K Paoletter 31: Big Spender

It’s a curious fact of life in Las Vegas that each of the succession of impresarios who created the Strip arrived in Nevada from elsewhere. Meyer Lansky was from the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Jay Sarno was from Missouri, Kirk Kerkorian was from L.A., and Steve Wynn grew up in Utica. His first visit to Las Vegas was as a child in 1952, when his father, who ran a couple bingo parlors across upstate New York, made a failed bid to open one up in the Silver Slipper. “It was a cowboy place with a strange kind of exotic energy,” Wynn once remembered in an interview with Charlie Rose. “I think people came to Las Vegas as much to see the characters as they did to gamble and to see the shows. The place itself was a spectacle. And a very, very overwhelming one, too.”

Wynn returned in 1967. Having inherited the bingo parlors, he bought three percent of the Frontier Hotel for $75,000; within months, another of the Frontier’s owners, Jack Shapiro, was busted meeting with Anthony Zerelli, the son of a Detroit mob boss. Luckily — and every Las Vegas story involves the sort of run of friendly dice that can send any craps table into exaltations — the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes had just bought the Sands and was looking to gobble up more real estate on the Strip, so he was glad to take over the Frontier despite the legal heat. Around the same time, Wynn became acquainted with a banker from Utah.

Though he grew up in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, E. Parry Thomas played a central role in the rebranding of gambling into a reputable business, easing the transition of Las Vegas from a city run by far-off criminal syndicates to one whose fortunes traded on the New York Stock Exchange. Another Mormon banker, Walter Cosgriff, had chipped in some equity when his idol, the pioneering Phoenix moneyman Walter Bimson, bankrolled Bugsy Siegel’s Flamingo Hotel to the tune of $900,000 in the ‘40s, but Parry Thomas would finance sin to a much greater degree in the years to come, asking, “How are you going to do banking in a state by ignoring its main industry?”

Thomas had a hand in basically every mobbed-up casino of the ‘60s, including Moe Dalitz’ Desert Inn, the Patriarca family’s Dunes, and Meyer Lansky’s Thunderbird. In the space of two years, his firm, the Bank of Las Vegas, saw its assets compound from $250,000 to $16 million. Backing for the loans that generated those returns came from Congriff’s Continental Bank and Deseret National, which had been founded by Brigham Young himself. Every Monday, a plane was chartered to carry the millions of dollars Las Vegas had generated for the church that week back to Salt Lake City.

Thomas became a locally beloved Jack Mormon, though his wife and children remained devout. Even-keeled and reliable, Thomas could talk business with anyone, regardless of their reputation, but he took a special liking to Steve Wynn, later telling Fortune that the young man “was quick, honest, and had an exceptional IQ.” In other words, however unproven, Wynn cut the profile of a traditional real estate developer much better than the banker’s usual clients.

Shortly after the two men met, Thomas financed Wynn’s bid to buy some land back from Howard Hughes and then flip it to Kirk Kerkorian (then the owner of Caesars Palace and the International Hotel) for twice what he’d paid. Wynn netted $700,000 from the transaction, which Thomas advised him to use to buy a stake in the Golden Nugget downtown. Within four years, Wynn had edged out the other owners and, at just 31 years old, he became the youngest person to ever run a casino in the state of Nevada. Of Parry Thomas, Wynn would later reflect, “I think I can trace every one of the wonderful opportunities [I] had to the advice of this man.” So great was Wynn’s affection for Thomas that he called him “dad;” for his part, Thomas referred to Wynn as “my fifth son.”

From taking over the Golden Nugget, Wynn would rise to become the grinning face of Las Vegas, even as he wound up having to sell his empire twice: the first time because he’d been outmaneuvered by a more demure rival, the second because he was exposed as a sexual predator. In the early years, though, Wynn’s theatrical persona seemed the perfect mirror to the city he sought to dominate. In 1983, Wynn cut a TV ad for the Golden Nugget that opened on him in a natty suit and his signature black helmet of hair. He stood in one of the hotel’s suites, decorated with a crystal chandelier and a white piano, and pompously expounding on the luxurious accommodations. But when he strolled over to Frank Sinatra — in a dashing pink sport coat — and introduced himself as the owner of the hotel, Sinatra peeled a dollar bill off his bank roll and pressed it into Wynn’s hand, telling him “You see I get enough towels.” Cut to a close shot of Wynn, mugging for the camera like the beleaguered hero of a sitcom, his gravelly voice pitched high by astonishment. “Towels?!”

Wynn’s image as a kingpin who didn’t take himself too seriously would only grow from there. A decade later, ahead of the opening of Treasure Island, the writer Mark Seal described approaching the developer’s inner sanctum through a succession of brightly painted rooms. The office itself was “absolutely electrifying,” with magenta chairs and a carpet “streaked with rivulets of primary colors.” “And leaning back in a white leather chair with armrests big as hotel pillows,” Seal wrote, “his white tennis shoes kicked up on his desk, wearing blue jeans and a black Donald Duck T-Shirt, is Steve Wynn.” He drove a chocolate-colored Maybach, wore a Patek Philippe, and spoke to his beloved German Shepherds exclusively in German, but when the Wynn Las Vegas opened to the public in 2005, he was still glad to work the crowd, posing for selfies whenever a guest called out for his attention.

Never forgetting his first, childhood lesson that the energy of Las Vegas flowed from the residents who choose to make a spectacle of themselves, Wynn cast himself as the city’s leading citizen and infused his personal interests into his casinos so that tourists could feel as though their vacation included a stay at a celebrity’s palace. When his first Strip resort, the Mirage, opened in 1989, it included a dolphin pool where Wynn could often be found swimming with his pets in a wetsuit.Then, to distinguish the Bellagio as a high-roller’s retreat from the riff-raff that gravitated to the new roller coasters and garish architecture of the Strip’s “family friendly” era, Wynn went on an art-buying binge, dropping $285 million in the space of two years. The buying spree peaked in December 1998, when he spent $59 million on three works by Giacometti, Matisse, and van Gogh, but three months later he was still going, spending another $50 million on a host of expressionist paintings that included Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Franz Kline, and Cy Twombly.

The collection Wynn was amassing with a mix of personal and corporate money was for the Bellagio’s art gallery, which eschewed the typical, austere aesthetics of a museum for walls covered in sumptuous green mohair and individually lighted art. The effect, wrote William L. Fox, was “that the paintings were illuminated as if they were precious jewels, an effect calculated to raise the visitor’s estimation of their value.” The gallery proved such a hit at the resort that it doubled in size just eight months after opening so that it could accommodate an anticipated 750,000 annual visitors.

The Bellagio’s ability to turn masterpieces of the high brow into just another Vegas attraction caused no end of handwringing in the fusty art world about just what the phenomenon meant, even as Wynn’s motivation was obvious. “It’s a terrible mistake to underestimate the taste of the public,” Wynn told the journalist Christina Binkley. “These kinds of spectacles stir people much more deeply than things that are superficial.” Wynn was aiming for a higher-earning segment of the market than he had targeted with the Mirage, so instead of a dolphin show he offered Matisse. His infatuation with fine art seemed about as deep-seated as his passion for Broadway. “There’s nothing they do in New York that we can’t do just as well here,” he proclaimed, before hiring the composer of Hello, Dolly! to write him a Vegas-themed musical called Miss Spectacular, complete with sound cues that mimicked a winning pull at a slot machine.

The critic Dave Hickey’s wife, an art historian named Libby Lumpkin, worked for a spell as Wynn’s curator, and Hickey once wrote about tagging along to one of her meetings with him: “There is a beautiful midsized Jackson Pollack hanging in front of the west window. Across from me, Giacometti’s life-sized Man Pointing is walking and pointing. On the couch beside the Giacometti, the golfer Nancy Lopez is there just for the fun. On a large round table in the center of the office, an exquisite grayish Cézanne portrait of a seated women lying faceup.”

Wynn asks Richard Schiff, another prominent critic in attendance, about the quality of the Cézanne, then gets bored and calls Bill Clinton to see about arranging a golf date between him and Nancy Lopez. “The aura is oddly intoxicating,” Hickey continued, “It’s like a scene from a Mughal palace at the height of the empire, which was founded, aptly enough, by descendants of Genghis Khan — who were the Bugsy Siegels of their era. I mean, here we are in Steve’s office with all this great art, strange people, and exotic skill sets, and there is a Cézanne just lying there on a table — a fucking Cézanne!”

This month’s Boston includes my profile of Arthur Jemison, the new head honcho at the city’s Planning and Development Agency. Jemison is a charming guy with an impressive resume, and it was fascinating to hear him flesh out Mayor Michelle Wu’s plans to completely reinvent an organization that she called to abolish back when she was on the city council. Where once the agency bulldozed neighborhoods and rubber-stamped the plans of private developers, now Wu and Jemison are trying to refashion it into a tool for fostering more equitable growth across the city. The question is, can they make that happen without scaring off the developers who actually, you know, build stuff, thus making the affordability crisis even worse?

I’m a little late to the Alta party, but man am I having a good time. Founded in 2017 as a literary quarterly serving California and the rest of the West , the magazine is a wonderful mix of long-form reporting, criticism, and quirky features. They even have a book club! The current issue is all about the desert and includes “Hubris in Art Form,” a thoughtful evisceration of land art by Jason Asenap, Ken Layne’s reflection on the surprising success of his own magazine, Desert Oracle, and Stacey Grenrock-Woods’ hilarious guide to the boho circles of Joshua Tree.

That’s all for now. Thanks, as always, for reading and subscribing. You can find me on my website, or puffing my way down a frosty sidewalk in Somerville, two overloaded tote bags of library books hanging from my shoulders. 

Your pal,


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