Life & Legacy

''Getting to Know Moe: A Racket Boss Reborn''

By John L. Smith

If modern Las Vegas has a founding father worthy of the title, it isn’t Ben Siegel or some blood-spattered tough guy, but an infinitely savvier fellow named Morris Barney Dalitz. Those who knew him well called him Moe.

Las Vegans called him an important casino operator, developer, and philanthropist. Although they never proved a criminal case against him, mob cops and FBI men called Dalitz a major racket boss, Teamsters Pension Fund loan conduit, and “first among equals” peer of Meyer Lansky.

If one measures success not only by worldly possessions, but also by the ability to enjoy them, then Dalitz was a casino king on a scale Lansky could only envy from the shadows. At the height of Dalitz’s financial power and political influence, he had the endorsement of senators and governors and and had amassed a substantial fortune that landed him on the list of the Forbes 400. Unlike Lansky, who could only sneak into Las Vegas to enjoy his investments in places like the Flamingo and Sands, Dalitz strolled the Desert Inn’s green-felt casino floor and country club fairways as the owner of record and the man in charge.

Along the way, Dalitz helped make multimillionaires of several devoted apprentices and partners, men who built their fortunes not on the casino floor, but by building homes and creating hit television series. Although some preferred to downplay Dalitz’s influence due to the notoriety that shadowed him, he was an essential patron who’d understood the strength of diversification.

His life was riddled with contradiction. The loving father and charitable soft touch was also a man who was influenced and at times intimidated by the Chicago Outfit. The soft-spoken little man also hunted mountain lions for sport from his ranch in southern Utah. Dalitz could have afforded a fleet of limousines, but in his later years he drove himself around town in a canary-yellow Volkswagen.

He was known to many members of the Las Vegas Country Club as the elderly gentleman who often ate alone at his regular table and always had a pleasant word for the staff and the ladies who passed by. New members at the club might never guess that he was one of its founders. Moe was not a man given to overstatement or loud conversation. He liked to laugh and tell a funny story, but no one would mistake him for Henny Youngman. Moe was also the man who allowed and even encouraged Chicago mob hit man Tony Spilotro to join the country club. He’d dealt with volatile characters most of his life, and knew the best way to keep an Outfit guy off his back was to throw him a bone and offer him a little respect.

There was no way for a casual observer to know that he’d not only helped to found the country club, but was responsible for much of the growth and prosperity the Las Vegas Valley experienced from the 1960s through the early 1980s. Not only had he and his business associates built shopping centers, the first private hospital, and a couple of resort hotels, but his contacts with the men who ran the Teamsters Central States Pension Fund helped provide the financial backing to build almost every major casino property on the Strip. Men known as Moe’s protégés; Merv Adelson, Irwin Molasky, Allard Roen, and Herb Tobman among them, distinguished themselves in film studios, business and development careers. Late in his life, Dalitz was happier having breakfast at his friend Tobman’s hole-in the wall café, Mr. T’s, than he was planning yet another business park, shopping mall, or golf course community.

By the time of his death at age 89 in 1989, he’d beaten every rap but his own checkered reputation.

Dalitz was born in Boston on December 24, 1899. His father, Barney, was a gambler and businessman who ran an industrial laundry and moved the family to Michigan when Moe was still in knee pants. In Ann Arbor, the elder Dalitz opened Varsity Laundry and catered to University of Michigan students. It was in such surroundings that Moe Dalitz expanded his youthful associations not only with the collegiate crowd, but also with members and associates of Detroit’s notorious Purple Gang. Although never a member, he took advantage of the association to expand his business into the irresistibly lucrative and dangerous bootlegging racket. It was in those early years that a rising labor leader named James Hoffa would befriend Dalitz during an attempt to unionize the laundry trade.

During Prohibition the big money was in booze. Rum-running led Dalitz to Cleveland, where he became an admiral of the Little Jewish Navy of bootleggers who shipped countless cases and kegs of whiskey from Canada into the United States by boat and barge at night across Lake Erie. Business was so big that barges were loaded with trucks full of illicit alcohol. The crossing was directed by lookouts on shore using a green light/red light system.

“If they didn’t get a green light, they sunk the truck and returned later for the booze,” a longtime Dalitz friend said. “They’d float a buoy and go after it when the coast was clear.”

The coming of Repeal meant the demise of the illegal liquor business, but by then Dalitz had taken his small fortune and parlayed it into a series of nightclub-sized casinos with names like the Mound Club and Pettibone Club near Cincinnati and the Lookout Club and Beverly Hills Club just across the Ohio River in Kentucky. But even after the end of Prohibition, Dalitz and partners Lansky and Sam Tucker kept a hand in liquor production through the Molaska Corporation, which sold powdered molasses to distilleries throughout the Ohio area.

“When I left home it was during Prohibition in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and I went into the liquor business when it was illegal,” he told a reporter in a rare interview. “Then when the Repeal came along, we went into the casino business in Kentucky and Ohio where it was illegal. I learned everything I know there.”

Although he gained a reputation for toughness, Dalitz was more savvy than savage when it came to resolving disputes.

Crime writer Hank Messick observed, “This reaction of Dalitz to a threat was typical of the man and of his methods. Even in those pioneering days of rumrunning across Lake Erie, Dalitz and his associates had used others to do the actual dirty work when possible. Caution, not fear, was the basis of the technique. Even as young men they knew the value of insulation, of remaining apart from physical violence. A man with brains, and cash, could always find a man with muscle to man the ‘rummies,’ as boats carrying illicit booze were known, and to do a little killing if necessary.”

Service during World War II, where he was known as Army Capt. Moe Dalitz, barely slowed his business interests. As a struggling singer, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra sidekick Sonny King recalled auditioning for “the Captain” over the phone. He liked his rendition of “Sorrento” and hired him to work his clubs. It started a relationship that lasted more than 50 years.

“Moe used to joke, ‘I’m deaf today because I auditioned Sonny King over the telephone, and he blew my eardrums out singing “Sorrento,”’” King recalled decades later.

In the years before Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver drove the Syndicate boys to Havana and Las Vegas, Dalitz was a powerhouse who owned laundries and gambling halls. One in Miami he co-owned with New York partners was called the Frolics Club. After Kefauver’s Senate Rackets Commission heated up the country and focused on the ills of gambling, the Frolics Club closed down, but by then Dalitz was already relocated in Las Vegas at the Desert Inn and in Havana at the Hotel Nacional.

In testimony before the Kefauver committee in 1951, Dalitz wasn’t shy about sparring with Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver.

“As a matter of fact, you had been making a great deal of money in recent years, so I suppose from your profits from one investment you would then go ahead and make another investment” Kefauver said. “Now, to get your investments started off you did get yourself a pretty good little nest-egg out of rum-running, didn’t you?”

Dalitz replied, “Well, I didn’t inherit any money, Senator… If you people wouldn’t have drunk it, I wouldn’t have bootlegged it.”

He held the same tone when asked by a friend about his early casinos.

“How was I to know those gambling joints were illegal?” he cracked. “There were so many judges and politicians at them, I figured they had to be all right.”

But the heat from the Kefauver Committee strongly encouraged Dalitz to move his gambling interests to Las Vegas, where the activity was legal, and to Havana, where the mob had President Fulgencio Batista in its pocket. Although success in Havana was fleeting – revolutionary general Fidel Castro’s overthrow of the corrupt Batista government in 1959 led to the shutdown of the mob’s casinos – he was wise enough to quit the island in 1958.

By then, he’d found paradise in the Mojave Desert and a vast fortune in the count room of the Desert Inn. On a local level, he’d also found legitimacy.

Outside friendly Las Vegas law enforcement circles, however, he remained the notorious ex-bootlegger and gambler with mile-deep underworld ties.

Moe wasn’t above reminiscing with his few intimate friends about his hair-raising early days, but he considered himself a man who had made the break and was deserving of respect for his legitimate casino and business development and charitable works in Las Vegas. With few exceptions, he had little time for the kind of street guys he’d risen above so many years earlier. So when a relative punk like transplanted Boston mob figure Willie Fopiano tried to make contact with his fellow Boston native, Dalitz gave him the brush.

Fopiano wrote in his memoir, The Godson, “He tried to act like he was overjoyed to see me when I looked him up, but he didn’t want me around at all. Whenever he ran into me he’d give my hand a quick shake and say ‘Nice to see you, nice to see you’ – and be backing away while he said it! He got nervous just being in the same room with me. After all, Moe was supposed to be a legitimate businessman and philanthropist, the owner of casinos and lavish resorts and a big pal of politicians like Paul Laxalt and celebrities like Bob Hope. I knew too much about him. I knew about the satchels full of cash in the cabanas behind the Fontainebleau. I think I was an unpleasant reminder of where he came from. Guys like that are very selective about their memories.”

What Fopiano didn’t acknowledge was, guys like Moe Dalitz had to watch their associations and possess selective amnesia or they risked losing their Nevada gaming licenses, without which they were denied legal access to swim in the sea of casino cash.

A failed fighter given to bouts of overstatement, Fopiano said he briefly contemplated trying to shake down Dalitz, but was talked out of it by a trusted associate. In fact, a visiting soldier of Fopiano’s diminutive stature would have found Dalitz off limits even late in the casino man’s career. Moe was getting along in years, but he could still cut his own meat. He was, after all, suspected of pressing for the hit on Benny Siegel in 1947.

Dalitz was proud of the fact he’d been one tough Jew back in his liquor-running days, but by most public appearances -- and especially by Las Vegas standards -- he’d made the transition to legitimate society.

And yet, when cornered, the hard edge from those Mayfield Road Gang days emerged. Like the time he was challenged by brutish heavyweight champ Charles “Sonny” Liston. When the ornery Liston raised his hand to Dalitz, the diminutive Moe turned on his heel and snarled, “If you hit me, nigger, you’d better kill me. Because if you don’t, I’ll make a phone call and you’ll be dead in 24 hours!”

Liston couldn’t have been more stunned if he’d been hit over the head with a crowbar. Sonny was a crude operator given to brutish behavior, when not in the ring he was known to collect debts for Las Vegas drug dealers, but he was also a wholly owned subsidiary of boxing’s Murder Inc. crowd, Frankie Carbo and Blinky Palermo. In Sonny’s world, Moe Dalitz was royalty. And so the champ lowered his mitt, said nothing more, and slumped away.

Forget Cassius Clay’s “phantom punch.” Moe Dalitz knocked out Sonny Liston with no punch at all.

As Dalitz grew older and the Teamsters’ influence in Las Vegas grew more pressurized, there were shadows he couldn’t shake.

One belonged to transplanted Chicagoan Tony Spilotro, the Outfit’s local muscle. Dalitz had met with Spilotro shortly after the suspected killer arrived in Las Vegas in the early 1970s. Rumors would persist that Dalitz paid Spilotro to stay away from him. The threat of being linked to the hoodlum element was nothing new to Dalitz.

In a 1962 interview with Green Felt Jungle co-author Ed Reid, Dalitz cried as he lamented that he was being “persecuted” by critics in legitimate society as well as the mob.

“I’ve fought hoodlums all my life,” he said. “What are they trying to do to me?”

In part, those cops and investigative journalists were attempting to solve the riddle of his life, one which included great status in Las Vegas at a time he also was noted meeting with Lansky in Florida, Longy Zwillman in New Jersey, and with Teamsters Pension Fund insiders such as Red Dorfman and his son, Al Dorfman. Dalitz’s dilemma was easy enough to understand: He considered himself a gambler and developer who lived in a state where operating casinos was legal. And yet much of the rest of the country saw him as a racketeer who did business behind a veneer of legitimacy.

In his earlier years, however, Dalitz wasn’t afraid to at least make the argument in the press that he was as good as the next man. In 1962 he told The Saturday Evening Post, “Let’s say gambling isn’t moral. Neither is drinking to excess. I think Las Vegas has given people lots of fun. Sure, some will get hurt. But listen, they can go to Atlantic City and get into more danger in a crap game than here, where there’s supervision.”

It was clear Dalitz separated himself from those who practiced the gambling trade illegally, such as the hoodlum element which at the time had the Boardwalk bingo parlors and dice pavilions locked up. In his own way, Dalitz was doing his best to put his past behind him.

But the stories never stopped swirling whether or not Dalitz gave interviews, and it became clear that even in his final decade of his life that mafia representatives from Chicago, Cleveland, Kansas City, and New York still had his ear when necessary. Whether they had more than that, authorities never stated with certainty.

Dalitz was seldom far from law enforcement’s mind. In 1970, mobster Johnny Rosselli went before a federal grand jury in the Friars Club cheating case and, after being granted immunity, was asked questions about a few of the notorious men in his life. Right there with Tony Accardo, Paul Ricca, Frank Bompensiero, and Jimmy Fratianno was Moe Dalitz.

By that day in 1970, Moe had come far in the eyes of his friends and supporters, but to the government he was still a mobster who wore a legitimate suit.

Although licensed and legitimate in Las Vegas, Dalitz remained so notorious among some segments of federal law enforcement that as late as 1973 his face was featured along with the mugs of Meyer Lansky, Frank Costello, Tony Accardo, and Al Capone on the back cover of a book by Hank Messick and Joseph L. Nellis titled The Private Lives of Public Enemies.

Dalitz received even less respect between the covers. Messick, the nation’s premiere mob reporter, noted that Dalitz had held half interest in the Frolics Club, a Miami gambling joint, prior to building the Nacional in Havana. And Moe owned the Beverly Hills Club in Newport, Kentucky. Messick outlined a long-contended but unconfirmed profile of Dalitz as an early member of Detroit’s Purple Gang and Cleveland’s Mayfield Road Gang.

But Dalitz defied the labels. He was a boss unto himself – although the fact didn’t prevent mafia types from putting pressure on him over the years. He was at heart a relentless entrepreneur. Connected perhaps, but never resting and always investing.

When he moved from Cleveland to Las Vegas, his investments became more heavily focused on developments in Southern Nevada, including Sunrise Hospital and several shopping centers, and the San Diego area, where he was an original investor in the sparkling and controversial La Costa project.

But the Dalitz name would forever be identified with the rise and reign of “Wilbur Clark’s Desert Inn.”

Clark had started a project he wasn’t capable of finishing, and Dalitz in 1949 was feeling pressure to move his gambling clubs to territory where the casino racket was legal. So Dalitz and partners Sam Tucker, Morris Kleinman and Louie Rothkopf, known in Cleveland as the Mayfield Road Gang, took over the project. They used Clark, the affable unofficial mayor of Las Vegas, as their public image and went to work creating the most posh gambling palace in the burgeoning casino resort community. It was Dalitz who not only wanted to add a championship golf course, the custom homes to go with it, at the back of the Desert Inn, but he was also responsible for helping to create the Tournament of Champions PGA Tour event in Las Vegas, which gave the city much-needed positive publicity in the post-Kefauver era.

By the time the Dalitz group sold the Desert Inn to Howard Hughes in 1967, it had spawned high-end imitators in the Sands, Riviera, Dunes, Tropicana, Aladdin, and Caesars Palace. Las Vegas had come of age and was beginning to shed its outlaw image even though there were still plenty of outlaws left on the casino floor and on the street.

One motivation for the sale of the Desert Inn was increased law enforcement wiretapping capability that kept uncovering evidence linking casino ownership to members and associates of organized crime. Dalitz also had other concerns. He was indicted on income tax charges in 1967 in Los Angeles in a case that saw his accountant, Eli Boyer, convicted and fined $1,000. The charges against Dalitz were dropped at the request of the United States Attorney.

Moe Dalitz often lamented to friends that he’d tried to go straight, but they kept dragging him back in. Not the mob, but law enforcement and the media.

Although Dalitz maintained throughout his life that he was never a member of any gang, his name was notoriously linked to a criminal enterprise known as the Mayfield Road Gang and what some in government called the Cleveland Syndicate. His days as an admiral in the Little Jewish Navy of bootleggers who ran liquor from Canada to the United States across Lake Erie had made him wealthy. In keeping with his father Barney’s philosophy of spreading the money around, Dalitz diversified his business interests into a string of mostly legitimate concerns.

“Late in Moe’s life when he was dying we would meet at the Country Club for a drink or two, or sometimes three, with General Charlie Baron,” Sonny King recalled. “People would come up to Moe one after another and say, ‘How are you feeling?’ And Moe would say, ‘I never had a bad day.’”

In Las Vegas, Dalitz became something of a benevolent godfather, helping a number of young entrepreneurs get their starts.

“Moe was an innovative thinker,” said Las Vegas developer Irwin Molasky. “He said, ‘Let’s build a golf course. Give them something else.’ He was a good thinker. He was a good investor. Moe never went against the tables. He gambled on people. He was a keen observer of character. It was one of his long suits.”

Dalitz gambled early on Molasky, Allard Roen (son of Frank Rosen, Moe’s old pal in the Ohio gambling rackets), and Merv Adelson. For many years Dalitz worked out of the Paradise Development office on Maryland Parkway across from Sunrise Hospital, the medical center he was largely responsible for funding and constructing. His financial backing and philosophical mentoring led to a variety of business successes, including the Rancho La Costa Country Club community near San Diego and Lorimar Productions television and feature film studio. Although years later more than one of Moe’s protégées would downplay their controversial benefactor’s influence, there was no denying Dalitz had been a big man in the lives of many young businessmen who made their millions in the new Las Vegas.

The La Costa project became controversial after a Penthouse expose called it a Teamsters-financed haven for the mob. The 5,600-acre facility was deemed “La Costa: Syndicate in the Sun” by respected investigative journalists Jeff Gerth and Lowell Bergman and resulted in a half-billion-dollar libel suit against the magazine. Although Dalitz could be thin-skinned and rarely missed an opportunity to lament his fate as a man who continued to suffer for half-century-old sins, Molasky and the rest had more to lose. They fought on even after Dalitz’s claim was dismissed from the lawsuit on the grounds he was libel-proof. The result was a letter in which neither party admitted wrongdoing, and in the end a court ruled the article had not demonstrably maligned either Dalitz or his younger partners.

The article, however, appeared to have another effect on the aging Solomon of Vegas casino kings. It forced the Gaming Control Board, ever reluctant to publicly criticize Dalitz for political reasons, to open an investigation into whether the founding father of the modern Strip was suitable to hold a casino license. The hypocrisy was thick, but in the end mob killer-turned-informant Aladena “Jimmy the Weasel” Fratianno testified that Dalitz was heavily influenced by the Chicago Outfit. Of course, not all mobsters agreed with that depiction. New Jersey mob boss Angelo “Gyp” DeCarlo expressed awe at Dalitz’s power, influence, and independent holdings in Las Vegas. The Jewish gambler had done what so many of his Italian counterparts had not: paid his taxes and reinvested his profits. DeCarlo noted sagely that Dalitz was the key to the Teamsters’ pension fund loans in Las Vegas. One of Moe’s most devoted friends once said, “If Moe told them to make somebody a loan, they made the loan.” And by the 1980s it didn’t take a secret wiretap to understand that.

Under pressure from national critics in the media and law enforcement, state gaming regulators persisted. Dalitz’s gaming license had been “grandfathered” in back in 1950. Although he’d occasionally been seen with spiffy hoodlums like Johnny Rosselli, and was fast friends with suspected killers Irving Devine and Peanuts Donolfo, he was also a legitimate taxpayer who gave to charity, was responsible for a long list of developments, and was the B’nai B’rith Man of the Year.

Molasky said, “He tried to be low-profile, believe it or not. These dime store novels and myths written about him… he was tarnished with that all of his life.”

Added former Stardust General Manager Herb Tobman, “He never turned me down for anything charitable. I was in awe of meeting him. As far as I’m concerned, he was a great man. Moe’s charity is legendary around this town. There has never been a greater influence on this city.”

Dalitz’s legacy was also safe with Roen, who’d become a multimillionaire through his association with Paradise Development.

“He was always in the forefront of charitable and civic drives,” Roen recalled. “I to this day do not remember him ever turning a charity down. It was always his contention that Las Vegas has been good to us, we want to give something back to Las Vegas.”

After being dismissed from the Penthouse trial, Dalitz slid toward retirement. His status in proper Las Vegas society had eroded with the renewed criticism, and so he kept a small circle of friends, traveled occasionally in his custom RV bus, ate at the Country Club and later for breakfast Mr. T’s café, and slid toward the sunset.

And every few years, his name would be invoked in a book on Las Vegas. His image took a beating from federal law enforcement. The view of retired FBI agent-turned-author Bill Roemer was typical of many of his fraternity.

“During his days in Cleveland, Dalitz became close to many of the mobsters around the country,” Roemer wrote in The Enforcer. “These included Frank Costello, Longy Zwillman, Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, Lucky Luciano, Boo Hoff, Angelo Bruno, Joe Bonanno, Carlo Gambino, Albert Anastasia, and many others from the East. He also got close to Frank Nitti, Jake Guzik, Murray Humphries, Paul Ricca and Tony Accardo in Chicago. All recognized a keen intellect in Dalitz.”

“Some people say Dalitz built Las Vegas,” Roemer allowed. “He certainly became one of the town’s leading citizens. I can understand the reverence with which some there hold him. If you understand how he got there, why he got there, and who he represented when he got there you might put a different spin on the story.”

About the time of the Penthouse trial, Dalitz was lamenting his fate to a friend, Las Vegas advertising executive Marydean Martin, who was in charge of public relations for Paradise Development.

“Moe almost never complained, but he was feeling down,” Martin recalled.

“He said, ‘I’ll bet your grandpa drank whiskey,’ and I said that he did. ‘I’m the guy who made the whiskey, and I’m considered the bad guy. When does the time ever come that you’re forgiven?’”

But by that point in his life, Dalitz knew the answer.

“I said, ‘I don’t know.’ It was one of the very few times he ever said anything about it.”

Many years after his death, Dalitz’s friends continued to carefully guard his memory.

“He was fun,” Martin recalled. “He would laugh. It doesn’t fit the image some people have of him, but he had a good sense of humor. He was generous and loyal to his friends and family. He was a total, old-fashioned gentleman. He had manners, old-school manners. He was polite. He didn’t swear in front of women, and he treated women like ladies. Waitresses, me, (Las Vegas elected official) Thalia Dondero.”

Dondero was so sensitive about her old friend that when he approached her during a political campaign and said he’d understand if she wouldn’t be seen with him given his reputation, she replied, “If I can’t be friends with you, Moe, I don’t want to be the mayor.”

Near the end of his life, the wheelchair-bound Dalitz became a forgotten man to all but his closest friends.

When a group decided to have a picnic in the mountains outside Las Vegas and invited Dalitz, the tough old former rumrunner and casino titan was quick to accept. Martin wondered to her friend Tobman about how long it had been since anyone invited Moe Dalitz to a picnic.

“I’d guess never,” Tobman said.

Dalitz stayed for hours and told stories long into the night.

When he died, Moe Dalitz was heralded for his accomplishments in business and his life’s many charitable works. Outsiders and FBI men could think what they wished, but in Las Vegas he would always be remembered as the benevolent godfather.

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