I found this to be an interesting read and really respect the challenges the author faced in writing a biography of Benny Binion. He’s a character who didn’t leave any letters/papers and certainly worked hard to reinvent himself constantly and whitewash the past. Most of what author Swanson had to work with were hearsay, interviews, and sources that often were biased (newspaper, police blotters, etc.).
The book tracks Binion’s life chronologically – from humble origins in Texas, his crime sprees in Dallas, and then fleeing to reinvent himself in Las Vegas. Along the way a lot of lawmen would try to bring him down; they ended up bribed, intimidated, stalemated, or dead. The parts of Binion’s life are broken down into three sections: Texas, Las Vegas, and then reinventing himself yet again in Vegas after jailtime.
At the same time, we learn a lot about the circumstances in which Benny Binion operated and the people he befriended or fought. As an example, I had no idea that Texas and Fort Worth were lawless out of control towns even well into the 1950s. I think most of us grew up with the glamor of Dallas, the TV series. Also, one of Binion’s supposedly vicious hitmen was the father of actor Woody Harrellson. It’s tidbits like those that make the read interesting.
Other aspects made me wince, though. That McCarran (for whom the Las Vegas airport is named), looks to have been firmly in Binion’s pocket – as well as many others who also clearly benefited from illegal activities. The book is more of a frightening statement about America and American corruption. We all knew the mobsters ran the casinos until the 1970s but somehow Benny Binion managed through donations to create a sterling public reputation in his later years – despite a history of viciousness and unsolved murders. As well, the sheer number of policemen, judges, and more who twisted or broke the law to protect him is especially sad.
Perhaps the irony for me is that Benny Binion was a family man and not known for lady chasing like so many in his position. Sadly, as the book notes, that wasn’t the same for his sons. But he remained married to one woman and steadfastly protected his family.
In all, a fascinating read for those who have been to Vegas enough to have heard of Binion or for those curious about an American mobster. Note that the book is not really about the history of Las Vegas or Vegas Poker – it’s about Benny Binion’s life story.
Reviewed from an ARC.