LAS VEGAS (KLAS) – You could get almost anything at the Roxie. Booze, dancing, live music. Or a woman. Especially a woman.
The Roxie on Boulder Highway, about 4 miles from the city of Las Vegas, operated from 1946 until 1954 as a high-class brothel, cloaked in the services of supper club, nightclub and motel.
And when the Roxie was raided by the FBI on April 28, 1954, it pretty much signaled an end to brothels in Las Vegas and Clark County. The raid on the Roxie is a mix of one-man crusade, an undercover journalism sting and recording technology of the era that copied the actions of Cold War spies and the Dick Tracy comic strip.
“I can’t believe the whole thing hasn’t been made into a movie,” says Marie Rowley, a Las Vegas native whose 2012 UNLV master’s thesis, “ ‘So Much for Fond Five-Dollar Memories:’ Prostitution in Las Vegas, 1905-1955,” richly revisited the raid on the Roxie. “It’s one of the craziest stories in American history, and I cannot believe more people don’t realize it.”
The toast of Formyle
The Roxie was the feature attraction of Formyle (or Four Mile or 4 Mile), a stretch of Boulder Highway that was 4 miles from the jurisdiction of Las Vegas authorities. There were other brothels, but the Roxie, or Roxie’s, was the best of them, say Rowley and Geoff Schumacher, author, Las Vegas history expert and an executive with the Mob Museum.
“It was more upscale, with fine furnishings,” Rowley says. “Full bar, lounge, waiting room for the customers. It was almost like a plush casino but without the gambling.”
Adds Schumacher: “People knew what was going on there. Roxie’s operated pretty openly.”
Too openly for some, especially Hank Greenspun, editor and publisher of the upstart Las Vegas Sun newspaper. He smelled corruption. He was fresh off an out-of-court settlement won against Nevada Democratic Sen. Pat McCarran in an anti-trust suit. And in 1954 Greenspun was going after Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the Wisconsin Republican who had gained power with wild, unfounded accusations of communist infiltration of the U.S. government.
So going after a few local politicians? No big deal for Greenspun.
From Block 16 to Formyle
Long a part of Las Vegas, brothels originally were contained to what was known as Block 16 (today downtown, on North 1st Street between East Ogden Avenue and Stewart Avenue). In Nevada, prostitution was not explicitly legal, and local governments could restrict the sex trade to certain boundaries.
But construction of the Hoover Dam and soldiers occupying a new military airfield that would become Nellis Air Force Base pushed the federal government to shutter Block 16, the area from which the Sin City name evolved, by the early 1940s. The feds wanted neither dam workers nor soldiers spending time and money and contracting venereal disease in houses of ill-repute.
By 1946, city officials, with a vision of Las Vegas as a postwar tourist destination, adopted a ban on brothels. Clark County officials didn’t quite see it that way. So the business of sex moved to Formyle, conveniently out of the city’s grasp.
But to many, authorities were staging a game in Formyle. “Hot-spot” brothels would be raided, prostitutes and operators fined small amounts, and then the establishments, closed for a few days, would reopen. All of which would be publicized in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, with law enforcement proclaiming their hard work and effort in a war on vice.
The game is afoot
The game riled Greenspun. And as several brothels closed, reopened or resurfaced, the Roxie lived on. To Greenspun, it smelled of corruption.
“Whenever a new brothel came to the attention of the local press, city and county authorities publicly decried prostitution and announced their intentions to close the establishment,” wrote Rowley, an expert on the sex trade in Nevada, in her thesis. “In most cases, law enforcement officers staged dramatic raids on these brothels, and the ‘hot spot’ would fade from headlines within a few months. The notable exception to this rule was the Roxie.”
So Greenspun assigned his prize Sun staffer, Ed Reid, whose reporting for the Brooklyn Eagle earned him a public service Pulitzer Prize in 1951, to tackle the Roxie. Along with dogged Clark County District Attorney Roger Foley, Reid’s interviews, sources and investigative reporting in a Sun series on the Roxie and its owners, Eddie and Roxie Clippinger, implicated Clark County Sheriff Glen Jones.
On the night of April 28, 1954, the FBI raided the Roxie. Its manager, Richard “Dick” Kellogg, was hit with charges of conspiracy to commit a federal crime and six counts of violating the Mann Act. At the same time, agents descended on the Clippingers’ home in San Bernardino, California, arresting the Roxie owners on the same charges.
Although prostitution was not explicitly illegal in Nevada, the FBI, through work by Foley and Reid, had evidence the Clippingers transported women from California to Nevada, across state lines, to work as prostitutes, a violation of the Mann Act. Within hours of the arrests of Kellogg and the Clippingers, Jones’ deputies landed at the Roxie and arrested 19 women on vagrancy charges.
Greenspun’s photographer was at the raid, and he got a shot of the women holding open pages of the Sun to hide their faces. The next day, the Sun caption on the photograph read: “In Las Vegas, everyone reads the Sun.”
In a 10-day trial in Los Angeles in the summer of 1954, the Clippingers were found guilty of white-slavery, violating the Mann Act, and each was sentenced a $5,000 fine and three years in prison. Kellogg was fined $2,500 and received five years probation.
As the trial was going on, back in Las Vegas, the Sun kept up stories alleging corruption at the local level. Greenspun’s ace reporter, Reid, had an idea. A New York acquaintance of Reid’s, Pierre LaFitte, a talented undercover agent, arrived in Las Vegas. He would pose as Louis Tabet, a notorious East Coast hoodlum looking for opportunities in the thriving desert resort city.
The sting was on. LaFitte, posing as Tabet and using an Italian accent and tossing money around on the Strip, eventually met with Roxie Clippinger, who was awaiting sentencing, at her San Bernardino home. Tibet was wearing a wristwatch with a tiny recorder – shades of Dick Tracy’s two-way wrist radio. Roxie tells Tabet her brothel was pulling in more than $70,000 a month (more than $780,000 today) and that local officials were being paid for protection.
“We had [Sheriff] Jones on the payroll a long time and you’d better do the same,” Roxie tells Tabet. “But be careful. He’s terrifically greedy.”
Years later, Greenspun in a Harper’s story recalls LaFitte/Tabet: “That guy cost us a fortune in little microphones alone.”
Shortly after meeting with Roxie, Tabet meets with Kellogg, also awaiting sentencing, in a suite at the El Rancho Hotel in Las Vegas.
With the reporter Reid and a Clark County assistant district attorney from Foley’s office hiding in a closet and operating a tape recorder, Kellogg tells Tabet: “I’ll put you in touch with the right people … I’ll bring you face to face with the sheriff [Jones].” He also is caught on tape saying a couple of county commissioners are being paid for providing protection.
In ensuing meetings with Jones — and also with the same two men operating a tape recorder from the closet – Tabet draws out more from the sheriff, including the suggestion that Lt. Gov. Clifford Jones (no relation to the sheriff) has influence with the Las Vegas Review-Journal. The paper’s editor, John Cahlan, is the lieutenant governor’s brother-in-law.
The stories that run in the Sun detailing all the players “sent shockwaves through the state,” Rowley wrote in her thesis.
A grand jury indicts Jones and County Commissioner Rodney Colton on charges of bribery, which ends their political careers. And the lieutenant governor resigns as a Democratic National Committeeman and faces an investigation by the state tax commission. Charges are dropped against the sheriff and county commissioner, and the lieutenant governor loses his gaming license.
But as Rowley wrote: “The political climate that emerged in the wake of the Roxie scandal prevented brothel prostitution from being re-established in the Las Vegas area.”
A new sheriff, Butch Leypoldt, armed with the backing of county officials, clamps down. The Roxie is sold in January of 1955 to a local developer, and the buildings are converted into a men’s rooming house called the Cottonwood Lodge.
While many celebrated the end of brothels, there were those who didn’t appreciate the change. The prostitutes gravitated to the Strip and downtown. Prostitution didn’t end, Rowley says. “What happened was you got on the phone and a prostitute came to your room,” she says.
Brian Greenspun, who took over for his father as the publisher of the Sun and leader of the family’s media group, remembers some didn’t like to see the end of the Roxie. There were financial relationships in such establishments. Not the sex. But the food, liquor and entertainment that was pedaled there, too. “The closing affected everyone who did business from it,” Brian Greenspun says. “All of sudden, you’re on the outs. Your business is down.”
Remember, brothels had been part of the city’s financial fabric, Greenspun said. “There was a social impact, too. Some of the people in the Roxie situation were movers in this town.”
People like Cliff Jones. Until the Roxie scandal, Jones was known as “Big Juice” for his political influence and ability to accomplish things.
Before he died in 2001, Cliff Jones crossed paths with the younger Greenspun at a function. “He kind of glossed over [the Roxie raid],” Greenspun remembers. “He told me, “Your father and I, we had our squabbles, but we stayed friends.”
Movers and shakers of the time who didn’t appreciate the change included Benny Binion, casino owner and Las Vegas businessman. He thought the Roxie kept the prostitutes out of sight, out of mind: “I wish that house was still here, and I wish Glen Jones was still running it. Keep ‘em off the streets.”
Sources: “The Legend of Hank Greeenspun,” by Joseph Dalton, Harper’s, June 1982; ‘So Much for Fond Five-Dollar Memories:’ Prostitution in Las Vegas, 1905-1955,” by Marie K. Rowley, 2012 master’s thesis, UNLV; “The Green Felt Jungle,” by Ed Reid and Ovid Demaris, 1963; “Where I Stand: The Record of a Reckless Man,” by Hank Greenspun, 1966,