Guy McAfee (1888-1960)
Desperate to lure people to the state, Nevada legislators legalized gambling in 1931. Even so, Las Vegas remained a dusty saloon town full of small-time gambling operations. Guy McAfee embodied the casino owner of his day.
McAfee, known around town as "the Captain," served for years as commander of the Los Angeles Police Department 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.
In the 1920s and early 30s, while his wife worked as a high-profile Hollywood madam, McAfee operated a busy and lucrative circuit of gambling houses. His connections with mobsters and position with the L.A.P.D. proved invaluable, making him privy to inside information and especially lucky in his ability to stay one step ahead of raids.
Bowron Cleans Up L.A.
But in the late 1930s, Judge Fletcher Bowron was elected as the new mayor of Los Angeles. Bowron had campaigned heavily on a platform pledging to clean up Los Angeles' sordid underworld that had been allowed to flourish for the last two decades. Upon his election, Bowron lived up to his promises and began upending longstanding narcotic, prostitution and gambling operations like McAfee's.
As soon as the extent of the police commander's outfit was discovered, McAfee was forced to resign his post and, facing possible legal action, flee the city. Lured both by Las Vegas' proximity to Los Angeles and its permissiveness, McAfee arrived in Las Vegas in 1938.
McAfee Arrives on Highway 91
Eager to pick up his business career where he had left off, the next year, McAfee bought the Pair-O-Dice Club on Highway 91 from owners Frank and Angelina Detra (John Detra, son of the owners, remembers Al Capone visiting his parents, possibly planning to establish operations in Vegas before he was jailed). McAfee renamed the club the "91 Club" (later, it would become part of the Last Frontier), and ever the opportunist, delayed the club's grand opening to coincide with Clark Gable and Ria Langham Clark's infamous divorce in March 1939. McAfee's tie-in with the immense publicity garnered by the Gables' divorce was a public relations coup.
McAfee would continue to build up his interests, arguably the most famous of which was his casino, the Golden Nugget. Upon its completion in 1946, the Golden Nugget was touted as the world's largest casino. Eventually, the Golden Nugget would fall under the ownership of another Las Vegas casino owner, Steve Wynn.
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 a nostalgia for home. McAfee, along with other owners of resorts and clubs along Highway 91, formed a township called Paradise -- in a nod to McAfee's club -- to provide a tax shelter for the resorts along the highway. McAfee called the highway "the Strip" in a reference to the famous Sunset Strip in his old stomping grounds, Los Angeles. The name stuck and today evokes the same recognition that the Sunset Strip did for McAfee.
Gambling Props Up Local Economy
The arrival of McAfee and his cohort 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. Las Vegans began to put ever-increasing emphasis on gambling.
Some Las Vegans still anxiously grappled with the implications of being the sole state in the nation to allow gambling. With the area's lack of natural resources and relatively inhospitable weather conditions, many Las Vegans felt that the chips were stacked against them enough as it was. 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, the city would dwindle. Las Vegans soon realized that they needed gambling for their city to survive.