Lefty Rosenthal, Kingpin in Las Vegas, Dies at 79
On the evening of Oct. 4, 1982, Lefty Rosenthal, the talented professional gambler and gangster-when-necessary who had brought sports betting to casinos in Las Vegas and illicitly run an empire of four hotel casinos, walked out of Tony Roma’s on East Sahara Avenue with an order of takeout ribs. He had just finished dinner with some fellow handicappers, and he was bringing the food home for his two children. When he got into his car, it blew up.
Mr. Rosenthal survived the explosion — later he could not remember whether he had turned the ignition key — but the attempt on his life, for which no one was ever prosecuted, ended his career as one of the most powerful men in Las Vegas. He left the city early the next year and on Monday, at home in Miami Beach, he died. He was 79 and had lived in Florida since the late 1980s.
Mr. Rosenthal’s rise and fall in Las Vegas, which took place over a mere 14 years, was at the center of Nicholas Pileggi’s 1995 book “Casino,” and the subsequent film of the same name, directed by Martin Scorsese, though in the movie, the account was somewhat fictionalized. (Mr. Rosenthal’s character, played by Robert DeNiro, was named Ace Rothstein.) He began his career as a horse player, oddsmaker and studiously disciplined sports bettor in Chicago, where his nonviolent but illegal enterprises were protected by the mobsters he made money for.
After various run-ins with the law in Chicago and in Florida, he moved to Las Vegas in 1968. Six years later, he was working in a relatively unimportant position on the staff of the Stardust Hotel and Casino when he was placed, effectively, in control of it, and three other hotels owned by a company known as the Argent Corporation, by the mafiosi who controlled the pension fund for the Teamsters union, which had financed Argent’s purchase of the hotel.
Allen Glick, the man who owned Argent, was surprised to learn he had to take orders from one of his own employees, a discovery that came about in a conversation with Mr. Rosenthal in October 1974.
Mr. Glick recounted it to Mr. Pileggi this way:
“He said, ‘It is about time you become informed of what is going on here and where I am coming from and where you should be. I was placed in this position not for your benefit, but for the benefit of others, and I have been instructed not to tolerate any nonsense from you, nor do I have to listen to what you say, because you are not my boss.’ ”
Mr. Glick’s recollection continued: “He said, ‘When I say you don’t have a choice, I am just not talking of an administrative basis, but I am talking about one involving health. If you interfere with any of the casino operations or try to undermine anything I want to do here, I represent to you that you will never leave this corporation alive.’ ”
Frank Rosenthal was born in Chicago on June 12, 1929; his father was a produce wholesaler who also owned horses, and young Frank hung out at the track and devoured the Racing Form. He learned sports betting, he said, in the bleachers at Chicago’s baseball stadiums, Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park, where spectators bet on everything: “Every pitch. Every swing. Everything had a price.”
His nickname, from childhood, was of the simplest origin; he was left-handed. Nonetheless, the story persists that it resulted from his testimony in 1961 in front of a Congressional subcommittee on gambling and organized crime, during which he invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself 37 times, refusing to answer the simplest of questions, including whether he was left-handed.
He was a clothes horse whose closet was said to contain 200 pairs of pants; a whiz with numbers, especially savantlike in figuring odds; a notorious egomaniac who at one time wrote a subliterate gossip column for The Las Vegas Sun; and was host of a late-night talk show on local television, on which he interviewed celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Wayne Newton, O. J. Simpson and Minnesota Fats, and railed against the Nevada gaming commission.
He was an obsessively detail-oriented businessman who made sure that every blueberry muffin coming out of the Stardust kitchen had at least 10 blueberries in it, and, Mr. Pileggi said in an interview Friday, among other innovations, was the first casino operator to seek out and hire women as dealers.
And he was a sucker for pretty girls, especially a former show girl and topless dancer named Geri McGee, whom he married in 1969 and spent the next several years tormenting and being tormented by.
Their increasingly tempestuous marriage, marred by infidelities on both sides, ended in 1980. Ms. McGee’s affair with Tony (the Ant) Spilotro, a violent gangster who had been a boyhood friend of her husband’s, was among the many personal and professional tangles that brought Mr. Rosenthal down; it was a central plot element of the film “Casino,” in which Ms. McGee’s character, Ginger McKenna, was played by Sharon Stone and Mr. Spilotro’s, Nicky Santoro, by Joe Pesci. Ms. McGee died after a mysterious collapse in 1982, just weeks after the car bombing. She and Mr. Rosenthal had two children, Steven and Stephanie, who survive him.
Mr. Rosenthal struggled in vain to obtain the license that would have allowed him to run the Stardust and other casinos openly and legally; the gaming commission refused him because of suspected connections to the mob, which he always denied. He won one ruling in the mid-1970s, but it was eventually overturned, and in 1988 he was listed in the commission’s “black book,” barring him from casinos forever.
Still, there was no denying his impact on the city which, when he arrived, was barely interested in sports betting. The casinos did not handle it; sports books, as they are called, operated in free-standing buildings. But Mr. Rosenthal established the prototype at the Stardust in 1976, with plush seating and myriad television screens, bringing a comfort and glamour to the kind of betting that had always been treated as a little bit sleazy.
“He was a fascinating guy,” Mr. Pileggi said. “Really smart, a real ‘Rain Man’ type with numbers; he didn’t need an adding machine. He wasn’t a gangster, really, but he was part of a world where that was the means of control. I liked him a lot.”
He paused, perhaps reconsidering a bit.
“He really didn’t like the law,” Mr. Pileggi said. “He was always talking about how much he had to pay cops to leave him alone and then they’d arrest him anyway. He thought if they were bribed, they should stay bribed.”Damien Cave contributed reporting.