Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2015 | 2 a.m.
Las Vegas doesn’t have a very long history compared with many other American cities, but it’s filled with colorful episodes and characters, so there is still plenty to read up on.
With that in mind, and the holidays upon us, now is as good a time as any to read one of the many books that have been written about Nevada’s most populous urban area. Perhaps you’re craving more winter reading, or perhaps you’re looking for a good gift for a book lover. Either way, consider these 10 important books about Las Vegas.
(We left off “Fear & Loathing,” since that seemed too obvious).
"The Money and the Power: The Making of Las Vegas and its hold on America, 1947-2000"
By Sally Denton and Roger Morris
As the title suggests, this book seeks to pull back the curtain on decades of riches and influence generated in and wielded by Las Vegas. It is by no means a ringing endorsement of the city: In fact, the authors refer to Las Vegas as “America’s criminal city-state.” But they deliver what The New York Times called a “nuanced indictment” — an important examination of an important, if flawed, city. (It’s worth noting that after the book came out in 2001, Sun publisher Brian Greenspun wrote that while it “may still be a fun read,” it would “have to move to the fiction side of the aisle.”)
As described on Amazon: “Based on five years of intensive research and interviewing, Sally Denton and Roger Morris reveal the city’s historic network of links to Wall Street, international drug traffickers, and the CIA. In doing so, they expose the disturbing connections amongst politicians, businessmen, and the criminals that harness these illegal activities. Through this lucid and gripping indictment of Las Vegas, Morris and Denton uncover a national ethic of exploitation, violence, and greed, and provide a provocative reinterpretation of twentieth-century American history.”
"Sun, Sin & Suburbia: The History of Modern Las Vegas (revised)"
By Geoff Schumacher
Those first three words — sun, sin, suburbia — probably capture the essence of Las Vegas life better than any other group of nouns. Schumacher, a former journalist for the Sun and other local publications, first published his account of the city in 2004, when Las Vegas was booming. He then revised it in 2012 to reflect how badly bruised the city became as the recession took its toll.
As described on Amazon: “This carefully documented history tracks the rise of Las Vegas from its vital role in World War II, of the Rat Pack era of the '50s, the explosive growth of the '90s, and its colossal collapse in the post 2008 real-estate crash. It offers a history of the iconic Strip, but also profiles the neighborhoods where (more than) 2 million people live — a diverse community of much more than gaming tables, lounge acts, and organized crime. This revised and expanded edition brings the story up to date with its meteoric rise to one of the Great Recession's most battered victims.”
"Resort City in the Sunbelt, Las Vegas, 1930-2000 (second edition)"
By Eugene P. Moehring
Moehring’s original version of this book, described as a “major study of the urbanization of Las Vegas,” examined the city’s development from 1930 through 1970. Moehring later added a 30-page epilogue focusing on the three decades afterward — an important period of rapid growth for Southern Nevada. Read it for a more historical view on Las Vegas — after all, the author is a professor in UNLV’s history department.
As described on Amazon: “This book, updated to take account of the dramatic changes that have taken place in the city since the 1970s, sheds light not only on the history of the city, but also provides insight into its future.”
By Michael Drosnin
Drosnin's work covers a brief period in the life of the late billionaire Howard Hughes, but to Southern Nevadans, it’s the most important one: The years Hughes spent living at the Desert Inn. From there, the famous recluse sought to buy the Strip — and, in a way, the rest of the country as well. Drosnin’s account quotes heavily from messages written between Hughes and his right-hand man in Nevada, Bob Maheu, and it contains no shortage of dramatic stories. From Hughes’ obsession with putting an end to atomic testing in Nevada or his attempts to influence multiple presidents and candidates, the book is critical for anyone wanting an illuminating look at one of the Strip’s most influential casino owners.
As described on Amazon: ”At the height of his wealth, power and invisibility, the world's richest and most secretive man kept what amounted to a diary. The billionaire commanded his empire by correspondence, scrawling thousands of handwritten memos to unseen henchmen. It was the only time Howard Hughes risked writing down his orders, plans, thoughts, fears, and desires. … Based on nearly 10,000 never-before-published documents, more than 3,000 in Hughes' own handwriting, 'Citizen Hughes' is far more than a biography, or even an unwilling autobiography. It is a startling record of the secret history of our times.”
"Grandissimo: The First Emperor of Las Vegas: How Jay Sarno won a Casino Empire, Lost It, and Inspired Modern Las Vegas"
By David Schwartz
If you’ve spent any time in Las Vegas at all, odds are you’re familiar with two of the Strip’s iconic casinos: Caesars Palace and Circus Circus, both built in the 1960s by Jay Sarno. Schwartz, the director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research, tells the story of Sarno's rise and fall from prominence, and how he inspired the future of Las Vegas. Sarno did not hold onto either of his prime creations, and a third planned resort, Grandissimo, was never built.
As described on Amazon: “Before him, Las Vegas meant dealers in string ties and bland, functional architecture. He taught the city how to dress up its hotels in fantasy, putting toga dresses on cocktail waitresses and making sure that even the stationery carried through with the theme. He saw Las Vegas as a place where ordinary people could leave their ordinary lives and have extraordinary adventures. And that remains the template for Las Vegas today. 'Grandissimo 'is the story of how Jay Sarno won and lost his casino empire, inventing modern Las Vegas along the way.”
"The Last Honest Place in America: Paradise and Perdition in the New Las Vegas"
By Marc Cooper
Is Las Vegas nothing more than a consumerist illusion? Or is it better seen as “the American market ethic stripped completely bare?” When Cooper wrote this book more than a decade ago, he said Las Vegas was the latter — a kind of “mini-world totally free of the pretenses and protocols of modern consumer capitalism.”
As described on Amazon: “Cooper's kaleidoscopic journey begins in October 2001 with the dynamiting of the Desert Inn — the moment when old Vegas ‘cool’ died and the new corporate model claimed definitive victory. From there, he takes us on a journey from the glitzy Strip to the frayed downtown, indulging in his lifelong love of blackjack, hanging out with Mormons, mobsters, MBAs, born-again virgins, strippers, lap dance union organizers, gambling addicts, priests and Vegas's colorful and controversial mayor.”
"The Green Felt Jungle"
By Ed Reid and Ovid Demaris
First published in 1963, "Jungle" is a scathing criticism of Las Vegas’ early history. It sought to reveal the extent of the mob’s involvement in Las Vegas, long before massive publicly traded corporations rose to rule the Strip. It’s more than outdated at this point but still relevant due to its important place in Las Vegas history. One of the authors, Reid, was a former reporter for the Sun, but his telling of events was met with strong criticism from the Sun’s publisher, Hank Greenspun.
As described on Amazon: “'The Green Felt Jungle' is the first book that dares to penetrate the mirage of Las Vegas, the respectable, fun-loving resort where carefree tourists may innocently and legally indulge in gambling. In a carefully documented exposé (which includes some astounding, secretly taped confidential conversations), the authors explore the real Las Vegas — a clever (and profitable) front for organized crime.”
"Leaving Las Vegas"
By John O’Brien
This one is a work of fiction, but it’s been described as semi-autobiographical, and it’s responsible for a famous portrayal of Las Vegas on the silver screen. The basis for the film of the same name starring Nicolas Cage, the novel tells the story of an alcoholic writer determined to drink himself to death in Las Vegas. While there, he meets a prostitute with whom he develops a relationship. O’Brien, the author, committed suicide two weeks after he found out the film was to be made.
As described on Amazon: “'Leaving Las Vegas,' the first novel by John O'Brien, is a disturbing and emotionally wrenching story of a woman who embraces life and a man who rejects it, a powerful tale of hard luck and hard drinking and a relationship of tenderness and destruction. An avowed alcoholic, Ben drinks away his family, friends, and, finally, his job. With deliberate resolve, he burns the remnants of his life and heads for Las Vegas to end it all in the last great binge of his hopeless life. On the Strip, he picks up Sera, a prostitute, in what might have become another excess in his self-destructive jag. Instead, their chance meeting becomes a respite on the road to oblivion as they form a bond that is as mysterious as it is immutable.”
"Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas"
By Nicholas Pileggi
Pileggi tells the true story of two of Las Vegas’ most famous mob characters, Lefty Rosenthal and Anthony Spilotro, which are interesting enough in their own right. But the book, which Pileggi adapted into the screenplay for the film “Casino,” is about more than just those two. As The New York Times wrote in a 1995 review, the interviews included in the book ultimately tell “the story of how the mob was knocked out of the casinos in Las Vegas.”
As described on Amazon: “From Nicholas Pileggi … comes the brilliantly told true story of love, marriage, adultery, murder, and revenge, Mafia-style … the shattering inside account of how the mob finally lost its stranglehold over the neon money-making machine it created: the multibillion-dollar casino gambling industry of Las Vegas.”
"Where I Stand"
By Hank Greenspun with Alex Pelle
Given that this is a post on the Las Vegas Sun website, we’d be remiss not to reference this book about our legendary former publisher. Greenspun, a prominent figure in early Las Vegas, had a fascinating life story. He played a role in Israel's founding, transformed the Sun into a key institution, was targeted by Watergate burglars, developed Green Valley and more.