Review: The Curious Life of Nevada’s LaVere Redfield: The Silver Dollar King

The Curious Life of Nevada's LaVere Redfield: The Silver Dollar King
The Curious Life of Nevada’s LaVere Redfield: The Silver Dollar King by Jack Harpster
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

LaVere Redfield was a miserly businessman who lived most of his life in Reno Nevada. He was born in 1897 in Utah, and made his fortune as an investor. His first big financial strikes were in Los Angeles during the roaring 1920s where he invested in drilling syndicates. Although its impossible to tell exactly how he made his fortune in LA, its reasonable to assume based on the evidence there is, that Redfield took some risks and caught a few good breaks. It doesn’t appear that he was an effective manager or inventor. Once he had capital, he became good at re-investing his profits and growing his investment portfolio. In the late 1920s, he cashed out and waited for markets to turn. In the depths of the great depression, he was once again buying stock in listed companies as well as land in and around Reno. He moved to Reno in the 1930s to take advantage of the absence of income tax in Nevada.

The Curious Life of Nevada’s LaVere Redfield by Jack Harpster is an engaging account of Redfield’s life. The author does a great job of telling Redfield’s story. If you’re someone who hangs around reclusive businessmen, or if you are a reclusive businessman yourself, you’ll likely enjoy this book. LaVere Redfield is often referred to as the Howard Hughes of Reno. But although Redfield was much less wealthy, his life is also filled with seemingly fantastic stories surrounding his gambling, philandering, land deals, and hoarding.
I read this book because of my interest in Nevada history, and it was recommended by professor David Schwartz of UNLV, but I also wanted to gain some insight on how other reclusive businessmen operate. By reading this book I learned that if entrepreneurs don’t nurture a small group of trusted friends and professional advisors, their life will be torn apart when they die. After an entrepreneur dies, unless they are careful to make sure their estate is prepared, a lot of hardship will be brought to their heirs. In the case of Redfield, he used a holograph will, but he was so secretive, nobody knew where his will was located, or what it contained. Unclear instructions in his will resulted in a lot of costly estate litigation. Redfield had lots of hidden assets, partly because he was trying to avoid taxes. But his secrecy cost his estate executors had a very difficult time identifying all his assets and liabilities. This ended up costing his estate and resulted in less for his heirs.

LaVere Redfield was also a hoarder. In some cases, his hoarding was economically beneficial. He collected coins, mostly silver dollars, and they held their value. But he also collected lots of junk from auctions. He stored his hoards of stuff in warehouses and in his garage, basement, and in sheds at his residence. Some of what he left behind was spoiled canned food and obsolete parts that were disposed of as garbage by his estate. I learned that if you are hoarding things, they must be items that will hold their economic value. Items that hold their economic value are things like coins, antiques, and consumer collectibles such as toys, games, and stamps. Commodities such as car parts and other machinery will become obsolete and only have value as junk in the long run.

The most famous part of Redfield LaVere’s collections were his 704,000 silver dollars. His collection of silver dollars is one of the greatest ever accumulated. Even today, Redfield silver dollars command a premium with collectors. He kept most of his silver dollars in bags in safety deposit boxes at banks, but he also had millions of dollars’ worth of coins in his garage behind false walls.

His bookkeeping was terrible. Party because he didn’t want to leave a record for the IRS, but also because he was sloppy and an ineffective manager, LaVere Redfield often missed paying the property tax on his land holdings. This resulted in property being actioned by the municipality from time to time.

LaVere Redfield dealt almost exclusively in cash. One way he could do this was somewhat unique to being located in Reno. He kept many of his stock and bond certificates in paper form. He kept those certificates in a safe in his home and also in bank safety deposit boxes around Reno. This resulted in dividend and interest cheques being mailed directly to him instead of having those payments credited to an account. He would then cash those dividend cheques at various Reno casinos. He would sometimes keep cash on deposit at the casino, or he would gamble with the funds. He also did a lot of pawning. He would take jewelry and precious metals as collateral for cash loans.

All around, this is a great book for someone who’s interested in reclusive businessmen.

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Review: The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream

The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream
The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream by H.W. Brands
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Age of Gold is a book about the settling of California and the gold rush. It’s divided up into five parts that each describe a different time, place, and perspective. I enjoyed the first three sections much more than the last two as the first three sections deal directly with California and the gold rush itself, while the last two sections deal more with California’s place within the American Union at the time of the civil war.

The most amazing stories found in The Age of Gold are those of the miners who came to California searching for a new life. Some of the immigrants sailed around Cape Horn, others cut thru Panama, and others came overland across the western plains. Today we are connected online and we have access to digital maps like Google Maps, so it’s hard to imagine a time when immigrants to California travelling across the American plains didn’t even have a clear route. They had to guess and estimate which trail and direction would lead them to California. The Age of Gold describes some of the hardships that these travelers to California faced.

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Donald Trump’s Net Worth Breakdown

Since announcing his intention to run for the Republican nomination, Donald Trump has the opportunity to brag about his net worth.  In his first major press conference as a candidate he fashioned a document that outlines his holdings.  Below is my tally of his net worth broken down by major holdings. The information is based on public information and details from Bloomberg and Forbes. The holdings are listed net of debt.

Donald Trump Asset Allocation
Millions $
Marketable Securities $302 7.38%
Trump Tower 5th Ave $470 11.49%
40 Wall Street $475 11.61%
1290 Ave of Americas $695 16.99%
555 California Street $160 3.91%
Niketown 57th Street $285 6.97%
Trump Intl Hotel $53 1.30%
502 Park Avenue $240 5.87%
UN Building $10 0.24%
100 Central Park South $30 0.73%
Trump Plaza 3rd Ave $16 0.39%
Trump’s Penthouse $90 2.20%
Trump Las Vegas $87 2.13%
Doral $300 7.33%
Mar-A-Lago $290 7.09%
Other US Courses $200 4.89%
UK Golf Courses $75 1.83%
Brand Licensing $275 6.72%
DC Post Office Hotel $14 0.34%
Kluge Winery $17 0.42%
Beverly Hills Residence $7 0.17%
Total $4,091 100.00%

Review: Getting Better All the Time: Las Vegas Writers Explore Progress

Getting Better All the Time: Las Vegas Writers Explore Progress
Getting Better All the Time: Las Vegas Writers Explore Progress by Aurora Brackett
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book is a collection of short stories and articles presented as part of the Las Vegas Writes project. Thanks to the authors for their work and the editor for putting this group of writers together. As Las Vegas matures, it will continue producing talented local writers who understand the various perspectives of Las Vegas.

However, I found this particular collection underwhelming. As someone who has read lots of Las Vegas based and themed literature, this collection contains splashes of insight, but on the whole I was left with few fresh perspectives.

The group of stories presented in this collection contain the typical Las Vegas strip and gambling stories, but also some stories of the suburban experience. I think these suburban Las Vegas experiences are particularly important to understanding the current and future Las Vegas. The suburban perspective is captured tellingly by Henry Brean’s article entitled “Growing Up”, which talks about the perspectives of the contemporary suburban Las Vegas father.

Also worth mentioning is Sarah Jane Woodall’s article about camera girls and the strip work life experience, which I think many locals will relate to.

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Review: Quiet Kingmaker of Las Vegas: E. Parry Thomas

Quiet Kingmaker of Las Vegas: E. Parry Thomas
Quiet Kingmaker of Las Vegas: E. Parry Thomas by Jack Sheehan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I ordered this book online, I thought it was a biography of Parry Thomas written by Jack Sheenhan. I was excited to read it because Parry Thomas seemed like an interesting character, who was a Mormon banker in Las Vegas during the post war boom. Instead, Quiet Kingmaker of Las Vegas, isn’t a biography, it’s an edited volume of interviews from Parry Thomas and other important people in his life. At first glance I was disappointed, but after reading it, I found the story flowed well. Jack Sheehan does a good job of piecing together the story of Parry Thomas in a way that is easy to read and follow. It’s cool that Las Vegas historians have these transcripts.

I enjoyed reading about all the double dealing Parry Thomas did during his career. In post war Las Vegas, mainstream financial firms would generally not deal with casinos (because they didn’t consider gambling ethical and because they didn’t want to be tainted by former criminals) and so it was difficult for the casino resorts in Las Vegas to raise capital. The result was the Las Vegas resort casinos had to rely on groups like the Teamsters pension fund, mobsters, and bankers such as Parry Thomas to get financing. This situation created an opportunity for Parry Thomas through his Bank of Las Vegas (later called Valley Bank) to build a higher yielding loan portfolio. Being a source of capital also gave Parry Thomas lots of local political capital.

During Parry Thomas’ time, he worked as the middle man between investors who were willing to lend to casinos and the casino resorts of Las Vegas. Thomas would arrange loans to casinos and then syndicate those loans to insurance companies from other states such as Utah and Texas. Other times, Thomas would arrange deals for and recapitalize casinos; he would act as the broker that brought together the various interests. There are examples in the book of Parry Thomas earning commissions on transactions he brokered even though he was employed at the bank. Parry Thomas worked on the ethical boundaries of his time in order to be successful. Today, it is widely considered unethical for a bank employee to have outside business dealings. But Parry Thomas had a personal business and real estate portfolio outside of his position at the bank. This often put him in conflict of interest situations. When readers consider his dealings with the Howard Hughes group as they purchased land and casinos in Las Vegas, we can imagine Howard Hughes must have paid more for what he got.

Quiet Kingmaker of Las Vegas is important for historians because it outlines in fairly good detail the events of the famous land deal between Caesars Palace and Steve Wynn which helped to launch Steve Wynn’s career. There was a narrow strip of land on the corner of Flamingo Road facing Las Vegas Boulevard that was 160 feet wide and 1,500 feet deep. The land was wedged on the corner right next door to Caesar’s Palace. At the time it was owned by Jake Gottlieb, who was running a company called Western Transportation which was in turn controlled by Continental Connector, which was controlled by Parry Thomas. Readers should recognize the dangerous web of control and ownership that was taking place as Parry Thomas was involved in outside business activities in addition to working for Valley Bank. Parry Thomas was also on the board of Caesar’s Palace at this time.

Jake Gottlieb had run up some gambling losses and was being forced to sell the land to settle his debts, so Parry Thomas arranged to have the land sold to Howard Hughes for $500,000. Caesars Palace must have figured they could wait out an owner and try for a better price rather than paying up. I guess they didn’t want to be held hostage by the location since Caesars was the only logical buyer who could get full use of the property. Because of the size of the property and because power lines came right over top, it was a difficult parcel to develop.

Howard Hughes was running a complicated business empire and he often couldn’t tell his right hand what his left hand was doing, and so Parry Thomas took advantage of this. He arranged to have the property sold to Howard Hughes, this would bail out Jake Gottlieb, and then he gained information about another piece of land Hughes was leasing across town near the Landmark hotel/casino. The former owner had defaulted on this leased land which was now owned by the Bank of Las Vegas (Valley Bank) and so Parry Thomas could put pressure on Howard Hughes from a different direction. It was then suggested that Howard Hughes sell the Flamingo corner lot to Steve Wynn in exchange for the purchase of the lot near the landmark. For Hughes it would seem like a wash trade.

The Flamingo lot being sold to Steve Wynn was a key piece of the puzzle that would force Caesars to purchase the property. In the past, Caesars could afford to wait out the owner of the Flamingo lot for a long time since this lot was otherwise vacant and made little revenue. But the magic of Steve Wynn is he drew up plans for a casino on the corner and then subtly threatened to develop his plans. For Caesars, this would mean a small casino would be located on a key corner of their property and siphon-off customers. This made the property valuable from a cash-flow perspective, but also as a direct competitive threat to Caesars. So at this point Caesars purchased the property from Steve Wynn for a large profit to Wynn which he could then parlay into other projects.

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