Friday, March 2, 2001 | 1:40 a.m.
Brian Greenspun is editor of the Las Vegas Sun.
MONEY AND power. Is there any room for greed in there?
When I was a young lad, just starting to learn the ways of the world, there was a book published about Las Vegas. It was called the "Green Felt Jungle." It caused an uproar in this community and instantly made anyone from here a celebrity of sorts because it put Las Vegas on the map. It also put my father, Hank Greenspun, on the road.
I remember conversations way back then, asking my Dad why he spent so much time trying his best to be seen on television and heard on radio across the country. His answer was simple: "My children were born in Las Vegas and one day you and others born here will have to fill out applications for college, for employment and for government service. I have to do what I can to make sure you are never ashamed of where you were born."
I will always remember those words because I heard them so often and under so many different circumstances. I think if he were here today, my father would be packing his bags again so that he could share the truth with those around the country who will soon read the second installment of the "Green Felt Jungle." After all, there are new generations since born here who should also never be ashamed.
The first time a Las Vegas expose was written, one of the Las Vegas Sun's top reporters co-authored the book. He encouraged my father, his editor, to read the galleys before the book went to print. When my Dad read what Ed Reid had written, he told him that it was full of half-truths, innuendoes and lies and that Ed had to correct that which was wrong and misleading. Ed refused and my father let him go. It was a difficult decision because Ed Reid was a fine reporter, but somehow he lost sight of truth and went for the gold.
Don't get me wrong. The "Green Felt Jungle" was a very interesting and most exciting book to read. Every mob fantasy one might have was fulfilled in those pages and every bad thought a person could have about the motivations of another human being were set forth in black and white as it zoomed to the best-seller list. The only problem was that the book was selling as a nonfiction effort when it would have been better nestled among the works of fiction then being written.
In their new book, Sally Denton and Roger Morris do a wonderful job putting together a history of Las Vegas from its practical beginnings through the end of the last century. They tell an exciting story of numerous characters, some who lived here and some who just lived off of the fastest growing city in the country. But a good story may be all that their book, "The Money and the Power," is, because in the end it may succumb to the same infirmities that allowed the "Green Felt Jungle" to remain a good read and a bad book about what really happened.
To be sure, there is a good deal in the book that I cannot dispute because I was not there when the events occurred and I have not been privy to the facts. But neither were Sally and Roger, who claim to know so much from either interviews with people who might have been around at the time or from news stories, the truth of which may have been questioned when written. But there are some parts of the book about which I have firsthand knowledge because I was there, and in those instances, there is far more fiction written in this book than fact. And if I remember my lessons in law school, when you are false in one respect, it is fair to assume you will be false in all. And that is what I find so troubling about "The Money and the Power."
You see, the authors are trying to sell it as fact. And, as far as I am concerned, it ain't. What it is is an effort by a lady who grew up in this community to do her best to make Las Vegas look bad by dredging up the old, mixing it up with the new and making it all look sordid. I am not unmindful of our past. I accept it and am heartened by the fact that we have grown well and properly beyond that beginning, and most importantly, in spite of it. But still, we must deal with facts when we hold ourselves out as knowledgeable authors, and in that respect, I believe Sally and Roger come up short.
For example, if her "facts" about the Joe Yablonsky era are indicative of her scholarship in the others, the best we have in this book is some good reading. We don't have truth. I was there when Joe Yablonsky rode into town on the white horse of justice, looking to clean up the mess he was convinced only he could do. I was there when many people in Las Vegas cheered him on, thinking that Las Vegas' best days were ahead of her, and that it was time to shed the old ways of doing business even though the stories about the old days were fun to hear and incredible to believe. It didn't take long, though, for most people to realize that Yablonsky was just another officious example of an ego rider looking to make his mark at Las Vegas' expense and the expense of responsible and legitimate people whose only crime was, perhaps, getting in his way.
I remember when Yablonsky boasted to my father and another reporter that an empty space on the wall of his FBI office -- his collection of convicted rogues -- was reserved for the picture of "your silver-haired friend in Washington," a reference to Sen. Paul Laxalt, but one that escaped my Dad at the time since he had a few "silver-haired friends" in the nation's capital. What didn't escape him, though, was the attitude of a top federal cop in Las Vegas who was gunning for a U.S. senator without a shred of evidence of any probable wrongdoing. It was a lesson in overzealousness that would not be lost on a newspaper publisher who spent the better part of his life defending law enforcement. In their book, the authors make Yablonsky look like the only honest person in Las Vegas when the truth is he was one of the most dangerous.
In their book, the authors make short shrift of an FBI investigation into their hero's ethical lapses by writing that an investigation was launched into Yablonsky's "eating a complimentary meal at the MGM Grand and other minor violations of civil service ethics." To say more would be to make their chief protagonist look more odious than his prey, which would not be good for the thesis of the book. The truth, however, is that Yablonsky did more than eat a complimentary meal at the MGM. He extorted it at the end of his FBI badge.
He also strong-armed hotels to buy shrimp from his wife's business merely by flashing his smile and his credentials as the top fed in town. Civil service ethics? How about extortion and shakedowns on a par with the worst of the people who made Las Vegas home in the early days. And what about the $40,000 loan Yablonsky made that somehow advanced $80,000 to his benefit and no one was the wiser? Was that any way for an FBI man to act?
The danger of talking only to one side in this case is that you will only get one side of the story. The authors should know that, and by not doing so, by accepting every piece of drivel that dripped from Yablonsky's backside-saving lips, Sally and her hubby committed the big sin. The rest of the book may be authentic, although I doubt it. But by making Yablonsky the man of the hour when the facts have shown him to be far less, the authors have taken a good read and condemned it to just that.
And I haven't even started on the Bob Brown, Lefty Rosenthal connection, something they glossed over because it, too, would have undercut another pillar of "truth" for their story. Bob was up to here with the mob when the authors would have us believe he was the only other honest man in town. I liked Bob, but give me a break.
In the acknowledgments, Sally Denton says she tried to talk to her father, Ralph Denton, a man of honor who has lived amongst the subjects of her story but who, citing attorney-client privilege, refused to help her. That was a mistake. She should have pressed him to at least tell her when she went wrong. She didn't. He didn't and now the book as truth will suffer.
It may still be a fun read. But now it will have to move to the fiction side of the aisle.