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THE MEN WHO MADE LAS VEGAS - GUY MCAFEE

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by BYRON CRAFT

He was the “Guy” who gave one of the world’s most renowned streets its famous nickname.  He helped define the high-end watering hole in Las Vegas and changed the face of Fremont Street by opening the Golden Nugget, but he may be best known for unofficially naming Las Vegas Boulevard “the Strip.”

Guy McAfee cruised into Las Vegas in 1939 on a road paved by his crooked dealings as a Los Angeles police officer.  McAfee was known around L.A. as “the Captain.”  He served for years as commander of the Police Department’s vice squad.  While heading the vice squad, McAfee simultaneously pursued a profitable life in the underground.  He owned saloons and brothels and had ties to organized crime.  He became a power player in the LAPD’s purity squad, which took aim at a trio of local offenses:  alcohol, gambling and prostitution.  McAfee cleaned up.  He accepted bribes from illegal business owners and in the 1920’s and early 30’s, while his wife worked as a high-profile Hollywood madam, McAfee operated busy and lucrative gambling houses.  His connections with mobsters and his position on the police force proved invaluable, making him privy to inside information that enabled him to stay one step ahead of raids.

He and a growing gang of thugs, mostly fellow law enforcement employees and some that were Los Angeles politicians such as Mayor Frank Shaw, all had their hands on the purity pulse, as well as the purses of organized crime.  McAfee’s associations kept him mostly out of trouble, aside from various investigations and a rumored 1931 link to the murder of two rival businessmen.  McAfee was never charged with the crime.  He ran the Clover Club on the City of Angels’ Sunset Strip and catered to wealthy patrons.  It was the Prohibition era and the club was outfitted with reversible gambling tables in case of police raids.  But it didn’t always work;  police once found a half dozen roulette tables in a raid, along with 300 people in the casino.  Guy McAfee often was referred to as the Overlord of the Gaming Tables.

The days of the “Overlord” were coming to an end though, because by the late 1930’s, Judge Fletcher Bowron was elected as the new mayor of Los Angeles.  Bowron had campaigned on a platform pledging to clean up Los Angeles’ sleazy underworld that had flourished for two decades.  Upon his inauguration, Bowron lived up to his promises and began overturning longstanding narcotics, prostitution and gambling operations such as McAfee’s.  As soon as the magnitude of the police commander’s outfit was discovered, McAfee was forced to resign his post.  Newspapers, at the time, reported that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and U.S. Attorney General Frank Murphy questioned McAfee about crimes in L.A.  Facing possible legal action, McAfee fled the city.  

Meanwhile, back in Nevada, legislators were desperate to lure people to the state.  There was very little revenue in the desert province.  Since at that time there was no state with legalized gambling, they made it lawful in the 1930’s, in hopes of creating a tourist industry and to capitalize on the thousands of workers constructing the Hoover Dam.  Many Nevadans anxiously grappled with the implications of being the sole state in the union to allow gambling.  With the area’s lack of natural resources and relatively inhospitable weather conditions, scores of residents believed that the chips were stacked against them.  Encouraging activities that further soured Americans’ opinions was the last thing they wanted to do, but without the revenue generated by gambling and its associated businesses, Las Vegas would dwindle.  The future Sin City soon realized that they needed gambling for their city to survive.

Even so, Vegas remained a dusty little saloon town full of smalltime gambling operations.  Lured both by Las Vegas’ proximity to Los Angeles and its atmosphere of indulgence, Guy McAfee arrived in Las Vegas in 1938.  The arrival of McAfee and his second wife, former film actress June Brewster, greatly aided Las Vegas in developing its gambling economy.  McAfee had not changed, but Los Angeles, under Mayor Bowron did;  Las Vegas allowed him to prosper legally with the skills he had.  McAfee already had a reputation in Vegas.  People in Las Vegas knew who Guy McAfee was before he made his advent there.  Guy McAfee embodied the casino owner of his day and Las Vegas started to put an ever-increasing emphasis on gambling.  Upon arriving in Vegas, McAfee said in an interview:

        "I came to Las Vegas, because I’m happily married, have a great-sized stake, and have decided to operate in a community where my business of gambling is a legal proposition.  I’m not saying the Bowron administration made it too hot for me, for that wouldn’t be strictly true.  I’ve cut myself a slice of a new kind of life.  Get this straight, no one ran me out of Los Angeles.  I’m pulling out because I want to and no other reason."

Eager to pick up his business career where he had left off, the following year McAfee bought the Pair-O-Dice Club on Highway 91, which is now Las Vegas Boulevard, from the owners Frank and Angelina Detra.  John Detra, the son of the owners, remembered Al Capone visiting his parents, planning to establish operations in Vegas before he was jailed.  McAfee paid about $20,000 for the Pair-O-Dice Club.  By then, he reportedly held $1 million in assets from California.  He invested in refurbishing and improving the old Pair-O-Dice to meet the opulent standards of southern California clubs.  McAfee renamed the club the “91 Club” and entertained the high-end clientele he had treated at the Clover Club.

Always the opportunist, Guy delayed the club’s grand opening to coincide with Clark Gable’s infamous divorce in March of 1939.  Gable was married at the time to oil heiress Ria Langham and was having an affair with Carole Lombard.  The affair was kept quiet.  The situation proved a major obstacle in Gable accepting the role of Rhett Butler in “Gone with the Wind”, but MGM head Louis B. Mayer sweetened the deal for a reluctant Gable, by giving him the money to settle a divorce agreement with Langham and marry Lombard.  The news got out and went viral in those days.  And, of course, Ria Langham had arrived in January 1939 to begin proceedings in Las Vegas, long enough to establish residency (6 weeks), in order to obtain a Nevada quickie divorce.  While Langham was in Vegas, McAfee opened the 91 Club to capitalize on the national media spotlight on her divorce from Gable…a public relations coup. 

But McAfee’s reputation preceded him.  Nevada’s then governor, Edward P. Carville, called Clark County District Attorney Roland Wiley and declared that someone of McAfee’s infamy should not run a Nevada casino.  Wiley’s response, which was typical of the time, was that he could do nothing, because McAfee’s illegal gambling activities in California were legal in Nevada.  McAfee believed his new club would succeed, because motorists from southern California, a market he knew, would use the highway and stop in Las Vegas.  He expected to attract some of the same well-heeled people who gambled at his backroom clubs in Los Angeles.  McAfee liked to tell others he foresaw a string of clubs and casinos someday opening alongside his place on the highway.

McAfee had a strong desire to be legitimate.  He was tired of being investigated and fodder for the scandal sheets.  He came to Vegas because gambling and selling alcohol were legal.  McAfee eventually sold the club to businessman R.E. Griffith, who built the Last Frontier around Club 91.  McAfee set his energy to businesses on Fremont Street.  McAfee opened the Frontier Club and a swanky bar called the Mandalay Room adjacent to it.  The Mandalay had a South Seas theme and a storm-weathered, wooden dock-like façade and bamboo rails leading up a ramp to the entrance.  McAfee’s Mandalay served tropical drinks and had an interior feature unique to the town, especially for 1940, a simulated “tropical storm” with raindrops falling amid faux lightning and thunder that patrons could watch from booths and a forty-five-foot bar.  The Mandalay Room also was a stab at appeasing his second wife, June.  June Brewster McAfee hated Las Vegas.  She had been a star in New York in a sexy revue and had a successful career in Hollywood before meeting Guy.  She loved the nightlife and the big city, and even Hollywood was a step down for her from New York City.  Las Vegas was a dump, as far as she was concerned.  Despite her woes, her husband kept expanding his business empire.

In 1945, McAfee acquired the SS Rex, later renamed Benny Binion’s Horseshoe.  Still known in Hollywood, McAfee convinced film idols such as William Powell and Cary Grant to come to Las Vegas to see his casinos.  Less than a decade after moving to Las Vegas, McAfee was the city’s veritable gambling kingpin, mostly on Fremont Street.  His largest undertaking and arguably the most famous was his casino, the Golden Nugget.  McAfee took over a former coffee shop and pool hall at 125 Fremont Street to make room for a casino he dubbed the Golden Nugget Saloon.  For added space, he acquired the old Boulder Drug Store around the corner on First Street.  With $250,000 to spend, he planned to decorate the saloon and casino with items at least fifty years old, except for the neon.  He ordered Victorian-era woodwork, imported Italian marble, and a 120-ton air conditioning system.

In 1946, McAfee opened the Golden Nugget with a décor based on the nineteenth-century Barbary Coast era in San Francisco.  It was the finest gaming hall downtown;  an area nicknamed “Glitter Gulch.”  The Golden Nugget’s casino was the largest in Las Vegas at the time, and Guy McAfee touted it as the “world’s largest casino.”  In 1949, McAfee built a 100-foot high neon sign and proclaimed the Golden Nugget “the brightest nightspot in the world.”

He sold the property years later for an undisclosed sum and eventually, the Golden Nugget would fall under the ownership of another famous Las Vegas casino owner, Steve Wynn.  What’s more, McAfee had a hand in the El Rancho, the first Strip hotel and casino, and The Green Shack, a historic restaurant in the east part of town, as well as other clubs.  He had a piece of all kinds of places all over town and he dominated the city for quite a while.

He had the nickname of “Mack,” which was both for his last name and a French word meaning “pimp”, a double entendre in the truest sense.  He was a hard man and was known for a sardonic sense of humor.  Most photos of Guy McAfee don’t show him smiling;  rather, he usually has a sly look on his face.  Many of his associates believed that he seemed to mellow as he got older.  “He turned into more of a human being at the end of his life,” one said.  McAfee did a lot of charity work by then and was a supporter of the Elks Club’s Helldorado Days.

As an older man, McAfee endured health problems after a fall from a horse while hunting in Elko in the early 1950’s.  Guy McAfee died at the age of 71 in January 1960 at the Sunrise Hospital of complications resulting from surgery.  His obituary was front-page news in the Las Vegas Review-Journal.  

Most histories of Las Vegas catch only a glimpse of Guy McAfee’s life.  There will normally be two or three lines about him.  They will basically say he was a cop on the vice squad and he came here and started a whole bunch of casinos – a sadly inadequate account of someone who did so much for Sin City.  But McAfee’s two most lasting legacies to Las Vegas were not made of bricks and mortar, but rather consisted of an abhorrence of taxes and nostalgia for home.  McAfee, along with other owners of resorts and clubs along Highway 91, formed a township called Paradise, to provide a tax shelter for the resorts along the highway.  He decided the highway system was getting serious enough that it was possible for people to drive to Vegas from L.A.  He had a vision of the future.  McAfee called that highway “the Strip.”  The moniker was a nod to his beginnings on the Sunset Strip.

The Men Who Made Las Vegas is a series by Byron Craft chronicling the growth of Sin City and the men who made it possible.

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