by Bogdan Fechită
William R. Wilkerson is one of the figures who imprinted their names in the history of Las Vegas. Better known under the name Billy Wilkerson, it was an atypical character, who lived life to the fullest, but who has always wanted to achieve what he has proposed, and he knew to make necessary compromises for that. Let’s discover his story!
Billy was born in Nashville, Tennessee, United states of America, on September 29th, 1890, from a Catholic family. He began to study medicine in Philadelphia, but his destiny took a decisive turn in 1916, the year his father died, leaving behind numerous debts to his family. Billy was forced to begin work and agreed to manage a tiny cinema and theatre hall owned by a friend in Fort Lee, New Jersey.
The first investment is always a poor investment
Things start align, Billy gets a job in the film industry in New York, one that is much more advantageous. He even launches in small business, starting a newspaper dedicated to the seventh art. In 1929, he makes a loan to support his publication, but has the misfortune that the stock market should fall and loses all the money he invested.
After this setback, Billy moves into California, with his second wife. Here is launching a new media product, The Hollywood Reporter, which over time will become a veritable brand in the history of the press. He becomes known as an aggressive reporter of the film industry in Hollywood, and in this way he manages to make its publication a success.
In 1936, he decides that he wants to diversify his business and begins to invest in nightclubs. In the Sunset Strip district in Hollywood, Billy opens more clubs where, in addition to huge parties and models, there were also rooms where illegal gambling was organized. Moreover, in 1940, he opened an illegal casino in Lake Arrowhead, but it is immediately closed by the authorities.
Contact with Las Vegas
Like any man, Billy also had a great passion that consumed his resources. He was nearly addicted to gambling and was always paying visits to California and Mexico where he was attending horse races and playing in illegal casinos. He starts to visit Las Vegas too, but most of the time he was returning without money. In 1944, he loses $ 750,000, a huge sum at the time, after playing in several casinos in Vegas and ends up in a big financial impasse.
This is the time he receives a precious advice from his friend Joe Schenck, a film producer in Hollywood. He tells him to stop play in casinos and better to build himself a casino. Billy takes account of this advice, and in January 1945 he goes to Nevada in order to fulfill this dream. He buys a land in Vegas for $ 84,000 and begins follow out his plans. This project will be called the Flamingo.
The costs of launching the Casino were huge, and Billy had not had sufficient funds. Therefore, he begin to look for other sources of financing. He receives $ 400,000 from the Bank of America, but the amount is not sufficient. Under these circumstances, Billy is forced to compromise in order to see his goal achieved. He accepts to partner with the famous American gangster Bugsy Siegel, who was willing to invest in the construction of the new Casino. Billy receives all the necessary funds, but he is forced to compromise and collaborate with the Mafia. For this deal, he will receive one million dollars, more than enough money to finish the project.
Billy wanted to draw at Flamingo not just Hollywood celebrities, but the people all over America.
He designed the Casino after strict rules: inside the resort, without Windows and no clocks, so that clients could lose track of time and remain as much as possible at the game tables.
However, the collaboration with Bugsy Siegel was not an easy one. The gangster had increasingly exaggerated requirements concerning the resort’s designs and, in addition, quickly lost confidence in Billy. Through various means, he had tried all the time to take him out from the project. At one point, he even wanted to kill him in front of the other workers present on the construction site, but Billy escapes and hides for some time in Paris. He returned to California in 1960, in time to see the largest and most beautiful project he had ever initiated and which endures even today, completed.
Besides gambling, Billy also liked to smoke. He was smoking 15-20 cigarettes daily, and this was going to be the end of him. Due to excessive smoking, he was very indisposed in his last years of life. On September 2nd, 1962 he dies as a result of a heart stroke, and so the story of this character who had a decisive contribution to the development of the Las Vegas City comes to an end.
Businesses launched by Billy Wilkerson:
– Flamingo Hotel&Casino
– Hollywood Reporter
– Vendome Wine & Spirits Co.
– Cafe Trocadero
– Sunset House
– The Arrowhead Springs Hotel
– LaRue (Hollywood)
– The Flamingo Hotel
– LaRue (Las Vegas)
– Billy had a permanent column in The Hollywood Reporter, where he wrote in every issue for 32 years, until he met his end.
– He was married six times.
– His first wife died in 1918 due to the flue epidemic that had hit America that year.
– He was the one to discover Lana Turner, the actress.
– He had chosen the name ”Flamingo” for the casino built in Las Vegas because he loved these exotic birds.
– He used $200,000 of the loan obtained from the bank for the purpose of building Flamingo, to pay his gambling debts.
– After Bugsy Siegel took over the Flamingo working site, total costs reached 6 million dollars, due to the uninspired decisions made by the gangster.