Frank Floor Talk: Book Review — The Green Felt Jungle

February 27, 2024 8:00 AM
  • Buddy Frank, CDC Gaming Reports
February 27, 2024 8:00 AM
  • Buddy Frank, CDC Gaming Reports

The Green Felt Jungle
Written by Ed Reid & Ovid Demaris

Trident Press, New York; 242 pp; January 1, 1963

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When the Super Bowl was played on February 11th, the actual game itself was only the third most discussed topic that Sunday. Number One, of course, was Taylor Swift and her beau Travis Kelce. That was not totally unexpected since every source from the celebrity rags to the Republican party had either been hyping and/or downplaying the fairy tale couple throughout the AFC playoffs.

But the Number Two topic on every airwave, podcast and social media post was all about Las Vegas itself. Most comments centered on the city’s metamorphosis from an evil gaming den to an All-American sports and entertainment mecca. Most couldn’t help recalling that just a few years ago, pro sports declared Sin City to be strictly off limits. It has definitely changed since the Golden Knights hoisted Lord Stanley’s Cup, the Aces took the WNBA title back-to-back, Formula One hit the streets, and the Raiders adopted Allegiant Stadium as home base. Not to mention that baseball’s Oakland A’s may soon take over the main stage at the Tropicana.

Now the NFL’s crown jewel was anchoring the Strip. The Super Bowl’s TV play-by-play announcer Jim Nance proclaimed, “What a magnificent host city it has been.” Front Office Sports said, “The debut of Las Vegas as a Super Bowl host city is officially over, after a week unlike any other before it. The NFL fully embraced the home of sports betting, complete with league branding taking over casinos and sportsbooks, as well as some of the hottest bars and nightclubs.”

CBS had a week of live remote news shows broadcasting from studios set up in front of the Bellagio Fountains. The publicity paid off for them and others as the broadcast of the Kansas City vs. San Francisco game became the officially “most watched” event in U.S. TV history with 123.4 million viewers. Some say that the Apollo 11 moon landing may have slightly exceeded that number, but there were no Neilsen numbers to prove that claim then.

In 1966, when the Chiefs lost to the Green Bay Packers (35-10) in Super Bowl One, viewership was a paltry 24.4 million. That game was played in Los Angels just three years after Reid and Demaris published “The Green Felt Jungle: The Truth About Las Vegas Where Organized Crime Controls Gambling – And Everything Else”.

The book is a classic, but it is also really bad. If you were to believe much of anything in this book, you’d be amazed that the town still exists. Here’s one example: “Unless you are addicted to gambling, drinking, or fornication, the Las Vegas action soon becomes a bore, and most sensible guests find themselves getting restless after two or three days and ready to call it quits and go home.”

In fact, the authors urge everyone to just stay away, “It is time to wake up. We, the citizens, must take the first step in the battle against ‘the enemy within.’ And the first step is to stop patronizing him.

They go on to say “the power of the underworld is not a gun. It is money. Money in such overwhelming quantity that it staggers the imagination.” I don’t think even Reid or Demaris could have ever dreamed that gaming throughout U.S. would someday generate over $100 billion in gross revenue.

Ed Reid shown in a 1961 photo from the LCVCA News Bureau

Despite the fact that co-author Reid won a Pulitzer Prize in 1951 for his news reporting at the Brooklyn Eagle, most of his book reads like a salacious article in the National Enquirer or the now defunct Confidential magazine that was popular at the time. Indeed, this was an era when overly-dramatic TV detectives and crime series were at their peak with Sgt. Friday’s “Dragnet” in 1967, ‘Sam Spade’ movies starring Humphrey Bogart, along with the weekly shows like  “Peter Gunn,” “The Untouchables,” “Richard Diamond,” and many others.

Reid moved to Las Vegas as a reporter for Hank Greenspun’s Las Vegas Sun and began his research. Once this book came out, he was promptly fired. Perhaps his dismissal came from lines like, “You couldn’t elect an alderman in New York City for $30,000, and yet that’s all it cost to elect a Nevada Senator.”

But the book did have a positive role in transforming Las Vegas. There is little doubt that the mob had significant control of the major casinos in the ‘50s and ‘60s. They also exerted undue influence on the state’s politicians.

So, it was no surprise that on November 15, 1950, Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver, in a flurry of publicity, brought his “Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce” to Las Vegas. While the mob feared the worst, only a few pages of the committee’s final 11,000-page report mentioned gaming. Their only recommendation was a proposal to collect a 10% federal tax on the wagering.

However, the state did react (the last thing they needed was a federal tax and more negative publicity). In 1955, they began requiring all casino owners to be licensed by the new state gaming control board. That improvement was washed away by the book when it arrived in early 1963. It remained at the top of the New York Times Best Seller list for 23 weeks. Clearly the publicity made things much more difficult for the mob and was a continuing nightmare for tourism officials.

In a stroke of good fortune for both groups, Howard Hughes arrived about the same time and began buying up properties, beginning with the Desert Inn in 1967. Soon after, he spent nearly $300 million (a huge sum at the time) taking over five casinos in Las Vegas and another in Reno.  Some believe that the mob fleeced the ailing aircraft executive, as they cleaned out the tills and the cash in the cages on their way out the door. Many also think that Hughes grossly overpaid for the properties.

But the state was so ecstatic that most of the Mob had left overnight, that they quickly licensed Hughes with no hearings, no investigations and no in-person meetings.

For organized crime, it was a perfect time to leave. Largely because of this book, there was too much attention being paid to their activities. It was more difficult for them to launder drug money or skim casino profits. Hughes provided them with a golden parachute to bail out and “the price was right.”

I have a hard time recommending this book to anyone because it is so dated, and the use of their over-the-top style stretches credibility: “Most large casino-hotels maintain a goon squad of psychopaths whose greatest pleasure in life is the torture of their fellow human beings.

But one interesting aspect here is the name dropping of a who’s who in Las Vegas crime. Of course, there are multiple mentions of the usual suspects from Bugsy Siegel, Jimmy Hoffa, Moe Dalitz, Meyer Lansky and Vito Genovese. But you’ll also learn about a few more colorful characters like Israel “Icepick Willie” Alderman.

In the Appendix, the authors list all the owners and their home address as of 1962 for each major casino. You’ll find names like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin with minor shares of the Sands, along with better known characters like Wilbur Clark at both the Desert Inn and the Stardust. Amusingly, several confidential mob associates were not happy at all that they’d been forced “out-of-the-closet” by the revelations in the back pages of “The Green Felt Jungle”.

The book was re-issued in paperback in November of 2010 by Ishi Press and you can find it on Amazon for $26. Original hardcover, second-hand editions can also be found on the internet ranging from $9 to $40. Again, this book is not highly recommended for many readers, but well worth it if you have an interest in documenting just how much the perception of Las Vegas and gambling has improved since 1963.

And thanks to Taylor and Travis for their contributions as well.