The first crime-boss Bugsy Siegel saw Las Vegas, he hated it.
Watching the Manny Pacquiao/Shane Mosley fight on Showtime. Venue is the MGM Grand in Vegas. The camera pans the crowd and then there’s an outdoor shot of the strip. This always gets me. I lived in Las Vegas back when.
Like me, the first time Bugsy Siegel saw Las Vegas he hated it. His boss and touring companion on that trip, Meyer Lansky, called Las Vegas a “dinky, horrible, little oasis town,” but it would serve a purpose. Gangsters and cowboys, hookers and hermits, all found a good reason to be there. So did our federal government, which began exploding atomic bombs at a test site 95 miles north of town in 1951. By 1962, driven by the twin engines of gambling and nuclear bombs, the desert town of 19,000 had grown into a booming metropolis, home to 100,000 Vegans.
Las Vegas never tried to hide its ties to organized crime — how could it? The mob was responsible for what made the town go. Besides gambling, the founding fathers attracted another, parallel profession. So it was, also in 1962, that an FBI agent was transferred from Baltimore to the Mojave Desert. The agent’s son, Harry Hawkins, was 12 years old. I interviewed Hawkins for a story that never got written. Here’s a bit of that interview, for your enjoyment, and for old time’s sake:
Hawkins says, “I moved here and I didn’t know what was happening. I’m coming from a preppy public school in Baltimore. The trees. I mean, I’d never seen palm trees. It’s like the moon to me. It might as well be the moon. I get enrolled in junior high. They eat lunch outdoors on picnic tables. I’m used to a cafeteria with windows, trays, beans, meatloaf, and I show up here and it’s insane. I see menus like a drive-in. They have banana milkshakes and tacos. I didn’t know a taco from a shoe.
“It was a small town then; there were only two public high schools and one small, private high school. It was considered impolite to dwell on what one’s father did. Until you had a deep acquaintanceship you didn’t ask that question. You didn’t go around saying, ‘Oh, his dad is connected,’ or, ‘His granddaddy used to be in Murder Incorporated.’ You didn’t say, ‘My dad is a federal agent,’ or, ‘My dad is a federal marshal.’ It was considered tasteless because the parents might be connected to the mob and the kid might be the cheerleader at your school. She is a nice girl. They live in a nice house. They are nice people. They have you over to swim in their pool. They bring you sandwiches. They tousle your hair. I’m going to school and I’m 13 — I don’t give a shit what other people’s parents do.”
In 1968, the population of metro Las Vegas hit 200,000. Hawkins says, “Sometimes we’d go to a casino and play slots or blackjack. You had the fake ID and you’d get in. It wasn’t a compelling thing with us. Half the guys I ran with had parents who worked in the gaming industry. Everyone wanted to go to California. We considered Las Vegas to be totally lame — it was too hick, too stupid, too boring. Because, really, after you got off the strip, Las Vegas was like being in Albuquerque on Tuesday night.”
A lifetime passes quickly. In 2006 the population of metro Las Vegas reached 1.8 million. The Great Recession is two years distant. David has been teaching high school math for 28 years and getting ready to retire. “This town is forgiving. You can move in here as the biggest asshole from Waukegan and be on the county commission in a year. A lot of people end up here after they’ve been a failure in five other towns. This is one of the only cities in the world where a guy with an eighth-grade education, who couldn’t get a job pushing a broom in his hometown, can come in and — if he has a few connections — knock down $100,000 a year dealing cards.”
“So, what is it about Vegas, Harry?”
“Friends of mine have three generations buried in the desert around here. My family lives here. Twenty miles from where we’re sitting I can be camped at Pine Creek, take a bath in mountain streams. I can go sailing on the upper arm of Lake Mead and watch bighorns graze. I can go camping anywhere and hear coyotes or muck around the Colorado River. I can drive up to Mt. Charleston, walk on snowshoes and see elk, or four-wheel drive into places that look like Mars. If blow-ins don’t like Vegas, they can turn around at the first stoplight.”