William R. "Billy" Wilkerson was the original developer of the Flamingo Hotel, considered by historians the most important and influential resort to open on the fledgling Las Vegas Strip in the 1940s. The importance of his role, however, is often overshadowed in popular history by a partner in the project, the gangster Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel.
Wilkerson was born in Tennessee to Roman Catholic parents in 1891. As a young man, he went to study medicine in Philadelphia, but had to abandon his studies in 1916 when his father died suddenly in New Jersey with debts to pay. Wilkerson agreed to manage a silent movie theater owned by a friend in Fort Lee, New Jersey. He later took other film-related jobs in New York. In 1929, after borrowing against a film industry trade newspaper he owned, he lost his money when the stock market crashed.
Wilkerson moved his wife and mother out west to Hollywood, California, where he started a new film industry trade paper, The Hollywood Reporter, in 1930. Throughout the 1930s, he became known as an aggressive reporter of the Hollywood film scene. He clashed with the heads of the movie studios and pressured them to advertise in his paper by issuing threats about losing future mentions in his news stories. He received loans from supporters, including wealthy businessman Howard Hughes, during repeated struggles to stay in business.
But Wilkerson's trade paper eventually proved popular in and out of Hollywood and was a successful business by the mid-1930s. In 1936, Wilkerson decided he wanted to branch out to own and run nightclubs, focusing on the hard-partying movie industry crowd he knew, and using his knowledge of illegal "speakeasies" in 1920s New York and the opulent designs of clubs he saw during trips to Europe.
The clubs Wilkerson started in the 1930s on the Sunset Strip, a nightclub district in west Hollywood known for illegal backroom casinos, included Ciro's, the Vendome, Caf Trocadero, Sunset House, LaRue, and L'Aiglon. In 1940, he opened an illegal casino resort at Lake Arrowhead that was soon closed by authorities.
Wilkerson, known for having expensive tastes, was also a compulsive gambler who made frequent trips to horse racetracks and illegal casinos in California and Mexico. He had visited Las Vegas' legal casinos since the early 1930s, and frequently lost money there. In 1944, he reportedly lost $750,000 while playing in several Las Vegas casinos, and fell into financial trouble. A friend, Hollywood movie producer Joe Schenck, suggested he stop gambling in casinos and build one himself. In January 1945, Wilkerson decided to drive to Las Vegas to look into it.
While in a taxicab on Highway 91, south of the El Rancho and Last Frontier casino resorts, Wilkerson noticed a thirty-three-acre site for sale, and soon bought it from owner Margaret M. Folsom for $84,000. He set about constructing an elaborate resort and casino on the land, with the help of two men who designed and built some of his nightclubs in Hollywood. Wilkerson, who regarded the El Rancho and Last Frontier as little more than rustic, desert motels, wanted his resort to emulate expensive European hotels, with amenities such as a spa, health club, expensive jewelry stores, and Parisian-style bathrooms with bidets. He envisioned a high-class casino designed after those in Monte Carlo. He also intended to have the first Las Vegas hotel with air conditioning and a golf course.
Wilkerson named his project the Flamingo Club. But while working on it, with costs estimated at $1.2 million, Wilkerson needed to raise additional funds. The Bank of America, along with Hughes, granted him building loans, but he remained short by about $400,000. He scaled back the project, but finally ran out of funds in early 1946, and halted construction.
In February 1946, he accepted an offer from an associate of East Coast organized crime chieftain Meyer Lansky to invest $1 million to complete construction, with Wilkerson retaining a one-third interest in the resort. Within weeks, Lansky associates Gus Greenbaum and Moe Sedway, who were operating the El Cortez Hotel-Casino in downtown Las Vegas, came to the Flamingo site with Siegel, who would represent Lansky and become a new partner.
Wilkerson had known Siegel in Hollywood since the 1930s. He arranged for Siegel, who had no experience in building or operating hotels or clubs, to meet with the Flamingo's architect and contractors. But Siegel soon resented that Wilkerson was calling the shots. The pair agreed to split the project, with Wilkerson overseeing the building of the casino, restaurant and shops and Siegel overseeing the hotel side, with his own design team. In discussions with others, the temperamental Siegel often took credit for Wilkerson's elaborate vision of the Flamingo. In 1946, Wilkerson agreed to give up design control over the entire project to Siegel in exchange for stock in Siegel's hotel company, which was to run the hotel-casino. Months later, Wilkerson sold the hotel's land to Siegel for more stock, and then owned nearly half of Siegel's company.
Siegel ignored Wilkerson's warnings about construction costs and ordered many expensive design and building changes to the Flamingo. He opened it two months earlier than Wilkerson had planned, on December 26, 1946. The unfinished resort lost money immediately. Siegel offered to buy all of Wilkerson's stock, and after refusing at first, Wilkerson, fearing Siegel's mobster friends, agreed to sell all of his interest in the Flamingo in March 1947 for $600,000. The Flamingo showed profits after Siegel reopened that month, but his mob partners suspected he was pocketing their investment money.
In June of 1947, Wilkerson was in Paris, France, and read the news that Siegel had been killed, on orders from his organized crime associates. Greenbaum and Sedway took over the Flamingo, and made it a big success. In later years, Wilkerson visited Las Vegas, but never stayed at the Flamingo. Though the Flamingo did not turn out completely as Wilkerson had intended, historians consider it to be the first modern resort on the Las Vegas Strip, which set the standard for the quality and design of the many Strip hotel-casinos in the decades that followed. Wilkerson died in September 1962.