Posted on June 9, 2018
The legendary Flamingo Las Vegas Hotel and Casino, in the heart of the Strip, is notorious for its checkered history. After all, the Flamingo was the brainchild of Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, one of America’s most infamous gangsters.
Though the Flamingo has since tried to minimize Siegel’s legacy, its many renovations haven’t managed to remove the mobster from the resort. It’s not the new ownership’s fault, though—it isn’t easy to shake the legacy of the larger-than-life Bugsy Siegel… especially when his spirit refuses to leave the premises.
The Man Behind the Flamingo: Early History
The Flamingo’s founder, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, was born in Brooklyn, New York on February 28, 1906. His parents were Jewish immigrants, but Siegel was raised in Williamsburg, a troubled neighborhood that, at the time, had been home to many Irish and Italian gangs. No matter their ethnicity or national origin, everyone in Williamsburg was poor and hungry.
He soon fell in with the neighborhood’s culture of crime.
In 1918, Siegel made an important friend: Meyer Lansky, another young street rough. The pair formed their own criminal collective, the Bugs-Meyer Gang, of Jewish mobsters. They extorted money from street vendors. They threatened their urban enemies. The Bugs-Meyer Gang even reportedly oversaw a subgroup of contract killers known as Murder, Inc.
Siegel established himself as a formidable mastermind of organized crime, forging an underworld empire from bootlegging, gambling, and assassinations. His “Bugsy” moniker evidenced his brutal, unpredictable behavior, prone to “bugging out” at will.
In the 1920s, he worked with Mafia boss Charles “Lucky” Luciano’s syndicate. As a hitman, Siegel “disposed of” a number of New York’s prominent mobsters.
By 1937, Siegel, tired of the East Coast, moved shop to the West. In California, he built a career and lifestyle from gambling, prostitution, drugs, and bookmaking ventures. He and his family lived in luxury in Beverly Hills. Among his many “activities” in Los Angeles, Siegel threw lavish parties at his mansion.
In Hollywood, he befriended celebrities, including silver screen legends Cary Grant and Clark Gable. He also started an extramarital affair with a starlet, the actress Virginia Hill, the woman who would later become his partner-in-crime in Las Vegas.
The History of the Flamingo Hotel: Pre-Construction
The Flamingo started construction under Billy Wilkerson, then-owner of The Hollywood Reporter and several nightclubs in the Sunset Strip. Wilkerson hoped to establish a kind of Sunset Strip in Vegas: an opulent, European-styled hotel, complete with a spa, health club, golf course, nightclub, showroom, and restaurant. The mogul couldn’t realize his dream alone, though, as World War II’s fallout drove up the cost of building materials shortly after the war. Wilkerson bled his bank account dry.
In 1945, Bugsy Siegel, fueled by his interests in gambling and betting, moved to Las Vegas with Virginia Hill. He sought a gambling empire of his own in the nascent city.
At the time, Vegas was not the center of tourism and entertainment it is now, but a mostly quiet, traditionally “western” town. Siegel’s vision would help change Vegas, even if, in his mortal life, he never got to see his impact on the city.
Prior to the Flamingo, he’d pursued another property, The El Cortez hotel. He purchased the El Cortez for $600,000. He sold the hotel for a $166,000 profit. This effort was the first inauspicious omen of Siegel’s time in Vegas. Unfortunately for him, it wasn’t the last.
Undeterred, Siegel and his organized crime “associates” from New York funneled the Cortez profit into wooing Wilkerson. Wilkerson caved, allowing his new “partners” to join in the project. Siegel overtook the project and the supervision of its construction.
During this time, the Flamingo received its unique name, directly from Siegel. “The Flamingo” referred to Siegel’s girlfriend Virginia Hill, whose nickname was “The Flamingo” due to her long legs and red hair.
Initially, the resort’s construction was budgeted at $1.5 million. Despite this estimate, the construction costs skyrocketed. The actual building costs mysteriously rose to over $6 million. Construction still proceeded, and the Flamingo was ready to be opened by 1946.
The History of the Flamingo Hotel: Grand Opening
With a glamorous grand opening, Bugsy Siegel opened the Flamingo on December 26, 1946. The new resort was a shining beacon in the desert. The opening event featured entertainment by singer and comedian Jimmy Durante and Cuban bandleader Xavier Cugat. Some of his famous friends reportedly attended the occasion, such as actors Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, and George Sanders.
Despite the grandeur and glitzy guest list, the Flamingo’s inaugural event was a failure. In what would prove to be a sign of things to come, the weather in Vegas that day was unusually bad. The weather was bad enough that it prevented all invited Hollywood notables from attending the event. To worsen matters, the casino, restaurant, and showroom were open for business, but the hotel wasn’t.
Customers in attendance couldn’t stay at the hotel, but they did gamble. However, because they weren’t guests of the hotel, they were also free to take their winnings and leave. Although given the upscale, European atmosphere of the event, few Vegas locals went to the opening. This wasn’t the cowboy Vegas they were used to, so the event alienated them.
In its first week open, the Flamingo’s casino lost $300,000.
The History of the Flamingo Hotel: Post-Opening
Only two weeks after the grand opening, the Flamingo closed. The following year, on March 1, 1947, the hotel-casino reopened as The Fabulous Flamingo. In the upheaval of the reopened resort, not everyone remained.
In April, Siegel forced Billy Wilkerson out as a partner in the business. Siegel’s decision succeeded in bringing the Flamingo out of the red and into the black. In May of that year, the casino had a profit.
However, for all his efforts, this Hail Mary couldn’t redeem Siegel in the eyes of his fellow mobster business partners. The mob interpreted the Flamingo’s mostly floundering business as proof that Siegel was stiffing them. To his partners, they couldn’t have been getting a “square count” from Siegel about the Flamingo’s profits. He had to be pocketing some profits for himself, and lying about the business’s troubles to cover his tracks.
This suspicion was all but confirmed when the extreme hikes in the resort’s construction costs were traced back to Siegel. Not only had he mismanaged some of the construction funds, he’d also stolen some of their money. Meyer Lansky, one of Siegel’s oldest friends and a partner on the Flamingo Hotel project, was deeply angered by his friend’s deceit, theft, and betrayal.
To make matters worse for Siegel, Lansky wasn’t the only mobster with a grudge against him. Lucky Luciano had loaned money to help build the Flamingo. After seeing the Flamingo’s terrible early business, Luciano had demanded Siegel refund his money. Siegel argued with the don, disputing his demands.
In true mob fashion, the hit was out.
The Death of Bugsy Siegel
June 20, 1947, California. Bugsy Siegel spoke with an associate, Allen Smiley, in Virginia Hill’s Beverly Hills home. Hill was out of the country, in Paris, after a bad fight with Siegel on June 10.
Gunshots. A barrage of bullets broke through the window, killing Siegel instantly.
At the same time, in Vegas, Lucky Luciano’s men, notified of Siegel’s death, charged into the Flamingo. They announced a change in ownership: Luciano was now in charge.
Siegel had not only lost his life, but his desert paradise. One of the most remarkable unsolved murders in modern American history, it still remains unknown who exactly killed him; most likely, it was his organized crime associates.
The Flamingo: Present Day
After Siegel’s death, the Flamingo Las Vegas began to rehabilitate its image. Being associated with a known criminal responsible for countless murders and thefts was a stain on the Flamingo’s reputation.
In 1967, billionaire Kirk Kerkorian purchased the resort, effectively ending any residual mob ties the resort had. It was later sold to the Hilton corporation of resorts and hotels. Currently, the Flamingo Las Vegas is owned and operated by Harrah’s Entertainment.
The Ghost of Bugsy Siegel
For all of the modern efforts at minimizing Siegel’s association with the resort, Siegel has still not left the building. His ghost haunts the Flamingo. Siegel’s ghost lingers possibly because the Flamingo brought him to his death, or possibly because he never lived to see how successful his project would end up being.
Though the ghost’s motivations are unknown, it is known where you are likeliest to encounter Siegel’s ghost. Hotel guests consistently report seeing a “ghostly figure” in the Flamingo’s garden, right by a memorial for Bugsy Siegel. Of course, it’s possible that this ghost isn’t of Bugsy Siegel, but if so, why would the ghost frequent a memorial for Siegel at a place so important to his death?
Visiting the Flamingo
Like all hotel-casinos on the strip, the Flamingo is open to the public, although the Flamingo itself downplays the presence of any paranormal activity occurring at the property. If you’d like to learn more about the haunted side of this classic Vegas resort, consider experiencing our nightly Las Vegas Ghosts tour. Our tour visits the Flamingo, among many other haunted Vegas hotspots.
“Bugsy Siegel.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 27 Apr. 2018, www.biography.com/people/bugsy-siegel-9542063.
“Bugsy Siegel Opens Flamingo Hotel.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/bugsy-siegel-opens-flamingo-hotel.
“Bugsy Siegel, Organized Crime Leader, Is Killed.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/bugsy-siegel-organized-crime-leader-is-killed.
Macy, Robert. “After 50 Years, Siegel Legend Haunts Resort.” Las Vegas Sun, 20 Dec. 1996, lasvegassun.com/news/1996/dec/20/after-50-years-siegel-legend-haunts-resort/.
Pramis, Joshua. “Hotels Haunted by Celebrities.” Travel Leisure, Meredith Corporation Travel & Leisure Group, 5 Oct. 2015, www.travelandleisure.com/slideshows/hotels-haunted-by-celebrities.