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William Wilkerson

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Title: William Wilkerson  
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Subject: September 2, Spencer Tracy, Bugsy, Bugsy Siegel, Lana Turner, Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City, Ciro's, Havana Conference, The Hollywood Reporter, El Rancho Vegas
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William Wilkerson

William Richard "Billy" Wilkerson (September 29, 1890 – September 2, 1962) was the founder of the Hollywood Reporter,[1] the Flamingo Hotel[2] and owner of such nightclubs as Ciro's. He was also responsible for discovering actress Lana Turner across the street from Hollywood High School.[3]

Early life

Born in Nashville, Tennessee, on September 29, 1890, Wilkerson originally began to study medicine in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, until his father, a renowned gambler, died unexpectedly, leaving behind a mountain of debts. This forced Wilkerson to cease his medical training in order to find employment to support himself and his mother. Two weeks later, on a World Series bet, a friend from medical school won a movie theater located in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Wilkerson agreed to manage the tiny Nickelodeon in exchange for half the profits. He found the fledgling film industry very much to his liking. Between 1918 and 1929 he held an assortment of movie jobs ranging from film sales to production of one-reelers for a small picture company. For a spell he was also district manager at Universal Pictures under Carl Laemmle. By 1929 he had acquired a partnership in a Manhattan trade paper devoted to the film business. Realizing the limitations of a New York base, Wilkerson began dreaming of starting the first daily trade paper for the motion picture industry in the place where the movies were being made - out west, in Hollywood.[4]

The Hollywood Reporter

It began as a riches-to-rags story. In late October 1929, Wilkerson bumped into a Wall Street chum who advised him to play the market at rock bottom. Wilkerson sold his half-interest in the Manhattan trade paper for $20,000 and borrowed an additional $25,000. On Black Tuesday, October 29, Wilkerson walked into the New York Stock Exchange at ten in the morning with the intention of doubling his money and hightailing it to California. Forty-five minutes later the market crashed and a dazed Wilkerson wandered out of the building without a dime to his name. Undaunted, he packed his wife, his mother and their few belongings and motored cross-country to Hollywood. There, on July 26, 1930, he formed the Wilkerson Daily Corporation.[5]

Wilkerson published the first issue of the Hollywood Reporter on September 3, 1930.[6] This daily magazine reported on movies, studios and personalities in an outrageously candid style. Through its outspoken pages Wilkerson became one of the town's most colorful and controversial figures. He began each issue with a self-penned editorial entitled "Tradeviews," which exposed corrupt studio practices. "Tradeviews" went on to become one of the most widely read daily columns in the industry. The upstart publisher also employed hard-ball tactics to solicit advertising. Studios were literally blackmailed into giving their support. If they refused, he ordered a complete editorial blackout on all their material - from press releases to film reviews. The corporate moguls eventually banded together to deal with The Reporter. They refused Wilkerson all advertising support and deprived him of news from their studios. They even hired extra employees to burn The Hollywood Reporter when it was delivered every morning at their front gates. At the height of the battle, his reporters were barred from every lot in town. Wilkerson told them to climb over the studio walls and sift through executives' garbage. These tactics produced a flood of incriminating news, which Wilkerson cheerfully printed. The Reporter, by now fondly referred to as "the industry bible," gained national prominence. Even President Franklin D. Roosevelt had the paper airmailed daily to his desk at the White House. By 1936, The Hollywood Reporter had become something even the most prescient studio heads never anticipated - a power that rivaled their own.[7]

Nightclubs and the Sunset Strip

Wilkerson was not content with establishing himself as a magazine publisher. He wanted to become a night club proprietor as well. There were, in his opinion, two very good reasons for launching new ventures in Hollywood at the onset of the Great Depression. Judged by his standards, existing venues were "pedestrian". They lacked ambiance, glamor and sophistication. The second and most compelling reason was that people in the entertainment industry had money to spend - lots of it.

The inspiration for these Hollywood ventures came from his New York speakeasy triumphs during the Prohibition 1920s, and his many trips to Europe. Wilkerson's beloved Parisian nightspots became the model for a string of highly profitable nightclubs, cafes and restaurants.

While the movie industry dominated the town, Hollywood's social center was the fabled Sunset Strip, where the stars went to see and be seen. Wilkerson's nightspots - Vendome, Cafe Trocadero, Sunset House, Ciro's, LaRue, and L'Aiglon - contributed much to the Golden Era's dazzling glamor. During this time, Wilkerson became the nation's most successful restaurant and nightclub impresario.[8]

Here is a list of restaurants, nightclubs and hotels that Wilkerson started:

Gambling compulsion

In every facet and area of his life, Wilkerson was compulsive. Sitting at his desk, for example, he would consume an average of twenty Cokes and three packs of cigarettes daily. But just like his father before him, Wilkerson's greatest weakness by far was gambling. A lifelong "compulsive gambler" long before the term was coined, he regularly risked vast sums of money. In the first six months, for example, he gambled away close to $1 million, and came perilously close to bankruptcy.

From the moment Wilkerson awoke in the morning he thought of nothing else but gambling. He planned his entire day around the gaming tables and race courses. Usually, he would work in the morning and head out for the track in the afternoon. He paid regular visits to Santa Anita or Hollywood Park. He kept a pair of dice in this coat pocket, and a deck of playing cards was never far from reach. At restaurants he would roll the dice on tabletops to determine who picked up the check. Even in his own restaurants, guests paid if they lost.

Until the late 1930s, Hollywood was wide open to gambling and prostitution, but when California outlawed these activities, compulsive gamblers like Wilkerson were forced to travel out of state in search of legal gambling. Las Vegas was a favorite gambling spot of Wilkerson's. He would charter a plane in the morning from Los Angeles Municipal Airport, and after a short cab ride he would be inside a casino. He would then spend a few hours at the tables, making or losing between ten to twenty thousand dollars before returning to Hollywood.

Most chronic gamblers are superstitious. Wilkerson was no exception. An ardent Catholic, he relied heavily on prayer and a lucky rabbit's foot on his key chain that had gone bald from rubbing. He would stand by the table with his eyes closed, clutching the rabbit's foot and whispering Hail Marys as he rolled the dice.

Wilkerson had three main loves in the world of gambling: craps, poker and the track. He rarely missed the legendary private poker games that were held weekly at Samuel Goldwyn's or Joe Schenck's house. These games were played with $20,000 chips, and Wilkerson regularly lost thousands a visit.

Wilkerson at long last began viewing gambling as an affliction rather than a hobby. He poured his heart out to Joe Schenck on a November evening over a quiet dinner alone at the movie tycoon's home. Schenck listened sympathetically as Wilkerson admitted his problem. The mogul was quick to offer the beleaguered publisher a valuable piece of advice: "Be on the other side of the table if you are going to suffer those kinds of losses". When Wilkerson asked what he meant, Schenck added, "Build a casino. Own the house."

The Flamingo: initial stages

In 1944, Wilkerson's crisis forced him to take a more serious look at Las Vegas. He concluded that Las Vegas suited only die-hard gamblers like himself. However, Wilkerson, who loved gambling, hated the desert. Las Vegas lacked the distinctive elements of glamor and sophistication that Wilkerson had enjoyed in other places around the globe. Yet, in the end, the town's very remoteness and isolation helped convince the publisher that Las Vegas could become an ideal gambling location. He realized that there was a huge potential market for Las Vegas in Hollywood.

In December 1944, Wilkerson attempted to stem his gambling loses by leasing the El Rancho Vegas from then owner Joe Drown for six months. Wilkerson paid Drown $50,000 for the six-month lease. But the publisher had even greater ambitions. He knew that if he were to build in Nevada, he would need something much grander and larger in scale than he originally envisioned or had previously created in Hollywood – something that would accommodate far more than just a casino. He shrewdly sensed that no matter how magnificent the casino, Las Vegas would remain a hard sell to the snobbish movie crowd back home. Something fantastic would be needed to tempt Beverly Hills gamblers into crossing the desert.

In late January 1945, Wilkerson spotted a "For Sale" sign on a large parcel of land situated several miles out of town. He learned that the 33-acre (13 ha) lot belonged to Margaret M. Folsom and contacted his attorney Greg Bautzer to negotiate on his behalf. After an entire day and night of tough negotiation, Folsom sold Bautzer the property for $84,000. Under Wilkerson's specific instructions, Bautzer purchased the land in his own name. Wilkerson was known as a high-roller in Las Vegas and his open interest would have inflated the selling price. To increase security, the deed itself was not even recorded until November 21, 1945, some 11 months after the sale.

Wilkerson was determined that the resort would house all his passions under one roof. In addition, it had to be something extraordinary and unique, a gambling Mecca that would strike a stunning contrast to the competition in town. It also had to provide a quiet oasis for visitors who did not wish to gamble. For those who just wanted to relax, the complex would be a luxurious home-away-from-home, an insulated world of fine dining, high-quality floor shows and outdoor activities. Wilkerson first committed these ideas to paper in early 1945.

In late February 1945, Wilkerson summoned architect George Vernon Russell and decorator Tom Douglas to his Hollywood office. Both men had worked extensively on his Hollywood projects. During this initial meeting with Russell and Douglas, Wilkerson outlined his vision for several hours. To fill the 33 acres (130,000 m2) he envisioned a mammoth complex housing a casino, showroom, nightclub, bar-lounge, restaurant, café, hotel, indoor shops, and a health club with steam rooms and gym. Outdoors there would also be private bungalows, a swimming pool, tennis, badminton, handball and squash courts. A nine-hole golf course would also grace the property. For the more adventurous there would be a shooting range and stables housing forty-five horses. The publisher also ordered up a luxury hotel for his gamblers.

Then he turned the discussion to the casino. Wilkerson explained to the two men that he wanted to make it as easy as possible for patrons to lose their money. Here his goal was to design an ultra-gambling experience, a complete escape that allowed gamblers to indulge their passion in palatial luxury. The layout he had in mind was radical. It called for the casino to be placed at the center, "the hub" of the hotel. No guest would be able to move around the hotel without passing through the casino. There would be no windows. Based on his own experience, Wilkerson believed that daylight interfered with the gambler's concentration. No sunsets or sunrises would be visible from the crap or black-jack tables. No wall clocks would be installed, and the lights would be permanently dimmed. These elements, Wilkerson argued, would mask and conceal the true time of day, ensuring that time passed largely unnoticed. Wilkerson also wished to make the gambling experience as comfortable as possible. Before 1945, most gaming tables had hard edges. Wilkerson ordered custom gaming tables with curved edges and leather cushioned padding around the sides for extra comfort. He also felt standing diminished the pleasure of the game. Chairs and stools would be mandatory at every table. Wilkerson's project would be the first hotel in the U.S. to utilize the latest innovation in indoor cooling – air conditioning. With it, the desert would at long last become genuinely habitable.

There was also the question of a suitable name and logo for his new enterprise. Wilkerson usually named his projects long before they were completed. The inspiration for these exotic names came from his many travels. He also had a particular liking for exotic birds. After considering several ideas, all variations on exotic birds, he finally settled on the name of a magnificent pink bird he had seen during a trip to Florida. Wilkerson commissioned Hollywood graphic artist Bert Worth to design the logo for his new Las Vegas operation.

Although he had never built a casino before, Wilkerson knew enough to realize that no gambling operation could succeed without expert assistance. In his quest to create a first-class casino, he turned to skilled and experienced professionals who knew how to hire high-quality employees, from the croupiers to cashiers, lookouts and undercover security guards. Farming out the gambling operation of a casino to independent contractors was common practice. Casino owners regularly divided up the various tables and games to skilled operators who provided their own unique talents. Gus Greenbaum and Moe Sedway knew their business well. In 1945, they were running the El Cortez Hotel and had made a particular success of its gaming tables. For a percentage of the gambling profits and a silent partnership, they would manage and operate the casino and assume total responsibility for every facet of the gaming. They also agreed to help procure all necessary gambling permits. It was an effective match. Even though he was a gambler, Wilkerson knew little about the operation and management of a gaming establishment. By the same token, Sedway and Greenbaum lacked the publisher's flair for creating glamorous successes.

But as the plans grew, so did the project's budget. The building and completion estimates now totaled just under $1,200,000. Although Wilkerson accepted this figure, he did not have the ready cash to invest in the Flamingo. As much as he loathed borrowing, he approached the Bank of America for a loan. They declined to lend him the full amount and politely reminded him that they had extended him a line of credit for $200,000 the previous year, which he had used to cover gambling losses. Bank of America eventually agreed to finance $600,000 of the publisher's dream if he used his successful business as collateral. Surprisingly, additional funding came from longtime friend Howard Hughes, who owned a number of film-related businesses in Hollywood and had an annual advertising account with the Reporter. But Wilkerson was still $400,000 short of his dream. With characteristic confidence, he decided to make up the difference at the gaming tables. He risked $200,000 in April, only to lose it all.

Construction and the eastern syndicate

From the moment Wilkerson bought Margaret Folsom's land to the day he broke ground was almost a year. Construction on the Flamingo Club began in late November 1945. The project, for building purposes, was known as W.R. Wilkerson Enterprises. The builder was Bud Raulston, another person Wilkerson had worked with extensively on his Hollywood projects. Raulston began bulldozing the two dilapidated "motel" shacks.

Within six weeks, foundations had been laid for the kitchen, bar and dining room; a basement excavated and the piping completed. Soon, all the main girders for the building's shell had been erected. Nearly a third of the construction was complete before Wilkerson ran into unexpected difficulties. In the immediate post-war period, labor was plentiful but wartime regulations and restrictions still made building materials extremely scarce. When materials could be obtained, they were invariably astronomically expensive. These inflated costs soon exceeded Wilkerson's budget. He had already sunk $300,000 into the operation. His current gambling losses and debts to Moe Sedway brought the grand total to just under $400,000. In a last-ditch attempt to raise an additional $400,000 capital for completion costs, Wilkerson once again turned to the gaming tables. He staked $150,000 of his remaining $200,000 and lost it all.

With the majority of his construction capital now gone, Wilkerson looked desperately to Hollywood. Wilkerson offered bargain-basement advertising rates in exchange for surplus lumber and metal. He cajoled several studio heads into donating materials from their back lots. The publisher even went so far as to threaten some movies executives that key movies would not be reviewed unless they agreed to provide him with supplies. But these scavenged supplies added little of real value to the construction effort, and by early January 1946, Wilkerson's project had ground to a complete standstill. Dismayed, he paid everyone off in cash and left the Flamingo's shell lying like the skeleton of some strange giant, beached in the hot, empty desert.

As the publisher reached the end of his financial tether, Moe Sedway was bringing Billy Wilkerson's project to the attention of Meyer Lansky. Sedway saw it as a unique opportunity for their group to expand operations in Las Vegas. At first, visionary Lansky did not share Sedway's rosy opinions about the future of gaming in the Nevada desert. Lansky initially had pictured Wilkerson's operation as a modest casino and nightclub and doubted whether they alone would be enough to draw the crowds Sedway spoke of to an unspeakably hot desert. But once Sedway reported on the grandness and scale of Wilkerson's schemes, Lansky began to see the visions of money being made in the air-conditioned desert. A decision was taken to invest in Wilkerson's project.

The first step was the approach to Wilkerson. Someone unknown to the publisher had to make him an offer he could not refuse. The site stood empty for well over a month as Wilkerson teetered on the brink of abandoning his dream project. In late February 1946, he and his builder Bud Raulston were touring the construction site when an expensively dressed man drove up and approached them. He introduced himself as G. Harry Rothberg, a businessman from the east coast. Rothberg said he represented a firm in New York that wished to invest in the Flamingo Club. He and his associates knew that Wilkerson was broke and were willing to help him complete his Las Vegas venture.

Rothberg outlined his proposal. In exchange for funding, Wilkerson would retain a one-third share in the project. Included was the contractual promise that he would call all creative shots. When the club became operational (no later than March 1, 1947), Wilkerson would be its sole operator and manager; all others would be silent partners. Rothberg asked Wilkerson how much capital he needed to complete the project. Without hesitation Wilkerson replied, "One million dollars." Rothberg said that if the deal went through, Wilkerson would be advanced completion funds totaling that amount, with a guarantee that he would not have to put another dime of his own money into the project. Wilkerson thanked the mysterious gentleman and said he would take the offer under consideration.

While Wilkerson disliked partners, he had no qualms about investors - people who put up cash in exchange for a slice of the profit pie and then got out of the way. Overall, Wilkerson found the Rothberg proposal attractive. He agreed to all of Rothberg's terms except for one. He demanded that he retain complete ownership of the land. Rothberg consented.

On February 26, 1946 a contract was signed between Rothberg and Wilkerson. In early March, W.R. Wilkerson Enterprises received $1,000,000 to complete the Flamingo Club, which Wilkerson renamed, the Flamingo Hotel. With a year to meet his deadline, Wilkerson happily resumed construction. But the ink on the contract had not been dry for more than a month when Moe Sedway and Gus Greenbaum, both of whom the publisher had already done business with on this same project, visited the construction site. They brought with them a loudly-dressed character who enthusiastically presented himself to the publisher as his new partner. This man was Ben Siegel.

Bugsy's influence

Like many of his gangster counterparts, Siegel yearned to be legitimate. The perfume of legitimacy and respectability he craved was still well beyond his reach. But by the spring of 1946, that perfume became stronger - wafting in on the heat waves of Wilkerson's Flamingo.

Meyer Lansky pressured Siegel to represent them in Wilkerson's desert project. Someone had to watchdog their interests. Siegel, who knew Wilkerson and lived near him in Beverly Hills, was the obvious choice as a liaison. But Siegel was infuriated. He wanted no part in any operation that took him back to Nevada on a permanent basis. It meant forsaking his comfortable Beverly Hills nest and Hollywood playboy lifestyle and enduring the sweltering heat of the Nevada Desert. At Lansky's insistence, however, Siegel reluctantly consented.

Throughout the spring of 1946, Wilkerson and Siegel met almost daily at the publisher's office. He worked closely with Wilkerson, assisting him in every way possible. Wilkerson gave Siegel tasks to perform and welcomed suggestions. Siegel proved remarkably useful. He obtained black-market building materials through his connections. The post-war shortages that had dogged construction were no longer a problem. At first Siegel seemed content to do things Wilkerson's way. His desire to learn everything about the project from the ground up took precedence over his "sportsman" lifestyle. It also seems to have temporarily subdued his aggressive impulses. Under Wilkerson's tutelage, Siegel played the willing pupil, earnestly learning the mechanics of building an enterprise.

The role of the pupil did not come easily to Benny Siegel. Perhaps outdistanced and afraid of being upstaged by his mentor, Siegel began to feel intimidated and paranoid. He grew increasingly resentful of Wilkerson's talents and vision. As time went on, the gangster's respectful admiration disintegrated into an insane, all-consuming jealousy. It all started quietly enough. Siegel reverted to his familiar role; the big-shot. He began making decisions on his own without Wilkerson's consultation or authorization. Informing work crews that Wilkerson had put him in charge, Siegel ordered changes which conflicted with the blue-printed plans. Wilkerson was understandably furious. When Siegel was confronted, he sheepishly apologized, only to resume his autocratic behavior once Wilkerson's back was turned. Then, taking credit for Wilkerson's vision, Siegel began boasting that the Flamingo had been his idea.

The problem came to a head when Siegel openly protested his watchdog role. He demanded more hands-on involvement in the project. In an effort to appease the gangster and keep the project moving smoothly, Wilkerson agreed to a compromise. It was mutually agreed that Siegel would supervise the hotel portion while Wilkerson retained control of everything else.

Siegel asked Wilkerson to find him an architect and a contractor. Wilkerson readily obliged, hiring architect Richard Stadelman and Phoenix contractor Del E Webb. The construction project was split into two distinct halves, Siegel had his crew and Wilkerson had his. There was little or no communication between the two sections, and soon the operation fell into a welter of disarray and mayhem. Neither man would have anything to do with the other. Siegel's jealousy manifested itself even further when he went into furious competition with Wilkerson. Within a month he had spent the funding allocated for the hotel portion and stridently demanded more from Wilkerson's budget. Wilkerson refused.

Wilkerson had every reason to be worried. Siegel's unchecked extravagance was alarming. Wilkerson's only hope was that the powers behind Siegel would awake to the situation and fire him. He reasoned that he could still make the venture a success so long as Siegel was stopped in time.

As time passed, Siegel's grandiose ambitions mushroomed into uncontrolled greed. Unhappy with the business arrangements originally negotiated by Harry Rothberg, the gangster began to view Wilkerson, who held the reins of power, as a major obstacle. In May 1946, Siegel decided that the original agreement had been a mistake. It had to be altered to give him full control of the Flamingo. Siegel offered to buy out Wilkerson's creative participation, not with cash, but corporate stock - an additional 5 percent ownership in the operation. On June 20, 1946, Benny formed the Nevada Project Corporation of California, naming himself as president. He was also the largest principal stockholder in the operation, which defined everyone else merely as shareholders. From this point on the Flamingo became effectively a syndicate-run operation.

The brief friendship between the two men was also now at an end. After the incorporation, Siegel could not get rid of Wilkerson fast enough. With Wilkerson now a mere stockholder, the Flamingo was Siegel's, interference free. He never consulted Wilkerson again and wasted no time in implementing his own plans.

W.R. Wilkerson Enterprises underwent an astounding change. Siegel fired all of Wilkerson's on-site associates and staff. Decorator Tom Douglas and architect George Vernon Russell were replaced by Del Webb and Richard Stadelman. Responsibility for the interior decorations was delegated to Siegel's girlfriend, Virginia Hill.

Wilkerson had been stripped of all creative control. His duties as hotel manager could not begin until the hotel was finished. Seeing no point in remaining in Las Vegas, he returned to Hollywood.

Siegel's dream of owning the Flamingo outright was still unrealized. As yet, one crucial element remained - the land. Contractually, this acreage belonged to Wilkerson under the terms of the February 28 agreement. Siegel schemed to obtain full possession of it from the publisher. Siegel offered Wilkerson a percentage of corporate stock in exchange for his land. Wilkerson agreed to sell half his property for an additional 5 percent stake in the Nevada Project. Siegel signed an agreement to this effect.

But Siegel was still unhappy. He brooded over the remaining half, and in early August, approached the publisher to sell his final parcel of land. Again the gangster offered corporate stock. And again Wilkerson agreed, but insisted on another 5 percent as payment. Siegel accepted. On August 22, 1946, an agreement reflecting this exchange was executed between the two men. This brought Wilkerson's shareholding total in the corporation to 48%, making the publisher the largest single shareholder in the Flamingo

The final meeting

By December 1946, Wilkerson received a phone call from J. Edgar Hoover warning him about Siegel, but the call was all too late. Wilkerson was already deeply involved. Any attempt to extricate himself would have jeopardized his entire investment. Wilkerson decided to make the best of a bad situation. He would bolster his investment by making sure the outside world knew about the Flamingo. He hired press agent Paul Price in Los Angeles. Together the two men began formulating a massive public relations campaign for the hotel's gala opening.

Wilkerson was in the middle of this campaign when Siegel called a stockbrokers' meeting at the unfinished hotel. The meeting took place in mid-December, two weeks before the Flamingo's opening. Present were lawyers representing Siegel, Louis Wiener and Clifford A. Jones. Jones at the time was Lieutenant Governor of the State of Nevada. Moe Sedway and Gus Greenbaum, who had originally been Wilkerson's partners in the Flamingo's casino, accompanied Siegel to the meeting. Wilkerson attended with his legal counsel, Greg Bautzer.

Wilkerson's interest in the Flamingo made him the largest individual stockholder, owning 48 percent of $6 million. From the very onset of the meeting, Siegel demanded that Wilkerson part with his portion of the interest and not be compensated for it. After Bautzer told Siegel that Wilkerson was not going to cut his interest in the project due to Siegel's overselling of shares, Siegel became enraged and threatened to kill Wilkerson.

News of Siegel's overselling stunned both Wilkerson and Bautzer. It made the publisher question the value of his share. What was clear was that Siegel had no intention of honoring legal obligations, especially those he had signed with Wilkerson.

The second thing Wilkerson learned from the ill-fated meeting was that killing meant little to Siegel. Until that meeting he had usually managed to ignore both Siegel's unsavory occupation and his hair-trigger temper. Siegel's personality defect now came home to haunt him, adding a horrifying new dimension to the debacle. In voicing his loud threats, Siegel had made it abundantly clear that Wilkerson's fate was inextricably linked to his own and that the publisher's failure to comply might result in both their deaths.

Hiding in Paris

The dream project had become Wilkerson's worst nightmare. Instead of waiting for Siegel to act on his gruesome threat, he decided instead to avoid the gangster. All future communications between himself and Siegel were conducted through their respective attorneys and emissaries.

Wilkerson took further steps to secure his safety by catching the first flight to New York, where he boarded an ocean liner, the Ile de France, bound for France. From the French port of Le Havre he made his way by car to Paris, where he booked into the plush Hotel George V under a pseudonym. His whereabouts were kept secret from all but a few.

Wilkerson's plan was simple: he would wait in Paris until things cooled down. He predicted, as he had for months, that once Siegel's partners learned about his lavish spending and excesses, it would only be a matter of time before they fired Siegel. There would then be a change of management under which Wilkerson would retain his interest and would once again be re-instated as creative director. He would then complete his hotel without interference.

In an attempt to accelerate the process, Wilkerson ran ads in The Hollywood Reporter publicizing the hotel's true cost. These lavish full-page ads boasted that the Flamingo had cost more than $5 million. If the syndicate had not already known how much the Flamingo had cost them, they certainly knew now.

In mid-February 1947, Wilkerson reluctantly came to the conclusion that the Flamingo was never going to be his. Until then he had assumed that nobody would take a psychotic gangster seriously. But as the weeks dragged on, he realized he was wrong. Wilkerson set his sell-out price at $2,000,000. He also insisted on a signed document legally exonerating him from all financial responsibilities in the venture and releasing him completely from any further obligations to the corporations.

Finally, on March 19, both Siegel and G. Harry Rothberg signed a formal Release of All Demands releasing Wilkerson from the Nevada Project Corporation. This document effectively absolved Wilkerson from any wrongdoing in the project. He was to receive partial payment of $300,000 for his interest in early May, with the remaining half three months later in August.

A week later Wilkerson returned to Hollywood. Tony Cornero's pale-blue bullet-proof Cadillac became his transportation of choice. The publisher had not been back more than a few days when his general manager put an urgent phone call through to him. The anonymous female caller hysterically begged Wilkerson to leave town immediately. Her husband, newly paroled, had been contracted to kill him. Wilkerson must have found the call convincing because within forty-eight hours he was heading back to Paris.

In late April, Wilkerson received confirmation from his attorney that his interest had been transferred to the Nevada Project Corporation. He took two weeks off and spent time doing the things he found pleasurable in Paris. Wilkerson saw the sights, went shopping and visited Moulin Rouge. At night he strolled the city's streets, enjoying the outdoor music. Wilkerson was even comfortable enough to reveal his whereabouts; he now made it no secret he was corresponding from France - his daily Tradeviews were by-lined from the capital.

By late May, Wilkerson was thinking of returning home for good when his general manager called him with a mysterious warning. George Kennedy relayed the contents of an anonymous phone call he had received advising him to tell his employer to remain in Paris until "it was over". Without identifying himself, the caller had hung up abruptly after delivering the message.

Nearly one month later, on the morning of Saturday, June 21, Wilkerson bought his newspaper, sat down at a sidewalk cafe and ordered a Coke. When he unfolded the paper, he saw the article of Siegel's death and immediately returned to his hotel. Waiting for him was a cable from his general manager in Hollywood.

Wilkerson packed his bags and returned to Los Angeles on June 23, 1947.

Personal life

If Wilkerson's business life was turbulent, his domestic life was no better. A stubborn, driven man, he let nothing stand in the way when it came to profits. He was an insufferable workaholic, and he paid for it with five failed marriages and poor health. Being married to the overbearing publisher drove several of his wives to alcoholism.

Above all, Wilkerson was a man riddled with paradoxes and contradictions. While he was the proprietor of some of Hollywood's finest restaurants, cafes and nightclubs, at home he usually dined on canned sardines on toast and deviled-egg sandwiches. And, despite five divorces, he remained a devout Roman Catholic his entire life.

Despite his high-profile profession, Wilkerson shunned the light of personal publicity. He was a private man, even a loner, and preferred the company of his beloved French poodles to any wife or friend.

His wives were:

  • Edith Gwynn Goldenhorn - Date of Marriage: June 22, 1927 - Place of marriage: Los Angeles, CA. - Date of Divorce: August 7, 1935 - Place of Divorce: Cd. Juárez, Mexico
  • Rita Ann Seward - Date of Marriage: September 30, 1935 - Place of marriage: Las Vegas - Date of Divorce: May 9, 1938 - Place of Divorce: Los Angeles, CA
  • Estelle Jackson Brown - Date of Marriage: December 12, 1939 - Place of marriage: Las Vegas, NV - Date of Divorce: August 13, 1942 - Place of Divorce: Reno, NV
  • Vivian DuBois - Date of Marriage: May 9, 1946 - Place of marriage: Las Vegas, NV - Date of Divorce: March 14, 1950 - Place of Divorce: Los Angeles, CA

Later life

It was fatherhood that gave Wilkerson the inspiration to kick the habit which had plagued him for so much of his life. He quit gambling "cold turkey" with the birth of his son in October 1951. It was as if family life provided a sense of permanence and fulfillment that had been sadly lacking throughout six nomadic decades.

Wilkerson had been in relatively poor health throughout the latter half of the 1950s due to decades of excessive smoking. He continued to head The Hollywood Reporter and write his daily Tradeviews column until his death.

Wilkerson died of a heart attack on September 2, 1962, at his Bel-Air home, one day before the Hollywood Reporter′s 32nd anniversary. He is interred at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City.


Further reading

  • The Man Who Invented Las Vegas by W.R. Wilkerson III (Ciro's Books Publishing, 2000 ISBN 0-9676643-0-6)

External links

  • Find A Grave
  • Early Vegas
  • Vegas and the Mob

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