Men Of Action -- Bugsy Siegel, Billy Wilkerson and the Flamingo Hotel
A Partnership Between a Businessman and a Killer
Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel walked through the Flamingo’s dusty construction site, took William Wilkerson’s hand, squeezed hard and shook it. Wilkerson had to wonder why his Hollywood neighbor was in front of him right then, in the middle of nowhere, the real Las Vegas miles away.
“I’m your new partner,” Siegel said.
Imagine how many times Wilkerson’s sardine-stained stomach flipped as he pumped Siegel’s hand, those underside-of-a-glacier blue eyes locked to his, the cold realization washing through his fatty brain that the businessmen he just took $1 million from were mobsters.
And the most famous, bona fide killer of the bunch was standing right there, holding his hand, smiling.
Siegel was a dark, hansom blue-eyed Jew with a short fuse. By the time he was 21, he owned an apartment in the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. His hair was as black as motor oil in the crankcases of the cars he stole and his smile had more wattage that Edison Power.
All sources say he was a fearless, aggressive, and unremorseful criminal with no qualms about ending a person’s life. He had no fear of death. He was a bully. These sociopathic qualities brought him the attention of fellow Brooklynite Meyer Lansky, who recruited him as hit man and muscle for his newly-formed Jewish gang.
The Bugs and Meyer Mob opened a truck rental shop in New York during Prohibition, where they supplied stolen trucks and drivers to bootleggers. Lansky managed the business with such skill that it was profitable as a legitimate rental company. They also worked as an independent contractor for other New York gangs, and that included hits. They grew rich.
“Bugsy never hesitated when danger threatened," said Joseph Stacher, fellow Bugs and Meyer Mob member. “While we tried to figure out what the best move was, Bugsy was already shooting. When it came to action there was no one better. I’ve never known a man who had more guts”
In the late 1920s, a war broke out between rivals Joe “the Boss” Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano. Siegel and Meyer’s associate, Lucky Luciano, was also an associate of Masseria’s gang, and his side was losing.
Luciano recognized his chance and made an offer to Maranzano: Masseria’s death. On April 15, 1931, Luciano set up the hit. Siegel was part of a team of four that gunned-down Masseria in a Brooklyn restaurant. Siegel was 25 year-old.
Five months later, Luciano would again use Siegel as part of an assassin team to complete his plan. Siegel and two others left Maranzano bleeding to death in his Manhattan office.
Luciano formed the “National Crime Syndicate” out of the ashes of the two gangs, and Siegel would be a founding member of its strong-arm cabinet, Murder Inc. Lansky served as business manager and accountant. But Siegel’s time in New York was about to come to an end.
A potential informant, Tony Frabrazzo, was gunned down in the doorway of his parent’s house. His parents both saw Siegel pull the trigger, but Siegel had an alibi. He was in the hospital. Months after the murder, Siegel’s alibi began to unravel and as the heat increased, Siegel was sent to southern California.
There, he infiltrated the unions, starting with Hollywood extras. He had the power to order the extras to strike and forced studios and directors to pay him to keep them working. He also became the darling of the vapid celebrity set, partying with the stars, bedding many starlets, and shaking-down many more actors by asking and receiving loans from movie stars that he simply refused to repay.
William Wilkerson, born in 1890, was the publisher of the Hollywood Reporter and owned several clubs in L.A. He was also a compulsive gambler who scheduled his day around horse races, poker, and crap games, a habit that pushed him to the brink of bankruptcy several times.
Wilkerson, a small man with a large head, owned some of the nicest restaurants in L.A. but preferred canned sardines and deviled egg sandwiches. He was a chain smoker who drank 15 to 20 cokes a day and rarely slept. He wrote a daily column for the Hollywood Reporter for 33 years, starting with the first issue, Sept. 3, 1930.
On Sundays and Thursdays, Wilkerson most likely would be found playing poker at Samuel Goldwyn or Irving Thalbergs homes. These games used $20,000 chips and Wilkerson was often the loser. According to the New York Times and other sources, Goldwyn won the rights to Bette Davis from Jack Warner in one of these games, who used the superstar actress to pay off a $425,000 debt.
Many times Wilkerson tried to destroy his Hollywood empire by compulsively gambling, an affliction that ruined his father. He often took day trips to Las Vegas by chartering a plane. He carried a pair of dice and a pack of cards in his pockets. And he lost.
After a wrenching loss that went into the hundreds of thousands, a friend told him something obvious: If you’re going to gamble, build a casino. Take the bets, don’t make them. Own the house.
In 1944, Wilkerson bought 33 acres of an old ranch several miles southeast of downtown Vegas for $84,000. He hated the “sawdust” joints downtown. He envisioned a resort, with air conditioning, that would appeal to and attract not only the Hollywood cosmopolitan crowd, but people from all over America who was looking for exotic luxury that didn’t exist in Vegas.
He wanted the casino to be the centerpiece. Guests would not be able to go anywhere without passing through the games. No clocks, no windows. The property would have bars and nightclubs and shops and spas. He demanded the resort have a golf course, tennis courts, a swimming pool, a shooting range, a horse stable, and squash courts.
He named it the Flamingo because he loved exotic birds. It had nothing to do with Bugsy’s mistress, Virginia Hill, as Siegel would later claim.
Construction started in 1945, but Wilkerson’s $1.2 million cost estimate didn’t account for the severe construction cost increases that existed in post-WWII America. By December 1945, Wilkerson was out of money.
The banks wouldn’t loan him anymore, even with a third of the site completed, partially because Wilkerson used $200,000 of the loans to pay off gambling debts. The fact he couldn’t drum up any investors among those he knew in the film industry says something about what they thought of Wilkerson and his ambitious project.
Through his Las Vegas connections, word got back to Lansky. He eventually agreed that the Flamingo would be a good investment. They approached Wilkerson through an attorney, who said he represented businessmen from the east coast who knew of his predicament.
Wilkerson said he needed $1 million to complete the Flamingo. In exchange, Wilkerson would own one-third of the Flamingo and retain total control of construction and management. The businessmen would only be silent partners. By the end of February, 1946, he had the money, which came from Lansky and other members of the Luciano’s Syndicate.
But gangsters get nervous when there’s money involved. They needed someone to watch over the project, to make sure Wilkerson was spending their money wisely.
In March, Siegel made his introduction as partner to Wilkerson.
After a few weeks of cooperation with Wilkerson, the psychotic and paranoid Siegel began to resent his role. He saw himself as a mere go-fer and hated it. He started showing up on site and changing construction plans that had been committed to blue-print a year before Siegel even heard about the project. He started telling people he was now in charge.
By April, each man had his own contractor and their own budget and worked independently on their portions. By May, Bugsy had spent the entire budget for hotel construction and demanded Wilkerson give him money from his budget. Wilkerson refused.
In June, Wilkerson lost control of the project when Siegel formed the Nevada Project Corporation of California, named himself president, and bought enough shares to become principal stock-holder. Wilkerson took five-percent stock in exchange for creative control and left Las Vegas.
The Flamingo project was now essentially controlled by the mob.
Siegel immediately fired all of Wilkerson’s men, tore up a good portion of the blue-prints, and went on a spending spree to complete his vision of Vegas opulence, which, ironically, looked a lot like Wilkerson’s.
Siegel was not a good manager. As costs rose into the stratosphere, Siegel became unhinged and belligerent, threatening his workers with physical harm, only to apologize and supposedly tell them, “Don’t worry — we only kill each other.”
“He had a terrible temper. If he got mad at you, you could hear him, God-knows-where,” said his daughter in an interview with Clark County Television in 2009. “But basically he was very soft-spoken.”
In August, Wilkerson again owned a majority of the project’s stock after Siegel purchased the land for another five-percent. Wilkerson desperately wanted Siegel out. He knew if Bugsy’s unsavory silent partners back east knew exactly how much Siegel was spending, they would react.
So Wilkerson began printing the construction costs and overruns in the Hollywood Reporter. This made Bugsy’s face turn as a red as a firecracker and probably felt to Wilkerson like putting $50,000 on black.
At a stock holder meeting in December, Siegel demanded Wilkerson let go of his stock for nothing. When he refused, he threatened to kill him in front of several people. Construction costs were approaching $6 million. Wilkerson went hiding in Paris.
The boys in the Syndicate were getting antsy, and a majority had enough of Bugsy. They had read the Hollywood Reporter. They saw the numbers. They were convinced that Siegel was stealing from them. Lansky, Bugsy’s childhood friend, stood up for Siegel, and encouraged them to wait and see if the project would be profitable, and if it was, then Siegel could pay them back.
Bugsy was feeling the heat, so, despite the hotel being months away from completion, he held its grand opening in late December. All of Bugsy’s Hollywood friends were scheduled to attend. It was going to show his mob partners that all the money and risk was worth it.
It was a total disaster. Storms kept the chartered flights grounded in L.A. It was miserable in Vegas, too. Record rainfall turned the grounds into a muddy mess. Also, during those first few weeks, the casino took a severe beating that went against all odds. The house actually was being beat.
Somewhere (but probably not), Tommy Fabrazzo was smiling.
Bugsy shut down the casino to complete construction in January, and reopened in March as the Fabulous Flamingo. By May, the casino showed a $250,000 monthly profit. It wasn’t enough.
Lansky must have decided that stealing from friends is a crime that couldn’t be tolerated. On June 20, while reading a newspaper in his mistress Virginia Hill’s Hollywood home, someone shot Siegel in the face with a powerful rifle.
A bullet hit him in the nose and blew his eyeball 15 feet across the room. Not one of his friends attended his funeral.
Wilkerson returned to California June 23. In 1960, he sold his shares of the Fabulous Flamingo for to group of men involved in organized crime in Miami. Lansky facilitated the $10.5 million sale and received $200,000.
Wilkerson died in 1962.
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