Las Vegas’ long and influential history with organized crime is brought to light with the opening of The Mob Museum this February.
Jim Germain has lived all of his 63 years in Las Vegas, watching the town grow from a small desert retreat to the worldwide attraction it is today. Two years before Germain was born, in 1946, Benjamin ”Bugsy” Siegel arrogantly rushed the opening of his elaborate Flamingo hotel and casino, even though the building was incomplete and in a world of financial trouble. On December 26, locals and a few celebrities flocked to the new casino, only to be greeted by construction noise and drop cloths and the desert’s first air-conditioning system functioning only sporadically. The luxury rooms that were to lure high rollers were uninhabitable.
Siegel’s reckless operation of the Flamingo ultimately led to his demise, as the mob lost patience and “retired” him on June 20, 1947 in his girlfriend’s Beverly Hills home. Siegel’s time in Las Vegas was brief—he came to the desert in spring 1946 to supervise the Flamingo project—but he is one of the more famous faces and names attached to the city’s mob history, which was born in Siegel’s day, prospered from about 1950 to the early 1980s, and died when the FBI used wiretaps and other new law-enforcement technologies to essentially eradicate the city’s mob scene.
Germain, the board secretary of The Mob Museum, the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, which will open its doors in Las Vegas on February 14, has not forgotten the days when characters like Siegel ran the city. His father, Ray, was a reporter for the Las Vegas Sun and once wrote an article about Siegel that used the term “Bugsy.” The day the article hit newsstands, two of Siegel’s associates visited Ray’s office and pointedly told him that Mr. Siegel did not like the article because he despised that word.
Siegel earned the nickname—said to be based on the slang “bugs,” meaning “crazy,” and used to describe his erratic behavior—from media during a 1939 murder trial in which he was eventually acquitted, but his reputation was forever tarnished. Germain says, “My dad made a vow at that time and told me later on, ‘I never broke it, and I never would have because I knew what the consequences were. I never wrote another word about Siegel, much less used that word.’”
Whether it was Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal—the basis for Sam “Ace” Rosenthal’s character played by Robert De Niro in the 1995 film “Casino”—or Anthony “The Ant” Spilotro—portrayed by Joe Pesci as Nicky Santoro in the same movie—Las Vegas’ mob history was ruthless and brutal. But for those who didn’t cross the mob, it was also a glorious time to be a Las Vegan.
“If you lived in town those days, you weren’t worried about gangs, you weren’t worried about the kind of violent crimes that you see now, and a man’s word was his bond,” says former Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, who was once a defense lawyer for Spilotro and Rosenthal and a number of other figureheads of organized crime. “I like the interrelationships of the old days more than today. People were a little more laid back and not as aggressive.”
Starting in February, not only will guests of The Mob Museum inside the former federal courthouse and post office on Stewart Avenue relive the city’s mob past, they will get a nationwide and worldwide perspective on organized crime and the men and women in law enforcement that fought it and continue to fight it today.