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The making of an icon: Oscar Goodman

The former mayor and Mob lawyer talks wiretaps, fame and life after office

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Today, Oscar Goodman is one of the most recognizable—and aggrandizing—figures in Las Vegas. But before he was mayor, Goodman was a Mob lawyer who lived an “insular,” almost “cloistered” life.
Photo: Christopher DeVargas

Oscar Goodman is chatting while seated on a third-row bench in the Kefauver courtroom at the Mob Museum in Downtown Las Vegas. Goodman is the king of this court, a defense attorney who argued tirelessly for his reputed mobster clients in the old federal courthouse. The Mob Museum is a fitting landmark in Goodman’s legacy as the mayor of Las Vegas. The three-story museum provides an extensive, interactive history of the Mob’s cast of characters, its influence in Vegas and across the country, and how law enforcement nabbed the bad guys.

One artifact, impossible to ignore, has been moved into the courtroom, centered just in front of the judge’s bench. It is a regal, high-backed, Bavarian throne that was originally a display piece at World Market Center. That was, until Mayor Oscar Goodman led a tour of the vast furniture mart with a group of mayors visiting for the 2006 U.S. Conference of Mayors. That the event luring more than 100 mayors from across the country was being held in Vegas was a victory for Goodman, in his oft-told rendition of the Throne Story.

“When I was first elected mayor, one of the first things I did was go back to D.C. for the Conference of Mayors meeting, and I said to the mayors, ‘How come you haven’t been to Las Vegas? This is a great

place for a convention.’ Well, I was looked at with derision and scorn. ‘How can we go to Las Vegas and have our constituents see us having a good time? What if they see a picture of us at the blackjack table? We would never win re-election!’ So I had to hear that kind of nonsense.”

Goodman says, his eyebrows arching, “I [finally] wore them down. They all came out to Las Vegas and had a terrific time, to say the least. I took them to the World Market Center and showed them those beautiful buildings. We went to the room at the top, and I was asked to come up to the stage.”

The other mayors were seated and Goodman was led to an object cloaked in a red velvet cloth. “They took the red cloth off with great aplomb, and I see my throne!” Goodman recalls. “I sat down, and all of the mayors got on their knees and gave me one of these.”

And Goodman bows down, to the throne and to the colorized memory of his time as mayor of Las Vegas.

“It’s a Bavarian throne,” he reminds, beaming. “It’s a real throne.”

Goodman has just released his memoir, Being Oscar, his life story as told to the best-selling author, magazine writer and former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter George Anastasia. Goodman, has no interest in learning to use a computer. He doesn’t manage his own Twitter account, send email or operate anywhere in social media. He wrote the chapters by hand on legal paper and gave them to Anastasia. “I am computer illiterate,” he says by way of bragging, “and I don’t mean to change it.”

Oscar Goodman's "Being Oscar" book signing at The Mob Museum in Downtown Las Vegas on Thursday, May 23, 2013.

Oscar Goodman's "Being Oscar" book signing at The Mob Museum in Downtown Las Vegas on Thursday, May 23, 2013.

Goodman’s memories are his own. He is the pilot, navigator, engine, chief source and sole compass for the book. No one else gets a voice in Being Oscar, which is why, as you flip through its 276 pages, you can hear Goodman talking all about his life. A classic example is when Goodman recalls a comment made to his wife, Carolyn, by Nate Jacobson, one of the founders of Caesars Palace. During the Goodmans’ early years in Las Vegas, Carolyn worked for Jacobson at Caesars as an executive secretary, and as Goodman recalls, Jacobson asked Carolyn “why she settled for scrambled eggs when she could have roast beef, the little prick.”

In his lengthy promotional tour, which included a three-day sprint in New York, Goodman has been picking over his favorite stories and signing and selling copies of the book. In a single two-hour sitting at Oscar’s Beef Booze & Broads restaurant at the Plaza (where Goodman has famously lent his name and image), he signed 200 copies. “A lot of people are dropping them off on my doorstep at home with notes—would I please sign it and leave it for them to pick up,” he says, chuckling. “I guess everybody’s address is on the Internet, so they find me.”

This sounds more like an observation than a complaint. Goodman has relished being a famous figure since he thumped Arnie Adamsen in his first run for mayor in 1999. His fame has expanded like a giant balloon (many of his detractors would say a hot-air balloon), and Goodman says it continues to grow.

“I’ve seen this develop, over time, and it’s gotten to the point that now, everybody knows me,” Goodman says. “I don’t want to sound arrogant (laughs), but the truth of the matter is, wherever I go, be it a restaurant or a museum, a public building, somebody either says, ‘Hello, Oscar,’ or ‘There’s the Mayor of Las Vegas.’”

Goodman recalls the NBA Europe Live overseas tour he took with an entourage representing the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. The group led by LVCVA chief Rossi Ralenkotter attended exhibition games in Barcelona, Paris, Rome and Cologne, Germany.

“We went to the Pantheon, in Rome,” Goodman says, “and people actually said, ‘There’s Oscar Goodman, the Mayor of Las Vegas.’”

That he is widely recognized is understood, but how has this notoriety, the busy schedule of personal appearances—during his terms as mayor and after he was termed out—affected Goodman’s personal life? Does he even have a life that’s not principally public?

Goodman stops and tilts his head, remembering that time long ago.

“Before I was mayor,” he starts, “I was known across the country only by a limited group of attorneys. I don’t think the public generally knew who I was. I was very well-known by attorneys. I’d tried cases in many, many different cities, and I met many lawyers. A lot of clients knew me, and a lot of the clients’ friends knew me. But if I walked down the street, nobody would say, ‘There’s Oscar the lawyer.’”

Defense lawyer Oscar Goodman, left, in court in with Anthony "Tony the Ant" Spilotro, the Chicago mob's feared overseer in Las Vegas. Spilotro controlled the crime family's rackets empire here for more than a decade.

Defense lawyer Oscar Goodman, left, in court in with Anthony "Tony the Ant" Spilotro, the Chicago mob's feared overseer in Las Vegas. Spilotro controlled the crime family's rackets empire here for more than a decade.

But Goodman came to realize that he was indeed very well-known—by federal and local law enforcement officials. His representation of reputed Mob clients such as Tony Spilotro, Meyer Lansky and Lefty Rosenthal made him a popular figure.

“There is a document in the Mob Museum, in here, which is the watch book of—and this is an oxymoron—the Metro Intelligence Unit. This is from November of ’79 to December of ’80, where they came in every night after their shifts and wrote down what they have documented, and it’s in a lot of different handwritings … I knew they were following me. This was not a figment of my imagination.”

What did those documents disclose? “I saw notations like, ‘Oscar is pissed off. Oscar is still pissed off.’ I don’t know what I was pissed off about, but that’s what’s in the notation,” Goodman says. “‘Oscar went to the airport. Oscar came home. Oscar went to the airport again. Oscar came home.’” Goodman discovered the existence of these records only recently, when the daughter of one of the police officers on the force at the time turned up at the Goodmans’ home and showed them to Oscar. In turn, he turned them over to the Mob Museum.

“I was a person of interest to law enforcement, and I was very, very careful not to give them any cause to cause me any problems,” Goodman says. “The first $7,500 I made every year was to go to my accountant, because I was going to be audited. Guaranteed. I was audited every year of my law practice.”

Goodman says he was often recorded on federal wiretaps.

“I heard myself on wiretaps. They intercepted conversations with myself and my clients who would call me on their phones,” he says. “I never got any kind of notification that my phone was ever tapped, but I was picked up during conversations with my clients when their phones were tapped.”

The consequences of a person discovered covertly recording a conversation with “the Mob Lawyer” were potentially lethal.

Goodman remembers one man who sat across from him in the office. “[He] was later found over at a place called Friendly Fergie’s [now the Eureka Casino]—if you can believe that—on East Sahara, in the toilet, slumped over with a bullet in his head. He had a wire on him. He had just been in my office and recorded the conversation with me.”

Goodman also remembers a case where he was recorded by federal officials during conversations with clients in the visiting room of Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas. “They had planted a device in a seat or desk where, the more you whispered, the louder it appeared on the tape. They felt, the government at the time, that every attorney was a co-conspirator with his client.”

Oscar and Carolyn Goodman.

Oscar and Carolyn Goodman.

Goodman, who today is one of the more aggrandizing people you will ever meet, remembers operating without a single true confidant aside from his wife. He was a cautious, private, prudent attorney.

“For 35 years, my life was almost, like, cloistered. It was insular. I learned early on that the government would rather have a lawyer like me in custody than my client,” Goodman says. “So I was very careful. I didn’t have any friends to speak of, other than my wife. ... I just didn’t trust anybody.

“I’m not going to tell you it was a lonely life, but it was a life of real circumspection … It got to the point where my wife and I were whispering to each other at home. It’s the truth.”

Goodman might be termed out, but he is forever campaigning.

The former mayor is seated at another media session at the Mob Museum, chatting with KOMP 92.7-FM DJ Andy Kaye, a man who is as excited about Oscar as is Oscar himself. “I want to play you in the movie!” Kaye crows.

“You’re not old enough!” Goodman barks back. “You can play me as a baby!”

Afterward, a fan who is lined up for that afternoon’s book-signing in the Kefauver courtroom hands Goodman a book and a Sharpie.

“You represented me when I was 17 years old,” the guy says. “You got me out of some serious trouble, and I want to thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Goodman says, pressing the pen to a blank page. “What’s your name?”

“Vinnie,” the guy says.

“It’s always Vinnie,” Goodman laughs. “Vinnie or Tony.”

Goodman returns to the days when he took office at City Hall.

“It’s funny. I had the same pair of eyeglasses as a lawyer as I did when I was elected,” he says. “But when you’re mayor, there are things you see that you don’t see when you’re a lawyer. Like, the first signs of blight. I didn’t know what the word meant before I was mayor, but I saw that there were wood shutters on Downtown office buildings. I saw the lawyers and banks leaving for the suburbs and more affluent areas of town.

“Downtown Las Vegas was lethargic, no energy, and that’s what I wanted to change. That’s really the purpose of why I was mayor, to do everything I could to revitalize the Downtown and create a renaissance. I did it for the right reasons.”

On the final page of Being Oscar, Goodman says, “I’m trying to stay relevant, but I feel a little like Aesop telling my fables to anyone who’ll listen. It’s been a great life; I wouldn’t change a thing.”

The book, like Goodman’s life, is a good read, full of stories that feel like fables and vintage Vegas intrigue. You close its cover believing what Oscar Goodman believes, that it’s good to be the king—throne and all.

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