Since my latest book, Grandissimo, came out, people have asked me why I wrote it. The simple answer is that Jay Sarno was the most interesting person in Las Vegas history not to have a book already written about him. But the process of researching and writing it reminded me of how important it is to preserve our past -- even the parts that don't seem immediately important.
Sarno moved to Las Vegas in 1965 and died in 1984. In his 19 years here, he changed much about the city, building Caesars Palace and Circus Circus, the casinos that dominated at the high and low ends of the Strip for the next generation. In 1974, he was accused of offering the largest bribe in IRS history, a charge he ultimately beat with the help of attorney Oscar Goodman. He conceived of the Grandissimo, a 6,000-room resort with attached shopping and theme park rides -- something that sounds pretty typical today, but was considered ridiculous in 1979. In other words, he saw exactly where Las Vegas was heading in the 1990s.
I started my research in the usual places -- checking what other people had written about him, looking at newspaper accounts, and delving into the promotional and publicity files in UNLV Special Collections to augment my understanding of what was going on at his casinos. This gave me a general outline, but I noticed that some areas of his life, particularly the IRS bribery case, had gone nearly unremarked on by others. Strange, I thought, when the trial had been front-page news in Las Vegas. And, while what was readily available gave me a sense of Sarno's accomplishments, it didn't tell me much about him as a person.
That's why I decided to do a series of oral history interviews to recapture the parts of Sarno's life that otherwise would be lost. I spoke to about three dozen family members, college friends, and associates in Las Vegas, each of whom had different observations to offer. I could sketch a picture of a much more complicated -- and interesting -- character. Friends recalling good times, family members reliving decades-gone arguments, business associates remembering nearly forgotten details of deals -- it all added something.
Between the time I started the project and the time that I published the book, four of the people I interviewed passed away. If they had not been so generous with their time, some invaluable slices of Sarno's life would have been lost.
For example, his was no ordinary golf club bag; he used a display model the size of a trash can, just so he'd be sure to have exactly the right club at the right time. A lot was at stake here -- he often bet thousands of dollars on each hole. This wasn't a guy to do anything in a small way. He saw a woman walking across the lobby of Miami's Fontainebleau hotel and decided, right then, that she'd be the woman he'd marry. Against all odds, four days later Joyce accepted his proposal.
We don't often think that our daily lives will be of interest to anyone, but the way someone plays golf, or proposes marriage (in Jay's case, at least), can say a lot more about them than their professional work.
Seeing Jay Sarno gradually fleshed out as an individual hammered home the importance of conducting and maintaining oral history interviews with a wide cross-section of Las Vegas residents. This city has changed a great deal in the past 40 years, and we take for granted that there are plenty of people around who can chat with us about our recent past. That's not, however, always going to be the case, which is why we must continue to work diligently to ensure that the legacy of this important generation is preserved.