield his newspaper as a club to get his way, politically and financially. In May 1952, with the trial for his civil suit against the senator and the casinos pending in federal court in Las Vegas — in the building now occupied by The Mob Museum — Greenspun traveled to New York. In an interview broadcast by radio station WMCA, he joked about not having an obituary ready when McCarran survived a heart attack in 1951 and insinuated the senator associated with hoodlums.

“I have tried more or less to set a pattern out there [in Las Vegas], showing his relationship to organized crime,” Greenspun said. “In other words, I don’t believe a man who’s sitting in the U.S. Senate should be interested in procuring [casino] licenses for the wrong kind of people.”

Target: Joseph McCarthy

In October of that year, his next target was Senator Joseph McCarthy, the Wisconsin Republican then popular (before being censured by Congress) as a fervent anti-Communist. (In 1954, McCarthy would rise to ignominy, and political failure, for his obnoxiousness and self-importance in the televised Army-McCarthy hearings.)

Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, an ardent anti-Communist, engaged in a vicious verbal clash with Greenspun. Courtesy of Library of Congress

Greenspun published a libel-baiting broadside in the Sun, for which by now he had become famous. McCarthy, in Las Vegas, delivered a demagogic speech broadcast on radio during which he verbally clashed with Greenspun, who was in the audience. Greenspun yelled back and berated McCarthy. In his column days after McCarthy’s speech, Greenspun pushed back in an especially cruel way. He alleged that McCarthy had once “spent the night” and “engaged in illicit acts” with a male member of the Wisconsin Young Republicans.

“It is common talk among homosexuals in Milwaukee who rendezvous at the White Horse Inn that Sen. Joe McCarthy has often engaged in homosexual activities,” Greenspun claimed. “The persons in Nevada who listen to McCarthy’s radio talk thought he had the queerest laugh. He has. He is. This is the man who spoke here last Monday night. The most immoral, indecent, and unprincipled scoundrel to ever sit in the United States Senate.”

McCarthy, who considered a libel suit against Greenspun, contacted FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who ordered investigations into alleged perjury and bribery against Greenspun that raised serious questions but came to nothing. McCarthy also tried unsuccessfully to have Greenspun’s second-class mail status revoked. In 1954, Greenspun drew national publicity by goading McCarthy about the senator’s failure to sue over Greenspun’s intimations about his sexuality.

Whether what Greenspun wrote was true or not didn’t matter much to him, since the ends justified the means. Greenspun used his paper in a self-styled campaign to fight for the “little man” against the powerful, corrupt and arrogant. To do that, he turned the tables on the overzealous anti-Communists McCarran and McCarthy, engaging in McCarthy-type tactics of innuendo and guilt by association. He not only went for the jugular, he attacked, he name-called and he outright libeled, again and again. Somehow he survived over the decades, after winning and losing court cases, dodging criminal charges, living as an ex-felon until pardoned by President Kennedy in 1961, using his paper to attack his business and political adversaries (including the FBI and IRS) and to quash negative stories about his friends, family and financial partners.

New York to Las Vegas

Herman Milton Greenspun, born in Brooklyn more than a century ago on August 27, 1909, worked for a theater ticket agency in the early 1930s while studying law at St. Johns College. The state Bar Association accused him of cheating during the bar exam and made him wait two years to take it again. After passing, he clerked for a law firm but never practiced. He entered the U.S. Army in 1941 and reached the rank of second lieutenant during the war. He met and married his British wife, Barbara, in Ireland in 1944. Over New Year’s, he decided to go AWOL to be with her and accepted punishment for it.

With the war over, he moved to Las Vegas with his wife in 1946. Short on cash and unemployed, he ingratiated himself with Siegel, who was overseeing the building of the Flamingo. Siegel, the East Coast Mob’s representative in Las Vegas under the eyes of Meyer Lansky and Frank Costello, employed Greenspun as PR man briefly for the hotel before Abe Schiller took over.

Greenspun, struggling financially, managed to start a small magazine and even worked as a “shill” player in a casino. Then in 1948, Wilbur Clark, the part owner of the Desert Inn hotel-casino project, asked Greenspun to invest in the building of an annex of 118 motel units. Greenspun took the opportunity and borrowed funds from his family, relatives and friends. He delivered, with small payments of $1,000 to $5,000 in cash, a total of $50,000 to $60,000 for a 30 percent interest in the annex. However, Clark ran out of money anyway and he had to halt construction temporarily.

Clark told the FBI later that Greenspun, who was not working in 1948, invited him to travel with him and Barbara to Mexico City. Upon their arrival, Clark said he discovered that Greenspun was there to run armaments to Israel, which he did, he explained to Clark, for “purely idealistic” reasons.

Guns for Israel

Greenspun participated in helping his fellow Jews in the war against Middle Eastern Arab states for the emerging state of Israel. It was the stuff of intrigue – an international arms trafficking ring, if for a worthy cause. Greenspun joined Haganah, a faction of the Israeli resistance seeking military hardware. According to his file with the FBI, Greenspun received payments from Dr. Erwin Hayman, of Geneva, Switzerland, totaling $1.3 million in July 1948, transmitted to a bank in Mexico City, to pay for armaments. No one knows for sure if Greenspun himself made money from the smuggling, although the Los Angeles Daily News alleged he and an associate received a 10 percent “kick back” on the gross amount of the deal.

Moe Dalitz, who with his Cleveland partners ran the Desert Inn, was one of several Las Vegas operators accused by Greenspun of engaging in an advertising boycott of his newspaper. During the trial, Dalitz denied telling Greenspun that McCarran was behind the boycott.

Greenspun and half a dozen others allegedly conspired to export 42 airplane engines and machine guns from Hawaii to Los Angeles and then to Mexico for delivery to Israel in March 1948. The U.S. government had passed a neutrality control law, making arms exports to Israel illegal, a felony. A federal grand jury indicted Greenspun and six other defendants on conspiracy to violate the neutrality act in April 1949. But at trial in 1950, he and two defendants were acquitted. Still, new charges of conspiracy to traffic machine guns to Israel emerged and another court convicted Greenspun, who admitted to violating the Neutrality Act. The felony conviction yielded a $10,000 fine and no jail time.

Later, Senator McCarran would claim that he pulled strings from Washington with the Justice Department to reduce the charges so as to prevent a prison sentence for Greenspun. Nonetheless, Greenspun was a convicted felon, and he registered as such in Las Vegas in 1950.

Despite the setback, Greenspun kept himself busy that year. He took a publicity job at Wilbur Clark’s Desert Inn, working for Clark, by then the front for Dalitz’s Cleveland syndicate. Dalitz’s Mob coterie provided enough cash to open the hotel in 1950. They owned a 75 percent interest.

Las Vegans and out-of-towners knew of Dalitz’s background as a major bootlegger during Prohibition (in cooperation with Detroit’s Purple Gang), his illegal gambling operations in Ohio and Kentucky and status as former boss of the Mayfield Road Mob in Cleveland. Nevada awarded him a gambling license anyway.

In 1951, the shrewd Dalitz testified about his past before the Kefauver Committee investigating organized crime in America. He did so in Los Angeles after avoiding the earlier committee hearing held in Las Vegas. From their previous illegal casino investments, Dalitz and his partners were experts in skimming — stealing casino cash before the count for tax purposes — but there is no way of knowing how much money they secreted away over the years.

The Sun rises

While still smarting from his felony conviction in 1950, Greenspun made a life-altering decision that would soon propel him into national prominence. He acquired an interest in a small newspaper owned by the International Typographical Union in Las Vegas. The ITU’s newspaper division started the paper to compete with the Review-Journal. The R-J had purchased a typing machine that eliminated union jobs, so the workers created their own paper in protest. From Greenspun’s FBI file, in 1953, an auditor for the union claimed that Greenspun used promissory notes, not cash, to buy the paper and had “borrowed $140,000 from gamblers in the Las Vegas area.”

Wilbur Clark, front man for Dalitz at the Desert Inn, invested with Greenspun in a motel annex to the resort. Greenspun later traded his interest in the motel for a large tract of undeveloped land south of Las Vegas. Courtesy of Las Vegas Review-Journal

Greenspun renamed the paper the Las Vegas Morning Sun, later known as the Sun. As publisher, he used his reporters and his often-vitriolic columns to shake up the town and the political careers of politicians, both local and national. Among the political losers at Greenspun’s hands were the big fish McCarran and McCarthy and Clark County Sheriff Glen Jones, whom a series of articles in the Sun revealed as a bribe-taking crook.

While publisher of the Sun, Greenspun profited for years thanks to the Mob-run Desert Inn, where his name remained on the state gambling license. In 1950, he bought 20 shares of stock, or 1 percent, in the Desert Inn. He cashed out the interest for $60,000 in 1954, of which $30,000 was paid to him in cash and $30,000 sent to cover three $10,000 corporation promissory notes. Meantime, Greenspun held on to his 30 percent in the DI’s annex, receiving an income of $24,000 a year from it, before trading it in 1956 for 2,600 acres of undeveloped land in Paradise Valley outside Las Vegas.

He later told the FBI that he also acquired some land off of Boulder Highway that an agent wrote “was held in conjunction with twelve other Jewish friends of his at Las Vegas, Nev.” Greenspun’s land eventually netted him tens of millions from residential and commercial developments, highlighted by the master-planned community of Green Valley.

He also acquired 65 percent of a local TV station, KLAS, a CBS affiliate, in the mid-1950s. In the 1960s, he sold the station at a profit to billionaire Howard Hughes.

The FBI, as evidenced in his agency file, included Greenspun among the nation’s “top hoodlums,” along with Wilbur Clark, in the 1950s even though they were associates at best.

The advertising boycott case

Greenspun died a wealthy man. But things might have gone another way early on. His manipulation of McCarran, as well as the Mob-connected Dalitz, Greenbaum and Hicks, ended up well for him. And luck was on his side in 1952, as testimony from witnesses called by the defense presented a possible case for perjury against the newspaperman.

During the anti-trust trial, Greenspun wrote a column charging three witnesses with perjury. Judge Roger Foley, who presided over the case, then chastised Greenspun in court for the claim. Foley said that based on contradictory testimony by Greenspun and defense witnesses, “there obviously has been perjury committed in this case, but it’s the court’s place and not that of any newspaper, to determine who is lying.”

On the witness stand in U.S. District Court in Las Vegas that summer, Greenspun swore under oath that Flamingo Hotel manager Greenbaum, Desert Inn vice president Dalitz and Thunderbird Hotel partner Hicks each told him in March 1952 that they had pulled their advertising from the Sun under pressure from McCarran. Other casinos followed their lead, he said. Greenspun filed suit, seeking $1 million in damages, later reduced to $225,000.

The dispute, Greenspun said, erupted soon after he wrote a column criticizing McCarran for supporting Georgia U.S. Senator Richard Russell as the Democrats’ nominee for president. Greenspun favored Senator Estes Kefauver (chair of the Kefauver Committee) of Tennessee.

Greenspun maintained that the first inkling of alleged collusion by Las Vegas casinos against him came in March 1952, when he and casino owner Benny Binion went to see Greenbaum at the Flamingo to ask him to contribute to the Boy Scouts. He said Greenbaum told him “Hank, instead of going out and looking for contributions for the Boy Scouts, what are you trying to do to us? …You will ruin us,” referring to his columns about McCarran.

When Greenbaum took the stand to rebut Greenspun, his lawyer initiated this exchange:

Q: Now calling your attention to this meeting, I would like to ask you, Mr. Greenbaum, if you made the statement: ‘Hank, instead of going out and looking for contributions for the Boy Scouts, what are you trying to do to us?’ Do you recall ever making that statement?

A: Not in that phrase, no I made some statement to Hank but not that phraseology.

Q: Do you recall making the statement, ‘You will ruin us.’

A: No, no.

Q: Relate the conversation.

A: I had a conversation with Mr. Greenspun prior to this, four or five days before, and I asked him, ‘Why don’t you stop and try to get along with everybody’ and that was about the substance of the conversation.

Q: What day did this conversation take place?

A: The 19th of March.

Q: Was Senator McCarran’s name discussed at all at the meeting of the 19th?

A: No sir.

Greenspun had testified that Dalitz told him he met with Greenbaum, Hicks and other casino executives at the Flamingo, and “Hicks had told him the old man had called and that he wanted them to withdraw all support from the Sun.”

When Dalitz took the stand, his lawyer inquired:

Q: Mr. Dalitz, I will ask you whether you did or did not state to Mr. Greenspun that there was a meeting held at the Flamingo Hotel and the pressure was put on you by Senator McCarran to stop advertising in the Sun?

A: I did not.

Q: I will ask you whether you did or did not state to Mr. Greenspun that Marion Hicks had told you that the ‘old man’ had called and that he wanted them to withdraw all support from the Sun.

A: No, I did not.

Q: I will ask you if you attended a meeting at the Flamingo Hotel where Marion Hicks or anyone else made such a statement.

A: I did not.

Q: I will ask you if you attended a meeting any place where anyone other than Marion Hicks made a similar statement?

A: I did not.

Dalitz also reacted on the stand to Greenspun’s testimony that he approached Dalitz on the Desert Inn’s golf course on March 24. Greenspun said that Dalitz put his hands to his head and complained, “It looks like all hell broke loose. Why did you have to attack the old man? … You know as well as I do that we have to do what he [McCarran] tells us … You know he got us our licenses … If you don’t go along, you know what is going to happen to us.”

Greenspun said Dalitz was referring to the “gambling license for the Desert Inn.” Dalitz’s attorney requested his client to address that:

Q: Mr. Dalitz, I will ask you when Mr. Greenspun first approached you whether you stated: ‘It looks like all hell broke loose. Why did you have to attack the old man?’ Did you or did you not make such a statement?

A: I did not.

Q: Did you, or did you not, on referring to Senator McCarran, state to Mr. Greenspun, ‘You know as well as I do that we have to do what he tells us?’

A: I did not.

Q: Did you, or did you not, referring again to Senator McCarran, state to Mr. Greenspun, ‘You know he got us our licenses. If we don’t go along, you know what is going to happen to us?’

A: I did not.

Q: Did you ask Senator McCarran for assistance in connection with obtaining your state gambling license?

A: No.

Marion Hicks was called to the stand. Hicks was one of the managing owners of the Thunderbird Hotel that opened in 1948 on the Strip. (Ironically, in 1954, Hicks and the casino would come under fire when Greenspun published an exposé based on secret tape recordings of Lieutenant Governor Cliff Jones and his law partner, Louis Weiner, saying that the Lansky brothers, Meyer and Jake, were hidden partners in the Thunderbird. Hicks eventually lost his state gambling license.)

Hicks’ lawyer queried him on what Greenspun testified about McCarran:

Q: Did you at any time prior to March 22, 1952, receive any communication or phone call from Senator McCarran, where he requested you to seek the resort hotels in Las Vegas and the downtown casinos in Las Vegas to see if they would withdraw their advertising from the Las Vegas Morning Sun?

A: I did not.

Q: Did you, either prior to March 22 or after March 22 tell anyone that Senator McCarran had contacted you and had requested that you withdraw the advertising of the Thunderbird Hotel from the Las Vegas Morning Sun?

A: No.

In December 1952, it was McCarran’s turn to offer sworn testimony, but he made his statement in Washington, D.C. Under questioning by his attorney, McCarran said he had no hard feelings against Greenspun. In fact, the senator said, if it were not for his intervention with the Justice Department in Greenspun’s Neutrality Act case in 1950, “Mr. Greenspun, in my judgment, would be in the penitentiary today” instead of only paying a $10,000 fine.

Ultimately, in 1953, the defendants agreed to settle with Greenspun, who provided little evidence of a conspiracy by the casinos beyond his own testimony. By one account, he and representatives of the defendants, except for McCarran, hashed out the agreement “in the corridor.” Judge Foley approved the settlement pact, and in ruling for Greenspun, issued an injunction against the casinos preventing them from boycotting the Sun.

Both Greenspun and McCarran felt they had won the case. McCarran maintained that he prevailed on the facts and did not have to pay Greenspun anything. The casinos reportedly paid Greenspun about $80,000.

Left undetermined was who was telling the truth: Greenspun or the casino operators. Was there in fact an advertising boycott of the Sun? And if there was, did Senator McCarran orchestrate it? Even if Greenspun fabricated the story, he called their bluff. He had the Mob-connected casino men — and McCarran — over a barrel.

Jeff Burbank is content development specialist for The Mob Museum. He is the author of four books, including License to Steal: Nevada’s Gaming Control System in the Megaresort Age, Las Vegas Babylon: True Tales of Glitter, Glamour, and Greed, and Lost Las Vegas. Contact him at jburbank@themobmuseum.org.