It was about 66 years ago when Millicent Siegel’s father, Ben “Bugsy” Siegel wrote a letter to his wife addressing his oldest daughter’s smoking habits.“I don’t like the idea of smoking at all, I would point out to her that it is not ladylike at all … Frankly, I hope she wouldn’t continue to smoke, as I dislike the habit in women and when I see her I will tell her just that.”
Decades later, I am sitting in Millicent’s Las Vegas condo as she pulls a drag from her cigarette, it’s neon orange tip glowing as she breathes in the smoke. Millicent, 81, hasn’t been weathered by the dry Las Vegas sun. Rather, she looks vibrant. Her shoulder-length blonde hair skims a peach and white striped shirt, which is paired today with white pants. Her light blue eyes sparkle when her pugs, Priscilla and Porsche, come to the table where we are sitting and chatting.
The letter, which was dated November 28, 1946, was written a mere seven months before her father was killed. Today, the letter can be found on display inside the Tropicana Las Vegas at the Mob Attraction, along with a bounty of other mob-related artifacts, including video footage (only in existence) of Bugsy Siegel the way she remembers him – as a father, not a mobster. And the father of Las Vegas.
When Siegel first arrived to town in the 1940s, Las Vegas was nothing. But, Siegel saw something: opportunity.
“He envisioned Las Vegas to be a Palm Springs type in the desert,” says Millicent. “He wanted shops along [Las Vegas Blvd.]. He said there would be a sidewalk going all the way down into town.”
Thanks to his vision, within a few years, there was.
Growing up Hollywood
Before Siegel brought Palm Springs to Vegas, he and his family lived in Beverly Hills. Millicent’s childhood in the Hollywood town was nothing short of charmed. She was a brownie and took riding lessons with Elizabeth Taylor. Jean Harlow was her godmother.
As a young girl, Harlow would come to the house, put on an apron, and give her a bath. She even met her childhood crush, Cary Grant, face-to-face. At her house.
Then, came Las Vegas.
Ben Siegel’s Las Vegas
Las Vegas turned from what Millicent describes as a “hicktown” into something far more glamorous. Hotels lined the main Las Vegas drag, complete with swimming pools in the front, inviting people arriving by car to take a cool dip and break from the arid desert weather.
“There were no high rises,” says Millicent. “The hotels then were more personal, smaller, more comfortable. They didn’t have all of the pool parties … You’d go out for dinner at night and see a show. During the day, you’d spend time at the pool. Or, if you came when it was cool enough, you’d go riding or play golf.”
The vision Siegel had for Las Vegas, all those years ago, has morphed into a different beast entirely today. Now, mega resorts crowd The Strip. The historic properties are blown up to make way for the latest slick building, the hot restaurants, the trendy shops. The pools at the hotels now cater to the 20- something scantily clad partiers willing to throw down hundreds of dollars for the opportunity to sit in a cabana and sip on cocktails from bottles of liquor that have been marked up hundreds of percent.
“My dad would hate what Las Vegas it today,” she says. “What corporations did to Las Vegas was never his vision of this town.”
The town and times Millicent lived in Las Vegas were very different. And, unlike most other’s experiences even during the 40s. That’s what happens when your father owns the hottest hotel in Las Vegas, The Flamingo.
Siegel opened the hotel December 26, 1946 moving his family in during construction. As a teenager, living in a hotel was never dull.
Life at The Flamingo
“I was a spoiled brat,” says Millicent. “I mean, here is our hotel. We own a hotel.” Her life at The Flamingo was not without its own, special stories.
“One time, I decided to write post cards,” she begins. “All of the rooms were decorated with all sorts of personal things you would have in your house. On the desk was a crystal ink well. I took out to the pool and was writing these cards. My dad came out and saw me doing this and he had a fit.”
There was one night when Millicent was taken into the counting room of the casino with Chick, the brother of Virginia Hill (Siegel’s girlfriend). “I had a crush on him and I didn’t know what his job was at the hotel. He was in the accounting room at night, so I asked if he could take me in.”
Entering the counting room was like nothing she had ever seen before – stacks and stacks of money. Unlike stories which have been told which depict counters sorting money into piles, one for the hotel, one for them, she never witnessed anything like that. But, she did witness her father’s wrath.
“I stayed until they finished counting, until three or four in the morning,” she says. “Then, we went to breakfast and came back. That’s when my father walked in. He had a shit fit. I don’t think he was bothered that I was in the room, but he was bothered that someone took me in there. Who was I going to tell?”
Perhaps the best story from her time living at the hotel was when her father decided to put a moat in front of the property and import the hotel’s namesake – some flamingos. According to Millicent, there were between six and eight of these birds and, as the days went by, they were “dropping like fleas.”
Millicent recalls: “It was too hot for them. My dad stood out there and said ‘Those goddamn flamingos are dying on me.’ They never lasted very long. It was too hot for them. I think he replaced them once or twice and that was it.”
Today, the hotel which is now owned by Caesars Entertainment Corp., has flamingos on property. However, they are now inside in a climate-controlled garden.
Siegel, who treated the property as his home, could even be found walking through the halls, emptying ashtrays and tidying up.
As the founder of Las Vegas, Siegel took it upon himself to stay abreast of what was going on in town. He would donate money to organizations in need. “The town’s people liked him very much,” says Millicent. “He would go into Las Vegas and people would just come up and talk to him, have lunch with him.”
The creation of “Bugsy”
The famed mobster isn’t how Millicent sees Siegel. Despite Hollywood’s portrayal, his daughter remains steadfast in his role in the mob.
“A lot of stuff they say or still say about my dad wasn’t true or never happened,” she explains. The father Millicent remembers is nothing like Warren Beatty’s portrayal in the film “Bugsy.”
“He was very strict,” she says. “Most of what happened in the movie never happened. It was all a fabrication of what [the filmmakers] either read or surmised or just out and out faked.”
She quickly recounts two such instances in the film – the first depicting their move to LA, the second a birthday party she had. Neither of which were portrayed accurately.
“I would say 80 or 90 percent of the movie is inaccurate,” she says. “It portrayed [Siegel] as a nut.” Which is not even close to how Millicent remembers him.
“He was very strict,” she says. “We used to have to sit at the dinner table and he would ask us what was on the front page of the papers. He knew everything we were doing. He was very interested and on top of everything we did. He was also great fun to be around. He would joke a lot.”
Beatty declined Millicent’s offer to provide him with real-life accounts of her father while making the film.
The mobster, the father
Ask Milliecent about her father’s life in the mob, and she sits straight in her chair. After his death, stories began to surface about his life in the mob. “We knew him as a father. He worked some place. I was too young to question it,” she says.
Growing up in the shadow of gangsters didn’t phase Millicent. “We didn’t see these people as notorious, or different from anybody else. It was a whole new picture for me and I didn’t know how to put it. I never believed any of the things anyone has written about [Siegel]. They grew up in prohibition. They were no different than the Kennedys. They were selling the same stuff. They were doing the same thing. They were all extremely smart people.”
It was never easy for his daughter to hear the stories about life in the mob. Millicent has never gotten used to what people have said about her father, or his associates.
“It was hard to hear what people said about the man who would sit at the dinner table and make us tell him the news, or educate us on the way to cut our meat,” she says. “He wanted us to be princesses and the stories we heard didn’t jive with who we saw. I’ve always separated whatever anybody else might say from what I saw and what I felt. It hurt me. After he died, the whole thing just blew up in our faces.”
Even today, decades later, Millicent simply refuses to believe Siegel played any part in violent acts.
“I truly cannot believe my father would kill anyone. Beat them up, maybe. But, not kill,” she says. “I think it is a misconception.”
One of her last conversations with her father addressed his violent ties to the crime world. Millicent asked about his role in Murder Inc. with Meyer Lansky.
“He told me about not being able to make a living at 12 or 14, 15, 16 years old and not being able to make a living during prohibition,” she says. “I asked him about Murder Inc and he said, ‘You’ve met all of those people. Do they look like killers to you? Have they ever hurt you? Yes, I did [commit crimes], but now I am building a hotel and am 100 percent legitimate. They was my last in-depth conversation with my father.”
Millicent is quick to point out that Siegel, despite the stories of being a murderer, was never arrested for anything other than prohibition. To this day, she maintains he never killed a person.
On Siegel’s death
On June 20, 1947, Siegel was killed.
En route to Las Vegas via train to spend the summer with their father, Millicent and sister did not know what happened until they arrived to town. When the two arrived to town, their mother stood at the depot, waiting for them. The girls couldn’t understand why she was there. But, once they got to their uncle’s house, they were told of his death.
While no one knows the truth behind Siegel’s murder, Millicent has her own opinion.
“It wasn’t a random guy standing in a house, two houses down, that shot him. [Whoever killed him] was paid to do it. Who paid them? I don’t know. I’ve heard [his death] was all over money.”
Rumor has it that Meyer, another mobster and friend of Siegel’s, was the man behind his death. Millicent disagrees.
“If you have our father killed, would you be friendly and take care of his family?” She asks, recounting Meyer’s continued involvement with the bereaved. “Could you sit down to dinner next to me and know that you hired someone to kill my father?”
She isn’t sure exactly why Siegel was killed and questions the motives. “Was it somebody that wanted something in Vegas that he had? Did they want him not to be productive? Because, the hotel never closed. It wasn’t sold for years [after his death]. It’s hard to figure out, but I can’t lose sleep over it. I could never find the answers.”
In fact, no one has found the answers. In California, the case is still open.
Las Vegas, today
It takes nearly no time at all for Millicent to say how she feels about Las Vegas today. She hates it. When asked about what her father would think of it, she is quick in responding.
“He would be appalled,” she sighs, flicking out her cigarette.
Regardless of today’s Las Vegas, Millicent remains forever the doting daughter. “I am very proud of my father’s legacy,” she says. “He had the vision for the glamour … for bringing all of these people here.”
And now, even as the sun sets against the twinkling high-rises on the Las Vegas Strip, Siegel’s legacy can be seen as the throngs of visitors make their way, yard-stick drinks in their hands, en route to the casino in a town Siegel created.
For more on Siegel and this history of Las Vegas, check these out:
Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel: The Gangster, the Flamingo, and the Making of Modern Las Vegas
When the Mob Ran Vegas: Stories of Money, Mayhem and Murder
Bugsy & His Flamingo: The Testimony of Virginia Hill