Las Vegas has been home to a lot of famous–and infamous–people. But for a place so large, prominent and buzzy, what it isn’t is the final resting place for very many household names. Reasonable folks can differ, but I count eternal homes in the Las Vegas Valley for no more than a score of persons whose fame might be said to be persistent and widespread. And that includes folks associated with Vegas’s storied organized-crime history.
One reason for this might be Las Vegas’s relative youth as a major outpost of civilization. The area’s population in 1900 was just 18 in 1900 (and you can see all their names on a single enumeration page of the U.S. Census by clicking here). Founded in 1905, Las Vegas became the largest U.S. city created in the 20th century. But as late as 1950, the metro area’s population was still under 50,000. It’s 2.3 million now. But people need time to die and be laid to perpetual rest.
Still, it might be safely said that Vegas has a fatal attraction for a certain kind of celebrity. So I have stories to tell. This is the first of an occasional series.
One of the most famous persons interred here is boxing champ Sonny Liston. Charles L. Liston was probably born in 1932 (there was no birth certificate, and the year has moved around in various retellings). After a troubled Arkansas childhood, he went to prison for armed robbery, where he took up boxing. After his release, Liston turned professional. He had an outstanding boxing record–50 wins (39 by knockouts) and just four losses–and for a period was the dominant boxer of his time. During a one-and-a-half year run in the early 1960s Liston was the heavyweight boxing champion of the world.
Then Cassius Clay stunned the world with a technical knockout of the champ in 1964. In 1965, by then Muhammed Ali, he beat Liston again–a first-round knockout so quick a dive was alleged. The scene was immortalized by famous photographs of a preening Ali lording over a fallen Liston in the ring. The next year, Liston moved to Las Vegas. This was a city where he had found some boxing success–and also may have had longstanding mob and other nefarious connections.
Liston was still boxing professionally when, on January 5, 1971, his wife, Geraldine, returned from a two-week trip to find his decomposed body in the main bedroom of their Paradise Palms home near UNLV. He officially was 38 years old and had been dead for maybe nearly a week stretching back into 1970. The coroner ruled natural causes–heart failure and lung congestion, with a touch of heroin in his system. But over the years that decision has been challenged by some who think it was a mob or drug dealer hit.
Whatever the cause, Liston is buried in Davis Memorial Park, 6200 S. Eastern Ave., just east of
McCarran Harry Reid International Airport directly under east-west runway takeoffs and landings. His simple memorial, in Garden of Peace Section A Space 20, reads, “Charles ‘Sonny’ Liston 1932-1970: A Man.” That the exact dates of birth and death are missing might be due to their uncertainty.
As it turns out, Liston’s grave is only six rows from the final resting place of another well-known sports figure with a checkered life, baseball pitcher Bo Belinsky (1936-2001). In 1962, he started out in the bigs with a splash: four straight wins with the Los Angeles Angels, including the first no-hitter ever thrown in Dodger Stadium, where the team played at the time.
It was sort of largely downhill after that. Belinsky quickly became incredibly famous–but more for his friendships with prominent people, off-field partying and womanizing than his pitching. In a nine-year career the left-hander chucked for five teams, including the Philadelphia Phillies, where I watched him as a kid at Connie Mack Stadium decades before becoming New To Las Vegas. His overall win-loss record was an unimpressive 28-51.
After marrying and divorcing Playboy Magazine Playmate of the Year Jo Collins and Weyerhaeuser lumber fortune heiress Jane Weyerhaeuser, abusing alcohol and drugs, and attempting suicide, Belinksy eventually moved in the late 1980s to Las Vegas. He did P.R. work for a car dealership, worked at staying clean and became religious. “Can you imagine finding Jesus Christ in Las Vegas?” Belinsky once marveled. In 2000, he was still popular enough that the minor league Las Vegas Stars had a Bo Belinksy Night at Cashman Field.
He died the next year of a heart attack at age 64. In the headline of its obituary, The New York Times called Belinsky “the Playboy pitcher.” His simple memorial (Garden of Peace Section A Space 31) commemorates his greatest achievement in sports. “No hitter 5/5/62, Robert ‘Bo’ Belinsky,” it reads, next to a cross.
S. Eastern Ave. is sort of the Death Row of Las Vegas. Less than two miles to the south, in Palm Memorial Cemetery, 7600 S. Eastern Ave., lies the remains of yet another famous athlete who fell on hard times: tennis star Pancho Gonzales (1928-1995), whose name was often spelled as Pancho Gonzalez. In his amateur and professional heyday, from 1948 to 1961, the Los Angeles-born Gonzales was the most dominant player in men’s tennis, winning numerous big tournaments and often ranked No. 1 in the world. He played competitively for another dozen years. At times Gonzales also served as a tennis commentator on TV.
He moved to Las Vegas in the late 1960s and became tennis director at Caesars Palace. As S.L. Price wrote in a 2002 Sports Illustrated profile, “There was no more perfect match than Pancho and Vegas: both dark and disreputable, both hard and mean and impossible to ignore.” Described as a ruthless competitor with a fierce temper, Gonzales was a fan favorite but often didn’t get along with tournament sponsors, and companies that hired him for endorsements or teaching–in other words, sources of substantial income. He essentially ran out of money.
Gonzales also had problem with relatives and in-laws. He was married and divorced six times. The last marriage, in 1984, was to Rita Agassi–the older sister of Las Vegas native and future tennis champion Andre Agassi–when Gonzales was 55 and Rita was 23. They had met when Gonzales was coaching her at Caesars. They divorced after five years of marriage in 1989, but remained close.
In 1994, Gonzales developed stomach cancer. He died the next summer at Sunrise Hospital during the Wimbledon tournament–a tennis competition he never won. Gonzales was reportedly estranged from all but one of his nine children.
At Palm Eastern Cemetery, Gonzales’ remains are in Resurrection Garden Space 616 Row C. The sitting bench above his memorial reads in part, “Richard Alonzo Gonzalez. Blessed With Talent By God, A gifted athlete seeking a simple life, loved and missed by his family.” Andre Agassi paid for his funeral.
More to come.