July 16, 2016 by John Wilcock
Chapter Twenty-three (cont'd):
My next book for Insight was Las Vegas, probably the most interesting city in America—for a day or two. With Stanley Young's help I did an enormous amount of preliminary research about everything from how slot machines operate to the psychological effect of specific color schemes, and then turned out the 100-page Pocket Guide after a four-day visit. The city that's home to nine of America's ten biggest hotels gets more than 30 million visitors each year and almost all its other statistics are superlatives in this, the marriage capital of America, where quickie marriages take place 24 hours a day and 86,000 marriage licenses are issued annually.
In the Nineties, a Time magazine cover story asked: “How can a large-spirited person not like Las Vegas or at least smile at the notion of it? On the other hand how can any civilized person not loathe Las Vegas or at least recoil at it relentlessness?” Time defined LV as “ersatz Old West Outpost in the 1930s and 40s: Gangsters Meet High Life Oasis in the 50s and 60s; Uncool polyester dump in the 70s and 80s and now a hyper-eclectic, 24-hour a day fantasy themed party machine that no longer seems so very exotic or extreme.”
On the other hand, Steve Wynn, then the city's best-known resident and one of the most influential men in Nevada, explained: “Las Vegas exists because it is a perfect reflection of America… anywhere in the world people smile, they understand. It represents all the things people in every city in American like. Here they can get it in one gulp.”
The son of a compulsive gambler who operated a bingo operation in Maryland, Wynn was 25 when he arrived in Vegas where he invested $45,000 for a 3% interest in the Frontier Hotel and became its slots manager. (Several stockholders turned out to be stand-ins for Detroit mobsters and Wynn was forced to sell early.) He befriended the town's top banker, E. Parry Thomas, with whose help he bought a liquor distributorship. He bought a narrow strip of land adjoining Caesar's Palace from Howard Hughes (the first piece of Vegas property that Hughes had ever sold) and threatened to build there. Then walked away with a $766,000 profit after prompting a nervous Caesar's to buy the land from him for $2.5 million.
By the age of 31, Wynn became the youngest corporate chairman in Vegas history after investing in the downtown Golden Nugget. Next he paid $440 million to finance and build the 3,000-room Mirage, spending a further $45 million to create Shadow Creek, a golf course exclusively for high rollers (but later available to affluent golfers for $1000 per day). It was lined with 21,000 pine trees trucked in from California and Arizona.
Wynn, a highly controversial figure was, like most powerful men, both feared and revered. “He's done incredible things. His hotels are monuments to his amazing vision and for that he is great”, says an anonymous casino executive. “But dynamic visionaries are accustomed to getting their own way. Casinos are fiefdoms—a place to feed your ego—and they offer a very intoxicating life. The problem with Wynn is that you can agree with him 99% of the time but if you disagree once you're the enemy. There's no balance in how he takes measure of people.”
The sign in front of Treasure Island once read “You're either for us or you're against us”—a philosophy that directed Wynn's life, according to some observers. One reporter at the Las Vegas Sun wrote a column chiding Wynn and his wife Elaine for meddling in athletic affairs at the University of Nevada causing the newspaper editor to lose its privileges at Wynn's private golf course. A radio talk show host who criticized Wynn on the air, was obliged to read four times, an on-air apology crafted by Wynn's attorney's and was then dropped by the station. A sheriff who pulled the work permit for Wynn's casino host (for allegedly allowed mobsters to play at the Mirage) was sued after Wynn won the permit back at an appeal. A “sunshine-thunderstorm” kind of guy is how a local trade reporter once characterized the now-55-year-old tycoon (Wynn was born in 1942).
As long as casinos have existed there have been casino cheats, some of them so skilled that without being observed they can exchange one of their own dice at the precise moment the bettors' pair hit the craps table. At least one team of robbers got away with millions in Las Vegas doing this. Frustrated casino bosses knew that something was happening because they're always suspicious of winning streaks, but even with dozens of pairs of watchful eyes, as well as the eye-in-the-sky booths overhead, they couldn't figure out what.
“Casino cheats are tricksters, magicians” says Deke Castleman. “They are expert at diverting attention while they pull of their scam; the quickness of the hand deceives the eye”.
Deke's been around Las Vegas for years. The monthly newsletter Las Vegas Advisor, for which he writes, tells subscribers all over the world about the city's top ten values (a great show for under $30, a great meal for under ten bucks) offers tips on the best casino deals, the easiest way to win. Even readers who don't gamble are constantly being reminded that the city offers one of the world's cheapest holidays.
“There are as many legends as there are gamblers”, replies Deke when asked if there's any truth in the legend about the best-paying slots being nearest the door. Everything's legend, fantasy, and magic in this town”.
When I first went to Las Vegas in the early 1960s, it had been to research a $5-a-Day book for Arthur Frommer. There was so much speculation at the time about the extent of mob infiltration that I came up with some specific figures about exactly what percentage of various casinos some of these ‘businessmen’ owned. Of course, all this was edited out before the book appeared and in later years it became less and less relevant as the town was sanitized by corporate ownership.
In the 1990s when I went back, my research was confined to more practical things, such as where the best paying slot machines were placed (near the door to the street) or the worst-paying ones (near where people are lining up to get in the restaurants and are passing away the time without much optimism). I enjoyed writing this book, felt it was the best I had ever done, and gloried in a stay of several weeks in a penthouse atop the now-defunct Stardust.
The first of several mysteries I now had time to solve, was why the singer Wayne Newton had such a prodigious reputation when all my friends back East dismissed him as “a trumped-up lounge singer”, and yet here in Sin City he was Mr Vegas. He even had a showroom named for him, which he totally filled night and after night. So it wasn’t long before I found myself upfront in that showroom watching his act. And, indeed, nobody could describe him as “great” singer (in the vein, say, of a Sinatra or Tony Bennett), nor was he especially bad.
What he did have going for him was the most extraordinary rapport with his audience that I had ever witnessed. After a couple of songs, he put down the microphone and walked freely among the seats—which extended in a crescent layout of rows around the front of the stage—all the while reaching out to shake hands, plant the occasional kiss on some old lady’s cheek and never ceasing to extend his presence among one row after another. It was an astonishing performance, which just went on and on for fully ten minutes, before he walked back on stage and sang some more.
And I could imagine the stories that weeks later would be echoing from café to dinner party in far-off Kansas or Oklahoma by these lucky vacationers. “I went to Wayne Newton’s show while I was in Las Vegas—and he kissed me!”
Far and away the best dinner show I attended, began in a circular room at the rear of the MGM Grand. Here, when everybody was present, the room descended one flight into the basement where a series of rooms off a lengthy corridor were laid out to serve dinner. This was accompanied by magical tricks which included everybody’s correct menu choice, even though we barely recalled having placed the order.
Afterwards, a stage performance of more magic was presented in another room before we were bid a hearty farewell, and dispatched along the corridor to emerge—on the ground floor. The trick, which fooled everyone, was a simple one. The circular room in which we had begun our adventure was not an elevator. It had not gone anywhere. What it had done, with apparent motion of the walls, was to present the illusion that we had descended.
When I had finished the book, turning in 80,000 words about this most interesting city, I felt sure it was my best book. But, to my surprise, prior to publication it seemed to have been appropriated by another author, who had “edited” it and added a few hundred words. I was credited with “assisting” the project. After 14 years, it was my 25th—and last—book for Insight Guides and the end of my commercial travel-writing career.
Manhattan Memories is available at amazon.com.
An updated A Guide to Occult Britain, complete with new illustrations, is also available at amazon.com.
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Don't let a real-life comic strip sneak by unnoticed. This one's too unusual (and brilliant) for that!
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National Weed (1974, issue #3)
Forty years ago the second of my three books about magic was published, A Guide to Occult Britain (Sidgwick & Jackson) covering a wide range of sites from Stonehenge to Loch Ness and King Arthur country to the witches of Pendle Hill. It is now available as an eBook
Over the past year, my combined medical and support costs from a stroke I had in April 2014 have been more than $100,000. If you'd like to help, use the Paypal donate button, or better yet, buy my books, and thank you. —JW
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An authorized comic book biography of John Wilcock,
This IS a book-length comic series on John Wilcock. People who enjoy focusing on underground and alternative media are occasionally familiar with John's work, but most often the response is "who's that?" Outside of small press historians and collectors, John remains very unknown. Which makes no sense, the more you learn about him. We're very excited about the opportunity to tell his story. Art for THE STORY OF JOHN WILCOCK is by me and co-conspirator Scott Marshall. Story comes from an extended and ongoing year-long interview with Wilcock, himself. The focus is John's years in New York, roughly 1954-1971.
January 2, 2011
A way with Andy Warhol : John Wilcock recalls life in iconic pop artist's inner circle
During a journalism career that began when he was 16, John Wilcock has interviewed celebrities — Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, Milton Berle, Steve Allen and Bob Dylan, to name a few — was part of enigmatic pop artist Andy Warhol's intimate circle in the 1960s, traveled to exotic locations all over the globe, has written dozens of books ranging from frugal travel to magic, was one of five founders (Norman Mailer was one of them) of the Village Voice and co-founded Interview magazine (still in circulation) with Mr. Warhol.
“The Return of the World's Worst Businessman”
John Wilcock is not what you would call a household name, and yet, he has had a measurable impact on art, journalism and culture-at-large over the last century. He co-founded Interview with Andy Warhol. He also was one of the co-founders of The Village Voice. He has written for countless print and online publications: Frommer’s, The Daily Mirror, The Daily Mail, The East Village Other, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, The Ojai Orange, etc. So why, one feels inclined to ask, is he relatively unknown? The answer seems simple: Wilcock has called himself “the world’s worst businessman.” This self-description makes sense because listening to him one hears the voice of a writer and a traveler and an enthusiast, not at all the voice of a businessman. In an age when it seems like everyone is all about business—art as a business, fashion as a business, everything as a business—it is refreshing to hear someone self-identify as “the world’s worst businessman.” It seems less like he has failed as a businessman and more like he has refused to become one. In addition to all his other accomplishments,...
Wednesday, December 29, 2010
Jewcy Top 10 Art Books of 2010
This brilliant remake of a pop primary document is brought to you by John Wilcock, probably the Most Interesting Man in the World in the realm of writers. The Village Voice cofounder had also edited Warhol’s seminal mag Interview in the 70s. The fruit of the book is in the genius of its redesign. After 40 years out-of-print, the newly edited edition is “beautifully redesigned in a bright, Warholian palette” that surrounds a trail of Harry Shunk’s internationally Pop-art-informed camera as well as transcribed interviews with those closest to Warhol that ultimately make up an oral history of the artist’s Factory period. By looking at him through the scope of his peers, this book is the equivalent of Pittsburgh’s Warhol Museum in illuminating qualities of Warhol’s warped mirror on which our American culture was briefly reflected.
Monday, November 15, 2010
A Reader Comment from the recent New York Times Frugal Traveler post
Not only did John Wilcock shake up staid publishing in the USA, from the Village Voice to the East Village Other, his influence extended to several continents, including Australia & the UK, where - in his mild mannered way - he pushed the boundaries of image and speech. The counter culture was nothing but a dull puddle, until John kicked out the jams and ignited the Underground Press, which attracted absurd prosecutions, that of course boosted circulations. An unsung hero of the sixties,
It was the first handwritten letter I’d received in 5 years. Or maybe 10. Signed by John Wilcock, a man I’d never heard of, and postmarked Ojai, Calif., it was waiting for me when I returned from my Săo Paulo-to-New York summer trip. Mr. Wilcock wrote that he had been an assistant editor at The Times Travel section back in the 1950s, and had written the first editions of “Mexico on $5 a Day,” “Greece on $5 a Day” and “Japan on $5 a Day” for Arthur Frommer in the 1960s.
By George, I thought. This man was the original Frugal Traveler.
“A GOOD WAY to describe John Wilcock is to say that he is a talented bohemian counter-culture journalist who once played a major role in the emergence of America’s underground press. Born 1927 in Sheffield, England, he left school aged 16 to work on various newspapers in England, and on Toronto periodicals before moving to New York City. There in 1955 he became one of the five founders of the Village Voice in which he and co-founder Norman Mailer wrote weekly columns. Wilcock called his column “The Village Square”, an intended pun. He and young Mailer were not quite friends, although Wilcock was at times annoyed, but always amused, by Mailer’s monstrous ego.”