by dave berns | October 1, 2013 | People
Suzanne Dalitz holds a photo of herself with her parents at a pageant in 1963.
Suzanne Dalitz studies a photo from the early ’60s of her father riding a horse in the Helldorado Parade.
A news clipping about Moe Dalitz’s funeral in 1989.
Suzanne enjoys the Grand Canyon with her parents in the late ’50s.
Suzanne at the Mob Museum, to which she donated much of the memorabilia collected by her father.
Moe Dalitz enlisted in the Army during World War II hoping to serve with General Patton, but he was deployed stateside designing laundry systems and eventually rose to the rank of captain.
Moe had a sense of humor about his notoriety, as seen in this staged photograph.
Suzanne Dalitz remembers the day she first saw her father’s name alongside those of the men considered the kings of the East Coast crime scene. It was 1970 and she was an innocent 14-year-old. While working a summer job in showroom reservations at the Stardust, she purchased a glossy magazine from the hotel coffee shop, and there was her daddy, his name next to those of Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano, and Albert Anastasia, major players in what came to be known as the “national crime syndicate.”
She put the magazine in front of her father. “Is this you?” she demanded. Moe Dalitz didn’t flinch. “I knew those people,” he said. “I was no angel. I liked to walk between the raindrops without getting wet, and I can’t tell you much more than that.”
The teenager wasn’t sure what to make of it, but she believed that her father feared losing her, his only child, if he shared any more details, as if he wanted Suzanne to see him in a positive light, to love him the way he loved her. “I guess there was some part of me that knew those would be the terms, and I would accept those terms,” she says. “It was a shame. Now I wish I could ask him, ‘What was it like to run illegal liquor during Prohibition for the Little Jewish Navy? You mean you really drove across Lake Erie with a truck full of booze? Really? Cool. Tell me more, much more.’ But that wasn’t meant to be.”
Moe Dalitz, the Boston-born bootlegger, racketeer, and casino owner, died at the age of 89, having spent years as a legitimate businessman, and is today one of the featured characters in the Las Vegas Mob Museum, largely because of his daughter. She provided museum curators with numerous photos of her father and mother, as well as much of the memorabilia he collected through his decades as a developer of the old Desert Inn and the Sundance and as a financier of Sunrise Hospital, the Boulevard Mall, and nearby residential developments.
Well before the museum’s February 2012 opening, Suzanne Dalitz spoke with curator Kathy Berrie about Berrie’s vision for building a highly respectful institution, one that accurately depicted the lives of the men and women it featured. “She was looking for a story without the biases that everyone has,” Dalitz says. “So many have seen the Godfather films, so they view this story within a certain mythology without seeing real people. When you think of the creation story in Las Vegas, what is at its core here? It’s a bunch of gangsters who came out here in some process, and they built the Flamingo, and one gets shot in the eye. More guys come in another wave and start building hotels, and so there’s that piece that the public thinks of as the beginnings of Vegas. So people say, ‘I saw a picture of Bugsy in the museum. Which one was your father?’”
Dalitz’s career with her husband is a far cry from those gangster days of yore, but her trailblazing instinct makes her very much her father’s daughter. A human rights activist, she is president of the Santa Fe, New Mexico–based Angelica Foundation, a small player in the debate over US social and environmental policies. In 2011, the nonprofit reported assets of $4.3 million, with grants and contributions totaling $301,370 going to a variety of environmental and human rights organizations throughout the country. She and her husband, James Gollin, a retired investment banker and current president and chairman of the Rainforest Action Network, also use the Angelica Foundation to advocate for drug policy reform in Mexico. Dalitz sees the toll that US drug policies have taken on tens of millions of Americans, their families, and their communities, and she can’t help but notice the parallels to her father and his bootlegging, crossroading pals of the 1930s and ’40s.
Born in 1899, Moe Dalitz grew up helping his father in the family laundry business, and was in fact a successful laundry operator most of his life—although he expanded into the illegal liquor and gambling operations for which he was best known. Dalitz was never simply a gangster—the list of his legitimate businesses was long, with interests in the Michigan Industrial Laundry Co., the Detroit Steel Co., Dalitz Realty, and even a piece of the Rock Island Railroad. But when his other businesses—illegal casinos among them—felt the heat during Cleveland’s liquor wars, Dalitz moved west, where Vegas casino owners were among the pillars of the community.
“I see complicated guys who were immigrants,” Suzanne says. “They weren’t ever going to get into Harvard Law or medical school. They were entrepreneurs, and they were willing to see human nature as it was, to see drives and addictions as opportunities. You know the old thing, ‘Give the people what they want.’ They didn’t necessarily make a moral evaluation about the evils of alcohol, gambling.”
You’ve been introduced at events as a “mob daughter.” How does that make you feel?
It’s a cliché. It’s an inability to escape the shadow and identity of the father. It’s got cachet—a dirty, prurient cachet. It’s disempowering. You can’t really have another identity once you’re introduced as a mob daughter. The conversation stops, or people tell you about The Godfather, which they always do. I’m not the only one who kept it as a secret, and if you walk with a secret long enough, it becomes a secret to yourself.
When you talk with the children of others portrayed in the museum, do you have this conversation?
When your father dies violently and does not get to reinvent, does not get to go legitimate, it’s a different story, and the story you want to tell is about their humanity. I’m grateful I don’t have it at that level. A significant number of the children did not want to have anything to do with the law enforcement [section of the museum] because law enforcement persecuted their parents. They saw law enforcement as “the other” and were not going to give it a moment’s credit for the destruction of their families.
Do you understand that narrative, the law enforcement perspective on the story?
I sat here recently in the basement [of the museum] and for the first time read his Freedom of Information Act [government file]—2,000 pages, his FBI reports. It starts in the 1930s, ends in the 1980s. For 50 years he is pursued, never brought to trial, never convicted, never serves a day in prison, but they never let it go. So I’m looking at that—generations of FBI agents pursuing his case—and he was audited by the IRS all the time. He felt hounded and pursued. So to the degree that I can understand what that’s like from the inside, yeah, it’s terrible. Plus the dude was going legitimate. He’s building hospitals in cities [he built Sunrise Hospital & Medical Center and the Las Vegas Country Club and was a frequent donor to Vegas institutions and community organizations]. My aging dad wasn’t committing crimes except for driving while blind. He wanted to build a city, but the lens was always trained on him and never let up. I see it as an epic battle for the city and the soul of Las Vegas.
Who were the players in that epic battle?
The government, the FBI, the casino guys, the racket guys and gamblers, and obviously there were huge profits at stake, and obviously there were huge relationships inside those, too. There always are.
What was the government’s motivation?
Money. Wall Street. Corporate America. Bring in the corporations, legitimize it, take out the element. Build the city of the future without the long shadow of organized crime. Eliminate the skim. Take the tax revenues.
What was the motivation for your dad and his colleagues?
They thought they had reinvented themselves as legitimate business guys, had built themselves an amazing business empire, and they wanted to continue here and have this be their statement and their legacy. This is the place they wanted to make their stand in the future with new lives. He had a gaming license. He knew the governors and the senators. There are letters back and forth. There are contributions back and forth. He engaged when government was happy to do so, was a patriot, a city promoter. This was not a guy looking for a quick buck off of gambling.
The sense is that politicians were happy to use them for campaign donations, projects they were building, because it made them look good. Sunrise Hospital was built. Boulevard Mall was built. Do you think that’s how politicians viewed them?
I think so, but I can’t tell you how many of them, when I’m introduced, come quietly to me and say, “Your father was so kind to me, so helpful to me. I really appreciated him and knew him well.” I think those relationships were more than meets the eye, and of course politicians were creatures of opportunity, and so was my dad, but I like to think they had a certain sincerity in knowing what Moe Dalitz was about here, the foundation he put down, on top of which he built the town.
Did the politicians turn on him?
Some, and I don’t know much about that history.
How do you feel about Senator Harry Reid and former Governor Paul Laxalt, both of whom were around when your father was still on the scene?
Harry Reid has been nothing but wonderful to me. I never knew Laxalt. I don’t have much to say about them, but anything I have heard directly or indirectly has been very sweet.
Who else would you put on that list?
Can we not talk about it anymore? [Laughs] Because I’m going to say something wrong, and I really don’t know that much about it, but I will say this: There was a period in the early ’80s when my father was building the Sundance Hotel [which later became Downtown’s Fitzgeralds Casino & Hotel and is now the D] and there was a moment it became clear that he would not be licensed because he was Moe Dalitz. You can argue that a guy in his 80s should not be building a hotel and casino, but he was seeing opportunities downtown. He thought it would be his crowning achievement and final redemption to get a license and run his last hotel. He called it the Last Hurrah, and it became the Sundance later. When it became clear that the city would not support him, I think it broke his heart, but the city had other things that it had planned. Steve Wynn was up on the Strip building the future, and so that’s the way that one went, but that’s the only moment I wish the city could have stood up for him.
When you look at the images of the people whose photos are on display in the museum, do you think in another era they would have been bankers, financiers, doctors, lawyers?
Some of the people on the wall were sociopaths. I’m sorry—a complete lack of moral calculation, moral foundation, an appetite for causing violence and pain, and a lack of compunction over the exploitation of the pain of others. That was not my father’s case. The fact that he’s on the wall creates this nuanced other part. Particularly the ones who came to Vegas: This was their reinvention moment, the new start. They were going to reshuffle the deck. I don’t think my father ever would have been the violin player his mother wanted him to be, the good Jewish boy, but I think he proved in his later life that he always had those skills, that sense of how to create and build things, and that he would have done it earlier if he could have. But I don’t know that, and I didn’t know him when he was a young man. He looked brash and brazen. He was a tough guy.
photography by dan cutrona (Dalitz); Leila Navidi (museum); courtesy of Suzanne Dalitz (Grand Canyon); leila navidi (Suzanne)