Bugsy Siegel: The Man Responsible for the Las Vegas Strip
Not too many things in Las Vegas stand the test of time. Hotels, shows, and people come and go like the ocean tide, but the Flamingo has proven to be an exception. Open since 1946, it is the oldest operational hotel in Las Vegas. As the first luxury resort of the city, the Flamingo established a culture and a service industry that would sustain the city’s economy and come to define hospitality. The man responsible for the Flamingo, and arguably the Las Vegas Strip, is Bugsy Siegel. But what turned out to be Bugsy’s legacy also ended up being the final nail in his coffin.
His rise to prominence within the organized crime world began in Brooklyn. He ran the streets, stealing with other children, and became friends with Meyer Lansky and Moe Sedway in the process. Both would rise to prominence within the Jewish mob but Sedway, the leader of the National Crime Syndicate, was the one who sent Siegel west.
As they came of age, Lanksy first hired the young Siegel to carry out the organization’s various bootlegging enterprises up and down the East Coast. He moved on to carrying out hits for the organization, and that was where he found his stride. His violent nature, coupled with his good looks, made him a formidable force in more ways than one. He earned himself a place of favor among Hollywood royalty and executives, despite his penchant for violence and chaos.
Many of his cohorts at the time praised him for his nerves of steel and women fawned over his baby blue eyes. But those that knew him were well-aware of his grenade-like temper. Bee Sedway, the wife of childhood friend Moe Sedway, said women were always interested in him, but a little afraid of him at the same time. His violent tendencies and his role as a hitman meant that Siegel spent a fair share of time in prison, but it was the typical VIP kind of stay that most “made men” enjoyed: he was allowed his own chef while in prison for the murder of Harry Greenberg and was always allowed female companionship inside his cell.
Once he was out, Lansky, sent Siegel west, first to Los Angeles to further the organization’s gambling interests. Initially, that began with boat gambling, and eventually expanded into casinos. He and his associates first bought the El Cortez, but his attempts at expansion were hindered by local city and law enforcement officials. But that didn’t stop him. When he wasn’t allowed to purchase properties that were already in existence, he decided to take over one that was being built.
William J. Wilkerson, the founder of The Hollywood Reporter, found himself in a predicament when he ran out of money to complete the Flamingo Hotel. Siegel took over the floundering operation, and little by little bought Wilkerson out with the help of his associates. His gamble seemed insane at the time; in the days before the Strip, Las Vegas was nothing more than a pit stop on the way to California. There wasn’t a booming tourist industry or even an airport within the vicinity. But in the middle of the desert, Siegel saw an opportunity.
His overspending quickly caught the attention of the higher-ups in the organization. After a meeting of the criminal underworld’s greatest figures in Havana, his fate was settled. He was stealing from the family, and there was only one thing to be done to someone stealing from the family. But he was granted one opportunity to right his wrongs: if the hotel could turn a high enough profit to cover Siegel’s increased “production” costs, his life would be spared.
Luck seemed to be on Siegel’s side. The Flamingo had a soft opening while construction was still in progress. The opening was a star-studded event attended by the likes of Judy Garland and Brian Donlevy, among others, but it went over like lead balloons. With a broken air conditioning system and no actual rooms for guests to stay in, the initial interest in the property waned quickly. After two weeks, the gaming tables were hundreds of thousands of dollars in the red. He managed to turn it around with a second opening that followed in 1947 but by then, patience for him had worn out.
Siegel was killed the summer after the Flamingo opened. He was staying at the home of his girlfriend Virginia Hill in Beverly Hills, although she was out of the country at the time of his death. He was shot twice in the head, and twice in the torso. Five additional bullets were fired but missed him. One of the shots to his face went through his eye socket, which would later be known as a “Moe Greene Special” after the release of the film The Godfather. Despite his notoriety as a public and celebrity mob figure, his funeral was a brief affair. The service lasted roughly five minutes, and only six people attended.
Most agree that Bugsy’s murder was a mob hit, but the identity of the shooter remains unknown. Those who doubt the mob theory contend that his girlfriend, Virginia Hill, might have had something to do with it. She was in Paris at the time of his death, but her brothers knew that Bugsy was there. There was speculation that she wanted to get back at Bugsy for hitting her, and her brothers knew the property well enough to get in and get out without being noticed.
But the theories don’t stop there. Another popular one focuses on a man named Robert MacDonald, a World War II veteran with gambling debts. According to family friend Warren Hull, Macdonald’s mother-in-law approached Jack Dragna, whom she had met while working at City Hall, and told him about the abuse her daughter was going through. Dragna then proposed an offer to MacDonald (who had become an expert marksman during the war) with an offer: carry out the hit on Siegel and wipe his debts clean. There’s no public record that police ever followed up on the MacDonald lead, and Hull believes that had a lot to do with another legendary Las Vegas figure, Howard Hughes. Hughes had employed Macdonald’s father and there was some speculation that Howard might have been the biological father of Robert’s young son.
But the truth is anyone’s guess. What we do know is that Siegel’s legacy is forever cemented in the Flamingo Hotel and in Las Vegas. He was a murderer, he was a thug, and he caused a lot of people a lot of pain throughout his life. But without Siegel, Las Vegas would have remained a fly-over spot in the middle of the desert, a barren landscape full of cactus and sagebrush. He created a neon oasis in the desert and for that, his name will live on, in fame and infamy.