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How Sheldon Adelson taught me the secret of success

One long face-to-face meeting with Sheldon Adelson taught me everything I needed to know about the secret to the man’s success.

It was 1999. I was the managing editor of the Jewish Journal in Los Angeles. I got a call from Adelson’s offices, requesting an urgent meeting with the editor-in-chief. He was out of town, I said. There was a brief hold, and when the assistant came back on the line, he said in that case, Mr. Adelson was in Los Angeles only for a short time, and would like to meet with me.

This was before Sheldon Adelson who just passed away at age 87, became a familiar headline — the financial booster rocket to President Donald Trump, Israeli power player and multi-billionaire scourge of the Left. All I knew from my then-dial up internet was he started and sold the first computer trade show, COMDEX, for close to a billion, and bought the Sands casino.

A couple of hours later, two young, buff and serious men appeared at my office door. In a Hebrew accent, one asked me if he could check my office. There wasn’t much to check: the entire place was a dump — file boxes collapsing under the weight of other file boxes, water-damaged acoustic tiles stained various shades of yellow and brown, ramshackle discount furniture that, when the Journal finally moved, the National Council of Jewish Women refused to take, for free.

Soon Adelson walked in: short, round, with a shock of red hair and a proper suit. His eyes focused solely on me. He took a seat between the bodyguards, across my desk.

“I wanted to talk to you about something I know your readers will like,” he said, his voice direct and gruff. “My new casino.”

Adelson pulled out a series of beautiful photos and brochures of the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas, which he was just finishing building on the site of the old Sands Hotel. There has never been anything like it, he said, never. The tiles, he explained, were hand-painted by artisans he brought over from Venice. Guests will take real gondolas with real Italian gondoliers to their tables at the best restaurants in the world.

I just stared, dumbfounded. This was the Jewish Journal. We didn’t cover gambling, and the only time we’d written about Vegas was a story on Bugsy Siegel. I could already hear my then-boss’s voice in my head, Why write about his Disneyland wannabe hotel and not everyone else’s?

How was I going to let this man know he was wasting his time?

When the picture show was over, Adelson asked me how long I had been at the Journal. He started out in newspapers, he said — selling them on street corners. Then he told me his life story, the poor, immigrant taxi driver father, sleeping on the floor of a one-room Dorcester flat, his mother taking two nickels he’d earn and giving one of them to charity. I asked him how he got into computers.

“I saw an opportunity,” he said. No one, he said, ever handed him anything.

We had spent much longer talking about his biography than the hotel, and he shifted the subject back. But I stopped him.

“I’m not sure we would cover a casino,” I said.

The way I said it, hesitant, tentative, polite— that was all the opening he needed. Adelson leaned in, excited.

“Your readers live five hours from Vegas. They have money. They’re my customers,” he said. He kept up the pitch — had I ever seen anything like it? No. Had the Los Angeles Times even written about it? No.

Adelson spent over an hour with me. He never took a call, never took his eyes off me. The billionaire never sniffed at my shabby surroundings, he was there to make a sale, even if it was to the second-in-command of a small print weekly. He shook my hand and said goodbye, leaving all the brochures on my desk.

A month later, I wrote a travel piece about the Venetian Hotel, and its remarkable creator, Sheldon Adelson.

Over the next 20 years, our paths never crossed. I wrote columns opposing his early backing of Trump, and his malign influence in Israeli and American politics. I assigned stories that delved into his union-busting and released a gotcha video that went viral of him pulling the plug on Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign. I didn’t like almost anything Adelson did or stood for. But ever since our meeting, I could never stop admiring him.

The second and last time I saw him was a few years ago. He and his wife and a large group of what looked like his children and grandchildren were sitting at the long back table at Langer’s Deli, eating, because why else go to Langer’s, pastrami sandwiches. At that time Adelson had just announced he was supporting Trump. I thought even if I could get past his security guards, it wasn’t the time or place for an interview.

Back then I kicked myself for not barging in and pressing him on how he could support a man who had already flirted with white supremacists, who couldn’t keep his own casinos afloat, who had a fortune handed to him.

But, in hindsight, I at least should have also thanked Adelson for long ago teaching me a lesson about how you get what you want in a world that owes you nothing.

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