Wednesday, May 13, 2009 | 7:10 p.m.
Claudine Williams, who bought her first casino before she was 21 and who in Las Vegas proved that women could stand up to men in the corporate world of gaming, died today after a lengthy illness. She was 88.
Williams may best be known as the long-serving chairwoman of Harrah's, the successor of the Holiday Casino that she and her husband, Shelby, opened in 1973. Williams was the first woman to be enshrined in the Nevada Gaming Hall of Fame.
Off the Strip, she was an active philanthropist, focusing much of her attention on UNLV, where she served on the board of trustees.
Former President Bill Clinton called her “a good friend and early supporter of mine.
“When I asked her to participate in my economic forum after I was first elected in 1992, Claudine was anxious to help and I was grateful for that help,” Clinton said. “I know she will be missed by her Las Vegas community. Hillary and I will miss her friendship.”
Las Vegas Sun Publisher Barbara Greenspun said Williams, whom she had known since "the early days," was “one of those pioneers who transformed our city’s major industry and helped make Las Vegas synonymous with fun and fair value. More important, though, has been the size of her big Texas heart, which compelled her to do so much good for so many people in our community. She will be remembered for her compassion and her willingness to give to others. My heart goes out to her family who I join in celebrating a remarkable life.
Former Las Vegas Mayor Jan Jones, Harrah's senior vice president of government and corporate communications, said Williams was “a remarkable woman of grace, tenacity, intellect, integrity, ethics and community involvement. She was an icon.”
Williams had stepped down as chairwoman of the resort in the late 1990s, but retained the title of director of community relations “and she was our company’s spiritual leader,” Jones said.
Williams was born March 17, 1921 in Mansfield, La., and was raised by her mother and grandmother in nearby Logansport and Shreveport. She said her only regret in life was dropping out of high school to pursue her career in gaming.
She was 15, and moved to Texas and lied about her age to get a job in a Dallas casino nightclub operated by Benny Binion, who later came to Las Vegas and founded Binion’s on Fremont Street.
Williams bought a Houston steakhouse/casino before she was 21 years old, promising a banker that she'd repay his $5,000 loan. She did -- ahead of schedule -- and used her profits to launch her business empire.
At the time she was dating a man named Shelby Williams. They married in 1950 and moved to Las Vegas 14 years later, when they bought the Silver Slipper Casino on the Strip. In 1969 they sold it to Howard Hughes, using the proceeds to build the Holiday Casino across the street from Caesars. When her husband died in 1977, Williams found herself the first woman casino president and general manager in Nevada gaming history. Williams went on to serve on various boards of directors, helped found a bank, and served on the board of trustees of St. Jude’s Ranch for Children in Boulder City.
Williams is survived by her son Michael Shelby Williams of New York; a stepson Scott Noe of Houston; a stepdaughter Susan Noe of Houston; two grandsons; and several nieces and nephews. Memorial services are pending.
Just as distinctive as it's famous neighbors Caesar's Palace and The Venetian, Harrah's Las Vegas has been entertaining guests since 1973. The 87,700-square foot casino is filled with 1,520 slot machines and 107 gaming tables. Outside the casino, guests are able to experience fun in a street-fair atmosphere at the Carnival Court, an outdoor lounge with live entertainment (including the bartenders), food stands and outdoor shops.
At Harrah's comedy is King, and that has never been more apparent then the comedy acts of Rita Rudner, the Mac King Comedy Magic Show and the Improv Comedy Club. After the show, guests are more than welcome to laugh at their friends at The Piano Bar, famous for its dueling pianos and karaoke. Most recently, Harrah's added tribute show "Legends in Concert" to its list of entertainment.
Restaurants like Ming's offers Asian cuisine, while Ruth's Chris Steak House offers guests fine steaks and fresh seafood. Toby Keith's I Love This Bar is a country-themed bar with a restaurant, live music and the occasional appearance from Keith himself.