The King of Casinos: Wille Martello and the El Rey Club
Every so often, readers come across stories and characters that are so unlikely as to be unbelievable. This is one of those stories – but, remarkably, it’s all true. Andy Martello was visiting Las Vegas with his wife when they decided to stop in at a dusty museum off the main drag. Martello’s wife pointed out a faded black-and-white photograph that bore the couple’s same last name: it was the author’s first acquaintance with the El Rey Club, a notorious Nevadan gambling and entertainment destination that got its start in the 1940s. Run by Willie Martello, this was a place where celebrities came to get away. In fact, the El Rey Club was so successful in diverting money away from the Las Vegas joints that it began to attract untoward attention. The club’s association with the Mafia led to Martello’s muddy reputation, dragging his story down into the depths of American history until one author had the happenstance to drudge it back up.
Let’s face it: gambling is a gray area. There are those who are strictly in favor of it, and those who wouldn’t step foot in front of a slot machine. Mostly it’s because of a morality we paint over the act of gambling – it’s wasteful, sinful, illegitimate. Or, it’s entertaining, fun, and relaxing. Similarly, Martello’s story is part heroic and part dubious. Through sheer willpower, this man erected a business from the ground up and forever changed the face of the gambling industry; there’s no denying how much thought and sweat went into the El Rey Club. Yet at the same time, the Club had somewhat shadowy underpinnings: rigged slot machines, multiple run-ins with the law, and a hotspot for Mafia activity. What Andy Martello has managed to piece together – in as seemingly a miraculous way as the King of Casinos himself – is a thoughtful, well-researched biography of a remarkable businessman out of the American past.
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