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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