From Steve Wynn’s perspective, the shimmering 50-floor wedge rising from 217 acres of land at the north end of the Strip is like St. Peter’s Basilica. In his mind, he’s created a humanist piece of Renaissance architecture—and everyone has to be convinced of that.
Steve Wynn’s Biggest Gamble
Even as Steve Wynn’s sight is failing, his vision grows more ambitious. Five years after selling his Mirage Resorts, the uncrowned king of Las Vegas has just finished building a shimmering, 50-floor hotel-casino, complete with 18 restaurants, a car dealership, golf course, spa, museum, and man-made mountain. Visiting the $2.7 billion follow-up to Wynn’s famed Bellagio, NINA MUNK finds the man who re-invested Las Vegas grappling with his legacy—and on at least one memorable occasion, losing his cool.
For the past five years, ever since he sold his Mirage Resorts to Kirk Kerkorian for $6.4 billion, Steve Wynn, aged 63, has been planning a comeback. “It took Michelangelo four years to complete the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Your room took five,” reads a brochure for his new casino and hotel, the Wynn Las Vegas Resort and Country Club.
Wynn’s latest creation, a curved, shimmering 50-floor copper-colored wedge, rises from 217 acres of land at the north end of the Las Vegas Strip, on the site of the late Desert Inn. The new resort is immense: it includes 2,700 rooms, 18 restaurants, two theaters, a man-made mountain, 1,960 slot machines, an 18-hole golf course, an artificial lake, two ballrooms, a 38,000-square-foot spa and fitness center, topiary gardens, a museum with priceless works of art from the Wynn Collection, 31 boutiques, five swimming pools, a car dealership (Ferrari and Maserati), and two wedding chapels.
To some people, the most notable feature of Wynn Las Vegas may be its staggering cost: $2.7 billion. To put that figure in perspective: it is $300 million more than the U.S. government spent last year to fight the global aids crisis. Another point of comparison: $2.7 billion is roughly $1 billion more than the cost of the Freedom Tower, the 1,776-foot skyscraper going up at the site of the World Trade Center, in New York.
To Steve Wynn, however, Wynn Las Vegas is not an empty extravagance—it is high art. On a February evening in Las Vegas, he has invited me to a rehearsal of The Dream Sequence, a son et lumière show that is meant to be a core attraction of his new project. There are just 63 days left until the opening of Wynn Las Vegas, set for April 28, and despite his usual self-confidence, Wynn seems nervous and edgy. He’s easily ruffled. “Pre-opening is always hell,” confides his wife, Elaine, excusing his short temper. Will people understand Wynn’s grand vision? “I want people to be transported by the hotel,” he says. “I’m thinking, What is it that would make people be delighted and amazed?”
As the rehearsal begins, we are standing outside on a darkened terrace in front of Wynn Las Vegas, gazing upon a vast mountain eight stories high, its rough edges softened by thousands of pine trees just planted in mechanically stabilized earth. A 45-foot waterfall spills into a three-acre lagoon, the Lake of Dreams, at the base of the mountain. “It’s all real,” says Wynn, meaning, I infer, that the trees, water, rocks, and plants are not plastic or papier-mâché.
“Let’s take off the waterfall, can we?” says Wynn.
“Cut the waterfall, please!” says the director.
“We got it! We got it!” yells a technician. People wearing wireless headsets are scurrying around trying to get everything right. It’s quite a production, this Dream Sequence. In the middle of the Lake of Dreams, submerged in a pit roughly 44 feet deep, is a hydraulic lift. At appropriate moments in the choreography the lift goes into action, whereupon, out of the depths, emerges the giant, disembodied head of a lovely woman which has been digitally programmed to sing along with the music. Two mechanically operated luminaries, a sun and a moon, rise and set on command.
“Cue the Paganini theme now,” orders Wynn. “You ready?”
“Yes, yes, yes,” says the director.
Suddenly we’re surrounded by Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” thundering from who knows how many speakers. “Louder!” yells Wynn. The mountain is illuminated. The lagoon bubbles and gurgles. Beneath the water, 4,000 light-emitting diodes burst with fabulous color: in psychedelic patterns, agitated swirls of blue, yellow, and pink race and ripple across the water in time to the piano concerto. Enthralled, Wynn cuts through the air with an invisible baton.
“Now come the strings!” he confirms as the violins begin to play. “Very rhapsodic,” he tells me. “Now! Here come the very, almost orgasmic—here!—five notes. One more time: One! Two! Three! Four! Five! Then it retreats—back into simple ... ” Wynn pauses to explain his overarching concept: “We’re thinking that this small start that opens, and builds, and then retreats back to a single note may be a good way for us to start with something on point and open the whole mountain and then go back down again.”
Whatever he means, everyone nods in agreement. The lagoon changes color. The pine trees on the mountain turn gold. Wynn is pleased. “I like the gold,” he says.
“Steve likes the color gold in the mountains!” yells the director. “He likes the gold!”
Wall Street too likes gold. In the past year, the stock price of Wynn Resorts, which trades under the symbol WYNN, has soared to $70 from around $35. Forget about profits. Even though the company doesn’t have any revenues to speak of so far, it’s already valued by Wall Street at $7 billion. Steve Wynn’s personal stake in Wynn Resorts is worth around $2 billion, give or take a few hundred million. The company’s sole assets are: (1) the new Wynn Las Vegas resort; (2) an annex to Wynn Las Vegas, the $1.4 billion Encore, on which ground will be broken this summer; (3) a $700 million casino scheduled to open in the Chinese territory of Macau in late 2006; (4) a recently submitted bid for a license to build a casino in Singapore. In short, what’s propping up Wynn’s stock is mostly the promise of Steve Wynn, visionary.
In financial circles, some people think Wynn is the closest thing to a sure bet. Michael Milken, who’s been his friend since the 1970s, when Milken sold junk bonds to finance Wynn’s casinos, asks me rhetorically, “Would you be worried it was a gamble if you asked Isaac Stern to play a new piece on his violin? If you commissioned Renoir to do a painting 20 years into his career, would you have been gambling? This is an artist at work.”
Ron Baron, of Baron Funds, one of Wynn’s biggest investors, has put $170 million into Wynn Resorts; as far as he’s concerned, he’s invested in Steve Wynn personally. “He’s the guy who made Las Vegas! ... You’re talking about a guy who makes money again and again! How easy is that?” enthuses Baron, before adding that he’s already made (on paper) a profit of half a billion dollars on Wynn Resorts.
To Wall Street, Wynn is a moneymaker. In Nevada, he’s royalty, as is his wife. “They’re the king and queen of Las Vegas,” explains Sandy Gallin, a Hollywood talent manager who has worked with Wynn for years. “Seriously. It sounds funny, because we don’t have a king and queen of Los Angeles or New York, but it’s true.”
One night, at the opening of the new Barry Manilow show at the Las Vegas Hilton, I begin to see what Gallin is talking about. The minute Steve and Elaine Wynn step out of their car (a chocolate-colored Maybach, made by DaimlerChrysler in a limited edition and, as Wynn notes, priced at more than $300,000), they’re mobbed. “Look,” I hear someone say excitedly, “it’s Steve Wynn!” “The new place looks great!” shouts a woman driving a motorized wheelchair. Olga, the lady who’s taking tickets at the door, starts to cry. “I want to thank you,” she sobs, grateful beyond words that her daughter has just been hired as a host at the Wynn Las Vegas. Elaine Wynn pats Olga’s hand, kindly adding, “Don’t get verklempt.”
As the Wynns make their way through the crowd, Steve holds on to Elaine’s arm for support. What the people do not realize is that Wynn can barely see them. Afflicted with a genetic disease, retinitis pigmentosa, he is slowly losing his sight. At night, and in places that are dimly lit, Wynn sees almost nothing. During the day, he has no peripheral vision, as if he’s seeing the world through a cardboard tube. Because of this, he knocks over wineglasses, stumbles on stairs, and sideswipes walls. When people go up to shake his hand, their arms can be left in midair, hanging.
For all that, Wynn insists that his failing eyesight is not an impediment. One day, as if to prove the point, he reads a long letter aloud to me. A few days later, he takes me skiing in Sun Valley, Idaho, where he makes it down the mountain splendidly, without incident. This evening at the Hilton, guided through the crowd by his wife, Wynn conceals the fact that he can’t recognize even some people he knows well. Bernie Yuman, Siegfried & Roy’s personal manager, kisses Elaine. David Brenner, the stand-up comic, pays his respects. Tom Barrack, chairman of the company that owns the Las Vegas Hilton, reaches for Wynn’s shoulder: “Steve—it’s Tom—I just want you to know how happy I am that you’re here. Thank you for everything you’ve done for Las Vegas.”
What has Wynn done for Las Vegas? For one thing, he’s the man who sanitized the town and gave it an air of middle-class respectability. Wynn arrived in Las Vegas way back in 1967. But it wasn’t until 1989, the year the Mirage hotel and casino opened, that he was recognized for what he was: a showman in the tradition of Mike Todd or P. T. Barnum.
The Mirage was the first major new development Las Vegas had seen in 15 years. The town had been in decline—seedy. Gambling was becoming legal all over the country, so why would anyone come to Las Vegas to shoot craps? But Wynn was not in the gambling business, he insisted; he was in the recreation-and-entertainment business. Disney theme parks were his model. He wasn’t the first to transform casinos into family-friendly spectacles—Jay Sarno’s Caesars Palace and Circus Circus did that in the 1960s—but Wynn took the concept to a whole new level. “A lot of places in Las Vegas are big boxes of stuff,” says Wynn. “The hotels I’ve built have had, for lack of a better term, a soul.”
The soul of the Mirage was Siegfried & Roy, who performed in a theater designed just for them—until Roy was attacked by one of his tigers a year and a half ago. Outside the Mirage, a 54-foot-high volcano, which Wynn designed personally at a cost of $13 million, still erupts every 15 minutes. Bottlenose dolphins swim around and around an artificial coral reef. Inside the hotel, shielded by a thick glass wall, 19 of Siegfried & Roy’s Royal White tigers pace up and down, back and forth.
The Mirage may seem dated, even pedestrian these days, but back in 1989 it was revolutionary. For one thing, Wynn spent a then unimaginable $700 million on it. Just to break even, he had to generate $1 million a day, an impossible feat, according to many industry observers. Nevertheless, by the end of its first year, on revenues of $660 million, the Mirage had produced a dazzling operating profit of $188 million. “This hotel is the biggest success in the history of the world,” announced Wynn. He may have been using hyperbole, but this much is true: the opening of the Mirage hotel and casino kicked off the renaissance of Las Vegas. During the next decade, the number of visitors to the city would nearly double.
In the Mirage’s wake came such imitators as Excalibur, a casino disguised as a medieval castle; the Luxor, a pyramid-shaped resort evoking ancient Egypt; and New York–New York, which includes replicas of the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, and the Brooklyn Bridge. Wynn’s own follow-up to the Mirage, the Treasure Island hotel and casino, opened in 1993. This time, mechanical pirates were his carny barkers.
In the late 1990s, Wynn turned to Europe for his themes, or to America’s romantic ideas about Europe. Once again his timing was perfect. The $1.6 billion Bellagio, which opened in 1998, spoke to the nation’s growing sense of entitlement. It was grand. Instead of hiding the hotel’s colossal budget, Wynn boasted about it, as if he understood how much Americans admire excess. “Money is a way of expressing no compromise,” he said back then.
Named after a town on Lake Como, in Italy, the Bellagio, a Versailles in the desert, had breathtaking views, marble floors, private poolside cabanas, 180-thread-count linens, a full-service spa, a botanical garden, and guest suites with his-and-her master bathrooms. In front of the Bellagio, on eight and a half acres, Wynn built a $40 million lake with dancing fountains synchronized to Italian arias sung by Pavarotti and Broadway show tunes. Modeled on Milan’s 19th-century Galleria arcade, Bellagio’s shopping mall was lined with brand names that at one time had been considered too classy for Las Vegas: Prada, Giorgio Armani, Chanel, Gucci, Tiffany & Co.
But the Bellagio’s real centerpiece—its proto–Dream Sequence—was Wynn’s collection of art, between $300 million and $400 million worth of 19th- and 20th-century masterpieces. Shortly before the Bellagio opened, in October 1998, a billboard outside the hotel announced:
VAN GOGH, MONET, RENOIR, and CÉZANNE
with special guests
PABLO PICASSO and HENRI MATISSE
The slot machines and blackjack tables and roulette wheels were there, of course, but Wynn knew how to downplay them. Gambling—or “gaming,” as the industry prefers to call it—was nothing more than a form of relaxation and diversion, like getting a massage at your poolside cabana, or buying a Chanel evening bag, or viewing Picasso’s 1942 portrait of Dora Maar. “The public didn’t come for a slot machine,” says Wynn. “What happens is, if the place is fun, they’ll play the slot machines, too.” He was dead right: today the Bellagio is the most profitable hotel-casino in Las Vegas, with more than $350 million of operating cash flow on $1 billion in revenue. And, in contrast to the way money used to be made in Vegas, less than half those revenues come from gambling.
Wynn was hailed as a prophet. “The master builder of Vegas,” Time magazine called him. “The most powerful man in Las Vegas,” said Business Week. Town & Country compared the Bellagio to the (authentic) town of Portofino. The art critic Robert Hughes approved, hedging his prose: “Despite the breakneck speed at which Wynn has so far put his collection together, there are some works in it that any museum would envy.” Interviewed about the Bellagio, Wynn told reporters, recycling an old cliché, “It’s the way God would do it if He had the money.”
Return to 2005. Having sold all his casinos to Kirk Kerkorian’s MGM Grand, Inc., in 2000, Wynn is re-inventing himself. In the midst of the tinsel and ephemera of Las Vegas, a town where buildings and fortunes go up and come down overnight, Wynn aspires to create something “enduring”—an artifice of eternity. Like other men his age, he is thinking about his legacy: he wants to be remembered for something more than having turned Las Vegas into a moneymaking adult theme park.
“The idea of a theme—I had passed that,” Wynn says dismissively. “I didn’t think that a themed hotel was the thing to do anymore, and I thought the more specifically the hotel tried to be reminiscent of another time or place the more limited it would have to be—the more chance it would have to become boring eventually. And besides, at this time of my life I felt strongly that—well, why would anybody want to build a replica? Why would you set out to build something not as good as the original?”
Years ago, Wynn modeled himself and his projects on Walt Disney. These days, without irony, he alludes to St. Peter’s Basilica and to the Italian architect Renzo Piano.
“People say, ‘I want a hotel that looks like the Ritz,’” Wynn continues. “Well, I wanted them to want a hotel that looked like X—whatever we were going to call our place. That meant an architectural and design sensibility that was its own. It was going to have its own voice. Contemporary, but classical in its proportions and its symmetry. People were going to know where they were. I wasn’t going to confuse them. The place would be balanced. It would take advantage of classical elements like balance and proportion and symmetry—those humanist things from Renaissance architecture forward. It wasn’t going to be quirky for the sake of being different.”
Wynn pauses, places a Listerine breath strip on his tongue, and leans back in his chair. Everything about him is shiny and smooth. He glistens, almost. Wynn is tall, with taut bronzed skin and dark sleek hair. Every day he takes 25 vitamins and other supplements. Portioned out in little plastic packets by his majordomo, they include lutein, an antioxidant; DHEA, a hormone to slow the effects of aging; and, for his joints, chondroitin sulfate and glucosamine. Wynn has always been fit, but in the past year, since he started a strict low-carbohydrate diet, his waist size has dropped from 36 to 32 inches.
Today Wynn is wearing a bespoke navy pin-striped suit, slightly nipped at the waist, with a shirt that’s just the right shade of blue. On his wrist is a gold Patek Philippe watch. I notice his beautiful sheer socks. His delicate lace-up shoes have been polished to a high gloss. Even the two sinewy German shepherds sprawled on Wynn’s carpet could pass for stage props. He speaks to them in German. “Palo!” he commands, when one dog wanders off. “Kommst du hier!”
Palo slinks back immediately, and Wynn returns to the subject of Wynn Las Vegas. To summarize: “It was going to be a place that found its voice by tapping into fundamental human aspiration.... No tricks. No plastic theme-park bullshit. Just do the basics better than it’s ever been done before. And give people what they want.... Intense. Emotional. Experiences.”
Roger Thomas, Wynn’s chief designer, catalogues the intense emotional experiences that Wynn Las Vegas is meant to arouse: “You feel safe; you feel heightened in awareness; you feel a little more romantic than when you walked through the door; you sense there’s mystery going on and surprise about to happen.” By way of example, and citing the inspiration of René Magritte’s Surrealist paintings of floating men and umbrellas, Thomas points to the hotel’s lobby. Suspended from the 36-foot-high ceilings are 18 immense glowing parasols made out of iridescent taffeta-like fabric. They perform what he calls “a dreamlike ballet,” turning slowly this way and that.
At Wynn Las Vegas, you’re meant to be “cradled in a protected soft place,” says Steve Wynn. To create the proper degree of softness, he spent a good deal of time deciding whether the translucent fabric above his blackjack tables should be lit from behind with a white, bronze, or amber light. “A casino is a delicate place,” explains Wynn. “You want the place to be animated ... but you don’t want to overstimulate.” He devoted considerable energy to choosing a low-toned “palette” for the hotel, finally settling on bronze, cinnamon, and “apricotta” with accents of celadon, fuchsia, and periwinkle. To design the hotel’s signature carpets, he hired the French interior decorator Jacques Garcia. Against a background of geranium red, the carpet combines brilliant green, violet, periwinkle, gold, and shrimp-colored patterns, described to me in terms of “underwater meandering sea forms.” So entranced is Wynn with the carpet that his hotel is selling an exclusive line of products (which include bowls and a Judith Leiber handbag) based on the meandering-sea-form pattern.
“What’s the most fetching thing that provokes people?” Wynn asks me. “A volcano? Fountains that dance? A pirate ship that sinks? Some other animated device or presentation? Is that as strong as mystery?” He pauses again, then answers his question. “Allure, intrigue, is much more powerful.... It taunts you.” Wynn Las Vegas, he explains, is not unlike a beautiful, mysterious woman.
Wynn’s greatest talent, or one of them, may be his gift for storytelling. He understands the power of language. For emphasis, and to force you to listen closely, he will suddenly lower his voice to a near whisper. He knows to pause for dramatic effect before and after an especially important word. Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster who helps Wynn shape his marketing messages, compares Wynn’s rhetorical skills to those of Orson Welles and Richard Burton. “There are very few people in life who could read from a telephone book and you’d be mesmerized,” says Luntz. Wynn, he assures me, is one of those people.
“We test his language,” continues Luntz with great enthusiasm. “He’ll speak into a video camera, describing his property, and we’ll take that to potential guests—a focus group—and people tell us they would spend hundreds of dollars more just to stay at his places.... They’re responding to a dream: he is so good that his words create a dream!”
What is the dream? I ask. “The dream is the chance to take a step away and live in a world that only exists when you arrive and ceases to exist when you leave,” says Luntz. “I don’t want to call it a fantasy, because it is a reality of a sort.”
Steve Wynn comes from a family of showmen. His paternal grandfather, Jacob Weinberg, emigrated from Lithuania at the turn of the last century; Jacob was a vaudevillian and a carny barker. Wynn’s father, Michael, dropped out of high school in the 1930s to begin a career as a sign painter. Because he sensed his career might be sidetracked once people knew he was Jewish, Michael Weinberg changed his professional name to Michael Wynn, in honor of Ed Wynn, a popular comedian of the era.
One of Mike Wynn’s clients was a small bingo parlor on Revere Beach, just north of Boston. As Steve recalls, “My father had a promotional mind, so he says to the [bingo hall] manager, ‘Listen, instead of saying three drawings for 25 cents apiece ... why don’t you give it a little schmaltz? Give it some romance.’ And my father takes a piece of paper and with a bingo marker he makes a drawing of a pot with gold coins spilling out and writes, pot of gold drawings. The guy says, ‘You come up with ideas like that and I’ll give you 10 bucks for each one.’ So now my dad starts going to the bingo joint every night.... And pretty soon my father ends up running the bingo joint.”
By the time his first child was born, as Stephen Allan Weinberg in New Haven, Connecticut, on January 27, 1942, Mike was a successful and confident bingo-parlor operator. Soon after Steve’s birth, Mike officially changed the family’s name to Wynn.
Steve and his younger brother, Kenneth, grew up in a nice house in Utica, New York. Zelma, their mother, took pride in her homemaking skills; she had a flair for interior decorating. By all accounts, Steve was spoiled. “He has a history of being indulged his whole life,” concedes Elaine Wynn.
Mike Wynn was usually on the road, supervising his bingo parlors in Scranton, Dayton, Utica, Binghamton, Syracuse, and Baltimore. Something else kept him away from home, too: an addiction to gambling. Whenever Mike Wynn could find an excuse to extend a business trip, he’d land at the Tropicana, in Las Vegas, and hole up at the crap table, gambling away everything he had and then some. “My father protected the family from his weakness. I never had anything but the best of everything,” insists Wynn. “But you’re not insulated from the knowledge that this is a house of cards.”
Mike was saved by his charm. “My old man managed to get out of more traps than Wile E. Coyote,” says Steve, grinning with obvious love and admiration. Zelma Wynn forgave her husband again and again. “You’re at home with your two kids, and your man is headed for a train wreck every six months” is how Wynn describes his mother’s life. “She put up with it because he was such a gorgeous, lovable guy.”
Mike and Zelma were determined that their elder son would not end up in the bingo business. “There was a stigma back then. If you ran a bingo parlor, some people looked at you as if you were a bookie,” Zelma told GQ in 1990. And so, after graduating in 1959 from Manlius Military Academy, in upstate New York, Steve enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania.
Maybe it was because he lived off campus. Maybe it was his Pontiac Catalina convertible with fins, a gift from his father, or the fact that, every Sunday, he traveled 270 miles round-trip to run his father’s bingo hall in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. Whatever it was, Wynn was unlike other college kids. “The rest of us were living in a fraternity house, eating goldfish, or piling into a phone booth, but he seemed somehow more grown-up,” remembers Harvey Heller, one of Wynn’s fraternity brothers at Sigma Alpha Mu.
Over Christmas break during his sophomore year, on a blind date arranged by his parents, Steve met his future wife. The Pascals and the Wynns (who had moved from Utica to Miami in 1959) kept poolside cabanas at the Fontainebleau Hotel, in Miami Beach; the men played gin rummy together. Elaine Pascal, a freshman at the University of California, Los Angeles, had been named Miss Miami Beach High 1960. Even now, 44 years later, Steve Wynn is clearly proud of the way he wooed and won her. From dinner with their parents at the Miami Jai-Alai Fronton, he took Elaine to the Boom Boom Room at the Fontainebleau; then he drove her to the 79th Street Causeway, where they were parked until two o’clock in the morning. Ten days later, she was wearing his Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity pin.
“He was so different,” says Elaine. “I was spending time in Miami with all these suntanned playboys with gold chains that knew how to cha-cha, and here was this clean-cut preppy, hair parted on the side, striped tie. It was like a breath of fresh air. And really kind of provocative. He wasn’t sexy, but I could sense his personal power just from that first date.”
In March 1963, a few months before Steve graduated with a B.A. in English literature from Penn, his father died during open-heart surgery. Mike was only 46 years old. He left behind his wife; their younger son, Kenny, then 10; one tired, down-at-the-heels bingo parlor; and gambling debts that totaled $350,000. Relinquishing a spot at Yale Law School, and with his new wife, Elaine, as his partner, Steve Wynn took charge of the family business. Elaine counted the money. Steve called out the bingo numbers. Within a year, not only had they turned around the bingo hall in Wayson’s Corner, Maryland, they’d also bought out their competitor down the road. That’s when Steve paid $6,300 in cash to buy his wife a fawn-colored Cadillac convertible with matching leather interior. He picked the Caddy, he says, “because, to Elaine’s father, it was the ultimate sign of success.”
Steve Wynn landed in Las Vegas in July 1967, thanks to some old business associates of his father’s. Offered a 3 percent stake in the Frontier Hotel for $75,000, Wynn, along with his wife and newborn daughter, settled in Las Vegas and got to work as a junior partner, slots manager, and assistant credit manager at the Frontier.
But just a few months after Wynn started working in Las Vegas, some of the senior partners in the Frontier were exposed as fronts for a group of Detroit gangsters. Wynn was not involved—an investigation cleared him of any and all Mob connections. Still, because of the scandal, he was sidelined at the Frontier and put on hold. That’s when he got his lucky break: E. Parry Thomas, a Mormon and the most influential banker in Las Vegas, took a shine to Wynn.
As president of the Bank of Las Vegas, the only legal institution in the nation willing to lend money to Las Vegas casinos back then, Thomas had a lot riding on the future of the city. When he met Wynn, in 1967, Thomas saw his image for that future: a young, Ivy League–educated go-getter. “He was quick, honest, and had an exceptional IQ,” Thomas told Fortune in 1982.
In 1971, Thomas arranged for Wynn to buy a narrow strip of land next door to Caesars Palace from Thomas’s client Howard Hughes. The banker did more than fund the $1.1 million purchase; somehow, he managed to persuade Hughes, who had not sold any property at all since he started buying up Las Vegas in 1966, to sell the piece of land to Wynn. A spokesman for Hughes told The New York Times offhandedly, “This property is simply a parking lot.”
Eleven months later, in October 1972, Wynn sold the “parking lot” to Caesars Palace for $2.25 million, twice what he’d initially paid for it. Wynn’s personal share of the profits: $700,000. Now, on Thomas’s shrewd advice, Wynn started to accumulate publicly traded shares in the Golden Nugget, a fading downtown casino with a tired management team. Before too long, after he’d staged a takeover, Wynn was named chairman and president of the Golden Nugget. He was 31 years old.
In 1978, Wynn found another savior in Michael Milken, Drexel Burnham Lambert’s infamous junk-bond financier. Gambling had just been legalized in Atlantic City, and Wynn wanted a piece of the action. To finance a grand casino there, he needed at least $100 million. Wynn’s company had equity of only around $5.5 million. What were the chances of raising $100 million to build a casino? In the 1970s, big institutional investors wouldn’t touch casinos with a 10-foot pole. In the view of Wall Street, gambling was a dirty business.
Milken, then 32 years old, liked the casino business. From his perspective, gambling was part of the adult-amusement-park industry. Besides, gambling companies threw off huge amounts of cash, year in, year out; gambling never went out of fashion. But until Steve Wynn walked into Drexel’s Los Angeles office, Milken hadn’t found the right man to back. By the time the ground was broken on the Atlantic City Golden Nugget, in July 1979, Milken had raised $112 million for Wynn. Before long, the figure climbed to $160 million. In exchange for all that cash, Wynn gave up almost no stock in his company, thanks to Milken’s financial engineering.
The Atlantic City Golden Nugget—“a glittering, glitzy Xanadu,” in the words of Newsweek—was the city’s first casino built from scratch. Almost overnight, the Golden Nugget became the most profitable casino in Atlantic City. Whereas it had taken Milken four months to raise the first $25 million for Wynn’s casino, he now sold $250 million of bonds in a single day in 1983.
In 1987, Wynn sold the Atlantic City Golden Nugget for $440 million. “I didn’t think the place was going anywhere,” he recalls, a belief that proved true. Atlantic City was coming off its initial boom; the market was oversaturated and over-regulated.
Wynn’s record is not entirely unblemished. By the late 1990s, increasingly out of touch with his shareholders, he was running Mirage Resorts (the public company whose assets included the Mirage, Treasure Island, and the Bellagio) as if it were his private empire. The board of directors included his wife, his brother, and the son of his father’s bingo-hall partner; that may explain why, in 1998 and 1999, Wynn was rewarded with bonuses of $1.25 million (on top of his $2.5 million salary), even while Mirage Resorts’ stock price badly underperformed the S&P 500 Index. Forthrightly, the company’s annual proxy statement noted in passing that the size of Wynn’s bonus was “based upon the recommendation of the Chief Executive Officer”—i.e., Wynn himself.
In late 1998, when Mirage’s stock slipped below the exercise price of Wynn’s stock options, his board of directors obliged him, and other executives, by “repricing” those options. For the right to display his masterpieces (van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso, Renoir) in the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art, the board agreed to pay Wynn $5.2 million in rent for 1999. There’s more: Mirage spent $4 million on a Fifth Avenue apartment for its C.E.O. One of Mirage’s four airplanes was used to shuttle Wynn back and forth between Las Vegas and his weekend home in Sun Valley.
Wall Street was unhappy. For one thing, Wynn had gone way overbudget on the Bellagio, spending $1.6 billion instead of $1.2 billion—and that was before the hundreds of millions spent on art. As Daniel Lee, who was Wynn’s chief financial officer back then, explains, “At first, we intended to have a couple of famous paintings in the lobby. Then it mushroomed: now we were going to have a small art museum. Then Steve said, ‘Let’s make it a world-class museum!’ The more publicity it got, the more it took on a life of its own.”
There was also the Beau Rivage, in Biloxi, Mississippi, an ill-conceived $700 million beachfront casino that dragged down company earnings even before it opened in 1999. While Mirage Resorts’ revenues grew from $1.5 billion in 1997 to $2.6 billion in 1999, the company’s expenses ballooned even more rapidly. It didn’t help matters that Dan Lee, who was well liked by the Street, left the company in late 1999 after a confrontation with Wynn.
By early 2000, Mirage shares were trading at around $11.50, having collapsed from $26 in less than a year. Wynn remained defiant. Referring to the research analysts who covered Mirage, he told The Wall Street Journal, “They were dumber than I thought.” On the subject of his investors, he added, “I wish I could do without them.”
A few days later, on February 23, 2000, his wish was granted: MGM Grand made a bid for Mirage Resorts. When negotiations were over, MGM agreed to buy Mirage for $21 a share, or $4.4 billion plus $2 billion in assumed debt. Wynn personally walked away with $500 million plus an $11.3 million “golden parachute.”
It’s February 26, 2005—61 days before the opening of the Wynn Las Vegas Resort and Country Club. We’re in Sun Valley, Wynn and I, standing in his kitchen. It’s after 10 o’clock at night. I’ve spent three days interviewing and observing Wynn. I’ve shared low-carbohydrate meals with him and Elaine. I’ve flown with him on his Gulfstream IV. I’ve skied with him in Sun Valley. He’s talked so much, for so many hours, that later, when I finally transcribe the recordings, I will wind up with more than 50 single-spaced typewritten pages. But all of a sudden, in the kitchen, Wynn has to know something crucial: What sort of an impression has he made? What’s going to be the thrust, the thesis, of my forthcoming article? I didn’t expect this. I answer that I haven’t yet decided on an angle or a thesis, which is perfectly true. He repeats his question. Then he gets agitated.
I’d been warned that Wynn explodes when things don’t go his way. (“He wants what he wants when he wants it,” Elaine Wynn told me.) This evening, as we’re standing at opposite ends of the kitchen island, Wynn’s eyes flash, and his mouth gets thin and tight. “I’m wondering,” he says with an edge to his voice, “what story do you think you’re doing? What has occurred to you all this time? What seems important?”
He’s on the attack now—verbally, rhetorically. I’ve disappointed him, he says. I have failed to grasp his vision for Wynn Las Vegas. Specifically, he says, I have not posed the right questions. “I felt that I covered a lot of ground with you,” he says, as if he’s wasted three days. “I’ve elaborated and gone off on tangents when I thought they would mean something to you. I felt that you were paying attention.”
Then it occurs to me: from Steve Wynn’s perspective, the shimmering 50-floor wedge rising from 217 acres of land at the north end of the Strip is like St. Peter’s Basilica. In his mind, he’s created a humanist piece of Renaissance architecture—and everyone has to be convinced of that. Otherwise he’s failed. There’s a lot at stake: Wynn’s status as a multi-billionaire, for one thing, but also his reputation as a visionary whose words create dreams. “Sitting here in Sun Valley, I’ve done the best I can,” he says wearily, referring to all the time he’s spent with me.
I get up to leave the room. “I’ve just been an observer for the last three days,” I assure him. But Wynn isn’t finished yet. He wants what he wants. “I don’t give a shit what you write,” he snarls. “I have no control over it. But I am curious about the impressions that you take away.... If you don’t have any impressions yet, then fine, that’s the end of the conversation. But I’ve spent a lot of time talking to you. I’m wondering what the hell impression you’ve got of all this stuff!”
Then, as I’m lifting my tape recorder off the kitchen island, Wynn abruptly changes tack. He smiles. His eyes brighten. “There’s a lot about you that’s likable,” he reassures me. “Besides, you’re a good skier.”
You’re a good skier, too, Mr. Wynn. Besides, you’re one hell of a dream merchant.