This is a story of a character in postwar Las Vegas who has seldom been written about. It happened before I was Mamie Van Doren and it has been in and out of my new book. I am presenting it here in multiple parts to I will let you decide whether or not it should be included in Secrets of the Goddess.
Of the many fascinating people I have known, the legendary gambler, Nick the Greek was perhaps one of the most interesting. A true original among the larger than life characters that populated Las Vegas in the 1940s and 1950s, Nick Dandolos was a Greek immigrant who became the most fabled high-stakes gambler, said to have won and lost half a billion dollars in his lifetime.
I was a teenager when I first saw Nick. My father loved to gamble, and I often made the long drive to Las Vegas with my parents. Our favorite place to stay was the Old West-themed El Rancho Vegas, one of the first motel-casinos along Las Vegas Boulevard—the street that would one day be known simply as “The Strip.” Its swimming pool was so close to the highway, you could wave at the passing cars from your lounge chair. My mom and I swam and suntanned there while my dad played poker and shot craps in the casino.
Occasionally I perched on a barstool and watched my dad at the crap table. To the delight of the other gamblers, sometimes I stood next to him and threw the dice. Gamblers love to have pretty girls around the tables and if this one happened to be only a teenager, those were freewheeling days in Vegas when nobody asked and nobody cared.
Often a well-dressed, olive-skinned man with thick dark hair and an expensive cigar, shooting craps an air of quiet self-assurance, would acknowledge me with a smile and a hello. When I asked who he was, my dad whispered, “Oh, that’s Nick the Greek.”
The following year, after appearing in several movies for Howard Hughes’ RKO Studios, I was back at the El Rancho Vegas with my mom and dad. The hotel owner, Beldon Katelman, had a developed a serious crush and offered me a job as a singer with the popular Ted Fio Rito band. I wasn’t especially interested in Beldon, but I was excited to have a chance at performing in Vegas. I assured my parents that I could keep Beldon at bay. They always had a liberal attitude toward my adventures anyway, so a few days later Mom and Dad returned to L.A. and I stayed behind at the El Rancho.
I had used some of the money I earned at RKO to buy a right-hand drive MG TC that once belonged to Humphrey Bogart. My dad drove the car back to Vegas for me the following week. With my car, a little money in the bank, and a paying singing gig, I felt like things were going my way. Paris in the 1920s may have been Hemingway’s moveable feast, but Las Vegas in 1949 was my 24-hour banquet.
Las Vegas in the early 1950s was not the family resort that it would become after Howard Hughes began buying hotels. The large, glitzy casinos were owned and operated largely by crime syndicates. The Mob had first been attracted to this wide place in the desert highway because it provided a means of laundering the money earned though their illegal activities. To the gangster’s delight it became a lucrative profit center in its own right.
Up and down the strip there were bright lights and entertainment at the Last Frontier, the Flamingo, the Desert Inn, the Sahara, and the Thunderbird. When I wasn’t working, I immersed myself in the glamor, danger, and sense of lawlessness that was Vegas back then. Knowing you might catch a glimpse of an infamous gangster like Bugsy Siegel or Al Capone’s cousin, Charlie Fischetti, lent an extra zing of excitement to an evening in the casinos. Nick the Greek navigated easily through this world of mobsters without being one of them. He had their respect because they knew he was honest—at least as honest as any professional gambler was likely to be.
To be continued…
Next time, Nick meets his Lolita Lady Luck.