Many arguments have come up at poker tables across the city over whether or not Bugsy Siegel was really the mastermind behind real estate in Las Vegas. Although, it would be almost impossible to credit the success of Las Vegas to just one person, Siegel did have a lot to do with bringing some of the early gambling revenue into Vegas. During the depression, Nevada legislature decided to legalize gambling in order to boost revenue for the otherwise un-attractive tourist state. Towns like Reno had already set up a few glitzy hotels that attracted big gamblers, the likes of which were made up mostly of gangsters. Bugsy dreamed of a better town than Reno, a bigger town with more stars and more class, not just dusty casinos.
Bugsy Siegel was born Benjamin Siegel to a poor Jewish family in the slums of Brooklyn, New York. Unhappy with the life his family had provided for him, Siegel took to the streets and started a small youth gang that dealt mostly in petty theft. As he got older he ran with a different crowd which got him involved in the gambling and car theft business. This proved much more profitable for Bugsy and he set his sights on not only becoming a career criminal, but becoming one of the best career criminals. The nickname “Bugsy” was considered a compliment and someone given this name was usually someone who was fearless and considered one of the best in the gang. However, Bugsy didn’t like the name at first and would get into fights with anyone who called him by it.
In the 1930’s Siegel was sent from New York to California because, at the time, the East Coast mob was making much more money that those on the West Coast and Siegel was sent over to try to help boost revenue. Once in L.A., Siegel set up illegal gambling operations with mobster Jack Dragna. Siegel was married and had two daughters. However, he had several public affairs. Some with actresses and Hollywood socialites that helped him use the rise of Hollywood at the time to his advantage. Siegel also had an affair with, the extremely rich, Virginia Hill and it was even rumored that they were married in Mexico. Siegel’s reputation was damaged after he took part in a hit that was added by his brother-in-law Whitey Krakower. Siegel was acquitted of murder, however; the newspapers loved the story and printed almost every crime Siegel had committed.
To escape his troubles in California, Siegel set his sights on Las Vegas after seeing the popularity of some of the casinos in Reno. He decided to use mafia money to build the infamous Flamingo Hotel. Many said that he named the hotel after his girlfriend Virginia Hill because he thought her legs looked like a flamingo. Others speculated that the name was given to the hotel because Siegel considered the flamingos that hung around the Hialeah racetrack in Florida to be good luck. However, the project suffered from the start because Bugsy knew little about real estate or construction. It was rumored that Bugsy was robbed by builders and contractors alike. There were even reports that Siegel ended up buying expensive palm trees that were shipped in from California and then shipped back at night without his knowing. Siegel bought the same palm trees several times.
After several setbacks mobsters started to dig into their own pockets to fund the building of the casino which ended up costing around $6 million to complete. It was later revealed that Bugsy had stolen some of the money he received from the mob and kept it in Swiss bank accounts. Fellow mobsters found out about his secret accounts and ordered him to be murdered. However, his good friend, Meyer Lansky, stood up for Siegel and begged that the mob wait out the opening of his hotel and see if Siegel could pay back the money once revenue came in. After months of the casino making almost no money, business started to pick up and visitors moved from the downtown casinos to the Flamingo. Things seemed to be looking up, both for Siegel and for the tiny town of Las Vegas. Many say that his success was also the reason for his early death.
On June 20, 1947 Siegel was sitting in his living room at the home, that he shared with Virginia Hill, in Hollywood reading a copy of the Los Angeles Times when nine shots came through the open window behind him. One of the shots went into the back of his head and the bullet came back out through his eye socket shooting his eye 15 feet across the room. Siegel was dead at 42 years old and no one has ever been charged with his murder. Although suspects were questioned and there are many theories about who may have been behind the shooting, the case remains unsolved. Although his death made front page news, only 5 people showed up to Siegel’s funeral service.
Myer Lansky and other mob executives took over the casino until it was bought by Kirk Kerkorian in 1967. In 1974, the property was bought by Hilton Corporation and torn down. The casino was rebuilt and the gardens take the place of where the original tower once stood. Today a plaque with a tribute to Bugsy as the creator of one of the first hotels on the Las Vegas Strip still stands. The plaque is placed on the very spot where the original hotel once stood.