Las Vegas Sun

July 24, 2014

Currently: 98° — Complete forecast | Log in | Create an account

Barbara Greenspun: Unsung strength

"I gave Barbara an extra dozen kisses (and) went down the wide stairs ... through the main hall with its musty relics of forgotten wars and joined the men of my company, bound for ... the battlefields of France.

"The last thing I saw as our column rumbled away ... was my wife ... standing alone (in the rain) in front of that tremendous castle."

Sun Publisher Hank Greenspun wrote of that poignant moment in his 1966 autobiography "Where I Stand," describing the final moments he spent in a room at a British castle in 1944 with his war bride before going off to face an uncertain future.

From that point on, Barbara Greenspun lived in Hank's shadow -- happy to stand backstage while her husband grabbed the spotlight.

"I was perfectly content with that role," Barbara said, recalling her 45 years of marriage to Hank and 50 years of playing an important behind-the-scenes role at the Sun. "I never wanted anything more."

Equal partners

But longtime friends of the Greenspuns say that while one partner definitely stood out, they were equal.

"They were a great team -- the most devoted couple I ever knew," said Elizabeth Ackerman, who first met Barbara in 1964 and remains a close friend. "Hank always acknowledged that he owed much of his success to Barbara. They had the most beautiful love story even beyond his (1989) death."

To this day, Barbara downplays her contributions to the newspaper. But many observers agree that without Barbara's good business sense -- especially during lean times -- the newspaper her husband used as a sledgehammer against corrupt politicians and other power abusers might not have reached the half-century mark.

And while Barbara staunchly supported her husband's decisions whether they were right or wrong, she was no dutiful, demure little woman. She is a proud, strong, independent woman and every bit the community and business leader that Hank was.

"Barbara knew what to do when she was on her own, and she very much loved her husband and was his greatest ally," said Maurene Black of Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., a friend of Barbara dating back to before she met Hank in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

"She has been successful in whatever she has done, and success hasn't changed her. She never took credit for anything she did, and she does everything quietly."

Black said Barbara's life has centered on her family, including her four children and 10 grandchildren. And in both family and business life "she has been rewarded -- and rightly so. She is a very classy lady."

Barbara simply says she was blessed to have lived the type of life she has lived.

"It has been an exciting time," she said.

But Barbara's marriage to Hank early on was one long waiting game:

"I was so alone during those times that I really didn't know what I would do," Barbara said. "Hank was always off somewhere. But I always accepted that he had to do what he had to do. Still, with two babies and one on the way, it was difficult.

"But it also was a good thing because I learned to drive a car and I went to work in a dress shop. I became self-sufficient."

Hank recalled his first thoughts about Las Vegas in "Where I Stand," which he wrote with Alex Pelle:

"I guess it was love at first sight, something akin to the feeling that hit me when I first looked at Barbara. I reacted in typical fashion with a sudden, instinctive decision. Checking in at the Last Frontier Hotel, I ... phoned Barbara and announced jubilantly, 'Pack everything, baby, and come on out! We won't be going back.' "

When Barbara arrived, she did not share Hank's enthusiasm for the Las Vegas of the late 1940s.

"It was just awful -- so barren, so desolate," she said. "The summers were brutal -- we didn't have air conditioners, just swamp coolers.

"We lived in an apartment in Boulder City because there was a housing shortage in Las Vegas. There was a drunk who lived in the apartment above us who used to throw furniture out his window. Coyotes ate out of our garbage. What fun."

Still, Barbara says she is glad she stuck it out and did not leave.

"Las Vegas, of course, became a wonderful community," she said. "If Hank and I in some small way helped to make it a better place, then I am happy about that."

Born Barbara Ritchie in London, she was the lone daughter of a motion picture company executive and his wife. Barbara and her three brothers -- only Doug Ritchie is alive today -- were raised in free Ireland. The family moved to Belfast when the three boys enlisted in the British military.

There she met Hank, a brash young Jewish officer and lawyer from New York, at a wedding. It was love at first sight, but she initially played hard to get. Just nine days before he shipped out, they were married.

After the war the fight for the creation of a Jewish state in the Middle East -- a homeland for the survivors of the Holocaust -- became a cause they both supported and a cause that nearly cost Hank his freedom.

Cloak and dagger

During his adventure in Mexico, Hank created the impression that the weapons were bound for the Nationalist Chinese to be used against the Communists. Pro-Arab sentiment in Mexico would have made it difficult for him to get guns sent to Israel.

Such cloak-and-dagger play made Greenspun a hero in Israel, which eventually got the weapons, and a criminal in the United States. The U.S. government charged Hank with violating the Neutrality Act, and he was arraigned in federal court in Los Angeles.

In his book he recalled how he felt about that situation: "Although I had long steeled myself for the inevitable, it was a shock when the blow finally fell. There was a strange, dazed numbness in mind and body as I made reservations on the evening flight to Los Angeles ... and drove home to tell Barbara.

"Arraignment, I thought, next comes the trial and newspaper publicity. What is this all going to do to my wife and children?"

Upon telling Barbara about the pending court action and saying he was sorry, Barbara said: "Sorry! Don't ever say that again! I'm proud of you and everything you've done. Whatever happens in that courtroom. I'll shout it from the housetops so that everyone will know how I feel about Hank Greenspun."

In his book, Hank also recalls reading the arraignment story, and being a bit surprised:

"Barbara silently handed me a copy of our town's lone, powerful newspaper, the Review-Journal. The arraignment story was short, a mere three paragraphs ...

"In recent issues I had seen an item in the Review-Journal's pages about a motorist who was, as the paper pointed out, Jewish. Another had emphasized the fact that an apprehended ... thief was a Negro. Both were typical of the Review-Journal's standard policy toward minority-group members.

" 'They must be slipping,' I remarked. 'How come they didn't say Herman Greenspun, a Jew?' "

Barbara says one of the main reasons the Sun was born -- and one of the key reasons it survived -- was because of the longstanding racist and anti-Semitic attitude of the Review-Journal. The Sun became a second choice, another voice.

"It wasn't just in the editorial content -- which was bad enough -- but also in the ads like 'for a good used car come and see Kelly the Kike,' " Barbara said.

"When Hank read things like that, it upset him. He had just fought for his country against governments that promoted hatred. He did not think it was right that insulting and hateful things like that were printed in an American newspaper."

But starting a rival newspaper to compete against an established publication was no easy task. Hank had already tried his hand at publishing an entertainment magazine called Las Vegas Life, losing a lot of money in the process.

He subsequently went to work at the newly built Flamingo Hotel as publicity director for its founder, Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel. Hank and Barbara sat at the table next to Siegel and his girlfriend, Virginia Hill, on opening night at the resort in December 1946.

Hank had been introduced to the gangster by Review-Journal Managing Director Al Cahlan. Hank was at the Review-Journal plant printing Las Vegas Life when Cahlan asked him to come into his office and meet Siegel.

After Siegel was killed in Hill's Beverly Hills mansion on June 20, 1947, Hank invested in the Desert Inn and also opened a local radio station. Later, he was approached by the union pressmen who had started the Las Vegas Free Press newspaper after being locked out of the Review-Journal by Cahlan because of their organizing activities.

Just prior to his Neutrality Act violation trial, Hank made a deal to take over the financially plagued Free Press. Then he had to inform Barbara of the purchase.

"I said 'Oh no, not a newspaper -- not with all that we have on our plate,' " Barbara recalled. "He put $1,000 down to buy it, and we didn't have $1,000 back then. We didn't have any money." A short time later, the paper was renamed the Las Vegas Morning Sun.

Nate Mack, a prominent Las Vegas banker, guaranteed Greenspun the $104,000 loan to purchase the newspaper from the Indianapolis-based International Typographical Union.

Mack took Greenspun to Spence Butterfield, president of the Bank of Nevada, and, according to Hank's book, Nate introduced Hank "with words I have never forgotten: 'Spence, Hank is flying to Indiana to buy the Free Press. Any check he writes is okay. I'll stand behind it.' "

Macks close friends

Over the years Nate's son, Jerry Mack, also helped the Sun overcome its financial challenges and the Macks remained close friends with the Greenspuns.

"Barbara was involved in the newspaper from Day 1 -- going to the office every day and learning everything about the business," said Joyce Mack, Jerry's widow.

"Before Hank died, he made her co-publisher because he knew she could do the job. Hank may have been the star, but Barbara was right there with him. She is a caring and giving person whose positive attitude alone has made her a winner."

Barbara also was at Hank's side during the high-profile trial in Los Angeles, when U.S. District Judge Peirson Hall found that Greenspun had indeed violated the Neutrality Act -- a crime for which he could have been sentenced to five years in prison.

But the judge, taking into account Greenspun's motives for helping the fledgling state of Israel, said: "Knowing the motives that impelled him, I cannot bring myself to send him to prison."

Hank wrote in his book: "I began to relax, more for Barbara's sake than my own. She had suffered unspeakably."

Greenspun was fined $10,000, which was paid by a group of Israeli supporters. That day he filed for the Sun the front-page story of his conviction and -- as he and his reporters would do consistently for the next 50 years -- beat the Review-Journal with the news.

Hank, who later was pardoned by President Kennedy, long struggled with a small newspaper staff and not much money.

"We constantly needed to raise money to meet payroll, even though everyone worked for peanuts," Barbara recalled. "I would go out and collect $5 here and $10 there from advertisers, and we managed.

"Back in those early days, we were all in the same boat -- us and our advertisers. We helped each other. When they didn't have money to pay us, we ran their ads. When we needed the money to buy newsprint, they would come through for us."

Elizabeth Ackerman recalled how Barbara would approach her ex-husband Don, owner of Gaudin Ford, for money to meet the Sun's payroll.

"She was so charming he said he could never turn her down," Elizabeth said. "He used to call her the most beautiful bill collector in the world."

It was in the paper's early days that Hank stood up to powerful U.S. Sen. Pat McCarran, who ran the state's political machine -- and not always in the best interest of the public.

McCarran ordered local resorts to pull their ads from the Sun in an effort to silence the paper from exposing his shenanigans. It did not work, but the loss of revenue hurt.

"That boycott was perhaps our worst time," Barbara recalled. "But some of the advertisers like Benny Binion at the Horseshoe and Wilbur Clark at the Desert Inn stood by us. They'd run ads like 'for the benefit of the Red Cross,' and things like that. It was instrumental in our survival."

It was during such times that Hank's business sense was questioned.

"Hank was a good businessman -- a visionary," Barbara said. "But he never cared much for the nitty-gritty details. That is where he fell down. He loved the excitement of the challenge. But once the deal was made, it was up to others to execute it."

Besides, Barbara said, Hank would want to be remembered more by future generations for his work as a newspaperman than for his business dealings.

Hank's journalistic crusades kept the newspaper's attorneys busy battling libel lawsuits that, even when he won, were costly in legal fees and time lost.

Still, Barbara remembers when one libel suit actually helped fill the paper's coffers and enhanced the Sun's reputation.

"Hank had accused a prominent local attorney of selling babies on the black market, and we got sued," Barbara said. "Our insurance company wanted to settle the suit for $75,000, but we wanted to fight because we felt we were right.

"The insurance company gave us the $75,000 and told us any judgment above that amount would come out of our pockets. We won the case. The law then was changed mandating that the state oversee adoptions, and we got to keep the $75,000, which we really needed at that time."

Diversification

In time, the Greenspuns became wealthy with real estate investments and the establishment of the cable television industry in Southern Nevada. The Greenspun family has since returned a lot to the community, especially to UNLV, where multimillion-dollar gifts have created the Hank Greenspun School of Communication.

"In Europe, women didn't usually go to college, and so I did not go to college," Barbara said. "I was fortunate that I had a good knowledge of math and a good head for business. I am proud that all four of my children went to college. And now I am glad that I have the opportunity to help make it possible for others to go to college."

On May 19, 1991, nearly 22 months after Hank died, Barbara was named a Distinguished Nevadan by the University and Community College System of Nevada. Seven years later she was given an honorary doctorate of Humane Letters by UNLV.

The Barbara Greenspun Lecture Series, since 1994, has brought to town prominent speakers including journalists Linda Ellerbee and Carl Bernstein and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Barbara said she "would love to get (CBS news anchor) Dan Rather as a speaker. I have a lot of respect for him."

Friends describe Barbara as "down to earth" and "a real person."

They all have their favorite Barbara stories:

"She once sneaked into my closet to find out my shoe size to surprise me with a pair of designer house slippers for Hanukkah," Ackerman said. "She loves to totally surprise people.

"And she is as respectful to a busboy as she is to the president of a hotel."

A competitive spirit

While much is known about Hank and his fiercely competitive nature, little is known of Barbara's competitive spirit -- that is unless you have ever challenged her to games such as golf, which is her passion, and bridge.

"Only a fool plays to lose," Barbara said. "I always play to win."

Ackerman, a life master at bridge, said of unranked Barbara Greenspun: "I'd rather be her partner than her opponent because she plays one mean game of bridge."

Barbara has taken on each task she has faced at the newspaper -- and away from it -- with that keen competitive edge.

She accepted a post on the state acupuncture board and for 10 years helped that profession get established in the state.

Barbara served 12 years on the United Way board, vigorously campaigning to raise money for that umbrella organization for charities. She also has served on the Clark County Juvenile Board, the Sun Camp Fund Board and the Advisory Committee of the Governor's Conference on Women.

Nowhere was Barbara's competitive spirit more evident than in May 1970 when she outbid casino moguls Jay Sarno and Harold Smith for an Apollo 12 moon mission American flag, bidding $25,000 at a charity event for the American Cancer Society.

Upon making what was the highest bid of the entire auction, Barbara was congratulated by actor John Wayne, the event's master of ceremonies, who that year had won the Academy Award for best actor for the film "True Grit."

"I love that flag," Barbara said. "I know Danny (her youngest child) wants it, but the problem is when you have four children, who are you going to leave it to?"

With her children heavily involved in the operation of the newspaper, Barbara knows that one day she will leave the Sun -- a paper that has changed over the years and continues to improve -- in good hands.

"The difference between the Sun of the past and the Sun today is that we no longer struggle so much financially and so, yes, we are more comfortable," Barbara said.

"In the early days, Hank liked to take the unpopular side of an issue to stimulate things. Back then, those who abused power were more blatant than they are now so there were more people and issues for a crusading publisher to tackle. Today, we write about issues and cover the news. I think we are a better newspaper."

And the future?

"I would think we will continue to grow," Barbara said. "And, some day I would like to see the Sun become the morning paper again. (The Sun became the afternoon paper in 1990 after entering into a Joint Operating Agreement with the Review-Journal.) That's my desire and maybe down the road that will happen."

archive