Vegas, Baby, Vegas

Sin ain't what it used to be.

The wrinkled appeal of Las Vegas stems, in large part, from the city's shady image. In spite of what flacks from the chamber of commerce might say, Vegas casinos have always been quick to capitalize on the town's bad-boy image if it draws a crowd. And it does. Millions of people flock to Las Vegas each year, not just because they want to lose money quickly; they can do that in nearly every state now. People go to Vegas because they want to sip from the fountain of the town's rancid history and jet trash culture.

It is part of the joke, but it's not particularly funny after reading The Money and the Power. The authors draw a grim picture of a city that flourished as an international rinse cycle for dirty money that poured in from around the globe. All the while, regulators sat on the sidelines like corrupt and weak-kneed pit bosses in on the fix.

And the fix was there from the get go, say Roger Morris and Sally Denton. From the mid-19th century on, Nevada was a "place like no other ... treated less as a land to settle than some alien fatness to be plundered, a colony valued only for what could be taken from it."

And take, they did. The book is a roster of America's marginal elite who lined up to gorge at the feeding trough of easy money and influence. Benny Binion, J. Edgar Hoover, Jimmy Hoffa, the Kennedy clan, Howard Hughes and LBJ are just a few of the famous who profited from the Vegas machine. Corporate giants, the Mormon church, the teamsters--the list goes on. Meanwhile, everyone looks the other way. "I might point out that there are more churches per capita in Nevada than in any state in the union" is the only defense one state regulator can offer when forced to defend his shady community.

The Power and the Money is at times plodding; facts get crushed under the weight of the material. Generous amounts of gossip and urban legends are thrown into the mix. But the book also puts to rest many of the long-held fables about Sin City, namely that it was some fanciful dream concocted by lovable rogue Bugsy Siegal. Siegal, in fact, is merely a psychopathic footnote in the real history of the town, say Denton and Morris. The actual culprits are far more nefarious.

"From the Ivy League, Wall Street, and Midtown Manhattan," they write, "to the steamy Texas coast, the Arizona desert, and the Mormon temples in the Valley of the Great Salt Lake, it was American capitalism that was also building Las Vegas in quiet alliance with the support of its organized crime masters."

THE AUTHOR OF CULT VEGAS has no interest in such deeply troubling conspiracies. Instead Mike Weatherford--a Las Vegas reporter who has covered the city for 20 years--offers a far more sugary look at his stomping grounds.

Weatherford's book is for those who care nothing about the bloodstained hands of the gangsters and politicians who built the city. Rather it relishes the sequin-coated tales of Sammy Davis Jr., Ann-Margret, Buddy Hackett, Mammie Van Doren, Don Rickles and the rest of the Hollywood spillover that flooded the desert town.

Long-forgotten flicks such as The Amazing Colossal Man, Hell's Angels 69 and The Las Vegas Hillbillies and their connection to the city are traced. As are the dismal receptions that awaited Bela Lugosi, Lorne Greene, David Lee Roth and other fading stars who tried to make it on the stages of Glitter Gulch. And the early days of Circus Circus' bid to attract family audiences are recalled as one tourist recounts a 1966 game where kids shot water pistols at a target to "knock a nude girl out of bed and make her dance."

"Younger kids really liked that one," he says.

Written to celebrate "the swingin'est town on earth," Cult Vegas, instead, is an entertaining but painful look backward. It confirms every joke ever made about the kitschy distractions that blossomed in Vegas and helped hide the decay that still rests just below the city's surface.