Las Vegas Sun

September 1, 2014

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Barbara McNair (1934-2007)

Las Vegas entertainer Barbara McNair was all smiles on Dec. 14, 1976, as she performed at Chicago's Condesa del Mar nightclub.

Her mother-in-law, Pearl Manzie, had flown in from Las Vegas for the opening-night show and surprised her with news that McNair's husband/manager, Rick Manzie, planned to join them that weekend.

By the next morning, McNair's joy turned to despair.

At about 7 a.m. the next day, Barbara's brother, Horace McNair, who shared the family's 20-room Las Vegas mansion on Bruce Street and Flamingo Road, called with the horrifying news that he had found her husband slain gangland style in the couple's bathroom/dressing area.

From that point forward, the singer-actress's primary role would be one she unwillingly played in a series of real-life tragedies.

McNair, who hosted her own syndicated TV variety show, had hit recordings and starred in major films and on Broadway, died Sunday of throat cancer in Los Angeles. She was 72.

Before moving to Las Vegas in 1972, McNair had made her mark as a pioneering black actress, debuting in the 1968 film, "If He Hollers, Let Him Go" and following that up with roles in the Elvis Presley movie "Change of Habit" and Sidney Poitier's "They Call Me Mr. Tibbs!"

Her hit recordings included "You Could Never Love Him."

On July 22, 1972, McNair married Manzie and soon after the couple purchased their sprawling dream home at 4265 S. Bruce St.

But Manzie, who grew up in Chicago, had ties to Windy City underworld figures Joseph Grisafe and Sam Marcello, who in July 1974 were slain in Chicago. Their bodies were stuffed in 55-gallon drums.

Two and a half years later Manzie was killed by multiple gunshot wounds to the back of the head - a signature mob send-off. Local police sought Chicago mob brothers Tony and Terry Costello for questioning in Manzie's death. The case remains unsolved.

Six months after the slaying McNair found herself in a Palo Alto, Calif., federal courtroom testifying against her former tax attorney, Harry Margolis, who had been charged with conspiring to cheat the government out of more than a million dollars to benefit his rich clients.

Because of McNair's business association with Margolis in the late 1960s, the IRS at the time was seeking $137,833 in unpaid taxes from her 1966 to 1968 returns.

In June 1977, at about the time that McNair was testifying against Margolis, Pearl Manzie, 57, died at McNair's residence. She had been under doctor's care for hypertension.

McNair told reporters that Pearl had been despondent over her son being killed, suggesting that perhaps a broken heart was more likely the cause of her death.

A month earlier Horace McNair had been arrested on forgery and burglary charges in Las Vegas. In August 1977, a Clark County District Court judge sentenced Horace - who had 15 previous misdemeanor convictions - to up to eight years in prison for trying to cash a $20 stolen traveler's check at a downtown casino.

After Horace McNair was released from prison, he moved to San Francisco, where he got a job as a cab driver. In April 1981, the 45-year-old was found shot to death on the campus of Stanford University.

In the late 1970s and early '80s, Barbara McNair performed in Las Vegas nightclubs. In December 1979 she married Bennett Baker Strahan, whom she divorced in September 1986. The same year she filed for bankruptcy in Las Vegas, listing assets of just $23,080 and debts of nearly $500,000.

McNair married for the third time in Las Vegas to Kenneth Harlan Beck in 1992 and, 10 years later, according to Clark County assessor records, purchased a single-family home on Hedgewood Drive in North Las Vegas, which she still owned at the time of her death.

McNair continued to sing professionally until last year when her illness forced her to retire.

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