‘The Green Felt Jungle’–scandalous exposé that utterly defined Las Vegas–turns 60

The Green Felt JungleThere never has been anything else like it in the history of Las Vegas, and it turns 60 years old this year. I’m referring to The Green Felt Jungle. That’s the 1963 book by Ed Reid and Ovid Demaris about mob control of America’s growing gambling mecca. TGFJ became a gigantic international best-seller for years, and the subject of public commentary even longer. Besides a title that quickly added a memorable phrase to the lexicon still used as a synonym for Las Vegas, TGFJ thoroughly colored America’s perception of the city as a dangerous place–but maybe an interesting one worth visiting. The book even managed to play an important role in a presidential election, as well as in civic debates around the country, while helping to change public policy in Nevada.

Although all the major characters–and since the 1980s the Mob–are now gone, the 231-page tell-all remains a rip-roaring good read, even if overwritten in places. TGFJ is the only one of a trio of book-length Las Vegas exposés published in the mid-1960s that has stood the test of time. The book even helps to explain Las Vegas’s continuing difficulty with true economic diversification away from gambling and entertainment.

Written by co-authors simultaneously similar and different, TGFJ was full of innuendo and utterly withering intimate descriptions about some of Las Vegas’s most powerful folks. The book was published at a time when defamation laws were far more favorable for plaintiffs than they are now. But TGFJ, its authors and the publisher, Trident Press of New York and later the Pocket Books unit of Simon and Schuster, never faced a single libel suit, for reasons I’ll explain below.

The book is long out of print. But so many millions of copies were published in its heyday, especially a revised paperback edition in 1964 that included 24 pages of photographs and a 27-page addendum detailing all the hell the book’s hard-cover first edition had caused, that it’s easily available today from used book sites for less than $10.

Here is how TGFJ began:

Las Vegas is a city in statistics only. In every other respect, it is a jungle–a jungle of green-felt crap tables, roulette layouts, and slot machines in which the entire population, directly or indirectly, is devoted to fleecing tourists … They come to gamble or to have a fling or out of curiosity, and Las Vegas embraces them all, eager to satisfy their craving for gambling–or any vice–with a flourish not seen since Cecil B. de Mille’s last Roman spectacle.

And a few pages later:

[Las Vegas] is a live-and-let-live society. That is, you let the hoods live the way they want to live and maybe they’ll let you live. There’s no question about it. The town belongs to the Mob. They have nearly $250 million [$2.5 billion in 2023 dollars] invested in Las Vegas alone (estimated to reach nearly $300 million by the end of 1963–skyscraper additions will provide 5,000 more rooms). Nobody is about to take it away from them.

It only got more readable from there.

Reid and Demaris pulled few punches in describing the mobsters and their associates, even if they were still living. Marshall Caifano was a “pint-sized hood” and “one of the most feared henchmen in Las Vegas … linked to some of the most sensational murders in the underworld.” Morris Barney (Moe) Dalitz, who oversaw the notorious Desert Inn, was a “sanctimonious little mobster from Cleveland” who fancied himself a civil leader but raised money for medical research that cured no illnesses. Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana, whose girlfriend, singer Phyllis McGuire, was a popular Las Vegas Strip performer, had “the cold, reptilian eyes of a professional murderer.” Deceased at the time (from natural causes), mobster Moe Sedway was “a tiny guy with a large nose and moist, close-set eyes, who talked freely from both sides of his mouth.”

Focused on the 15 major casino hotels, TGFJ detailed the hidden interests held by out-of-town mobsters like Meyer Lansky, Frank Costello and a host of others. They reported one establishment, Sands Hotel and Casino, was secretly owned by “gang leaders in Houston, Galveston, St. Louis, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, New York City, Newark, Jersey City, Brooklyn, Boston, Miami and New Orleans.” Details abounded of shady financing for “multimillion-dollar slight-of-hand business deals” from sources like the pension fund controlled by corrupt Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa.

TGFJ described the now-famous tax-evasion ploy known as The Skim: “It is not unusual for a casino to knock off a large amount of cash from the top of the day’s receipts … in a year’s time it totals into the millions; millions of tax-free dollars filtering back to the ‘hidden’ interests in the underworld.”

Readers gasped as leading public figures–Nevada Gov. Grant Sawyer, Clark County Sheriff Ralph Lamb–spoke well and at length of the gambling business and the forces behind it. The clear message was that Las Vegas politicians had been bought off, and cheaply.

A fair amount of the book’s copy concerned sex. In a chapter bluntly entitled “Sex for Sale,” Reid and Demaris wrote, “There are two things Las Vegas has in greater ratio than any other city in the world: money and whores … The green-felt jungle is one huge whorehouse. Of its 64,405 population, a conservative 10% are in one way or another engaged in the pursuit of prostitution.” Such practices were then described in detail. There was a long passage about corruption leading to a police raid on a brothel just outside the city limits on Boulder Highway.

Celebrities regularly made appearances in the pages: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Nat King Cole, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Abbott & Costello.

With no separate footnotes, the book was full of incendiary blind quotes, sweeping opinions and broad generalizations not capable of being fact checked, giving an opening to some then and decades later to question the book’s overall veracity. The account of an unnamed dealer caught cheating the house being beaten and sent to walk barefoot through the desert to Barstow, Calif. (120 miles away), has been derided as implausible. Historians have debunked the book’s claim that the 1940 death of incumbent U.S. Senator Key Pittman took place a few days before Election Day but was covered up by keeping his body on ice in a hotel room bathroom so the governor, a fellow Democrat, could name the replacement. According to later research, the truth was a little different but just as bad. Pittman experienced a severe pre-Election Day heart attack that left him dying, but which was covered up for fear of alienating voters. He expired five days after the election, still allowing the Democratic governor to name his replacement.

TGFJ also contains some passages that haven’t aged well in today’s world. The intelligence of a local Indian tribe was disparaged, and gay life was described as a “perversion.”

But with the fullness of time it is clear today that the major themes of TGFJ–mainly the control and influence of organized crime in Las Vegas–were spot on in their factual bases, even if some of the smaller details were off. One reason is that the book really didn’t break a whole lot of new ground. A huge percent of the good stuff had been revealed in congressional hearings, lawsuits and previous investigative reporting stretching back more than a decade to the Kefauver hearings, which co-author Reid had a hand in jump-starting years earlier. Generally, sourcing was listed in the text. The amount of unattributed factual material–as opposed to opinion or invective–was probably less than 5%.

What TGFJ did mainly was put it all the bad stuff about Las Vegas in one easy-to-read place for a new audience. Accompanying the text was an extensive index and an appendix listing the names and addresses of the more than 250 owners-of-record with their percentage stakes. The book made pretty clear that almost all of them, who had clean records, were fronts for the worst characters in organized crime. The names of some of these front families still grace important Las Vegas institutions.

The book recounted other hard truths time has confirmed. Nevada political boss Norman Biltz was quoted as seeing no merit in diversifying the Nevada’s economy away from gambling. “Nevada must be kept small,” he said. “Let industry go elsewhere. Large industrial payrolls bring in large families, which cost more money in taxes for public services.” Sixty years later, this is still a huge problem facing the state.

Without exactly linking this to the mob, TGFJ included a table (sourced to the FBI Uniform Crime Reports for 1962) suggesting the serious crime rate in Las Vegas was four times the average of the nation’s 154 largest cities. Sixty years later, the serious crime rate in Las Vegas remain considerably above the national average.

The revised edition ended with a new passage about an unnamed player at an unnamed casino who collapsed at a crap table and died but remained under the table while the game played on. Fake news? Well, 59 years later something very similar happened at the Wynn Las Vegas casino in 2022, according to a just-filed lawsuit that named names.

When TGFJ appeared, the Las Vegas casino industry already was under federal investigation. But the book helped create a local reform climate that allowed Paul Laxalt, who became governor in 1967, to begin moving casino ownership away from mobsters hiding behind fronts to more legitimate businessmen like Howard Hughes and then to public corporations. “Out of the green-felt jungle into a gray-flannel suit,” an Associated Press story reported at the time–another nod to the impact of TGFJ.

The book had a long publishing life for several interesting reasons.

Advanced copies were released to the media on November 15, 1963, before the official publication date of December 13 at a price of $4.95. TGFJ immediately started getting wide national attention. But a week later: the Kennedy assassination on November 22, 1963. With a nation suddenly in mourning, media coverage of TGFJ tapered off for the rest of the year.

But this proved to be a big boon. Public interest in the book resumed in early 1964, when many news outlets, making up for lost ground, got around to publishing stories, reviews or simple opinion. Almost all the commentary was overwhelmingly favorable. “Recommended reading,” declared the Arizona Republic. “Best Seller Tells About Bad, Bad, Bad Las Vegas” read the headline over a Kansas City Star story. “A murderous exposé of the Las Vegas hoods” opined gossip columnist Herb Caen in the San Francisco Chronicle. Marveled the Saturday Review, “Considering the material in the book, it is surprising that its two ex-newspapermen authors are still alive.”

This period coincided with the looming 1964 presidential election between the now-incumbent Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson and Republican U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater. TGFJ contained material about Goldwater’s cozy associations with two long-ago-murdered Las Vegas mob associates, Willie Bioff and Gus Greenbaum. This received wide media play. Goldwater was forced to hold well-publicized press conferences denying the close ties, which generated even wider play and more book sales.

Reid and Demaris added more damning Goldwater-Vegas material to the revised paperback edition rushed out during the summer of 1964 and priced at just 75 cents. Columnist Jack Anderson reported that operatives of William Scranton, the more-liberal Pennsylvania governor competing for the Republican nomination against Goldwater, tried to get “a couple of thousand copies” of the paperback edition to distribute to delegates to the upcoming Republican National Convention.

Goldwater frequently threatened to sue for libel. But he never did–nor did anyone else. It certainly didn’t help Goldwater that he admitted past friendships with Bioff and Greenbaum. But a lawsuit by him–or any aggrieved party–would have opened up any plaintiff to mandatory document production and under-oath questioning by lawyers for Reid and Demaris. Indeed, it was reported–and not denied–that advanced copies of TGFJ were sent to Las Vegas people in the book to stir up such litigation, or at least threats of it, for publicity purposes. The authors were supremely confident of their research.

In what looks to me today like an organized campaign, LBJ supporters around the country started writing their local newspapers letters-to-the-editor with advice on how to get the full of truth about Goldwater. Example: “I suggest that everyone thinking about voting for Mr. Goldwater should go to the nearest library and check out the book, ‘The Green Felt Jungle’,” read an anonymous letter published in August in Texas’s Corpus Christi Caller.

Meanwhile, a similar letter-writing campaign took place by Goldwater supporters on behalf of A Texas Looks at Lyndon. That was a self-published paperback attack on LBJ by conservative West Texas rancher and historian J. Evets Haley. Whereas only a small portion of TGFJ dealt with Goldwater–none of it really political–Haley’s screed dealt solely with the perceived deficiencies of LBJ. It wasn’t as accurate about LBJ as TGFJ was about Goldwater, but it was good enough. And the book was priced as low as 30 cents.

The two books each sold millions. Indeed, their own competition became the subject of coverage. “The battle of the books” read one newspaper headline over a column by syndicated columnist John Chamberlain in October 1964.

LBJ, of course, won in a landslide, and Goldwater never ran again for national office. But interest in TGFJ continued for years. It spent nearly six months on the New York Times best-seller list, and years more on other top-book lists. TGFJ far outlasted two other Las Vegas book-length attacks published during that era, Gamblers’ Money: The New Force in American Life, by New York Times reporter Wallace Turner, and Nevada: The Great Rotten Borough, 1859-1964, by historian Gilman Ostrander. TGFJ was frequently cited in far-away debates about the wisdom of allowing legalized gambling.

But in sharp contrast to the national reaction, the Las Vegas public response was far more restrained, perhaps by design, even though the book sold well here. When the advance copies were released released in mid-November 1963, the Las Vegas Review Journal ran several days of top-of-the-front-page stories by managing editor Joe Digles, more or less recounting the book’s major points. Then: nothing. Finally, a month later, on December 10, the RJ ran a story by columnist Forrest Duke reporting the local response was “moods ranging from indifference to outright contempt.” The columnist quoted Governor Sawyer as calling the book “fiction” that was “dull and boring.”

One local exception was Hank Greenspun, the flamboyant founder, publisher and editor of the Las Vegas Sun. He immediately sprung to Las Vegas’s defense around the country. He clearly knew of all the reported mob ties; much had been reported in his own newspaper in stories written by TGFJ co-author Reid. But the casinos bought lots of ads in his paper. He was favorably depicted in TGFJ. But after reading the galleys, he fired Reid shortly before TGFJ appeared, saying his subordinate was using unverified material from the paper’s files. Decades later, Hank Greenspun’s son, Brian Greenspun, who took over the Sun, denounced TGFJ as fiction but acknowledged it was “a very interesting and most exciting book to read.”

Records of any other planning for an coordinated PR response to TGFJ in Las Vegas are lost to history. Founded in 1955 by the Nevada Legislature, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority then and now is the area’s chief cheerleader. Since it’s a government agency, earlier this year I filed a Nevada Public Records Act request for all files mentioning TGFJ, Reid and Demaris. The only material of substance produced was three publicity photos of co-author Reid sitting at a typewriter surrounded by Vegas show girls.

The mob highers-up with Las Vegas interests were more furious and worried that the book could lead to further financial probing by government investigators, especially of the fronts, killing their cash cows. Writing 10 years ago in the weekly Vegas Seven, Gambling and Hospitality Editor David G. Schwartz quoted a witness claiming that no less a personage than national mob boss Meyer Lansky himself, then on the lam and though to be abroad, sneaked into Las Vegas and convened a meeting in the coffee shop of the Fremont Hotel and Casino about TGFJ. The upshot, according to Schwartz’s source: Mob flunkies kept quiet, especially after Lt. Gov. Cliff Jones sent word that the clean-record fronts wouldn’t be investigated as long as they actually owned the interests, even if they kicked back any profits to others.

Decades after publication, Las Vegas developer Merv Adelson, characterized in TGFJ as a front man for Dalitz, told Vanity Fair writer Bryan Burrough that exposure prompted him to leave Las Vegas. “I wanted to get away from the Mafia,” he said. Adelson relocated to California, where he became a successful developer and Hollywood producer–and twice husband to the television personality Barbara Walters–before losing it all and dying broke in 2015.

Journalist/author Susan Berman, who spent part of her childhood in Las Vegas, wrote in 1981 that it was while she was a UCLA student she learned from the newly published TGFJ that her dead-from-natural-causes father, former Flamingo proprietor David Berman, had been a mobster who, the book said, could “kill a man with one hand.” (Susan Berman herself was murdered in Los Angeles in 2000, and authorities initially thought her death might have had something to do with organized crime, especially since she herself had written two books touching on the Vegas mob scene. As it turned out, she was killed by a friend–New York real estate heir and non-mobster Robert Durst–to cover up her role hiding his own role in the earlier disappearance and likely murder of his wife. Durst was finally convicted of the Berman murder in 2021 after incriminating himself in the the HBO miniseries “The Jinx.”)

Ex-Las Vegas mayor Oscar Goodman, who moved from the East Coast to Las Vegas in 1964 to begin what would be a celebrated career as a defense lawyer for mobsters, told Vegas Seven’s Schwartz he started telling folks back home he worked in Phoenix.

While not nearly as lurid, the story of TGFJ’s two authors and how the book came to be also makes for a good compare and contrast yarn.

The initial idea for TGFJ came from co-author Ed Reid (1915-1988). A New York native and high school dropout, he wrangled a job at age 18 on the Brooklyn Eagle. He wrote about organized crime and public corruption. Working off a tip he heard in a bar, Reid became the lead reporter at age 36 when the Eagle shared the 1951 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for exposing a huge bookmaking operation paying off cops and public officials. The ensuing brouhaha led to government investigations plus many convictions, firings, early retirements and and forced resignations, including that of New York City Mayor William O’Dwyer.

Despite his rough, unschooled upbringing, according to a 1951 St. Louis Post-Dispatch profile written by Peter Wyden (father of future U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon), Reid pursued such arcane hobbies as raising falcons, writing poetry and cultivating orchids. He lived comfortably in a leafy New York City suburb and held a pilot’s license. Following his Pulitzer, he wrote two books about the New York mob, Mafia and The Shame of New York. But after 20 years on the Eagle, he moved with his wife (a former model) and two pre-teen kids to Las Vegas in 1954 to take a reporting job on Greenspun’s Las Vegas Sun. Among other tasks, he helped Greenspun beat back libel suits by setting up sting operations. Reid has been alternatively described as likable or abusive. He was said to enjoy Las Vegas night life, although he was once beaten up by two men outside the Desert Inn. His marriage fell apart. Some critics later speculated he eventually developed a grudge against the city.

In 1961, Reid published his third book, Las Vegas: City Without Clocks. It was essentially an upbeat travel guide about how to enjoy Las Vegas, with only a little edge and almost nothing critical to say. For example, the assertion in TGFJ that Las Vegas is “devoted to fleecing tourists” does not appear. Indeed, in the spirit of the book’s light touch, the back cover contained one of those publicity photos of Reid surrounded by showgirls. However, on page 213 of the 217-page book, Reid finally quoted a New York newspaper columnist as writing, “The mob still controls the casinos and they are an ornery bunch.”

Published by Prentice-Hall, the book led directly to Reid’s next big project. For on October 30, 1961, an RJ gossip columnist blurbed, “Ed Reid’s ‘City Without Clocks’ has sold out, and the popular book goes into its second printing. Reid has signed a contract with Simon and Schuster to publish his next tome about Las Vegas, ‘The Green Felt Jungle.’ ”

This apparently was the first published reference anywhere to the name of the book that would rock Las Vegas to its core barely two years later. A phrase was born.

Four years younger than Reid, Ovid Demaris (1919-1998) also had a hard journalism background, but with a lot more formal education and travel. A native of a small mill town in Maine, he graduated from the College of Idaho, spent five years in the Air Force, thought about studying law, but switched to journalism, earning a master’s from Boston University. Demaris worked for the United Press wire service and local newspapers. He started writing magazine articles and short stories and even taught school. Two years before Reid, Demaris relocated from the East Coast to Los Angeles with his wife (to whom he would be married for 56 years) and two kids. Eventually, he worked four years for the Los Angeles Times. On the side, he wrote a dozen suspense novels for paperback, with names like Ride The Gold Mare, The Lusting Drive and The Gold-Plated Sewer. Demaris also cranked out a non-fiction book about the mob boss Lucky Luciano. Demaris finally quit daily journalism to concentrate on books.

In 1961 he traveled to Las Vegas to work on his next book, a non-fiction account about mobster Benjamin (Bugsy) Siegel. Demaris was put in touch with Reid, who also had a long interest in the mob. Demaris said it was Reid “who proposed getting together to do a book on the town’s casinos,” the Los Angeles Times reported years later.

In 1963, with Reid apparently doing most of the reporting and Demaris most of the writing, publishing history was made. There’s a long passage about Bugsy Siegel in TGFJ, even though he had been murdered 16 years before the book’s appearance and his life played little role in what Las Vegas would become.

But after publication of TGFJ, it seems the authors largely went their separate ways. In early 1964 they did appear together in New York on David Susskind’s nationally syndicated TV talk show “Open End” to debate Greenspun, an encounter that drew wide notice. But the paperback version of TGFJ released a few months later contained a picture of Reid and Demaris at that appearance with a strange caption calling it “one of the only photographs of both co authors … together.”

Reid moved back to New York City. But he returned a year later to Las Vegas to marry his second wife–an event noticed by wire services–and then settled in Los Angeles. He wrote three nonfiction paperback books with mob themes: biographies of Los Angeles mobster Micky Cohen and mob moll Virginia Hill (described in TGFT as having been “between the sheets with about every top hoodlum in the country”) and an overview on organized crime in America. Ailing, he moved in 1987 to the Minneapolis area where his wife grew up and died a year later at age 73. In his prime he had been one of the country’s best known journalists, not to mention authors, but his passing received little attention.

The dapper, more urbane Demaris went on post-TGFJ to have a prominent lucrative career, writing for major magazine outlets and becoming a contributing editor of Parade Magazine. He eventually wrote a total of more than 30 books, including best sellers The Boardwalk Jungle, about Atlantic City after the opening of legal casinos there in 1978 (which I covered as a journalist in my pre-New To Las Vegas life), and The Last Mafioso, about mob hitman Jimmy (The Weasel) Fratianno, later turned into a big-budget movie. ”I’m the only man still alive who has written three best sellers on the mob,” Demaris told The New York Times in 1981 from his home in Santa Barbara, Calif. ”I’m making more money out of the mob than they’re making.” Demaris became the subject of print and TV profiles. He outlived Reid by a decade, dying in 1998 after a brief illness while visiting his Maine hometown at age 78. His passing was widely noted.

Reid and Demaris only worked together for barely two years. But the product they produced at the expense of Las Vegas has lasted a lot longer.

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