Viva Las (Oscar) Goodman
There is a box of candy on Oscar Goodman’s desk.
Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews. His face lights up at their mention. They’re from Philadelphia, he says. “I love them. I have at least one a day.”
Goodman — former mob lawyer, former Las Vegas mayor, current Sin City spokesman — is happily ensconced behind his desk at the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority building in the heart of the city. Along the walls, photos show him as he is best known: the jovial, red-nosed mayor of the City of Las Vegas, Bombay Sapphire martini in hand, and a pair of feathered showgirls by his side.
The desk itself is a bit of a mess. Papers are scattered here and there, interrupted by mementos and gifts including a fancy watch he can’t get to start and caricatures of him and his wife, Carolyn Goodman, who succeeded him in the mayor’s office. That brown cardboard box of candy is easily within reach.
Like the Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews, Goodman’s story starts in Philadelphia. He’s tried to trace his roots back to the old country, but he says he keeps getting different answers to the same questions. What he knows is this: His grandparents left Poland and Russia for America, changing their name from Gutterman to Goodman as they passed through Ellis Island on their way to Pennsylvania.
Goodman’s father was a lawyer who was an active member of an Orthodox synagogue in Philadelphia, his mother an artist and “a bit of a Bohemian” who taught blind children to sculpt and got a doctorate in her 80s. Eventually, the family “downgraded” to Conservative Judaism, setting their own standards for keeping kosher at home. “No shellfish, no pork products,” Goodman remembers. “I think every once in a while I would have a Big Mac.”
One of his sisters went on to become a prima ballerina with George Balanchine; the other became an actress. Goodman followed his father into the family business: law.
Today, Goodman talks about the law with a straightforward reverence borne from decades of practice and a firm belief that absolutely everyone deserves good representation. But he says he actually found law school boring and too focused on business and corporate law; he was more interested in civil rights and liberties.
While his young wife Carolyn Goodman worked as an executive assistant, “bringing home the kosher bacon,” Oscar Goodman sought inspiration at City Hall, where he clerked with then-Assistant District Attorney Arlen Specter in 1964. It was Specter who had him working a murder case that involved money laundering in Las Vegas, and Specter who had him debriefing two Las Vegas detectives one night inside a cold and drafty Philadelphia City Hall. One of those detectives made a suggestion that would change the young man’s life: Las Vegas.
There is a photo among the papers on Oscar Goodman’s desk.
It’s an image of a man named Vinnie, a former law client, who visited the Las Vegas Mob Museum after his release from prison. He called Goodman, upset that his photo wasn’t on the wall among the boldface names of American organized crime. Now when you go to the museum in Downtown Vegas, Vinnie’s face is there alongside the other dons and soldiers.
Before he was the mob lawyer, traveling the country trying to keep his clients out of the electric chair, Goodman was just a kid looking for opportunity. He found it in a clerkship with the Clark County, Nevada, district attorney’s office, and he and Carolyn Goodman drove to Las Vegas in an Oldsmobile Cutlass convertible, $87 in their pockets.
Goodman still remembers his first view of Las Vegas on that road trip. “We came over the hill in Boulder City and we looked down and there were a couple of twinkling lights in the desert,” he says There wasn’t much to look at.
In 1964, Las Vegas was still a small town where everybody knew everybody and the social scene revolved around the Vegas Village grocery store at Commercial Center. During weekend shopping trips, the young couple would bump into politicians, mobsters, judges and entertainers. There was no East Coast high society built on last names and lineages. “Here it was just wide open,” Goodman recalls. “If somebody had half a brain and they wanted to work hard, they were able to succeed.”
Las Vegas was a one-temple town in those days, and one of the first things Oscar and Carolyn Goodman did was join Temple Beth Shalom at 17th Street and Oakey Boulevard. “We would actually walk there during the high holidays,” Oscar Goodman says, recalling how people would honk hellos as they drove past. Years later, their daughter would be bat mitzvahed at Beth Shalom, and Goodman would travel to Israel with his three sons to have them bar mitzvahed at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
“We carry on the traditions,” he says. “I’m not saying that we are particularly religious, but we certainly are very Jewish.”
Oscar Goodman’s transition from average attorney to trusted mob lawyer happened almost by mistake, thanks to a friendly casino dealer at the Hacienda, where Carolyn Goodman played blackjack, counting cards before anybody called it that. The dealer needed to declare bankruptcy, and Oscar Goodman helped him file the paperwork in his little office over a flower shop. When one of the Hacienda’s mobster casino bosses needed a lawyer, the dealer suggested Goodman. “That’s how it all started,” he says. “It’s incredible, but it’s true.”
What started was a decades-long career defending reputed mobsters in Las Vegas and around the country. His client roster grew into a who’s who of American gangsters: Meyer Lansky, Tony Spilotro, Nick Civella, and Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, the casino exec and mob associate who inspired the movie “Casino,” in which Goodman played himself.
“[My clients] gave me an opportunity no other lawyer in the country had,” Goodman says. “I had high-profile clients who were being prosecuted by the best the prosecution had to offer. Judges actually tried to get the cases sent to their court because they were high-profile cases… I had the opportunity to work on all these cases as the lead attorney and actually shape the law of the country.”
Religion never came up in his law practice. “An awful lot of my clients were Jewish,” Goodman says, “but an awful lot of my clients were Italian and an awful lot were Irish.”
Although he says he never feared for his safety or that of his young family, the stress of his high-stakes caseload weighed on him. “The bed was soaking wet the night before a sentencing. With the kind of clients I had, they were never offered the opportunity to make a deal. The only deal they would offer was your client can have lethal injection or the gas chamber. And I said, ‘Well, that’s probably unacceptable to them.’”
Eventually the federal scrutiny spilled over onto Goodman himself; police began following him and keeping logs of his whereabouts. He even worried the FBI might have his home wired.
“It got to a point where we were whispering around the house,” Goodman recalls. “For 35 years, I really wouldn’t talk to anybody.”
There is a photo of Oscar Goodman with Muhammad Ali behind his desk.
It’s framed and placed prominently, so you see it the moment you sit down. But when you stop to inspect the room more closely, there are lots of photos around the office: Goodman shooting pictures of a model for Playboy magazine; Goodman with his showgirls in London; Goodman throwing out the first pitch at a Las Vegas 51s game.
In every image he looks much like he does today: He wears simple suit with a white shirt and tie, with a mostly bald head, white hair, a neatly trimmed beard, and a quick, friendly smile that makes him look more like a grandfather than a formidable courtroom warrior. He turns to glance at the photo of Ali, although he already knows exactly what it looks like. It’s his second favorite picture of all time. What’s number one? Another shot of him with the legendary boxer, only in that one Goodman’s pretending to clock him in the jaw.
Perhaps only in Las Vegas can a mob lawyer run for mayor and win. That’s what Goodman loved about the town when he first moved to the desert in the ’60s. He won 64% of the vote in his first election and was sworn in on June 28, 1999.
“I really didn’t know what being a mayor was all about,” Goodman admits of those early days, but almost immediately he saw his surroundings differently. “I saw the cracks in the sidewalk, I saw the weeds coming up through those cracks and I noticed the blight.”
The revitalization of downtown Las Vegas became a focal point for the mayor, who worked on acquiring the land now known as Symphony Park, eventually leading to the development of the Las Vegas Premium Outlets, the World Market Center, the Frank Gehry-designed Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, and the Smith Center for the Performing Arts, which opened in 2012.
Whenever he appeared in public, Goodman was flanked by a pair of Vegas showgirls, and he often toted a gin martini to press conferences, eventually becoming a spokesman for Bombay Sapphire. His colorful side got him into trouble, too, such as when Goodman told a group of fourth graders that the one thing he’d want on a desert island was a bottle of gin.
“I’m the George Washington of mayors. I can’t tell a lie,” he said at the time. “It’s me, what can I do?”
Goodman was reelected twice before being term-limited out, both times receiving more than 80% of the vote. Being Jewish never affected his political career, either. “I found my constituents very accepting of me. They had a lot more serious things to worry about than my religion. They had a mayor who drank to excess and gambled with both fists.”
In the 12 years he served as mayor, Goodman only remembers getting one letter that used a religious slur against him. It went straight into the trash.
There is a yellow watermelon on Oscar Goodman’s desk.
It sits in a basket used to gather papers, speckled green and perfectly round like a bowling ball. Goodman looks at it proudly — another gift, this one given to him by Bart Torres, the radio host with whom he does a monthly tourism broadcast.
These days, Goodman’s life centers around promoting the city as chairman of a permanent host committee. He’s still a pitchman for his Bombay Sapphire, though today he takes his martini with a jalapeño instead of an olive.
His kids are all grown up now, and there are grandkids around the table for Hanukkah parties and Passover Seders. “They all run to the door to let Elijah in,” he says. “It’s nice. I can tell the traditions are going to be passed on to the next generation.”
At this point in his life, Goodman is a master at telling his own story. He’s recounted it live for audiences at speaking engagements and in his 2013 memoir, “Being Oscar.” He has his jokes down, his punch lines ready, but once in a while he pauses to reflect on his incredible life.
“If I had stayed back in Philadelphia, I would have been Arlen Specter’s right-hand guy and probably a federal judge before I was 30. My life would have been completely different than it has been, and as I say, I wouldn’t trade one day of my life for any other life,” Goodman says.
“We’ve had the best of all possible lives. Nobody could have had a better life than Carolyn and myself.”
Sarah Feldberg is a freelance writer and editor based in Las Vegas, and the former editor of Las Vegas Weekly.