Mobster Bugsy Siegel opened the glitzy Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas on December 26, 1946. Well-known singer and comedian Jimmy Durante headlined the night’s entertainment, with music by Cuban band leader Xavier Cugat. Some of infamous gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel’s Hollywood friends, including actors George Raft, George Sanders, Sonny Tufts and George Jessel were in attendance.
Siegel and his New York “partners” had invested $1 million in a property already under construction by Billy Wilkerson, owner of the Hollywood Reporter as well as some very popular nightclubs on the Sunset Strip. Wilkerson had wanted to recreate an LA Sunset Strip in Las Vegas, with a European style hotel with luxurious rooms, a spa, health club, showroom, golf course, nightclub, and upscale restaurant. But he soon ran out of money due to the high cost of materials immediately after the war.
Siegel and his organized crime buddies were drawn to Vegas in 1945 and purchased the El Cortez Hotel. They sold the hotel for a large profit and used profits from the sale of the El Cortez Hotel to influence Wilkerson to accept new partners. Siegel took over the project and supervised the building, naming it after his girlfriend Virginia Hill, whose nickname was “The Flamingo” because of her red hair and long legs.
Two weeks after the grand opening, the Flamingo closed. It re-opened March 1, 1947, as The Fabulous Flamingo. Siegel forced Wilkerson out in April, and by May, the resort reported a profit, but it wasn’t enough to save Siegel.
Convinced that Siegel wasn’t giving them a “square count,” it is widely believed that his partners in organized crime had him killed while he was reading the paper June 20, 1947, at Hill’s Beverly Hills mansion. Hill was in Paris, having flown the coop after a fight with Siegel 10 days prior. The crime remains unsolved to this day.
* * *
The Las Vegas Flamingo was a leading exponent of what has become known as mid-century, Las Vegas style. Specifically, there was a particular desert style that was exemplified by the Las Vegas Flamingo Resort. It was a style adopted by a hotel resort that opened in 1957 called the Flamingo Resort in Santa Rosa, California.
The Santa Rosa Flamingo quickly became a celebrity draw, famously welcoming sixties stars like Jayne Mansfield to its poolside deck. Far enough from Hollywood but close enough for an impromptu escape, mid-century Sonoma had its own image, its own style, and its own energy.
The Flamingo was there to host it all and serve bottomless martinis along the way. The resort’s original neon beacon still stands out front, unchanged, but the building’s sweeping art deco entryway has been replaced with angles and warm wood. The lobby and other spaces are brightened with work from some of today’s leading artists, and all the rooms and suites have been remodeled with an emphasis on natural light and a serene palette.
* * *
The present Flamingo in Santa Rosa is no longer a celebrity destination and today one is more likely to find families with kids and dogs around the huge pool in the center courtyard. Over the years, the resort has gained an important place in the history of Sonoma County. Located a few miles from downtown Santa Rosa and on the norther gateway to the famous Valley of the Moon wineries, it moves on welcoming new generations to its unique experience.
I first came to the Flamingo in 1999 when I moved to the Sonoma wine country and over the years have been back many times. Now, during the last week in August of 2021, it is hot, and the haze of the northern California fires are in the air. Not a strong presence but a slight haze that washes out the usual bright blue skies of Sonoma County. I lay out by the pool with my wireless earbuds on and sip on my water while kids frolic in the big pool. On my earbuds, the reporter talks of the evacuation of people from Kabul. The noise at the pool is silent and only the reporter’s voice on my earbuds can be heard.
A great contrast of things to be at the Flamingo during this period in our history. But looking back, I always seem to have stayed at the Flamingo during these periods of contrast in life. It’s an old friend I’ve known for 22-years. Every time I return, something new has been added but the old essence is still there. Gathered under the enormous redwood tree by the pool and the stone buildings and the curved dining room and bar overlooking the pool.
All under the great revolving red flamingo sign, rising a hundred feet, at the end of Santa Rosa’s Farmer’s Lane. A Las Vegas sign in the middle of the wine country. A beacon over the years to many. And a hotel named after gangster Bugsy Siegel’s girlfriend’s nickname “The Flamingo” because of her red hair and long legs.