Once upon a time, Nicholas Pileggi was a journalist, a commendable craftsman of workmanlike stories. Then he wrote an exceptional book about organized crime, Wiseguy, that he later scripted as a film, Goodfellas.
A second book, Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas, became another hit film, Casino, starring two of the leads from his earlier hit, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci.
But somewhere along the line, he succumbed to the Hollywood temptation, which we know from personal experience can be quite powerful. We didn’t succumb, and it cost us dearly. But that’s the subject for another post.
The final proof of Pileggi’s downfall into the merely mercenary is a television series about a topic we know well, Las Vegas in the 1960s.
Pileggi knows Vegas, as his second book proved, which leaves us all the more dumbfounded at his latest venture, Vegas, a CBS series starring Dennis Quaid, Michael Chiklis, and Carrie-Anne Moss.
Quaid plays a character we encountered on numerous occasions during our first daily reporting job, beginning early in 1966, when we hired on to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, covering — among other things — the night cops beat. Every evening we hit both the Las Vegas Police Department and the Clark County Sheriff’s office, located in separate buildings blocks apart and on opposite sides of Glitter Gulch [Fremont Street].
Pileggi’s series centers on the man who occupied the sheriff’s office back then, Ralph Lamb, a member of a powerful political clan that included brothers Darwin [a Clark County commissioner when we were there who also landed an uncredited role in the 1966 Western The Professionals] and Floyd, a very powerful state senator who chaired that body’s Finance Committee.
But we knew Pileggi had sold out utterly when we watched the very first episode of the series, in which Lamb is appointed sheriff by the Las Vegas mayor after his predecessor is gunned down by the Chicago mob.
We laughed. Lamb was appointed by the county commission in 1961, since the post was a county office wholly outside the mayor’s jurisdiction. His predecessor, Butch Leypoldt, far from being gunned down by wiseguys, quit his post to take an appointment with the state Gaming Control Board.
In a later episode, the mayor who named Lamb to the job loses his office because he refuses to wear makeup, unlike his mob-backed opponent — a glib reference to the Nixon-Kennedy debates, where Nixon declined makeup and was judged the loser by TV audiences [unlike radio listeners, who gave the nod to Tricky].
In reality, Oran K. Gragson, the mayor who held office then was elected in 1959, well before Lamb’s appointment, and didn’t leave office until 1975. And what drove him to run for office was his discovery of a burglary ring operating inside the city police department.
But that doesn’t fit with the Hollywood story line, so out went the facts and in came convenient fiction.
A convenient myth
Lamb is portrayed as a stalwart mob fighter, which was hardly the case. Sure, Lamb did once up a famous Chicago wiseguy, but that’s only because Johnny “The Gent” Rosselli violated a prime directive, making a show of hitting the Strip casino circuit in a way certain to draw the unwanted attention of regulators.
Here’s how A.D. Hopkins of the Las Vegas Review-Journal described the encounter:
Rosselli and one Nicholas “Peanuts” Danolfo were sitting in a booth at the Desert Inn with Moe Dalitz, the proprietor, when Lamb sent in a rookie cop to tell Rosselli to come downtown and have that mandatory conversation with Lamb. Rosselli was 61 by then, but he had worked for Al Capone and had once beaten a narcotics rap when the arresting officer disappeared, permanently. He told the young cop to get lost, just as Lamb had expected. The sheriff had instructed the officer to be no hero that day, so the rookie retired to the parking lot, started his engine, and waited.
Now Lamb went into the resort and pointed out to Rosselli the discourtesy he had shown an officer. Then he grabbed Rosselli by his expensive necktie, dragged him across the table, and slapped him around a while. Danolfo started to jump in but Dalitz, spotting another officer coming up behind Danolfo to sucker punch him, grabbed his necktie and bade Danolfo resume his seat, observe and learn. Lamb threw Rosselli into the back-seat cage of the rookie’s waiting cruiser and sent him to jail, ordering the extra touch of delousing. Rosselli made bail and left town.
Note that companion in the booth, one Morris Barney Dalitz, late of the Cleveland Syndicate and the resident mastermind of the casino skim devised by Meyer Lansky [aka Hyman Roth in Godfather II]. Lamb made no attempt to rough up or harass Moe [a gentleman we also lunched with in 1966, having no idea who he was at the time other than the grandfatherly type oddly eager to buy a new 19-year-old reporter a delightful meal].
No, Lamb didn’t slap Dalitz, who was a real power. Moe channeled millions, built hospitals, funded golf courses, gave to charities.
Another friend of Ralph
Another good buddy of Sheriff Ralph was Benny “The Cowboy” Binion, a murderous thug from Texas who built his own Sin City gambling empire despite a conviction for killing a fellow bootlegger in his native Dallas back in 1931. He beat another murder rap by shooting himself in the shoulder, and contracted the killing of “Russian Louie” Strauss through Las Vegas wiseguy Jimmy “The Weasel” Fratianno.
With a felony conviction, Binion should’ve been denied a casino license, but Las Vegas Sun publishers Hank Greenspun — who got his start in Vegas as publicist for mobster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel — churned out the ink in Benny’s defense, Continue reading