Letter from Las Vegas

I just took a Scenic Airlines flight over the Grand Canyon. A small passenger plane that went skimming high and low about the rims and gorges and buttes, the airy pinnacles and steeples of this granite wilderness—the afternoon partly misty, partly cerulean, perhaps not the right weather to show off the immense sight. Certainly I’ve gotten more buoyed up, I think, on the color photos or color films I’ve seen—or is that simply another indication that “reality” is possible for us only when glimpsed through the eye of a camera? Mooney Falls, majestically thundering over a cavernous precipice (at least in the old Living Nature series), looked like a dulcet, snowy stream from the air, and Havasu Falls, a mile or so away, was even more fragile, perfect for a diminutive Japanese garden.

The Havasupai Indian village—the tribe has been here for 800 years—appeared to be almost a series of ant hills, the white roofs of the government-built houses and the accompanying greenery caught in a sandy repose at the bottom of a daring crevasse. We did fly close to a remarkable configuration called Ship Rock and then almost as near to another called Window Rock, whose giant umber sports a hole large enough for a plane to pass through. As our guide noted: One loses all sense of perspective in the Canyon.

But this is clearly territory that one must explore—to the extent that it is possible—on foot, or journey through on horse or mule. Tours, I think, are out of place, much too effete or institutionalized a way of “getting to know” the rugged life. In his book The Man Who Walked Through Time, Colin Fletcher marvels at the Canyon’s sheer depth, says that if you put one Empire State Building on top of another, and then added two more, they still wouldn’t kiss the lip of the gorge. Notes, too, that now it’s no longer necessary to create great works of art—so he says—what’s necessary now is to preserve the great works of nature that we’ve got—a familiar theme, incidentally, throughout the Southwest.

The first American to navigate the Colorado and chart the canyon through which it flows was a one-armed Civil War veteran. Adler, not Freud, may be the psychologist for the adventurer. Major Powell, a geologist, went with a crew of ten men, three wooden boats, and then kept moving ever onward for eighty-four days, at the end of which he had left only seven men and one boat. At the Visitors Center in the Canyon musem, there’s a diorama depicting the expedition in temporary disarray, Powell and his men patching up one of the surviving crafts or shaping new oars out of piñon pine. The most poignant aspect of all this, though, is that these fellows had no idea where the river would lead—or leave them. The men made jests about the “Great Unknown,” which they traveled blind, but to Powell the jests always seemed severe or demonic. In his journal he admits that there was sublimity all right, but that the region around the “fretful river” was more hazardous and impenetrable than the Alps or the Himalayas.

The endless gradations, the inner and outer gorges, the steep strata and threatening pits, the mesas and plateaus and minarets, the emblazoned ridges and embayed rims spun out in priestly purple, vistas in slate gray or chilled rose, metamorphic at top, sedimentary at bottom, these reminded me of some sort of wild sculpture, which looked at with appropriately impressionable eyes might seem to resemble Aztec or Hindu temples…. I was thinking of the intricate carvings and massive devotional shapes that the purely physical splendor of the Canyon suggests, and which the various designations—Brahma, Zoroaster, Deva—emphasize.

The Havasupai believe this Herculean terrain to be the abode of the gods, that indeed they live among divine spirits, and so are protected and embraced by heaven itself. No wonder Lawrence regarded the Southwest as the Indians’ revenge on the pioneering Americans—the latter, according to him, always trying to break free of fate, “be masterless,” and the former accepting, as Lawrence counseled the white man to do, the decrees of Nature, letting the gods master us, and so realize “true” freedom. In one of his essays, “The Hopi Snake Dance,” he says he had his doubts about an animistic religion, and many more about “going native,” but no doubts about what was what. “We make reservoirs, and irrigation ditches and artesian wells. We make lightning conductors, and build vast electric plants. We say it is a matter of science, energy, force…. But the Indian says No! It all lives.” Well, the Canyon, I suppose, proves his point. We, as tourists, seem de trop, while the Havasupai “fit in”—800 years is a long legacy; and the neighboring Navajos, the largest tribe in the States, go back over a thousand.

Las Vegas, on the other hand, is a man-made paradise, the fallen Adam in the arms of a neon serpent. Tom Wolfe, in the middle Sixties, thought it the ultimate in psychedelia, and now Mario Puzo, in his pugnaciously affirmative Mario Puzo Inside Las Vegas, imagines it a sort of therapy for everyman:

What possesses a group of mature people who know what life is all about to think that gambling can solve their problems? Desperation, that’s what, and something to put a little spice in your life.*

I ended a three-day stay, not in one of the plush hideaways like Caesar’s Palace or the MGM Grand, but in one of the older, seedier hotels called Silver Bird (formerly Thunderbird). I use “seedier” only in a financial sense, since the Bird and Vegas are remarkably clean. The garish lights and sights are really a carnival of innocence—Vegas swings, for singles, that is, but only if you go looking for it—and the city attracts family types or senior citizens more than any other group that I could observe. Hour after hour you can watch them strolling the Strip with canes or kids—there’s a Youth Hotel, strictly for teenagers and preschoolers—as if they were back home on the boulevard of a suburban complex. (Did I hear that Vegas expects to count nearly ten million visitors by the end of the year? And yet, to me, the Strip seemed less crowded than Manhattan does at five in the afternoon.) Here in place of Key Food or McDonald’s you have congresses of elementary school principals or physicians and surgeons ogling “the hottest slots in town,” Arabic or Moorish façades hobnobbing with emblems of the Old West (some sort of flying carpet serves as the marquee of the Frontier), “fun paks” and “innkare,” “lowball” and “lucky bucks” vying with the Congo Showroom and Ondine aux crevettes roses….

At the new Circus-Circus, rated PG, if the Vegas hotels had such ratings, there’s an incredible big-top ambiance: aerial acts at the highest level, clowns and boutiques, carousels and cocktail lounges on the middle rung, and the whole overlooking an immense lobby, with its array of roulette wheels, crap tables, Keno alleys, and row on row of one-armed bandits, stacked back-to-back like markers in a graveyard, in strict colorful regularity. Caesar’s Palace, another masterwork, is of course even larger, with a Villa d’Este promenade and a fruity barge, but its lush interior, its imperial stairways, waterfalls and grottoes bubbling beneath them, its tubular elevators enclosed in glass and sparkling gold, its dining rooms in Roman motifs, togas and statuaries, fiddlers everywhere, cater naturally, to a fancier crowd.

No one, however, is barred from entering: cowboys just in off the Humboldt Trail (hustlers, mostly, with velour pants, boots, and body shirts), and men and women in evening dress and crown jewels pass one another without blinking an eye. And in downtown Vegas, where the Y and the massage parlors are, the bookstores are full of tomes on Gambling, Porn, and Christianity—and in that order of popularity, usually.

Meanwhile, the flashing signs, operatic or honky-tonk, cut into each other’s turf—very reminiscent, in a way, of Mark Twain in Roughing It: “We prospected and took up new claims, put ‘notices’ on them and gave them grandiloquent names: the Gray Eagle, the Columbiana, the Branch Mint, the Root-Hog-or-Die…the Boomerang.”

BOOMERANG, well, that’s the prophetic heartbeat of the Southwest, past and present. A very ordinary housewife sitting next to me one night at the Dollar Nest unexpectedly began hitting a lucky streak, kept looking around for more and more cups to hold her loot, again and again coming up with three strawberries, three bars, three oranges, even the smashing three sevens which alone rewarded her 300 dollars, emitting little squeals whenever she rang a winner, a big blazing buzzer drilling our ear pits as the cascading silver went plippety plop in the leaden basin beneath the machine. In true Vegas fashion, though, she did not back off when the going was good, but kept questing for more and more, till finally in the ensuing hours lost almost all of her small fortune. Similarly, the old prospectors, according to Twain, were always being denuded of any gold they found in the Nevada hills, either losing it at the betting parlors, or in poker games in the bunkhouse, or through various other misadventures.

As for the housewife, was she having, as they say, “slots of fun”? An Australian, accompanying me on the bus taking us to the airport for our Canyon flight, remarked as we looked at the passing splendor: “Well, they certainly didn’t build these places from the winnings the customers made at the tables.” LV (“Love Visitors”) must have it down to a science: they give you the glad eye, let you strike it rich, but always, eventually, recoup any losses—and then some. The Flamingo Hilton is adding a seven-million-dollar wing to its complex—and certainly does not expect to go bankrupt by doing so. The lights ripple and twist and turn from seven to seven (Times Square of yesteryear), from seven PM to seven AM, when The Dirty Sally discothèque finally calls it a day, one of the few establishments, incidentally, not completely in the swing of the twenty-four-hour spectrum. A timeless town, Bergsonian durée made manifest. The only way you know the hour is if you’re in hock to one of the honchos—and even then you can’t count on it. This is Playland as Eden, essentially infantile, but it entrances many bored people, including lots of foreigners—or especially foreigners, who love it, indeed love America, cannot understand my “reservations.”

The other day I took a car into the suburbs to visit the Chamber of Commerce; the suburbs being mostly sand piles with ranch houses and gewgaws of Spanish origin, the dust blowing over the roads and the yards and the emerald-tinted swimming pools; the driver, mottled-faced and ashen-haired, telling me he’s not a gambler, a real gambler. What does he think of real gamblers? “Sick, man, fuckin‘ sick.” Says he knows a few. “They go crazy. Elevator operators, car washers, placing twenty or thirty dollars a day. Where do they get off doing that? And they don’t win, you can’t win. People like that don’t play to win, they play to lose. They want to lose so they can always keep playin’.” But how is that possible if they always keep losing? “They don’t always lose. You place so many bets, some of ‘ems got to be good. So that keeps them in there.”

Eventually he speaks to me of Howard Hughes, “the ruination of Vegas.” He scowls whenever he mentions his name and drives faster. “Hughes brought in the coons, the coons brought in the politicians, the politicians brought in the unions, the unions brought in the hookers, the hookers brought in the hustlers. It’s a dirty town, my friend.” I tell him it seems to me remarkably clean. “Oh you visitors! Don’t know your ass from your elbow. Stick around. Walk the Strip. Late at night. Murder, rape, mugging.” He concludes proudly: “Vegas has the highest crime rate in the country.” Vegas with the highest crime rate in the country and Miami with the highest suicide rate in the country. Something rotten in the state of pleasure. But what about Hughes? What was so awful? “He was like…a ghost. We never knew if he was here or if he wasn’t. Kept buying up property—and then doin’ nothing with it. All that vacant land you see—that’s Hughes. Didn’t want anybody to touch it. Sick, man, fuckin‘ sick.”

He sighs for the old days. “I come here first in the early Fifties, when I was young. Then the Syndicate ran the joint. Weren’t all foreigners, all Mafia, some of ‘em were real honest to god American gangsters. Always knew where you stood, always got a fair shake. Bonuses at Christmas, free chips and free booze.” What about the drinks at fifty cents a shot?—which are to be had everywhere, it seems, though a small glass of milk costs seventy cents. “Piss,” he says, “piss water. And at the good hotels, at Caesar’s Palace, you have to pay three bucks. And it’s still piss. Get rid of the Mob, and whatta’ you got?—politics.” And the Mafia? Where are they now? “In Tucson, in Phoenix. Very elegant businessmen. They own them towns and them towns is clean.” Finally we arrive at our destination and I wonder if the Chamber of Commerce will corroborate everything he’s been saying. “Are you kidding?” True to his word, they don’t.

Late sunset on the Strip. Walking past the crowds. The air sultry, the sky deepening into purple, darkening into blue. A boy munching a hot dog, another with some sort of kite; I watch its red streamers disappearing against the bumblebee glitter of the Stardust marquee, the insignia of the neighboring Silver Slipper (in gold lights) perpetually rotating. Inside, at the casinos, the girls with the drinks and the girls with the “changers,” skirts up to their crotches, long legs, plump legs, bouncy behinds, streaked Seventies hairdos and Thirties eyelashes and eyebrows, canvassing the cluttered floors. The “changers” are there to dole out nickels, dimes, quarters, the others to refreshen the palates of the pilgrims at the tables with scotch or bourbon, always saying “Sir? Sir?” much too harried to smile, except abstractly, taking yet another order, dropping yet another coin into your palm.

In the lounge of the Flamingo an entertainer singing a song, “Mean to Me,” but in an unfamiliar rock beat, the back-up man on the electric organ; then playing a trumpet, then a trombone, doing a parody of Copa “nite life,” loud and coarse. In the lobby of the Hilton I eavesdrop on four old ladies having a conversation. “I had pernicious anemia.” “I had uremic poisoning.” “I had brain damage.” “Well, you don’t look it.” Upstairs in one of the elite dens, in the rooms the tourists never see, the “high rollers” are gathering, where the reported stake is one hundred thousand dollars—that is, for a start. Recently, I’m told, a group of Saudi Arabian businessmen came through, thought about “buying in” on the third—or is it the second-fastest growing area in the States?—then decided Vegas was too nutty, too wild, politely declined, went to Disneyland instead.

The boxman is sitting at the center of the craps table, the pit bosses at black-jack and baccarat. At the poorer hotels, at the Bird, the dealers average maybe fifty or sixty dollars a night, while at the ampler estates they make as much as seventy thousand a year, with two hundred dollars a day in tips alone. Mountaineers walk up and down eyeing the customers, the managers walk up and down eyeing them. At Caesar’s Palace I stand to the back of the stickman, a huge black man with ponderous hands, and watch a guy slap a hundred dollars on the green felt; a faded desperado, with mean, merry eyes, he puts down his glass and scoops up the dice, jiggles them near his ear, kisses them or spits on them, I can’t tell which, then flings the sparklers straight across the board. “Comin’ on out,” the hunky dealer drawls. “Big eight…big six,” the boxman cries. Endless bravado, one bet after another, like Paul Newman swallowing fifty eggs in Cool Hand Luke.

Along with the gas stations and the parking lots or auto parks, Wedding Chapels are everywhere, mostly Frontier clapboards in the New England style. At the Little Church of the West, a woman tells me she was there when Harry James and Betty Grable got “hitched,” back in the Forties, when Vegas had only two hotels, Rancho Grande and El Cid (I think those were the names), both now defunct. And a while ago she was at the wedding of David Cassidy. “It was so nice,” she smiles. “Everybody cried.”

Howard Hughes came to Vegas in his teens, lost six thousand dollars; returned the next night, won it all back. Returned in the Fifties, bought out the Sands, bought out the Silver Slipper, bought out (or rebuilt) the Desert Inn. I’ve read books about him, by Noah Dietrich and Omar Garrison, and just before I left New York sat through a two-part special on TV, but the story is always the same—or almost. Sententious psychodrama, it doesn’t reveal much. A prodigy of technology, Hughes made his money very early and very fast, showing a mysterious knack for machinery and balance sheets that neither he nor anyone else can explain. By the time he was thirty or thirty-five the horizon was spent. Emotionally bankrupt, emptily sublime, slow-witted in speech, indeed often giving the impression of being a little dumb, but a driven man, nonetheless, un homme traqué. In his youth he admitted to giant dreams: wanted to be a “great golfer”; next, an aviator; next, “movie mogul,” a sultan of Hollywood. But all that, I’m sure, was simply baby talk. What he really wanted was conquest, was power, wanted to know “whether there’s any reason to go from one place to another,” “how we get from summer to winter”—wanting to know and not to know. So he went round the world, breaking Wiley Post’s speed record; so he managed RKO, built TWA, experimented with gliders and bombers, got the costly Hercules off the ground but only to shelve it—his “flying coffin.”

Compare him to Ford and to Hearst, the only other Croesuses to capture the public fancy in our day, and the differences are striking. Ford always looking back to the ethos of Yankee individualism; while creating the conveyor belt and the assembly line, the culture of standardized parts that has destroyed it; celebrating the era of the horse and buggy in his memorial village at Greenfield, the only place, apart from Venice and Bermuda, where autos are banned; his two provincial nemeses, Wall Street and the Jews (in the person of Sidney Weinberg, the investment banker), decisively effecting him posthumously when the sale of Ford Company stock turned out to be the largest financial transaction in history. And Hearst with his underworld gossip and kitsch, always yearning for the cultivated pleasures and principles of the English aristocrat, yet never able to shake himself free of the image of the metropolitan tycoon. Yet both were more “human,” surely, in cantankerous or romantic ways, than Hughes ever was, and both more aware, certainly, of where they’d been and how they got there. While Hughes, to me, seems never to have been “on” to himself, or maybe never being “on” to himself was his particular route to success, perfect for our later era, when paranoia is a commonplace and “dissociation of the sensibility” a cliché.

Naturally a dry soul, he gave himself over to the personality fixers of Madison Avenue and Beverly Hills, becoming in his youth falsely, grandiloquently sybaritic, beefing up his image with the old macho baloney (“Howard Hughes will never die in an airplane; Howard Hughes will die at the hands of a woman with a .38”). (He died, of course, in an emergency flight, carrying his wasted body back to a hospital in Houston.) Then vanishing, later, a crackpot billionaire, into the computerized gloss of a James Bond film, but never as its star, rather a sort of Dr. No, a Texan with fangs, into so many people and things he no longer knew who and what he owned, nor could the people and things always remember who and what they were owned by, creating embarrassment at times—as witness the minor farce of some members of a congressional investigating committee unaware that the man they were probing was, in fact, their “boss.” Growing ever more remote, absorbing—always absorbing, incorporating, rechristening tool companies, copper mines, oil drills, hardware stores—yet never quite able to reach a decision until the decision was there: “Buy the damn place.” If the decision was a good one, he was home; if it wasn’t, he’d get another chance. Always either winning or recouping his losses, and always alone (“Partners are just a damn weight”).

In the Fifties, apolitical and asocial, he turns “Red baiter”; produces I Married a Communist. Then after he leaves Jean Peters to the extension courses at UCLA, the tennis shoes and the baggy pants, the old Chevrolets begin to disappear. He buries himself in his Puritan’s castle atop the pleasure dome of Vegas. Limitless power—and trapped in his room. He was Faustian history: a life of unparalleled action, then a Tamburlaine winding up his campaign a glorious invalid and a recluse, letting his hair fall to his waist, his toenails and fingernails grow long, like the old Chinese mandarins who in their last years were unable to do anything beyond holding cups of tea in their hands. But unlike them never a figure of culture or wisdom or thought. A figure of—what? Puerile pursuits, apparently, with psychosexual shadings, delighting principally in building model airplanes or playing with toy submarines, the vogue of the Twenties, of his youth, attended by a bevy of thugs, mostly Mormons, granting and controlling his every whim.

And how was Hughes ever able to continue his business affairs under such stoical, straitened odds? One does not know. The mystery of money is mystery. And did he never imagine, this master of the media, that the magnet of secrecy, the horizon of invisibility he so desperately sought, would not one day boomerang? Did he not realize that to be a legend, a myth, people had to know, if not the true story, then a story, any story?

But whom could he trust? Or did he understand early in life that he was not meant to trust anyone at all? He once observed shrewdly, at the height of his success: “There can always be a set of circumstances that is beyond anyone’s control.” Of him, his associates said, “You know Mr. Hughes, he’s never satisfied.” London, Houston, Acapulco, Hollywood, Bel Air, finally Vegas. So perhaps above the fast shuffle, the “cold deck,” the desperado, the troublesome ease and conviviality of the Strip—perhaps there, in Las Vegas, he was in his proper element at last. If the god of Vegas really is Tantalus, then certainly he was Howard Hughes’s only boss.

  1. *

    Mario Puzo Inside Las Vegas (Grosset & Dunlap, $14.95), though repetitive, seems to me one of the liveliest testimonials to the splendeurs et misères of gaming fever I’ve read, full of any number of no-nonsense rationales. For instance: The casino owners could “drug you, make you drunk, roll you, blackmail you, and even knock you off. But to what purpose? You, the player, are like a husband who only carries two grand worth of life insurance. You are worth more alive, working, earning money every year to lose every year.” Still, I’m afraid, in Puzo’s morally very shallow book everything falls in the house’s favor, so much so that the jovial author himself asks: “Are the Vegas fathers paying me off?”—which is disarming, but perhaps a little like the proverbial Cretan saying all Cretans are liars.