- Historic Sites
Nation Of Gamblers
Once seen as a vice and now as a public panacea, the national passion that got Thomas Jefferson in trouble has been expanding for two centuries
September 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 5
Throughout the early fifties energetic investigations attacked gambling nests all over the country, along with the police who cooperated with them. The investigators were young and determined, a small army headed in spirit by the freshman senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, whose Senate Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce touched heavily on gambling and showed syndicates a force that would be neither bribed nor beaten. That force was not merely the senators’ own sense of integrity but the outrage aroused across America by televised interrogations of gangland figures. Only a few of the major bills written by the Kefauver Committee passed the U.S. Senate, and it did not eradicate illegal gambling in America, but it did succeed in smothering the momentum that organized crime had been gathering since Prohibition.
The lawyers, district attorneys, reporters, and members of Congress who went to work against illegal gambling were probably less motivated by the morality of gambling itself than by a statement contained in the Kefauver Committee report: “gambling profits are the principal support of big-time racketeering and gangsterism.” That feeling was echoed by Willie Moretti, a gambling boss in Bergen County, New Jersey, who was being investigated in 1953 by Nelson Stamler, a deputy attorney general. “Willie Moretti,” Stamler wrote, “who was mixed up with Owney Madden, Waxey Gordon, Lucky Luciano and other high-ranking hoodlums during Prohibition, once confided to me that his gambling take always made his rum-running profits look like peanuts.”
Under vociferous attack in new holdouts like Bergen County, as well as old ones like Saratoga, Hot Springs, Newport, Florida, and Kentucky, the gambling syndicates looked around for respite. A few of them went to Havana, Cuba, but many never left the country.
By 1931 Nevada was asking itself the very question it would ask millions of visitors in the future: What have you got to lose? The legislature passed laws that year legalizing gambling and making divorce a relatively simple procedure. The story was big news all over America. “Nevada is tired of cactus, alkali wastes, sparse population, hard times and virtue,” reported the Montgomery (Alabama) Advertiser . “Hell’s hundred thousand acres,” spit the Dallas Morning News . The Hartford Times was equanimous about Nevada: “Perhaps it is merely being honest in writing laws which are hypocritically evaded almost everywhere else.”
The first casinos were opened in Reno, and they were owned by Westerners like William Harrah and Raymond Smith, of Harold’s Club. By 1945, with relatively minor intervention from outside gambling interests, the Nevada gambling handle was close to a billion dollars. The following ten years witnessed the development of Las Vegas, in the southern part of the state, as a gambling center; much of the capital for that development came from Eastern syndicates. A Los Angeles gangster named Bugsy Siegel was the visionary behind the personality of Las Vegas, which became a symbol for American gambling as recognizable and as “unspeakably gaudy” as the vest of the riverboat gambler. In 1945 Siegel started to build the Flamingo Hotel on the Los Angeles side of town, the “Strip.” Like Wilbur Clark, who followed him with the Desert Inn, Siegel ran out of money halfway into construction. Both men turned to the Cleveland syndicate, one of the toughest and the richest. Siegel was murdered before his hotel was finished, but he had already pushed Nevada gambling forward, far past the days of saloon doors and sawdust.
In the Las Vegas Strip the gambling syndicates had a Utopia. Like William Penn creating Philadelphia or Brigham Young arriving at Salt Lake, they had a place in America to make of what they wanted. In it they acknowledged what they knew best by building a series of hotels in the milieu of the forties nightclub: in names, themes, neon signs, muted lighting, entertainment, costume, and even in the roaming cocktail waitresses and cigarette girls. The Strip’s founding fathers removed any coherent sense of place. They replaced greenbacks with colorful chips and suspended time, with round-the-clock gambling, a nearly total absence of clocks, and bright lights on the Strip that give to the night the liveliest hours in the day. By careful design Las Vegas had nothing, but everything, to do with the rest of America. After nearly fifty years the Nevada experiment was a sustained success, and it finally took on a competitor in the form of Atlantic City, where gambling was legalized in 1978.
In 1964 New Hampshire conducted a lottery. Tickets cost $3 each, the top prize was $100,000, and the state earned $2.5 million: a success. Tellingly, all but one of the eighteen winners were from out of state. The lottery fever has spread ever since then to thirty-three states, and in most cases the states have imbued their lotteries with benign purpose: education in the cases of New York and New Hampshire, the elderly in Pennsylvania.