The First King Of Las Vegas
By Sabrina S. Siracusa and Tyler Morgan
King. Emperor. Ambassador. When it comes to linking him with this city, you can pretty much call him anything you’d like since one thing is for sure: Oscar Goodman is not only as “Vegas” as any casino on the Strip. He is Vegas. And after decades of service in Sin City he’s someone we still can’t get enough of.
And why is that? What makes people flock to and stare at the former criminal defense attorney and mayor? Beyond the impeccable fashion (that pinstriped suit, the pink tie) and how he carries himself (usually with a martini in hand), this city owes its character, in part, to Goodman and men like him, who lived through Las Vegas’ romantic decades often called the “Gilded Age;” a time when mobsters ran this town, drinking martinis and smoking cigars to soundtracks sung by Sinatra. Goodman was there through it all, and it was during those years that he arose as our “first king” so to speak. And speak…oh, boy, he has. Of Goodman’s goodly talents, his deepest may be his rep as one of our most humorous and animated tellers of local lore. Never too shy to share, he’s fascinating, and his stories leave you wondering what else is on his tongue. It’s a well-crafted allure that has served him well, along with the rest of us.
Summarizing the life of a man like Goodman? Not easy. So we invite you to sit back and enjoy our story. And to him we say, “Cheers! This martini is on us!”
How It All Started
Oscar Goodman grew up the son of an attorney in Philadelphia and his admiration for his father lead him to attend the University of Pennsylvania Law School. In his book, Being Oscar, Goodman tells of a turning point in his life at 12, when a day in court with his father shaped the entire rest of his professional career.
Goodman’s father took him to court on a day he was representing a female Auschwitz survivor, whose family wanted her to undergo a lobotomy to remove the memories of the trauma she had endured. The woman, however refused to have the procedure as she felt it was important to remember her horrors, to remind others of what she and others had experienced at the Nazi concentration camp. Goodman’s father fought passionately for the woman. And it was then that young Goodman began to realize and understand the depths of the role of being someone’s attorney. He saw that attorneys, like his father, fight for the righteousness of clients and serve as the defenders and protectors of the constitution. At that moment , Goodman decided he wanted to be an attorney…but not just any attorney. Goodman wanted to be just like his father: passionate, eloquent and fearless.
From Philadelphia To Las Vegas: The Mob Lawyer And More
Years later when Goodman was a clerk at the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office, he was given the task to debrief a couple of Las Vegas detectives in a burglary case. The detectives suggested he consider Las Vegas as the city for him to launch his law practice. He talked it over with his wife, Carolyn, visited Vegas for a weekend visit and the rest and the best was yet to come.
It’s no secret that Goodman has represented many mob figures–he’s considered by many as one of the best mob defense attorneys in the history of criminal law–but since they don’t teach mob law in law school, he never set out to be a mob lawyer. Instead, it all started with one case. The case of Mel Horowitz.
Goodman received a phone call from Horowitz to represent his stepbrother and an alleged accomplice who were arrested for stealing a car. Horowitz was an East coast, street-schooled mastermind of crime, and he operated one of the largest illegal bookmaking businesses in the country alongside other well-known mobsters, Meyer Lanskey and “Fat Tony” Salerno. Horowitz instructed Goodman to go to a certain home, knock on the door and collect an envelope. To Goodman’s surprise, Bob Martin was there to greet him. Martin was known at the time as the biggest sports handicapper in the country. Martin handed Goodman an envelope and said, “There’s three dimes in there, Kid. You better win the case.” Goodman had never seen so much money before: thirty $100 bills.
Goodman had no idea how he was going to defend Horowitz’s stepbrother and his accomplice. He was so nervous the morning of the trial he vomited outside the steps of the federal courthouse. The pressure was unbearable, thinking he’d face a massacre if he lost. Goodman dressed up his clients to look like prep school kids and put them on the stand. The case came down to whether the jury would believe the story his clients told or the story of arresting the officer and the owner of the car. Goodman did his best to sway the jury in closing arguments to believe his clients’ side of the story, and he asked them to dig deep into their hearts before finding his clients guilty. To Goodman’s surprise, he won. And from that moment forward he became known in certain circles as the only lawyer to call.
During his legal career Goodman represented defendants accused of being some of the leading organized crime figures in the country: Meyer Lansky, Nicodemo Scarfo, Herbert Blitzstein, Phil Leonetti, former Stardust Casino boss Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, and Jamiel “Jimmy” Chagra, a 1970s drug trafficker who was acquitted of ordering the murder of Federal Judge John H. Wood, Jr. He also represented reputed Chicago outfit mobster Tony “The Ant” Spilotro, who was known to have a short, violent temper. In the semi-factual 1995 movie Casino, the character of Nicky Santoro was based on Spilotro (portrayed by actor Joe Pesci). Goodman appeared in the film as himself while defending “Ace Rothstein,” a character closely based on Lefty Rosenthal (played by Robert De Niro).
Goodman Takes On Merck
While most people think of Goodman as a mob lawyer (and they may be partially correct), the reality is he has defended many other clients: notably, a case for Jo Ann Allison.
Allison’s 5-year-old son, after receiving the compulsory vaccination for measles, mumps and rubella, the child suffered from mental retardation, deafness, blindness and was bound to a wheelchair for life. Allison wanted to sue Merck, the makers of the MMRII drug. Goodman remembers Allison telling him that an attorney near his office said she might be able to get $5,000; but Goodman took one look at her son and knew she’d need a lot more than that to care for him.
Goodman filed a lawsuit against Merck under product liability, arguing that Merck had not given the parent adequate warning about the dangers of the drug, only to have it thrown out when the judge granted summary judgment. Never one to back down, Goodman appealed all the way to the Nevada Supreme Court and in the end Allison won the $5,000.00 she was promised, plus a few more million dollars more – it was one of the most satisfying moments in his legal career.
Goodman still smiles when he thinks about how another attorney had given her so little hope for reasonable compensation. It was clients like Jo Ann Allison and his ability to help her that influenced his decision to run for mayor of Las Vegas, a position he would later hold for three consecutive terms.
Goodman On Politics
There eventually came a time in Goodman’s career when practicing law just didn’t leave him satisfied. He yearned for a new challenge. Goodman had achieved everything he could do as an attorney and he didn’t want to become the kind of attorney who just chose who to represent based on the money. Near the end of 1998, Goodman began eying the position of mayor. He had more baggage than a skycap at the airport, thought his family, deeming his decision to be crazy. But, when Goodman sets his eyes on something there’s no turning back. In 1999, on the filing period’s last day, Goodman announced his candidacy. He had no idea what the position of mayor even entailed, and he hadn’t even stepped foot in city hall. But none of those concerns bothered him. He loved this city and he was determined to win.
Campaigning was tough and with his mob attorney stigma he was listed as a 17-to-1 underdog. Everyone questioned his political know-how, but Goodman didn’t mind and instead embraced transparency. He spoke openly in a debate about how he had never been to city hall; about drinking too much; and he even went as far as to label himself a degenerative gambler. The result? Everyone loved him, and he went on to win the election in a landslide. Goodman served 12 years, loving every minute of it.
Rarely does a politician leave office without stepping on some toes. Goodman is no exception. His opinion on legalizing prostitution has both made headlines and brought criticism. While in office, he advocated legalizing prostitution and allowing brothels to open Downtown. While some people may consider his opinions extravagant, outrageous or immoral, in his mind they are practical and make sense on many levels. He has even advocated corporal punishment and cutting off the thumbs of graffiti taggers who deface our city.
Regardless of his personal desires, Goodman loved to listen to the people. He set up “Coffee With The Mayor” sessions one morning each month where he would invite locals to address concerns or ideas. Eventually, the meetings became so popular he created “Martinis With The Mayor” so he could speak with locals after work.
Goodman And The President
Very few men would challenge the authority of the president of the United States. But when Goodman heard that President Obama was discouraging travelers from visiting Vegas, he was outraged and immediately contacted the White House. Goodman said that he would not greet the president at the airport next time he was in Vegas unless an apology was made. The president’s staff reassured him that the president would put in a good word for Vegas next time he was in town. In good faith, Goodman greeted Obama on his next visit, but only a weak reference was made encouraging visitors to Vegas. Later on, Obama again discouraged visitors from visiting Vegas. The next time Obama was in town, Goodman did not greet him at the airport. In fact, Goodman went on say Obama was no longer welcome in Las Vegas. It takes a tough man to stand behind what he believes in, especially in opposition to the president.
Despite controversies, Goodman was one of the most popular mayors in Las Vegas. He was honored with his image being placed on $5 and $25 casino chips issued by the Four Queens Hotel and Casino in Downtown Las Vegas. And he has advice for anyone interested in following in his footsteps: “Have enough money to avoid temptation, be independent, and don’t worry too much about what everyone thinks.”
Oscar The Family Man And Friend
They say a man is only as good as the woman behind him, but in Goodman’s case the woman is beside him.
Having said more than once, “I loved being the major, but love sleeping with the mayor even more,” Goodman is now married to the current mayor, Carolyn G. Goodman, his wife of more than 40 years. Goodman credits his wife for his success both personally and professionally. The current Mayor Goodman founded The Meadows School, a prep school serving grades pre-K through grade 12. She is Oscar’s rock.
Although Goodman admits that the meeting with his future bride was not love at first sight (on her part), their coupling was truly meant to be. From starting a highly successful legal career, to adopting their four children, to holding office, the Goodmans have created a happy marriage, as well a partnership, of sorts, in their careers. Both have supported the other’s endeavors, from Oscar’s starting his own law practice and Carolyn’s opening The Meadows School, to both being mayors of the same city.
Maintaining a balance in his professional and personal life has worked well for Goodman and his family. He proudly boasts of his four children, all successful professionals, when he tells the story that all of his kids went away to school, vowed not to live in Vegas, yet all returned. And like any proud grandfather, Goodman couldn’t be more thrilled by his grandchildren.
While the Goodmans love Las Vegas, they occasionally like to spend time away from the Strip at local restaurants, stores and venues to enjoy quiet times. And of course, they enjoy their own restaurant, Oscar’s Beef, Booze and Broads, which they visit often to greet locals and visitors.
Goodman considers many of his past clients his friends, always representing each client with equal determination. “Any case is the most important case to a client,” he says.
Goodman’s Las Vegas
When asked about some of Las Vegas’ most important happenings in the last 20 years, the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health (LRCBH) topped Goodman’s list. The LRCBH, officially the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, opened on May 21, 2010. A bit of an architectural spectacle, locals know it to be a building that is hard to miss; but what goes on inside at one of the country’s most recognized diagnosis and ongoing treatment centers is what is most important. It is operated by the world-renowned Cleveland Clinic and was designed by equally renowned architect Frank Gehry of Gehry Partners in Santa Monica, Calif.
Another contribution to Vegas’ landscape that is “Goodman Approved” is the Smith Center for Performing Arts, the only place in the city to find ballet, jazz, symphonic, theatrical performances, and more, on one stage. The center is vital to the support and growth of the arts industry in the Las Vegas community.
Finally, it should surprise no reader, anywhere, that the Mob Museum be among Goodman’s favorites. Although it was first received with concern from the local Italian-American community, which feared being vilified by the museum, it has become of one the more important developments in the revitalization of Downtown Las Vegas.
Goodman, The Icon
Today, you can find Goodman greeting visitors with his showgirls as the chairman of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, or sharing stories with diners at Oscar’s Beef, Booze and Broads. Both roles embody what Vegas is all about—a good time surrounded by beautiful, fascinating people that you will only find in Sin City.
If you are lucky enough to meet him, you will never forget him. He has lived a life most people can only dream of. And for a man who likes to gamble, Goodman’s winning streak seems near-everlasting. As he puts it: “You only live once, and if you do it right, you only need once!”
Long live king of Vegas.
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