Fans of Las Vegas lore will find these ‘Shameless Women’ irresistible

February 21, 2024 8:28 PM
Photo: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2417343
  • John L. Smith, CDC Gaming Reports
February 21, 2024 8:28 PM
  • John L. Smith, CDC Gaming Reports

In an underworld dominated by men, six tough dames who burnished their names across headlines and police blotters are the subject of Lissa Townsend Rodgers’s new book Shameless: Women of the Underworld, published by Las Vegas-based Huntington Press. 

Story continues below

What a group this is.

Huntington Press

Most were known as the partners of infamous characters. There’s “Mrs. Machine Gun” Kelly, Kathryn Kelly, along with Clyde Barrow’s running mate Bonnie Parker, Ben Siegel’s brassy girlfriend Virginia Hill, Frank Rosenthal’s star-crossed spouse Geri Rosenthal, and Mickey Cohen’s standup girl Liz Renay. Add to that volatile mix Harlem numbers queen Stephanie St. Clair and there’s trouble at every turn.

Thankfully, Rodgers doesn’t attempt glorified couples’ therapy. She establishes the personalities and back stories of her subjects as criminals and survivors – for as long as they lasted on the street. Those searching for Hollywood endings will for the most part be disappointed in these true tales. That’s real life in the underworld, where the retirement options are generally limited to penitentiary cells or early graves.

A longtime Las Vegas writer, Rodgers brings us closer to understanding and appreciating the lives, struggles, sins, and sensations of six notorious women who made history by breaking the rules of society and statute.

With due respect to the intriguing stories of “Mrs. Machine Gun Kelly,” Bonnie Parker, and “Harlem’s fearless policy queen, my head was turned by the portraits of Hill, Rosenthal, and my wonderful friend Liz Renay.

Hill, of course, is best remembered as the tempestuous love interest of Siegel. The pair’s relationship has been the stuff of Hollywood legend for more than a generation. Rodgers adds a thorough historical perspective to Virginia’s exploited tale as Bugsy’s babe. Truth told, she gravitated toward power and money, so it’s no wonder her love life included relationships with a number of top mob figures and racketeers.

Rodgers’s writing cracks wise and picks up the patter and it makes for fun reading even for those who know these stories well. One example from the Hill chapter:

“The glitz glory of her persona seemed to distract people from her activities. If you’re fabulously in people’s faces, they won’t think you’re actually trying to hide something from them. She was like James Bond with the best-cut suit and highest credit limit in a casino full of billionaire supervillains, or Cleopatra Jones booting the drug trade out of Watts while driving the armor-plated Ferrari and wearing a red fox cape. Virginia’s position in the center of the spotlight cast even darker shadows on the activities surrounding her.”

Less infamous, but equally fiery, Geri Rosenthal was a leggy chip hustler and party girl whose equally rocky life with mob casino man Frank Rosenthal gained its own screen legend in Martin Scorsese’s epic Casino. The happy/unhappy couple tried to raise a normal family in the surreal world of the Las Vegas casino subculture, even as their world was crumbling and the arrogant Lefty’s career choice endangered their lives. Their journey was gaudier than most, but many in the Las Vegas casino crowd could relate to the end of their road.

With the exception of lovely Liz of Las Vegas, as she sometimes called herself, each of the women Rodgers depicts is tragic in her own way. I suppose Liz could have sat around her cozy Vegas home, its walls adorned with artwork from her time spent in prison for refusing to cooperate in a criminal case against Los Angeles hoodlum Cohen, and considered herself a tragic figure, too. But that was not her style.

Instead, she just rolled with it. She was a bombshell in youth and remained so well past her prime. From entertainment stages to drive-in movies, a star turn thanks to the great John Waters’s wonderfully dark comedy Desperate Living, and two hot-selling books with independent publishing icon Lyle Stuart (one of them titled My First 2,000 Men), Renay met every day like she was walking on stage.

Rodgers gets it right: “For virtually every woman who got tangled up with mobsters, it was cataclysmic, something that dominated, even destroyed, her life. But for one lady, made guys were just one category of interesting names in her not-so-little black book, while her ongoing flirtation with the crooked side of the law was just another hairpin turn – albeit the most hazardous one – in her wild ride. Ladies and gentlemen … presenting Miss Liz Renay!”

Shameless? For my pal Liz, it was just another day at the office.

Thanks to Rodgers, we’re reminded how these shameless women forgot their place, and often their manners, and made history.