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April 25, 2014

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Book examines ‘The Man Who Invented Las Vegas’

W.R. "Billy" Wilkerson was a Hollywood mover and shaker during the infancy of the film world, when it was encased in mystery and populated by glamorous stars who had not yet made it a habit of exposing their warts and scars in print and on television.

The Philadelphia native moved to Southern California in 1930 and started the Hollywood Reporter, which quickly became a showbiz bible people in the industry read religiously for gossip and the latest film news.

A businessman with a Midas touch, Wilkerson also started some of the most successful night spots in Hollywood history, including Cafe Trocadero, Ciro's, Sunset House, LaRue, L'Aiglon and Vendome.

Anyone who was anyone made it a point to be seen at one of Wilkerson's establishments, especially the Cafe Trocadero or Ciro's. Studio heads, producers, directors, stars and mobsters -- such as Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel -- were among those who routinely could be found socializing, dining and drinking (in spite of prohibition) at the nightclubs, where Wilkerson was able to pick up tidbits for his column and news tips for his reporters.

"My father wrote a daily column for 33 years," W.R. Wilkerson III said. "He influenced the entire motion picture industry."

In a biography written by the son and published last month, he said his father did much more than influence films and the eating habits of the stars -- he invented Las Vegas.

The book, appropriately titled "The Man Who Invented Las Vegas," tells the story behind the story of the development of the Flamingo hotel-casino, which is often cited as the point in time when the city began to change from a minor-league gaming town with dusty streets and a handful of cowboy-theme hotels and casinos to a sophisticated gaming center.

Wilkerson, not Bugsy Siegel, was the initiator of the famed resort, now the Flamingo-Hilton, which opened in December, 1946, his son claimed.

He decided to write about his father after the movie "Bugsy," featuring Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, was released in 1991. The film was nominated for six Academy awards and won two, for art direction and costume design.

"After watching the movie I came out realizing it was a brilliant feature film, but historically, completely inaccurate," Wilkerson said. "After the Academy awards ceremony in March 1992 I decided I would sit down and write the entire story and really explore every angle."

It is debatable whether Billy Wilkerson's impact on Las Vegas was as profound as the title of his son's book would indicate, but in any case it is an interesting 117-page story for those who are curious about all aspects of the city's colorful past.

"Perhaps Wilkerson doesn't get the credit he deserves (in Las Vegas history)," Hal Rothman, a UNLV professor of history, said. "But he is one of a number of people who don't get enough credit.

"In essence, though, Wilkerson would be more of a footnote, an answer in a game of Trivial Pursuit. He had an idea but he wasn't able to pull it off. The Flamingo he envisioned probably was very different from the one Siegel envisioned."

Wilkerson's son, who was 10 years old when his father died in 1962, explains why Billy Wilkerson failed with the Flamingo when he was so successful with all of his other business ventures.

"He was addicted to gambling," the author explained.

According to the biography, the reason Wilkerson decided to build his own casino was to feed his gambling habit, which he came by naturally.

The elder Wilkerson's father, Richard Wilkerson, was a colorful gambler at the turn of the century who once won a 13-state Coca Cola concession in a poker game, traded it for a movie theater, sold the theater and lost the cash in a poker game -- all in a period of two weeks.

Billy Wilkerson started medical school, where he was more interested in gambling on baseball and horses than in anatomy, but was forced to quit in 1916 when his father died.

Wilkerson spent years in an assortment of successful business ventures in the Northeast, including movie houses, newspapers and speakeasies, where the suave young man became acquainted with members of the mob.

When the stock market crashed in 1929 he went broke and headed for Hollywood, where he started the Reporter and his various other businesses. He also gambled away almost everything he earned, coming close on numerous occasions to losing the Reporter and the nightclubs.

According to his son, Billy Wilkerson put out his paper in the mornings, spent his afternoons at a race track and played poker in the evenings. After California banned gambling in 1938 Wilkerson routinely went to Las Vegas or to Mexican casinos just across the California border.

He lost thousands of dollars every week. In the first six months of 1944 he lost almost $1 million. A friend, 20th Century Fox Chairman Joe Schenck, convinced him that if he was going to gamble, he needed to own a casino.

In January, 1945, Wilkerson bought 33 acres of land from Margaret M. Folsom for $84,000. It was miles from downtown, where most of the other casinos were and so would not be perceived as competition to the existing establishments.

On the site stood two dilapidated shacks and a crumbling motel sign.

According to the biography, Wilkerson -- a man of European tastes -- envisioned creating the largest, most sophisticated resort in Las Vegas, one that was five stories tall and had 250 rooms. It would be a hallmark of sophistication, geared toward the elite who would wear evening clothes at night and gamble away fortunes surrounded by luxury.

Wilkerson hated the desert, but he thought it was an ideal location for a casino. Gamblers would have no sightseeing distractions.

The up-scale resort would have elegant restaurants, like those he operated in Hollywood, and classy decor. He would have big-name entertainers, plus golf, tennis and spas, and cater to the same high-class clientele who frequented his dining establishments.

He wanted to see European sophistication -- not the wild west -- in Las Vegas,

The casino would be the hub of activity -- you couldn't go anywhere in the resort without passing through it. There would be no windows, so gamblers would lose track of time -- and there would be no clocks to remind them.

He analyzed himself, according to his son, and designed a place where gamblers such as himself could nourish their compulsion. The biography said he decided to call the resort the Flamingo, after the exotic pink birds he saw once on a trip to Florida.

Even before construction began, Wilkerson began running into financial problems because of his gambling addiction. He needed $1.2 million for the project but, after a number of bank loans, came up about $400,000 short, so he decided to see if he could make up the difference in poker.

He couldn't. He lost almost everything and had to find investors.

Moe Sedway and Gus Greenbaum, who were running El Cortez at the time, had been advising Wilkerson about the developing casino project. Sedway, a lieutenant of crime czar Meyer Lansky, had been sent to Las Vegas in the 1930s to set up a gambling wire franchise for the mob.

Sedway told Lansky about the project and when Wilkerson found himself up against a financial wall, Lansky sent G. Harry Rothberg to Las Vegas with a business proposition. On Feb. 26, 1946 Wilkerson sold two-thirds of the Flamingo project to Rothberg -- in effect, to the mob -- for $1 million.

Siegel, a dapper dresser and a cold-blooded killer who helped start Murder Inc., became the mob's front man on the project and almost immediately began muscling into the day-to-day management of the construction and trying to force Wilkerson out.

At one point, Wilkerson hid in Paris for several weeks, fearing he would be killed by the psychopathic mob hit man. Wilkerson watched helplessly as Siegel badly mismanaged the construction, running into cost overruns amounting to more than $6 million. When he learned that Siegel had sold 150 percent of the project to investors, he decided it was time to sell out for $600,000.

On March 19, 1947, he agreed to a contract that absolved him from any interest in the Flamingo, which had flopped when it opened three months earlier. On June 20, three months after Wilkerson bowed out of the project, Siegel was gunned down in his girlfriend's Beverly Hills residence and Sedway and Greenbaum immediately took possession of the resort. During the first year under their management the scaled-down casino turned a profit of $4 million.

The junior Wilkerson said it is not certain who had Siegel killed -- it could have been the mob, it could have been some other associates or it could have been his father.

"He had the connections," the 49-year-old Wilkerson said.

Billy Wilkerson quit gambling in 1951, when his son was born, and turned his attention to a personal fight against Communism. "My father hated communism," his son said. "He was the founding father of the blacklist."

The blacklist of the '50s included the names of Hollywood notables who supposedly were admitted communists or associated with communists. If your name appeared on the list, you were ostracized by the film industry.

Wilkerson developed emphysema and other health problems around the time of the birth of his son and died 10 years later at the age of 72. His widow, Tichi, who founded the nonprofit advocacy group Women in Films in 1973, managed the Hollywood Reporter until selling it to BPI Communications in 1988.

Wilkerson III said he researched his book for four years, interviewing his father's closest friends and associates, and then spent another two years writing it. After failing to come to terms with publishers, he formed his own company, Ciro's Books, and released it in January.

"One of the things I've been asked over and over is why my dad didn't talk about it. Well, No. 1, when someone has threatened your life in a major fashion, especially someone like Bugsy Siegel, it's not something you really want to talk about," said Wilkerson, a Southern California resident and a freelance writer.

Also, he pointed out, if his father had anything to do with Siegel's death he could be prosecuted even years later, because there is no statue of limitations on murder.

"My father certainly had a lot of reasons to kill him, and it was a little suspicious he hung on in Europe for so long. But then, when your life is threatened you make yourself scarce," Wilkerson said.

His father was hiding out in Paris when Siegel was slain.

Although Billy Wilkerson was not a member of the mob, his son said he had a lot of power and influence with the organization because of his paper, his nightclubs and his many connections in all levels of society.

Mobsters craved to be involved in legitimate businesses or to associate with successful people outside the mob.

"Members of organized crime knew my father," his son said. "Some even worshipped him."

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