What’s buried here, stays here: the few famous graves of Las Vegas (Part 3)

famous Las Vegas graves

Moe Dalitz memorial, Palm Memorial Cemetery, Las Vegas

Welcome to Part 3 of my occasional series about the few famous graves of Las Vegas and why they are here. Part 1 dealt with athletes: boxer Sonny Liston, baseball pitcher Bo Belinsky and tennis star Pancho Gonzales. Part 2 concerned two prominent entertainers: movie star Tony Curtis and TV star Redd Foxx.

The conceit of this series is simple for someone like me who is New To Las Vegas. The populous Las Vegas area is the final resting spot of a very small number of individuals, probably no more than a score, whose fame could be described as enduring and widespread beyond the local area. This is possibly attributable to Las Vegas’s relative youth as a city–just 115 years old–not long enough for a lot of famous people to be buried here. But it’s also possible that for the longest time, lots of locally prominent individuals, or their next-of-kin, preferred that Las Vegas not be their forever home.

Perhaps surprisingly, this seems to be especially true of one notable sector of Las Vegas’s storied past: organized crime, those associated with organized crime, and other ne’er-do-wells. It is generally agreed Las Vegas would not be the gambling and entertainment powerhouse it has become without the help starting 75 years ago of a coterie of wrong-side-of-the-law folks, generally from East Coast and Midwest-based organized crime families, and their hangers-on, plus free-lancers. With the assistance of a little muscle, the mobsters saw a chance to rake off substantial tax-free profits from casino gambling–the now-legendary “skim.” The ploy lasted for a half-century.

In researching this post, I assembled a list of about 50 individuals historically connected with Las Vegas identified as being prominent in organized crime; associated a bit too closely with mobsters, often as fronts or even girlfriends; or infamous for their reputations. Maybe 40 ended up putting down their, uh, permanent roots elsewhere. No more than 10 of the 50 are buried in Las Vegas, and of this group, perhaps four have achieved a certain amount of continuing fame.

So this article, part of a continuing series, is as much about who’s not buried here.

Despite a local stay of only two years, Benjamin (Bugsy) Siegel is probably the most famous Las Vegas mobster in history. That’s due to his flamboyant role in developing the seminal Flamingo Hotel, the 1991 movie Bugsy (Warren Beatty played him), and Siegel’s still officially unsolved murder at age 41 while sitting in his girlfriend’s house in Beverly Hills in 1947. No Vegas resting spot for him: Siegel is planted in Los Angeles’s Hollywood Forever Cemetery. That girlfriend, Virginia Hill (played in Bugsy by Annette Bening), ended up in Austria, where she died in 1966 at age 49 in what was ruled a suicide,. Hill is buried in Aigen Cemetery in Salzberg.

David (Davie) Berman, another newcomer mobster with a violent past who may have had a hand in plotting Siegel’s killing, took over the Flamingo (and later the Riviera) and achieved some local respectability in local society. After a decade in Las Vegas, he died in 1957 in a suburban Henderson hospital following colon surgery at age 54. Berman had a big Las Vegas funeral. But he was buried in Los Angeles in House of Peace Memorial Park. Decades later, Berman was joined there by his daughter, Susan Berman. She had spent part of her childhood in Las Vegas and as a journalist wrote lovingly about her dad and Las Vegas mob culture in a 1981 memoir, Easy Street: The True Story of a Mob Family. At age 55, Susan Berman was murdered gangland-style (a bullet in the back of the head) in Los Angeles in 2000 by Robert Durst, the New York real estate heir trying to cover up his role (with her help) in the unsolved 1982 disappearance of his wife. Durst was finally convicted of the Susan Berman killing last year and died in prison earlier this month.

During his 15 years in Las Vegas, sports betting whiz and mob associate Frank (Lefty) Rosenthal secretly ran four mobbed-up casinos involved in the skim, survived a 1982 assassination attempt that was never solved and was banned for life from Nevada casinos. He became famous as the model for the Robert De Niro character in the 1995 movie Casino. Rosenthal eventually moved to Florida, where he died of a reported heart attack at age 79 in 2008. But according to FindAGrave.com, he’s buried in in Visitation Cemetery, in Norfolk, N.Y., near the Canadian border. His ex-wife, showgirl/topless dancer Geri McGee (played in Casino by Sharon Stone) died a month after the assassination attempt on Rosenthal in Los Angeles, where she grew up, at age 46 of what was ruled an accidental drug overdose. She’s buried in Mount Sinai Memorial Park there. Four years later, Anthony (Tony the Ant) Spilotro, a Chicago Outfit enforcer in Las Vegas famous for his nickname who had an affair with McGee, was played by Joe Pesci in Casino and also was banned from Nevada casinos, was found murdered in an Indiana cornfield at age 48. A number of Chicago gangsters were later convicted of the crime. Spilotro is buried in the Chicago suburb of Hillside, in Queen of Heaven Cemetery, also home to maybe a half-dozen other organized crime members.

But let’s continue our Vegas tour with two who are in eternal rest here.

To students of organized crime, Morris Barney (Moe) Dalitz is a well-known name, although not as famous as some of his early running buddies, like, say, Meyer Lansky. But unlike many other mobsters, Dalitz came to Las Vegas partly to seek respectability over his earlier career, in his case as a Midwest bootlegger and proprietor of illicit gambling operations.

Born in Boston in 1899, Dalitz was raised in Michigan where his family ran a laundry business. As he turned 20, Prohibition began, creating a giant business opportunity for someone with access to trucks to move illegal hooch from Canada. When Prohibition ended in 1933, Dalitz started running illegal casinos in Kentucky and Ohio. He became associated with the Cleveland mob on top of his long-standing ties with East Coast mobster like Lansky and Charles (Lucky) Luciano. But for all of his racketeering and running with the wrong crowd, Dalitz was never convicted a crime.

This clean-on-paper record proved to be a giant asset when Dalitz relocated to Las Vegas after World War II as the eyes and ears of Cleveland hoodlums. Despite state licensing requirements of good character and background, he ended up managing several casinos that evaded taxes by skimming casino winnings before counting and sending profits to Cleveland. Most notable were the Desert Inn and the Stardust Resort and Casino. The Stardust skim, in particular, was so infamous that the facility was the inspiration for the mobbed-up model depicted in the movie Casino. In their eye-opening 1963 book, The Green Felt Jungle, Ed Reid and Ovid Demaris called Dalitz “a sanctimonious little mobster from Cleveland.” Decades later, true-crime writer Michael Newton published a book entitled Mr. Mob: The Life and Crimes of Moe Dalitz.

Yet Dalitz–astonishingly–largely succeeded in his goal of developing a terrific personal image. In Las Vegas, he became a philanthropist, giving away a lot of money to good causes. Dalitz was a civic leader, a mover-and-shaker, a friend of politicians, someone who regularly attended synagogue. He had a hand in developing shopping centers, convention centers, UNLV and other casinos. Dalitz was one of three co-founders of what is now Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center (currently enmeshed in claims it, too, hosed the Federal Government). In 1976 the American Cancer Research Center and Hospital named Dalitz “humanitarian of the year.” Indeed, when he passed–in his bed–in 1988 at age 89, the Las Vegas Sun called him “Las Vegas’s most distinguished citizen for four decades.”

So in death Moe Dalitz had no reason to leave Las Vegas, which had been very, very good to him. After a service at Congregation Ner Tamid, he was laid to rest in Palm Memorial Park, 7600 S. Eastern Ave. His simple memorial in the Garden of Eternal Peace section bears a Star of David with the inscription, “Beloved father and friend.”

Also buried at Palm Memorial is someone I’m including on this mob-themed list not for membership but association: Phyllis McGuire. For 16 years the famous singer, centerpiece of the McGuire Sisters trio, was the girlfriend of the notorious Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana. The relationship greatly affected her career.

Born in 1931 in Ohio, where she was raised, Phyllis, and her older sisters Ruby and Dorothy, began singing together in church when Phyllis was just four years old. Eventually, the three, styled in identical dresses, white gloves and hairdos, found regional audiences with their close-harmony renditions of pop music. They hit the big time in the early 1950s when Arthur Godfrey repeatedly put them on his morning TV show.  Hit records and big tours followed, including performances in Las Vegas.

In 1959, four years after the end of a brief marriage, McGuire met Giancana in Las Vegas while she was performing with her sisters at the Desert Inn and fell in love despite their 22-year age difference and Giancana’s continuing catting around. A widower, he had just become boss of the notorious Chicago Outfit (once run by Al Capone) and spent time in Vegas looking after his organization’s hidden interests in a number of casinos (including the Desert Inn). McGuire later told a reporter she initially didn’t know the details of Giancana’s bloody career. Perhaps she learned more a year later when Giancana, too, was banned for life from Nevada casinos. Two years later, in 1962, he reportedly joined with the CIA in an unsuccessful plot to overthrow Fidel Castro, who, upon coming power in 1959, had shut the mob’s lucrative casinos in Havana. (Ironically, that action heightened organized-crime interest in Las Vegas, where gambling long was legal.)

The McGuire-Giancana affair was explicitly mentioned in 1963 in The Green Felt Jungle (“Sam’s relationship with Phyllis is not exactly a state secret. He has pursued her all around the world …”) It received even more attention in 1965 when McGuire was called to testify before a Chicago grand jury investigating Giancana’s racketeering. She pleaded ignorance. Giancana, who refused to talk, went to jail for a year for contempt of court, then fled to Mexico for eight years–where McGuire regularly visited him–during which time he was ousted as the Chicago Outfit boss. The year after his 1974 return to the States, Giancana was famously murdered in the basement of his home in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park as he was making a sausage dinner. Giancana was 67. No one was ever charged in the killing. (Giancana is buried in Mount Carmel Catholic Cemetery, also in Hillside Ill., the final home of more than 20 other mobsters–including Capone.)

McGuire acknowledged that public awareness of her relationship with Giancana contributed to the dissolution of the McGuire Sisters act in 1968. The revelation “really hurt our career,” she told the Chicago Tribune in 1989. “We were blacklisted for a while on TV. . . . We were America’s sweethearts, and for one of America’s sweethearts to be with that man . . . ” But she was able to develop a solo singing career in Las Vegas and elsewhere. In 1986 the sisters got back together and performed for another 20 years.

It was during Giancana’s Mexican exile that, in 1967, McGuire built an over-the-top 28,000-square foot mansion in Las Vegas’s swank Rancho Circle neighborhood complete with a 45-foot-high replica of the Eiffel Tower, a swan moat–and bulletproof windows. She lived there the rest of her life, where she was quite accepted by Las Vegas society. In 2005 she became the third person inducted into the Hall of Fame at UNLV’s College of Fine Arts. But in her later years McGuire became rather reclusive, with some thinking she was worried about her own security from the Giancana connection.

The last surviving McGuire sister, she died in 2020 at age 89. Phyllis’s remains are in Palm Memorial’s Meditation Columbarium section. Also in the plot is her oldest sister, Ruby, who died in 2018, and Edward (Tiger Mike) Davis, an oilman who was Phyllis’s last companion until his death in 2016. The memorial is adorned with musical notes.

More to come.

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