(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)
Last year, Jay nominated the Most Interesting Man in the World for the Al, arguing that he represented an appealing avatar for the manly good life.
Often on the blog, I have used the image of Leonardo di Caprio’s portrayal of Howard Hughes in the Aviator as a tribute to the restless innovator overcoming challenges.
Today it is my pleasure to nominate a real person who embodies qualities of both of these fictional characters: Steve Wynn.
WSJ reporter Christina Brinkley wrote a fascinating book about the battle to control the Las Vegas Strip called Winner Takes All: Steve Wynn, Kirk Kerkorian, Gary Loveman and the Race to Own Las Vegas. There were many interesting things about this book, but Steve Wynn without a doubt steals the show.
Steve Wynn essentially created the modern Las Vegas, transforming the city from a seedy, neon lit gambling hole to what it is today. I’ll let you decide for yourself what it is today, because the seedy neon lit gambling hold is certainly still there.
I can remember watching the U2 video I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, filmed on Fremont Street back in the late 1980s and thinking to myself “Vegas is repulsive. I have absolutely no interest in ever going there.”
Some of you reading this will have exactly the same reaction to Vegas today, but mine has entirely changed, and it is because of Steve Wynn. Steve Wynn invented the Las Vegas that I enjoy visiting.
Steve Wynn invented the modern Las Vegas in the late 1980s when he built the Mirage, the first of the modern casinos, on the strip. Wynn’s vision for updating Vegas was straightforward: he was out to build destination resorts so interesting that people would want to visit even if they weren’t interested in gambling.
Today, the Mirage has fallen into meh status (a volcano? Snore….) but that is a tribute more to the fantastic cycle of one-up manship that the success of the Mirage inspired. Wynn imagined a Las Vegas that would appeal to far more than gambling junkies, paving the way for a hyper-competitive market in every type of distraction, from fine dining to elaborate stage productions, fine art to high-end nightclubs.
In other words, the tacky Vegas is still available, but now, so is everything else.
Winner Takes All paints a fascinating portrait of Steve Wynn as the ruthless capitalist moving Vegas forward. Others had tried to top Wynn in developing new resorts, but for the most part, Wynn was in a competition against himself. In building the Bellagio, a resort which would make Louis XIV green with envy, someone asked Mr. Wynn what he had in mind for decoration behind the check in counter. When someone suggested a piece of fine art, Wynn liked the idea so much that at one point he had multiple auctioneers in New York and London buying everything in sight. When you read winner takes all, you can imagine the London and New York auctioneers wondering to themselves “Egads, who is this person in Las Vegas buying all of our art?”
Today, you can visit Mr. Wynn’s gigantic Picasso collection in a restraunt in the Bellagio known, appropriately enough, as Picasso’s, which combines fine dining with a museum of art experience. I highly recommend it.
Winner Takes All details the rise and fall of Steve Wynn. In building the Bellagio, vacuuming up fine art, and other projects (including the Beau Rivage, a “baby Bellagio” in Biloxi Mississippi- a market faux pas) Binkley presents Wynn as the capitalist gone mad. Wall Street analysts began calling Wynn out on his extravagent spending. Wynn’s reaction as conveyed by Binkley is priceless, something along the lines of “These idiots and their quarterly profit statements! Don’t they get it? I’m an artist!”
Wynn went so far off the financial deep end that his rival Kerkorian, developer of the MGM, wrote a check and bought Wynn’s company straight out from under him. I’m trying to imagine anyone having the ability to write a check with enough zeros in it to purchase the Bellagio and various lesser properties, but it certainly says something about the depths to which Wynn had driven his stock price. The transformative mastermind of the modern Las Vegas was finished, a victim to his own obsession.
Well, that wouldn’t do for an ending, now would it?
Despite losing it all, Wynn found new investors willing to back his vision of excellence. Wynn secured $2.7 billion to build the Wynn hotel, buying an old property for a relative song, and topping himself yet again with a fantastic new resort. Today Vegas is down like everything, but don’t count Steve Wynn out. Personally I can’t wait to see what the mad artist/capitalist comes up with next.