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Las Vegas: An Unconventional History | Article

Herman "Hank" Milton Greenspun (1909-1989)

Hank Greenspun reads the UPI wire feed in the Sun office. Courtesy: The Las Vegas Sun

Herman "Hank" Milton Greenspun was born on August 27, 1909 in Brooklyn, New York, and grew up in a poor neighborhood of New Haven. Greenspun's father, a devout Talmudic scholar, bestowed upon his son a respect for his Jewish heritage that he would carry his entire life. His mother, who ran the family store and at one time bootlegged, taught Greenspun how to stand up for himself.

A Life Lesson
Once, as a youngster, Greenspun was insulted with anti-Semitic slurs when he came to collect money from a customer on his paper route. When Greenspun returned home without his money, his mother marched him back to the neighbor's house and slapped the neighbor repeatedly while Greenspun kicked him in the shins. The next time Greenspun came to collect, the neighbor paid without incident. As Greenspun later recalled, "The episode taught me a lesson I would never forget: cowards generally avoid a target that hits back."

From Law to Business
In school, Greenspun studied law and went to work as a criminal defense lawyer. But he didn't like defending people he believed were guilty and soon quit his law practice to make the transition into business. In 1938 Greenspun founded Vulcan Steel, successfully operating the company for two years before securing, through political connections, two contracts with the Maritime Commission. Constructing Liberty Ship engines for the commission, Vulcan Steel was paid nearly $15 million.

Driving Cross Country
During World War II, Greenspun was drafted into the Army, where he developed an interest in journalism working for the military newspaper. His tour of duty was successful. He reached the rank of captain, earned four battle stars, a commendation from General Eisenhower and the Croix de Guerre. When the war was over, Greenspun moved to New York to return to his law practice. But, in 1946, a friend named Joe Smoot convinced Greenspun to drive down to Las Vegas, where Smoot was hoping to get involved with a racetrack. Greenspun, excited by the potential new business venture, drove to Las Vegas with Smoot. He would make the city his home for the rest of his life.

Public Relations Man
Once in Las Vegas, Greenspun began publishing his own magazine, a small entertainment guide published twice a month called Las Vegas Life. But the publication lost money. Then, in March 1947, when he was 34, Greenspun was hired by Ben "Bugsy" Siegel to help churn out hype for the reopening of Siegel's Flamingo Hotel. Greenspun needed the money and Siegel desperately needed the positive press. Once hired for Siegel, Greenspun gained recognition by writing a weekly column in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Called "Flamingo Chatter," the column was essentially advertising space for Siegel's hotel. Greenspun wrote the column for three months before quitting his job in June 1947 after Siegel was murdered.

Gun Running
A few months after Siegel's death, Greenspun, who had carried a reverence for his Jewish heritage since his childhood, became involved in the Jewish organization Haganah, which was in the midst of fighting to establish the nation of Israel. Greenspun purchased weapons from around the world and smuggled them to Haganah members. His activities were soon discovered, and in 1950 he was fined $10,000 in violation of the Neutrality Act. Although he could have been sentenced to a prison term, the judge overseeing the case, citing Greenspun's "noble motives," did not send him to prison.

Where I Stand
That same year, Greenspun purchased, for $104,000, a faltering newspaper that had been an offshoot of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He called the paper the Las Vegas Sun, Greenspun turned the newspaper into a daily publication. In Las Vegas, the press was used to sway public opinion, and the power of the press was second only to the power of money. With the Las Vegas Sun, Greenspun soon gained political power, particularly from his column, "Where I Stand." His writing attacked politicians and prominent Las Vegans who Greenspun believed had vested interests and less than "noble motives." Using the aggressive tactics he had learned in childhood, Greenspun's column soon became infamous as having the power to make or break a politician.

McCarran and Greenspun
One politician Greenspun's column frequently criticized was Nevada's United States Senator Pat McCarran. McCarran had gained tremendous political power and established many inside connections -- most importantly, in Greenspun's eyes, a connection to the Sun's rival publication the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Greenspun also spoke against McCarran's anti-Semitism and involvement with Senator Joseph McCarthy, referring to McCarthy as "the queer that made Milwaukee famous." At one point, one of Greenspun's columns was accused of inspiring "murder or assassination" against McCarthy, but he was acquitted of the charge.

Unsuccessful Run for Governor
Although he attacked politicians for their connections, Greenspun had his own. In his tenure in Las Vegas, Greenspun helped establish a major Las Vegas newspaper, a cable network and two broadcast stations. One, the CBS affiliate station KLAS-TV, was sold to Howard Hughes in the late 1960s when Hughes wished to control the late-night programming to his liking. In 1961 President John F. Kennedy pardoned Greenspun's felony conviction. The next year, Greenspun ran for governor of Nevada, losing in the Republican primary to Las Vegas' Mayor Oran Gragson.

Mediator and Broker
Greenspun helped shape Las Vegas with his participation in some major events in the city's history. He acted as a mediator in the Moulin Rouge Agreement which called for the desegregation of Las Vegas. He also helped Hughes during his four-year stay in Las Vegas, securing his suites in the Desert Inn, and later, helping him negotiate the purchase of the Desert Inn from co-owner Moe Dalitz.

A Powerful Figure
In November 1963 a fire overtook the Sun's headquarters, including the production plant and the Sun offices. For the next two decades, Greenspun remained a powerful figure in Las Vegas with significant property holdings. In the 1950s the Teamsters in an unsuccessful attempt to keep him quiet had loaned Greenspun money to buy a golf course. He also bought the land which became Green Valley, one of the area's premier suburbs. Greenspun died of cancer in July 1989.

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