Las Vegas Sun

February 26, 2024

Hard-charging Hank created lasting legacy and ongoing tradition

Herman M. Greenspun, attorney and soldier, was born Aug. 27, 1909. Perhaps of greater importance to generations who religiously read his Las Vegas Sun column, the persona of "Hank" Greenspun, crusading publisher, was born 37 years later.

In his 1966 autobiography, "Where I Stand -- The Record of a Reckless Man," Greenspun recalls the time in September 1946 when he was first called Hank.

It was at a meeting with his law school buddy Ralph Pearl and out-of-work reporter James Fallon to discuss starting, as Greenspun put it, "a slick, pocket-sized, 5-cent magazine to chronicle the more stimulating aspects of Las Vegas night life."

Fallon would serve as executive editor of the magazine that would be named "Las Vegas Life," Pearl would be the Hollywood correspondent and Greenspun, in a role that would become quite familiar to him, would be the publisher.

"It was Fallon ... who gave me a new nickname and one that was destined to stick," Greenspun wrote. "He claimed that his new crony, Greenspun, reminded him of an old friend named Greenberg, 'Hank' Greenberg, baseball's famed slugger. ... From that moment on, no one in Las Vegas called me anything else."

Later, as publisher of the Sun, Hank Greenspun would be as hard-hitting on political charlatans and other wrongdoers as Hank Greenberg was on baseballs.

One of the last of the nation's old-time publisher/crusaders, Greenspun was an undying voice for the little guy, battling ferociously against those powerful forces that would dare attempt to trample the common man's rights.

In Greenspun's July 23, 1989, obituary in the Sun, it was written: "Though his sky-blue eyes usually twinkled with mirth, compassion and caring, they could transform into flinty daggers of a fighter pilot ready to do battle."

And the targets of his hard-charging style of journalism were some of the most powerful figures of his time, including Nevada political machine boss Sen. Pat McCarran, communist witch-hunter Sen. Joe McCarthy, and the Internal Revenue Service.

"It (the early days of the Sun) was a tough time that required tough people -- people who were confident that what they were doing was right," said Hank's son, Brian Greenspun, who today is president and editor of the Sun.

"And that meant a guy who had a newspaper -- who gave a damn about this community -- had to stand up to some real bad people, whether they were in the mob or in the political mob like Pat McCarran and Joe McCarthy. Hank Greenspun just happened to be one of these guys who was well endowed in that area. He didn't mind standing up to the biggest bullies around."

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Greenspun had a paper route as a child, foreshadowing what his future would hold.

Greenspun grew up in New Haven, Conn., in a family of very modest means. His father was a Talmudic scholar and his mother a businesswoman. He graduated from St. John's University with a law degree in 1934. He worked at the New York law firm where legendary New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia was a partner.

Greenspun enlisted in the Army in 1941 as a private and by 1946 had risen in rank to captain. During World War II he served in Gen. George Patton's Third Army, advancing through France and into Germany.

Greenspun was decorated with the French Croix de Guerre for his courage in the Battle of Falaise Gap. He also received commendations from Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and eventually was promoted to major.

In 1944, while stationed in Ireland, awaiting the invasion of Europe, Greenspun met Barbara Joan Ritchie. They married in 1946. Today she is the publisher of the Sun.

In 1946 Greenspun drove to Las Vegas with his friend, Joe Smoot, who had visions of opening a horse racetrack with Greenspun.

When that plan stalled, Greenspun published "Las Vegas Life," but the weekly entertainment magazine failed to turn a profit. To supplement his income, Greenspun became publicity agent for the Flamingo Hotel, run by mobster Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel.

It was during this time that Greenspun wrote his first Las Vegas newspaper column for -- and this may come as a big shock to many -- his future rival, the Review-Journal.

For about two years, Greenspun penned the Flamingo Chatter column in the Review-Journal. It was far from the gut-ripping, muckraking columns that he would become famous for at the Sun, but it nevertheless provided breaking news to its readers.

For example, in the Aug. 5, 1947, Flamingo Chatter column, Greenspun had this big sports scoop: "A plane load of Olympic swim stars will be here Sunday, plus a battery of newsreel photographers, to record the first Olympic tryouts at the Flamingo pool."

Siegel was murdered in 1947 and Greenspun quit the Flamingo job shortly thereafter, noting, "The event had made it obvious that the big business 'Bugsy' and his cohorts were bringing to Nevada couldn't remain untainted by their less savory pastimes."

After leaving the Flamingo, Greenspun bought an interest in the Desert Inn and was a partner in the opening of radio station KRAM 920 AM in December 1947.

Greenspun's interest in the gaming and tourism industry included his support for the construction of the Las Vegas Convention Center at a time when many doubted that such an expensive undertaking ever would turn a profit.

But Greenspun's most famous gaming association came when he arranged for industrialist billionaire Howard Hughes to stay -- and remain in seclusion -- in a Desert Inn penthouse.

Hughes, with Greenspun's help, subsequently bought the Desert Inn, other Strip resorts and Southern Nevada property, bringing Las Vegas into the corporate age and creating a real estate empire that still thrives. Because of Hughes, Las Vegas became a legitimate Wall Street investment and gaming stocks were sold publicly.

In 1947 Greenspun assisted the Haganah in its efforts to create the nation of Israel as a homeland for the survivors of the Nazi holocaust. It was a move that would have a profound impact on his life.

With war on the horizon and Israel short on weapons, Greenspun bought machine guns and airplane parts in Hawaii and accompanied them through Mexico to ship to the Israeli freedom fighters who were fending off the Arab invaders.

But Greenspun was caught and pleaded guilty to violating the Neutrality Act in 1950. He was fined $10,000 but received no prison time. Greenspun called it one of his proudest moments because his cause was just and he played a role in the founding of Israel, where to this day he is remembered as a hero.

President John Kennedy pardoned Greenspun in 1961, restoring his civil rights. A year later, Greenspun ran for governor of Nevada as a Republican, losing in the primary.

Greenspun also helped in the relocation of Ethiopian Jews to Israel and laid the groundwork to bring peace to the Middle East, including assisting with efforts that resulted in Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's historic visit to Israel.

Upon Greenspun's death from cancer on July 22, 1989, at age 79 in his penthouse home at the Regency Towers, former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres called Greenspun "a hero of our country and a fighter for freedom -- a man of great spirit who fought with his mind and his soul; a man of great conviction and commitment."

Greenspun has won the highest honors from Israel. At opening ceremonies in April 1993 the 1-acre Hank Greenspun Plaza at the Jerusalem and University Botanical Gardens was dedicated to his memory.

"Hank Greenspun was an extraordinary man and a tremendous friend," said Teddy Kollek, who was mayor of Jerusalem at the time of the dedication and the representative of the Haganah -- the group responsible for consolidating international support for the new State of Israel -- in the United States after World War II.

"We knew that if we could not get the equipment to the Israel Defense Forces, there might be no state of Israel. Without our American friends like Hank, the Israeli War of Independence would have been lost. Many years have passed, but no one in Israel will ever forget what Hank did for us."

Al Schwimmer, a longtime friend of Hank's who served with him in the Haganah and later founded Israeli Aircraft Industries and the Israeli Air Force, said, "Above all Hank Greenspun was fearless.

"Once we were testing new explosives that we planned to buy (for the Israeli defense forces). We put the gray powder into a pipe and attempted to detonate it but it didn't go off. Hank was the first to volunteer to check it out. He gingerly adjusted the fuse and we tested it again.

"It turned out to be a very powerful explosive, but we wound up not using it because, as we found out much later, it was very unstable."

Schwimmer said Greenspun had been brought to the attention of the Haganah by one of Hank's cousins in Bridgeport, Conn., where Greenspun grew up and where Schwimmer lived at the time. His military background was of great interest to Haganah recruiters.

"When we approached him, he did not think twice -- he asked what he could do for the cause and the rest was history," Schwimmer said. "We all took a great chance, risking everything we had. But it was worth it."

Schwimmer was convicted along with Greenspun of violating the Neutrality Act. Although he maintains dual citizenship between Israel and the United States, Schwimmer has never sought to have his U.S. civil rights restored.

The Greenspun family has continued to support Israel through the Jerusalem Foundation.

"Every time I visit the Hank Greenspun Plaza, I remember Hank with gratitude and great admiration," Kollek said. "He was a great and loyal friend to Israel."

Unquestionably, Greenspun's purchase of what became the Sun -- and what he accomplished with the paper -- will be what generations remember most about him.

He purchased the fledgling Las Vegas Free Press from its founders, the International Typographical Union workers who had been locked out at the Review-Journal during a 1949 labor dispute.

Greenspun, with financial help from pioneer Las Vegas landowner, businessman and Valley Bank founder Nate Mack, bought the paper for $104,000 from Community Printing and Publishing Co. Greenspun paid $1,000 down for the paper, its flatbed press and outstanding accounts and renamed it the Sun on July 1, 50 years ago.

That year Greenspun gained his first national exposure, testifying before the U.S. Senate's Kefauver Committee that was investigating organized crime in the United States. He also covered those hearings for the Sun.

While some later criticized Greenspun for being a loose cannon, others argued with equal authority that more often than not he aimed that weapon in the right direction.

At a time when the media statewide kowtowed to McCarran, Greenspun took up the just cause against McCarran's restrictive immigration bill. Then Greenspun had the audacity to editorially support McCarran's opponent for his post.

In response, the powerful McCarran, in March 1952, ordered every local hotel-casino to pull their ads from the Sun. Greenspun reacted by keeping up his criticisms and later won a lawsuit over the boycott conspiracy.

That same year McCarran called in his good friend, red-baiter McCarthy, to target Greenspun. During a visit to Las Vegas, McCarthy, meaning to call Greenspun an ex-convict for his Neutrality Act conviction, accidentally called him an ex-communist, causing an outraged Greenspun to storm the stage and send McCarthy fleeing.

"Hank felt we had to be there that day even though it was a pro-McCarthy crowd -- I was so scared, I thought they were going to lynch us," Barbara Greenspun said.

"When he charged the stage and grabbed the microphone, the event's organizers pulled the plug and people started walking out. But slowly they began listening to what Hank was saying and started coming back. Then the mike was plugged in and people sat down and listened to Hank. He really won many of them over."

Greenspun's columns exposing McCarthy as a demagogue contributed to the senator's downfall and disgrace.

In the 1970s and '80s, Greenspun took on the IRS, exposing its abuses of taxpayers. He even offered Sun subscribers the use of an attorney for free if they got called in for audits.

Brian Greenspun recalled how that came about: "Two special agents of the IRS came to see my dad (and said) we are investigating you."

When one of the agents started reading Hank his rights, Brian recalled that Hank called Ruthe Deskin, the assistant to the publisher, into his office and told her to bring in her steno pad. He introduced her to the two agents and told her to take down word-for-word everything that was said.

"My dad said: 'Before you proceed gentlemen, I'm going to give you your rights. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used in tomorrow morning's Las Vegas Sun. Now what do you have to say?' They said this interview is over and left.

"It was after that that we got this idea that we should provide legal counsel to people who were being audited by the IRS because my dad said if they can do that to me -- I have a newspaper, I am a man of some substance, of some renown -- imagine what they are doing to these dealers and waitresses?

"It was a great program. It cost us a fortune that we did not have ($400,000 to $500,000). But I was really proud of that whole IRS thing."

While Hank Greenspun could use his column to bring down hateful people and evil institutions, he had a charm and charisma that could bring people of varying viewpoints into a room to work out their differences.

He negotiated the settlement of an early labor dispute between the Culinary Union and Strip hotels in his office at the Sun. He succeeded by not allowing either side to leave until they hammered out all of their differences.

On March 26, 1960, Greenspun, who had long called for understanding among the races, got major hotels, local political leaders and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People together through an agreement he had worked out that put an end to segregation of Strip resorts.

The hotel operators agreed to end discrimination against blacks and allow minorities as guests. Political leaders agreed to form a race relations committee. The NAACP called off a planned march down the Strip and a nationwide boycott that could have crippled the industry.

It was a major feather in Greenspun's cap and a big story for the Sun because Las Vegas, which had been labeled "The Mississippi of the West," became one of the first U.S. cities to do something about discriminatory practices. It would take the next 10 years for much of the rest of the country to advance so far.

Away from the newspaper, Hank Greenspun was a good family man. But just as at the newspaper, there was no question who ran the show at home.

"It wasn't 'Ozzie and Harriet' -- I can tell you that -- it was more like 'Father Knows Best,' " Brian Greenspun said.

"My dad loved to challenge us about ideas. And of course we loved to be challenged. We were a very vocal family. We would come home from school with ideas. The first person we'd ask was my dad because he knew everything -- whether he did or not -- that was the perception we had.

"He'd say let's go look it up in the book of knowledge, which was the encyclopedia. That was his way of saying go look up the facts, find some reference. Base your information and opinions on fact. My brother Danny, I think, read the whole encyclopedia from A-Z by the time he was 12 years old."

Brian attributes part of his father's success to his being a good listener, especially to young people.

"He was an older father compared to most of the fathers of my friends, but he was always willing to get hip," Brian said. "He'd go to the Sun Youth Forum, learn something from the kids and write about it. The adults would say, 'What are you doing? You can't have kids out dancing to 10 or 11 at night,' and he'd say, 'Why not? It's better than having them in the casinos.' "

Brian said his parents went to great lengths to keep the business of the newspaper away from the kids until they were old enough to better understand it.

"In those early days it was real rough and tumble," Brian said. "There was nothing pleasant about what was going on, and that's not the kind of thing you brought your kids into. It's not that we were isolated. We just went around doing kids' things."

But the Greenspun children soon realized they had to take precautions their friends did not because there were certain dangers associated with the family business.

"I opened the door once -- I must have been 9 or 10 -- at our house after dinner to a guy who came over to kill my dad; I didn't know that (at the time)," Brian said. "My dad invited him in. They talked for an hour or two and the guy left. ... I found out (two or three years) later that he was there to kill him. ... Yeah, it scared me."

And Hank taught his kids tricks of the trade that protected them. Brian recalled a ritual he and his older sister, Susan, did before driving to Las Vegas High School: "My dad made us check every morning under the hood (and) under the car for bombs, wires.

"He taught us not to wash our cars (so we could) look for fingerprints. There were some very real threats to kidnap his kids. There were certainly death threats. There were people who used to follow him. I feared for my dad's life."

Of all of Hank's children, the one who may have been most like Hank in terms of his sensitivities was his third child, Janie, a self-admitted flower child of the 1960s, who at times was quite a handful for her dad.

Hank and Janie attended the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where they were chased and tear-gassed by police while protesting the war in Vietnam.

"My dad was never one to say no -- he always allowed his kids to discuss what we wanted to do," Janie said. "The only rule was I could not cry or I would automatically lose the argument. Many was the time I had to grit my teeth and hold back the tears."

The trip to Chicago was one of those times when Janie won the argument, but Hank decided to go along to be within range to protect her. During the day, they attended the convention. At night, they went to a nearby park and were on hand when activists nominated a pig as the Democratic Party's presidential candidate.

"The police came and took the pig away -- it was funny," Janie recalled, noting that later in the evening, things got more tense and violence broke out. "The police went nuts. The next day, Dad was screaming at the Nevada delegates, telling them not to support the police because they were beating up children in the park."

On their way back home, after the anti-war platform was not adopted at the convention, an angry 18-year-old Janie was looking to vent her frustrations. She and Hank ran into influential Washington, D.C., attorney William Treadwell, who suggested that she attempt to register to vote and then sue the state after being denied the right.

"I was so angry at the time, but I saw this as more constructive than blowing up something," Janie said, noting that she, her father and a Sun photographer and reporter went to the Clark County registrar of voters to attempt to register her.

After being turned down, Janie, on Oct. 22, 1968, filed suit challenging the constitutionality of a state law prohibiting those younger than 21 from voting. She was believed to be the first youth in the United States to challenge the law.

The case eventually went to the Court of Appeals where on July 1, 1970, the judges found the suit was a moot point because Janie would turn 21 before the next election. Meanwhile President Richard Nixon signed a law giving 18-year-olds the right to vote.

Janie's assessment of her father's life and what he meant to Las Vegas can be found in one of Hank's favorite poems, "If," by Rudyard Kipling. She noted from that work that Hank "could walk with kings and not lose the common touch."

Ironically, Hank, who became a master of eulogies, having given so many, used Kipling's words to eulogize his good friend, famed gambler Nick the Greek Dandolos: "If you can make a heap of all your winnings and risk it on one turn of pitch and toss and lose, and start again at your beginnings ... you will be a man, my son."

What few people knew was that Hank and other friends paid for Dandolos' funeral and burial because, though he wagered millions of dollars in his prime, he died penniless.

Over the years Hank Greenspun's other business interests brought much-needed services to the Las Vegas Valley.

In the 1950s, while trying to get his newspaper established, Greenspun ventured into other forms of media and started Las Vegas' first television station, which he later sold to Hughes.

Later, Greenspun brought cable television to much of the Las Vegas Valley. That company was known as Community Cable TV and later Prime Cable. Today it is Cox Communications -- by far the largest provider of cable television in Southern Nevada.

Greenspun also is remembered as one of the valley's top land developers. Early on, he bought small parcels of Henderson land, eventually acquiring about 4,000 acres, before buying more than 4,000 additional acres from the city of Henderson to build the oasis of Green Valley -- Southern Nevada's first master-planned community.

In the April 2000 issue of Nevada Contractor magazine, the industry's official publication, Greenspun was named one of Southern Nevada's top five land developers of all time. The magazine selected him along with building giants Kirk Kerkorian, Del Webb, Irwin Molasky and Hughes.

In the 1970s Greenspun expanded his newspaper interests with ownership of the Colorado Springs Sun. In the 1980s he published the North Las Vegas Sun weekly.

He even tried his hand at acting, portraying -- what else -- a tough newspaper publisher in the film "Fever Pitch," which starred Ryan O'Neal. The movie was shot in Las Vegas, including the Sun's offices in the mid-1980s.

When visitors brought small children to his office at the Sun, Greenspun would reach into what he called his "Magic Closet" and pull out toys that he would present to the delight of the wide-eyed youngsters.

Greenspun and his family played major roles in the growth of UNLV. The Greenspun College of Urban Affairs and the Greenspun School of Communication carry on his legacy.

For his years of service to the state and community that Greenspun loved, he was given an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from UNLV in 1977.

He won numerous civic awards and honors, including the naming of Jewish War Veterans Post 30 in northwest Las Vegas in his honor in October 1996, the year the JWV turned 100.

"Hank will never be forgotten for what he did in World War II and what he did later to help create the state of Israel," said Sid Kosloy, former post commander for the Jewish War Veterans' Sgt. Manny Peven Post 65 in Henderson.

"The idea to name a post after Hank came at one of our dances in his honor. We approached Barbara with the idea, and she was very receptive to having the post named for Hank, who was a longtime member of our Post 711."

Kosloy, a retired restaurateur who was wounded while serving in the Army tank corps during World War II, said Greenspun epitomized the spirit of the Jewish War Veterans because, "He long fought against injustice and intolerance as a soldier, newspaper publisher and community leader."

Also in 1996, the JWV began its annual Hank Greenspun Distinguished Citizen Award. Former two-term Nevada governor and longtime Sun Executive Editor Mike O'Callaghan was the first recipient of the honor.

In addition to his autobiography, written with the assistance of Alex Pelle, Greenspun co-authored "The Day the MGM Burned," recounting the tragic Nov. 21, 1980, fire that killed 87.

"My dad would be bored to death, in many respects, with Las Vegas today," Brian Greenspun said. "He would still find plenty wrong and plenty of areas to educate people and try to move them in a certain direction. But it is not nearly the kind of town with the excitement and the characters who were here in the 1950s, '60s and '70s."

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