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The Telegraph Tuesday 18th 2011

 

Vegas: the power and the gaudy

 

Vegas

 

High rollers: William Eggleston's portrait of pinball players

 

Toby Young

12:02AM GMT 04 Mar 2007

 

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These vivid portraits of Las Vegas capture the spirit of America's most famous frontier town, but like so much else in the desert, says Toby Young, its Wild West image is a mirage 'There was this kid I grew up with. He was younger than me - sorta looked up to me, you know? We did our first work together, worked our way out of the street. Things were good. We made the most of it. During Prohibition, we ran molasses into Canada. Made a fortune - your father, too. As much as anyone, I loved him and trusted him. Later on he had an idea: to build a city out of a desert stopover for GIs on the way to the West Coast. That kid's name was Moe Greene and the city he invented was Las Vegas.'

 

Hyman Roth, 'The Godfather: Part II' Let's begin by dispelling the city's origin myth. Contrary to popular belief, Las Vegas was not 'invented' by Bugsy Siegal (whom Moe Greene was based on).

 

The city was incorporated in 1911, the first road connecting it to California was built in 1926 and the Hoover Dam, which supplies Vegas with electricity, was completed in 1935. Siegal wasn't even the first person to open a casino on the Strip. If anyone deserves to be credited with 'inventing' Las Vegas it is a hotel-owner called Thomas Hull who built El Rancho Vegas in 1941, a full five years before Siegal opened The Flamingo. It was Hull, not Siegal, who came up with what is arguably Las Vegas's greatest cultural export: the all-you-can-eat buffet.

 

Nevertheless, the myth that Las Vegas was founded by La Cosa Nostra - and continues to be run by an unholy alliance of gangsters, corrupt politicians and shady intelligence operatives - is one that's perpetrated in virtually every depiction of the city in popular culture, from the novels of James Ellroy to the films of Martin Scorsese. It's not a belief that is likely to be disputed by the corporations that run the city's largest casinos, either, because their senior executives know that the faint whiff of organised crime that hangs about the city is part of its romantic appeal. Vegas sells itself to the American public as a frontier town, a place where anything goes - an 'adult Disneyland'. In the popular imagination, Las Vegas is the contemporary equivalent of the Wild West.

 

What's remarkable isn't that this myth has survived in spite of the successful efforts of the Nevada Gaming Control Board to clean up the city, but that people continue to believe it even after repeated visits. Far from being a haven of outlaws and ne'er-do-wells, Las Vegas is like any other American resort town. You can play golf in the morning, hang by the pool in the afternoon and catch a performance of Mamma Mia! in the evening. You're more likely to encounter a nice young couple on their honeymoon than Bonnie and Clyde. The only crime in evidence - valet-parking attendants selling coke, taxi drivers pimping whores - is thoroughly disorganized. An adult Disneyland? It's more like Butlins with bells on.

I've been to Vegas half-a-dozen times and the first thing that hits you as you get off the plane is the heat. In the summer months, the daily temperature typically exceeds 100F and can climb as high as 117F. It's a dry heat, too, the kind that leads to a medical condition known colloquially as 'Vegas throat'. The next thing you notice is the sheer number of people pouring through the Arrival gates. Las Vegas is America's fastest-growing city with a larger population than Atlanta, Nashville, Washington, Denver and Boston - and that's just the locals. According to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, 38,566,717 people descended on the city in 2005. That's more than five times the population of London - and most of these visitors congregate on the Strip, a four-mile section of Las Vegas Boulevard South. That's where you'll find all the major resort hotels, including The Flamingo, The Sahara, The Aladdin, Circus Circus, Stratosphere, Excalibur, Treasure Island, The Venetian, The Luxor, Imperial Palace, The Riviera, Tropicana, Bally's, Caesar's Palace, The Bellagio, Harrahs… If you think Oxford Street on a Saturday afternoon is crowded, think again.

However, by far the most striking thing about Las Vegas - the thing that every British tourist notices within five minutes of arrival - is just how fat everyone is. (The Convention and Visitors Authority records the average age of the city's visitors in 2005 - 47.7 - but tactfully omits the average weight.) According to the latest research, 3.8 million Americans are over 300 lbs (that is, well over 21 stone) - and most of them seem to wash up on the Las Vegas Strip. For the duration of my last visit I stayed at Mandalay Bay and at peak dining hours I had to queue for at least half-an-hour to get a table at the all-you-can-eat buffet. Once a typical family of four had captured one of these bridgeheads they were unlikely to surrender it for at least two hours, by which time they could barely walk.

 

This leads me to the second great myth about Las Vegas. Despite the impression given by some of the photographs on these pages, the city is neither hip nor glamorous. This particular idea dates back to the 1960s when Vegas was supposedly the playground of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop - the so-called 'Rat Pack'. In films such as Ocean's Eleven (1960) and Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964), the myth was perpetrated that Vegas was a kind of bachelor's paradise where red-blooded heterosexual males could find an unending supply of booze and broads provided they subscribed to the masculine code of silence ('What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas').

After methodically searching for this side of Las Vegas for more than a decade I can assure you it doesn't exist. Like so much else in the desert, it's a mirage. Forty years ago, you might conceivably have been able to ferret out Frank, Dean and Sammy playing poker in a backroom at The Sands, but you only have to look at the showbiz acts that have replaced them to realise just how desperately uncool Vegas has become: Barry Manilow, Celine Dion, David Copperfield … it's like the line-up for the next series of Celebrity Big Brother. Not even Siegfried and Roy - so flamboyantly cheesy they were almost hip - are around anymore, having mothballed their act at The Mirage after Roy Horn was bitten by a tiger in 2003.

Occasionally, you might spot someone on the casino floor dressed in an Armani suit wearing Aviator shades, but they're standing between a 400lb housewife from Des Moines and a 55-year-old Korean grocery store owner from Brooklyn. And they're all playing craps. In order for there to be a hip Vegas there'd have to be an un-hip Vegas and it's far too egalitarian for that. It's the most un-hierarchical place I've ever been to. There are no lists, no VIP sections, no hot restaurants. It's America in its purest, most down-to-earth form. It's the anti-New York (even if it does contain a Casino called New York-New York). And this, paradoxically, goes to the heart of the city's appeal. The total absence of class distinctions makes Vegas a kind of democratic Utopia. The most striking illustration of this is the lack of racial tension. The race problem has, to all intents and purposes, been solved in Vegas. Unlike the rest of America, it's a genuine melting pot. The corporations that own the big resort hotels have obviously gone to considerable lengths to ensure that people of every conceivable ethnicity feel at home. For instance, all the high-visibility service personnel - the front-of-house staff in the casinos - are Caucasian, presumably because if they were Hispanic or black that might make Spanish- or African-Americans feel uncomfortable. In Vegas, there is no correlation between status and race.

 

Even the rich don't get treated that differently. True, the casinos will fly in the high-rollers on private jets - and put them up free of charge in their most luxurious suites - but once the big fish have been reeled in, their status on the casino floor is much the same as that of any other sucker. So long as you're still capable of tossing money into the great maw, you'll be treated like a god, whether you're playing the 25c slots or the $100 minimum blackjack tables. Indeed, you'll be plied with free alcohol by cocktail waitresses 24 hours a day, not because they think you're special, but in the hope that it will turn you into a more reckless gambler.

 

The only quality that commands respect in Vegas is knowing the odds, particularly when it comes to No Limit Texas Hold 'Em, the city's second greatest cultural export. The town's real celebrities are the winners of the World Series of Poker, an annual tournament that used to be held at Binion's Horseshoe, but which is now held at the Rio. Last year's winner, Jamie Gold, would probably create more of a sensation if he walked down the Strip than a Hollywood movie star, particularly if it was between 28 July and 10 August when the tournament takes place. In 2006, he walked away from the winner's table with $12.5 million.

 

During the first few trips I made to Vegas, my main anxiety was not wanting to be perceived as a rookie by the narrow-eyed dealers at the blackjack tables. However, it doesn't take long to master a simple set of guidelines - and if you forget them, you can always go to one of the 24-hour gift shops and pick up a laminated card displaying them. Other than your own embarrassment, there's nothing to stop you fishing the card out of your pocket before deciding whether to 'stand' or 'hit', and I quickly discovered that the dealers aren't any more likely to be impressed by seasoned card-players than they are by high-rollers. In the long run, the house always wins, so they'll always regard anyone standing in front of them as a bit of an idiot.

 

Ultimately, the best way to look at Vegas is as the modern-day equivalent of a coal town: everything revolves around one core business and that business is gambling. If you lose a few thousand pounds at the tables, try not to take it personally. As Hyman Roth says about Moe Greene's murder, 'I didn't ask who gave the order because it had nothing to do with business.' Las Vegas isn't romantic and it isn't glamorous, but it is the most gaudy piece of Americana you're ever likely to encounter. Personally, I find it irresistible.