Daily Wanderlust: The other side of Las Vegas

From 2005 until 2012, I lived mostly in a place that is known for gambling, amazing food and late, late nights resulting in questioning the activities the following morning. Whenever people ask me about what it was like to live in Las Vegas, I always tell them there is much more to the desert town than The Strip and taking in the city’s infamous skyline. In fact, there is an entire other world. From the towering and snow-capped (in the winter) Mt. Charleston, to the water-depleted Lake Mead, to the charming town of Boulder City and more. There is no shortage of gorgeous places to visit in and around Las Vegas that take you to an entirely different (and very real) world.

This last trip home, I found yet another place to visit in Vegas that is off-the-beaten-path, the ghost town of Nelson, Nevada. While there are plenty of great things to do in Las Vegas that do leave your feet firmly planted in the artificial worlds of Venice, Paris, the pyramids and more, on your next visit, consider hitting up this hidden gem of a spot.

Nelson isn’t far from Vegas, but I promise you this — it is the absolute opposite of the rest of the city.

The ghost town of Nelson, Nevada, just outside of Las Vegas

 

Destinations

The daughter of Las Vegas: an interview with Bugsy Siegel’s daughter, Millicent

An interview with the daughter of Bugsy Siegel, Millicent about life with Bugsy and her opinion on Las Vegas

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It was about 66 years ago when Millicent Siegel’s father, Ben “Bugsy” Siegel wrote a letter to his wife addressing his oldest daughter’s smoking habits.“I don’t like the idea of smoking at all, I would point out to her that it is not ladylike at all … Frankly, I hope she wouldn’t continue to smoke, as I dislike the habit in women and when I see her I will tell her just that.”

Decades later, I am sitting in Millicent’s Las Vegas condo as she pulls a drag from her cigarette, it’s neon orange tip glowing as she breathes in the smoke. Millicent, 81, hasn’t been weathered by the dry Las Vegas sun. Rather, she looks vibrant. Her shoulder-length blonde hair skims a peach and white striped shirt, which is paired today with white pants. Her light blue eyes sparkle when her pugs, Priscilla and Porsche, come to the table where we are sitting and chatting.

The letter, which was dated November 28, 1946, was written a mere seven months before her father was killed. Today, the letter can be found on display inside the Tropicana Las Vegas at the Mob Attraction, along with a bounty of other mob-related artifacts, including video footage (only in existence) of Bugsy Siegel the way she remembers him – as a father, not a mobster. And the father of Las Vegas.

An interview with the daughter of Bugsy Siegel, Millicent about life with Bugsy and her opinion on Las Vegas

Millicent Siegel poses with artifacts at The Mob Attraction

When Siegel first arrived to town in the 1940s, Las Vegas was nothing. But, Siegel saw something: opportunity.

“He envisioned Las Vegas to be a Palm Springs type in the desert,” says Millicent. “He wanted shops along [Las Vegas Blvd.]. He said there would be a sidewalk going all the way down into town.”

Thanks to his vision, within a few years, there was.

Growing up Hollywood

Before Siegel brought Palm Springs to Vegas, he and his family lived in Beverly Hills. Millicent’s childhood in the Hollywood town was nothing short of charmed. She was a brownie and took riding lessons with Elizabeth Taylor. Jean Harlow was her godmother.

As a young girl, Harlow would come to the house, put on an apron, and give her a bath. She even met her childhood crush, Cary Grant, face-to-face. At her house.

“When I came home from school, [Grant] was sitting in the room, waiting for my dad to get off the phone or something,” she recalls, smiling. “I thought I would die when I saw him sitting there.”

Then, came Las Vegas.

An interview with the daughter of Bugsy Siegel, Millicent about life with Bugsy and her opinion on Las Vegas

Ben Siegel’s Las Vegas

Las Vegas turned from what Millicent describes as a “hicktown” into something far more glamorous. Hotels lined the main Las Vegas drag, complete with swimming pools in the front, inviting people arriving by car to take a cool dip and break from the arid desert weather.

“There were no high rises,” says Millicent. “The hotels then were more personal, smaller, more comfortable. They didn’t have all of the pool parties … You’d go out for dinner at night and see a show. During the day, you’d spend time at the pool. Or, if you came when it was cool enough, you’d go riding or play golf.”

The vision Siegel had for Las Vegas, all those years ago, has morphed into a different beast entirely today. Now, mega resorts crowd The Strip. The historic properties are blown up to make way for the latest slick building, the hot restaurants, the trendy shops. The pools at the hotels now cater to the 20- something scantily clad partiers willing to throw down hundreds of dollars for the opportunity to sit in a cabana and sip on cocktails from bottles of liquor that have been marked up hundreds of percent.

“My dad would hate what Las Vegas it today,” she says. “What corporations did to Las Vegas was never his vision of this town.”

The town and times Millicent lived in Las Vegas were very different. And, unlike most other’s experiences even during the 40s. That’s what happens when your father owns the hottest hotel in Las Vegas, The Flamingo.

Siegel opened the hotel December 26, 1946 moving his family in during construction. As a teenager, living in a hotel was never dull.

An interview with the daughter of Bugsy Siegel, Millicent about life with Bugsy and her opinion on Las Vegas

Life at The Flamingo

“I was a spoiled brat,” says Millicent. “I mean, here is our hotel. We own a hotel.” Her life at The Flamingo was not without its own, special stories.

“One time, I decided to write post cards,” she begins. “All of the rooms were decorated with all sorts of personal things you would have in your house. On the desk was a crystal ink well. I took out to the pool and was writing these cards. My dad came out and saw me doing this and he had a fit.”

There was one night when Millicent was taken into the counting room of the casino with Chick, the brother of Virginia Hill (Siegel’s girlfriend). “I had a crush on him and I didn’t know what his job was at the hotel. He was in the accounting room at night, so I asked if he could take me in.”

Entering the counting room was like nothing she had ever seen before – stacks and stacks of money. Unlike stories which have been told which depict counters sorting money into piles, one for the hotel, one for them, she never witnessed anything like that. But, she did witness her father’s wrath.

“I stayed until they finished counting, until three or four in the morning,” she says. “Then, we went to breakfast and came back. That’s when my father walked in. He had a shit fit. I don’t think he was bothered that I was in the room, but he was bothered that someone took me in there. Who was I going to tell?”

Perhaps the best story from her time living at the hotel was when her father decided to put a moat in front of the property and import the hotel’s namesake – some flamingos. According to Millicent, there were between six and eight of these birds and, as the days went by, they were “dropping like fleas.”

Millicent recalls: “It was too hot for them. My dad stood out there and said ‘Those goddamn flamingos are dying on me.’ They never lasted very long. It was too hot for them. I think he replaced them once or twice and that was it.”

Today, the hotel which is now owned by Caesars Entertainment Corp., has flamingos on property. However, they are now inside in a climate-controlled garden.

Siegel, who treated the property as his home, could even be found walking through the halls, emptying ashtrays and tidying up.

As the founder of Las Vegas, Siegel took it upon himself to stay abreast of what was going on in town. He would donate money to organizations in need. “The town’s people liked him very much,” says Millicent. “He would go into Las Vegas and people would just come up and talk to him, have lunch with him.”

The creation of “Bugsy”

The famed mobster isn’t how Millicent sees Siegel. Despite Hollywood’s portrayal, his daughter remains steadfast in his role in the mob.

“A lot of stuff they say or still say about my dad wasn’t true or never happened,” she explains. The father Millicent remembers is nothing like Warren Beatty’s portrayal in the film “Bugsy.”

“He was very strict,” she says. “Most of what happened in the movie never happened. It was all a fabrication of what [the filmmakers] either read or surmised or just out and out faked.”

She quickly recounts two such instances in the film – the first depicting their move to LA, the second a birthday party she had. Neither of which were portrayed accurately.

“I would say 80 or 90 percent of the movie is inaccurate,” she says. “It portrayed [Siegel] as a nut.” Which is not even close to how Millicent remembers him.

“He was very strict,” she says. “We used to have to sit at the dinner table and he would ask us what was on the front page of the papers. He knew everything we were doing. He was very interested and on top of everything we did. He was also great fun to be around. He would joke a lot.”

Beatty declined Millicent’s offer to provide him with real-life accounts of her father while making the film.

An interview with the daughter of Bugsy Siegel, Millicent about life with Bugsy and her opinion on Las Vegas

The mobster, the father

Ask Milliecent about her father’s life in the mob, and she sits straight in her chair. After his death, stories began to surface about his life in the mob. “We knew him as a father. He worked some place. I was too young to question it,” she says.

Growing up in the shadow of gangsters didn’t phase Millicent. “We didn’t see these people as notorious, or different from anybody else. It was a whole new picture for me and I didn’t know how to put it. I never believed any of the things anyone has written about [Siegel]. They grew up in prohibition. They were no different than the Kennedys. They were selling the same stuff. They were doing the same thing. They were all extremely smart people.”

It was never easy for his daughter to hear the stories about life in the mob. Millicent has never gotten used to what people have said about her father, or his associates.

“It was hard to hear what people said about the man who would sit at the dinner table and make us tell him the news, or educate us on the way to cut our meat,” she says. “He wanted us to be princesses and the stories we heard didn’t jive with who we saw. I’ve always separated whatever anybody else might say from what I saw and what I felt. It hurt me. After he died, the whole thing just blew up in our faces.”

Even today, decades later,  Millicent simply refuses to believe Siegel played any part in violent acts.

“I truly cannot believe my father would kill anyone. Beat them up, maybe. But, not kill,” she says. “I think it is a misconception.”

One of her last conversations with her father addressed his violent ties to the crime world. Millicent asked about his role in Murder Inc. with Meyer Lansky.

“He told me about not being able to make a living at 12 or 14, 15, 16 years old and not being able to make a living during prohibition,” she says. “I asked him about Murder Inc and he said, ‘You’ve met all of those people. Do they look like killers to you? Have they ever hurt you? Yes, I did [commit crimes], but now I am building a hotel and am 100 percent legitimate. They was my last in-depth conversation with my father.”

Millicent is quick to point out that Siegel, despite the stories of being a murderer, was never arrested for anything other than prohibition. To this day, she maintains he never killed a person.

On Siegel’s death

On June 20, 1947, Siegel was killed.

En route to Las Vegas via train to spend the summer with their father, Millicent and sister did not know what happened until they arrived to town. When the two arrived to town, their mother stood at the depot, waiting for them. The girls couldn’t understand why she was there. But, once they got to their uncle’s house, they were told of his death.

While no one knows the truth behind Siegel’s murder, Millicent has her own opinion.

“It wasn’t a random guy standing in a house, two houses down, that shot him. [Whoever killed him] was paid to do it. Who paid them? I don’t know. I’ve heard [his death] was all over money.”

Rumor has it that Meyer, another mobster and friend of Siegel’s, was the man behind his death. Millicent disagrees.

“If you have our father killed, would you be friendly and take care of his family?” She asks, recounting Meyer’s continued involvement with the bereaved. “Could you sit down to dinner next to me and know that you hired someone to kill my father?”

She isn’t sure exactly why Siegel was killed and questions the motives. “Was it somebody that wanted something in Vegas that he had? Did they want him not to be productive? Because, the hotel never closed. It wasn’t sold for years [after his death]. It’s hard to figure out, but I can’t lose sleep over it. I could never find the answers.”

In fact, no one has found the answers. In California, the case is still open.

Las Vegas, today

It takes nearly no time at all for Millicent to say how she feels about Las Vegas today. She hates it. When asked about what her father would think of it, she is quick in responding.

“He would be appalled,” she sighs, flicking out her cigarette.

Regardless of today’s Las Vegas, Millicent remains forever the doting daughter. “I am very proud of my father’s legacy,” she says. “He had the vision for the glamour … for bringing all of these people here.”

And now, even as the sun sets against the twinkling high-rises on the Las Vegas Strip, Siegel’s legacy can be seen as the throngs of visitors make their way, yard-stick drinks in their hands, en route to the casino in a town Siegel created.

For more on Siegel and this history of Las Vegas, check these out:
Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel: The Gangster, the Flamingo, and the Making of Modern Las Vegas
When the Mob Ran Vegas: Stories of Money, Mayhem and Murder
Bugsy & His Flamingo: The Testimony of Virginia Hill

Americas Blog Nevada

Daily Wanderlust: The Las Vegas Skyline at Night

Las Vegas … just thinking about my old home makes me nostalgic for the bright blue sky … the dusty desert … the palm trees.

By day, Las Vegas is colorful, thanks to nature. But, by night, its an entirely different story. When the sun sinks behind Mt. Charleston, the lights come on. Every hotel’s marquees flash enticing messages. The Luxor spotlight shoots into the sky.

Perhaps the best way to catch a glimpse of the city is from above. I am partial to landing at night and sitting on the right side of the plane where I am treated to a spectacular view of the entire valley.

But, when not in the air, one of the best spots to see the city, particularly The Strip, is from The Top of the World restaurant. At a not-so-shabby 1,000 feet above Las Vegas Blvd. and rotating oh-so-slowly, the nighttime view from the restaurant is one for the books.

Las Vegas at night, viewed from The Stratosphere

Destinations

Escape of the Week: America via iPhoneography

If there is one thing I did to an excess while driving cross-country, it was taking photos.

Between my new camera and my iPhone, I logged thousands of photos.

Because the iPhone was easy to tote around, there were so many instances when I simply pulled it our from my purse (or from the arm rest when I was driving) and snapped pics.

I like to think these photos help show the beauty of the lesser traveled/boring drives through the heart of America. For even more photos, be sure to click the links.

Enjoy the “iphoneography!”

The journey begins in Las Vegas. Dave and I head north on I-15 to Zion. Our drive through Nevada is flat, with desert surrounding us and mountains in the far distance.

The drive north on I-15 past Las Vegas, Nevada

A quick 2 1/2 hour drive from Las Vegas is one of the most spectacular spots I have ever visited — Zion National Park. Our first night, we grab dinner at the Bit & Spur, a cute Southwest restaurant with views of the fiery orange rocks from the patio.

The Bit and Spur at Zion National Park

The next day, we go and explore Zion. Walking from our moderately crappy motel, we hit the entrance to Zion on foot.

Walking in to Zion National Park in Utah

The entrance to Zion National Park in Utah

Pink blossoms hang from trees inside Zion National Park

Our next stop: Colorado.

We drive for 10 – plus hours. My eyes having a hard time to stay open as we go from high desert to the Mars-like landscape of barren red rock jutting out at different levels with the Rockies (or what I kept saying were the Rockies) in the distance.

Heading towards the Mars-like landscape in Moab, Utah

Finally, we cross Utah into Colorado and we get our first glimpse of the magnificent Rocky Mountains.

Driving on I-70 through the Colorado Rockies

Suddenly, I am awake. Thrilled to be in such a spectacular landscape.

I-70 through the Rocky Mountains in Colorado

From Denver, we head back up to Keystone for a conference. While I wait for our conference to kick-off, I spend time wandering through the main street of the charming ski town of Breckenridge.

The resort town of Breckenridge, Colorado

In Keystone, we are treated to high altitude and a sunset to rival some of the best I’ve ever seen. I’m sure that had something to do with the peak with little bursts of lingering snow set against the pine trees and pinks and blues of the sky.

The sun sets behind the Rocky Mountains in Colorado

I said “see you soon” to Dave in Keystone and then began the rest of my road trip with Erica. In the middle of the night, we drove from there to Denver, and in the morning we were off through the flat roads of Nebraska (and Colorado).

A photo from I-80 in Nebraska

Sunset off of I-80 in Nebraska

Eventually, we stopped in Omaha and enjoyed the awesomeness of the city and a dive bar tour.

A visit to a dive bar in Omaha, Nebraska

A visit to a dive bar in Omaha, Nebraska

The next day, we head out to Chicago via I-80 and Iowa. I’m surprised and delighted by what we see out of the window. It’s beautiful.

Driving on I-80 through Iowa

Driving through Iowa on I-80

Iowa from I-80

Of course, as we get closer to Chicago, traffic stops. Which gives me time to hang out the window and take some pics.

The Chicago skyline from a distance

A photo of the Chicago Theater in Downtown Chicago

Another look at the Downtown Chicago skyline

After Chicago, we headed south through Indiana …

Windmills in Indiana

… to Louisville. Of course, we took obligatory shots at Churchill Downs and of the charm in Downtown Louisville.

Downtown Louisville's main street

Our second night, we hit up Holy Grail, a church-turned-bar near my friend’s place.

The Holy Grail in Louisville, Kentucky

No visit to Louisville is complete without trying some bourbon!

A bourbon sampler in Louisville, Kentucky

After two weeks of driving cross-country, we finally headed to Maryland, stopping to see my brother first in Frostburg.

An old hotel on Frostburg, Maryland's main street

And then, eight hours later, we were to my house. And the next brief chapter of my life began.

Americas Blog Colorado Destinations Illinois Iowa Kentucky

On the open road …

It’s dark, but above me I can hear the pitter patter of little feet on the floor. Little voices delighting in the morning.

I roll over.

It’s too early. I’m too tired.

But, I’m awake. Awake. In Denver. Starting Day Four of my Life After Las Vegas.

Laying in bed at my aunt and uncle’s house in Colorado, it has yet to hit me the huge life change I have just endured. The decisions I have made. The hole in my heart.

None of these things have hit me yet, but I know I can feel something.

Movers empty the van

My last days in Vegas came and went with only a little fanfare. My going away party a few days before I left was calm, spent with some of the people in my life I love with all of my heart. The second-to-last night in town, I spent with my best friend and her family, watching a boxing match in the comfort of their home. And my last night in the life I have lived since 2010 was spent with Dave as we prepared for the start of our road trip exploring America and my life as an expat.

Over drinks at the dive bar across from my house, he and I sat together, talking travel.

Absent was the large amount of pain I was feeling about my decision to leave this world. But, the next morning, as the movers hauled my material possessions out of the condo I rent and into storage, as I dropped my cats at their new home, the tears fell freely. Dripping down my face, drying in the desert sun.

This is pain. This is change. This is life.

But then, as quickly as those tears seared their way down my cheeks, they disappeared.

At my last meal in Las Vegas, sitting at the bar at the local wing joint, Dave turned to me.

“This is the start of your new life,” he said.

How can tears fall when there is something so joyous beginning?

Even now, three full days into life post-Las Vegas, I have yet to really cry. The adventure we’ve been on the past few days has been spectacular.

We’ve wandered through Zion National Park, just outside of St. George, Utah.

The entrance to Zion National Park in Utah

During our visit to Zion, we stayed at the “budget” motel, Terrace Brooke Lodge. For a mere $83 (plus tax) a night, we got two beds, slow (and often times non-existent wifi) and quite possibly the worst free breakfast I’ve ever had (including the 60 plus hostels I have stayed at). But, it was fun!

Nighttime at Terrace Brooke Lodge

Aside from the lodging, Springdale, which touches the entrance to Zion, is filled with beautiful restaurants that let guests enjoy the surroundings with huge patios. We checked out Bit & Spur and Oscar’s. Both were great, albeit pricey.

Bit and Spur reflects the stunning Zion

The view from Oscar's

We’ve driven through desolate (and still beautiful) parts of the desert southwest in Utah, complete with obligatory stop in Salinas for Denny’s at 10 a.m with an old friend (it’s the last stop before hitting Colorado, some 100-plus miles beyond).

Denny's

We’ve even cruised through the Rockies.

The Colorado Rockies

Yes, there are times when my heart feels that tinge of pain. When I long to have my cats snuggle in the crook of my arm and fall asleep together. When I realize I don’t have a bed, a home, a life in America anymore.

Then, I remember this is the start of the next amazing adventure. That I am seeing America. That I am going to Thailand. That I am living my life according to my own set of rules.

And that, my friends, is an awesome thing.

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