Cheering for the Bad Guy
Steve Wynn revitalized Las Vegas, taking it from an ailing, seedy tourist trap to a family-friendly destination and rebuilding the economy of gambling to the IPO level. It seems he is also a successful money-launderer who nonetheless retained his independence as a mob business partner, as opposed to merely a terrified figurehead. But it’s unlikely that most of us would know who the hell Steve Wynn is had he never sued the original publisher of John L. Smith’s expose. Running Scared. After what amounted to a minor legal war, Lyle Stuart’s Barricade Books was litigated out of business with a 3.6 million-dollar judgment in Wynn’s favor (Stuart returns to write a new intro that tells us about Steve Wynn’s efforts to shut down publication of Running Scared). Without the lawsuit it is quite possible that the book’s distribution would not have reached far outside the Nevada border. Instead, it caused an uproar and Running Scared was picked up a second time by savvy publishing house Four Walls Eight Windows and given a fairly good dose of free publicity, which has extended the life of the book.
Running Scared is a collection of stories and anecdotes that uncovers connections between the mob and corporate America in Las Vegas. It is a striking, detailed look at the life of the man who made Vegas “family-friendly.” The book focuses on the business practices of the bootstrap-pulling Wynn, who inherited his father’s moderately successful bingo parlor—as well as the old man’s mob debts. But though his father was thick with the mob, Wynn did not turn a principled heel and run for the straight and narrow, nor did he try to foolishly tell the mob that they had no connection to building his father’s business. Instead, Wynn went through his father’s notes and offered to pay all the debts his father owed. Thus began his ascent—or descent, as Smith feels—into serious corruption and the criminal tide of success that he rode all the way into Vegas.
Notable points in the book include showing the dark side of Frank Sinatra, who was a pitchman and, for a time, a close friend of Wynn. Donald Trump rears his ugly head as he and Wynn battle for bragging rights and compete to develop new properties. Junk-bond mastermind Michael Milken, a close Wynn friend, is spoken about in detail. Michael Jackson, a friend and prospective business partner, is mentioned as well. Wynn severed the relationship with the King of Pop when Jackson’s rep started to go downhill, nixing the idea for a Michael Jackson Casino the two had in the works. There is also a good sampling of underworld figures and mobsters. Surprisingly, there is a lack of any really good salacious sex details. Wynn is mostly just described as a Clintonesque sex-monger who had no taste in women but a large sexual appetite.
John L. Smith, a columnist for the Las Vegas Review and a resident of Las Vegas, has lived in and loved Vegas all his life and is a champion of bringing out the truth and using the press to shine a light on corruption. You can tell it chaps his hide to have watched Wynn blatantly use money to get his way. An unintentionally funny aspect of Running Scared is the shocked tone of indignation that Smith assumes about much of the data he has gathered about Steve Wynn. While Smith will entertain you with stories of key mob figures and egotistical accounts of Wynn running his company into the ground, Smith’s personal opinion of the whole ordeal sometimes borders on sounding naïve and pious, if only because it seeps around the good parts of the book (he always gives credit where credit is due, however, in regards to Wynn’s corporate success). The problem is that while it might be clear that there is a connection between Steve Wynn and the mob, Wynn is charismatic enough that even on paper in a book which tries to show every negative aspect of his character, he comes off like a bit of a pompous asshole, but not a bad guy. Were it not for the fact that, as Smith reminds us, the mob operates a criminal empire through corruption, strong-arm tactics, and murder, one might wonder what all the fuss is about.
Smith is a good writer, and while the book sometimes feels heavy-handed and occasionally goes from a strong chapter structure to a more anthology-like collection of thousand-word tidbits about Wynn and the corruption in the Neon City, for the most part he carries the three-hundred-seventy-some-odd pages forward with great pacing. In the end, after finishing the book, you realize that Smith has used Wynn to write a book about Vegas itself, merging the mob, corporate life, city politics and the occasional insider look at high-roller gambling into a fast-paced adventure.
While writing this review, I had the opportunity to talk to an executive for one of the major casinos in Vegas, who is mentioned briefly in the book. I mentioned to her that I was writing a review about Running Scared. She said she knew the book and had read it, pointed out that she was mentioned in it and laughed mirthfully about the ruckus it caused and explained that she knew both John L. Smith and Steve Wynn personally. Then she went on in detail to compliment both Smith as a excellent writer and Wynn as the wild, savvy businessman who was the major influence for turning Vegas around. And she left it at that—no gossip and no disparaging remark about either Smith or Wynn. She just told me she’d look forward to reading the article. Perhaps Smith is justifiably outraged and successful corruption is the status quo. Especially since it seems like everybody in his town is either infuriatingly neutral or actually cheering for the bad guy.