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Clash of the Titans

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Wynn rarely grants interviews, which is a shame: He has a stage actor’s supple baritone, and he illustrates his points and stories with a range of funny accents. Astonishment comes with an aw-shucks southern drawl; anger sounds chillingly like Jack Nicholson. Simply by elongating a word, Wynn is able to convey his contempt for New Jersey’s casino owners. ”Trump builds a-part-ment build-ings,” Wynn says. “Office space! His big thing is, he hires an architect who comes up with a scheme that’s bronze, or one that’s silver.” A slow shake of the head. “That’s kid stuff. There’s nobody in Atlantic City. There’s such a lack of imaginative talent in that town.”

Wynn seduces with hilarious, intimate stories about traveling with his pally Frank Sinatra, and he teases with inside tales of mob payoffs in old-time Las Vegas. But Wynn’s preoccupation these days is designing Le Jardin, his gift not just to Atlantic City but to the entire flair-deprived region. “I mean, you’re on the East Coast -- gray, nasty, ugly, squalid East Coast,” Wynn says. “Yeah, there are moments of beauty in New York or Philadelphia, but you gotta go looking for ‘em. But in this building, like Joel Grey says in Cabaret, ‘ev’ry-ting eez beaut-ee-ful.’ That’s it. We don’t have to rewrite history here. What we gotta do is exercise integrated, fanciful good taste.” He’s projecting a $200 million annual profit.

Wynn has seen gambling evolve from its shady past to the corporate-dominated, government-legitimized, orchid-scented present. He was literally born into the business. His father, Michael “Mickey” Weinberg, changed the family name to Wynn in 1936, eminently fitting for a man who came to run bingo parlors from Savannah to Syracuse.

Michael Wynn was himself a compulsive gambler (his bookie, Charlie Meyerson, today works for Steve Wynn as a casino host, coddling high-rollers). Wynn’s father wasn’t home much, but he provided well enough for Steve -- who was born in New Haven and raised primarily in Utica -- to attend a military academy, summer at a lake resort in the Adirondacks, and graduate from the University of Pennsylvania. Father and son took one memorable trip together, when Steve was 11 years old, to Las Vegas, where Michael Wynn dreamed of opening a bingo parlor. Steve was enchanted by the raffish Vegas of 1953, where silk suits mingled with Stetsons.

It was during Steve’s senior year at Penn that his father needed heart surgery. As Michael Wynn lay in his hospital bed awaiting the experimental operation, he dictated to Steve a list of his gambling debts. Michael Wynn died shortly after, at the age of 46, leaving his family $200,000 in the hole.

Steve went to work running the family bingo joint in Maryland; he was so successful that he soon decided to test himself in Las Vegas. Wynn bought a small ownership stake in the Frontier Hotel and Casino, then sold out when the majority owners were exposed as Detroit gangsters. (Wynn wasn’t implicated.)But he had managed to ingratiate himself with Las Vegas’s most powerful banker, E. Parry Thomas, who directed him to a lucrative liquor distributorship and a quick profit on a real-estate deal. Several years later, Wynn reentered the casino business, this time for good, accumulating a controlling share of Golden Nugget stock by 1973. In 1980, he expanded into the new and thriving Atlantic City market, running a highly profitable Boardwalk version of the Golden Nugget for seven years before selling it and returning to Las Vegas to build the Mirage.

There’s very little Wynn has allowed to stand in the way of his dreams. When wildlife laws interfered with plans for a live-dolphin attraction in the Mirage, Wynn flew to Washington and testified that the exhibit would be purely educational. So now school groups are herded past the slot machines to watch the bottle-nosed dolphins frolic.

By making nearly as much money from shows, food, and rooms as he does from gambling, Wynn has revolutionized the industry. Four years after opening the Mirage, Wynn concocted Treasure Island right next door. The newer casino-hotel features a curbside lagoon where actors stage a smoky sword fight between two full-scale ships. In the sliver of land between Mirage and Treasure Island crouches a 36-unit, two-story hotel, the Villa de Flores. Hotel owner Mike Flores refuses to sell Wynn the land. Now a colossal garage is going up on Wynn’s property a few feet from the hotel’s swimming pool -- bulldozers, cement mixers, and cranes emit nonstop noise and dust. Not long ago, Flores arrived to find three 40-foot-long propane tanks stacked near his office window. “One spark,” Flores says, “and I’m splattered against the wall of the Mirage.”


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