Feature Articles

January 2001

The Cal-Neva Lounge

By John William Tuohy

     Elmer Bones Renner was an old time gangster from San Francisco who owned the Cal-Neva Lodge and Casino at Crystal Bay on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe. He also owed the IRS $800,000 in back taxes, and so, on paper anyway, ownership of the Cal-Neva passed to another old time hood named Bert "Wingy" Grober, who also, as a result of his sudden and unexplainable ownership of a casino, ended up with his own set of tax problems. With the IRS after him, Grober placed the Cal-Neva up for sale.

     On July 13, 1960, the day Kennedy won the democratic nomination in Los Angeles, it was announced to the newspapers that Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Hank Sincola, a Sinatra pal and business partner in a gossip rag, and Skinny D'Amato, a convicted white slaver, had applied for permission from the state of Nevada to take over the lodge.

     What didn't make the papers about the deal, was that Sam Giancana and the Chicago outfit would own a secret percentage in the Cal-Neva and that it was Giancana's influence that persuaded Wingy Grober to sell the place off for the extremely reasonable price of $250,000.

     What also didn't make the newspapers about the deal, was the FBI assumption that Sinatra was nothing more than a front in the Cal-Neva for New York's mob boss Anthony "Fat Tony" Salerno.

     As for Giancana's interest in the money-losing casino, he was probably only in the deal to keep next to Sinatra, who was trying, desperately, to keep next to Kennedy, which everybody in the Chicago outfit wanted.

     Before the deal was signed, Dean Martin saw the mob's interests in the casino and pulled out of the deal.

     Sinatra was convinced that the Cal-Neva, a seasonal place, could be turned around, that it could produce a hefty profit, even with the mob connected pit bosses stealing the place blind, and he told Giancana that with the right investment that the place could become a year-round operation. To draw attention to the place, on opening night, Sinatra's personality guests included Marilyn Monroe, Joe Kennedy and his son John. Also there that weekend was Johnny Roselli and Sam Giancana. Uninvited and hiding up in the hills around the casino lodge, was Hoover's FBI.

     What the agents couldn't see was what went on inside the Cal-Neva's secluded bungalows after the opening night party had ended. Sam Giancana reportedly told his brother, that he had been present at a Kennedy brothers slumber party that night at the Cal-Neva Casino. "The men," he said, "had sex with prostitutes--sometimes two or more at a time--in bathtubs, hallways, closets, on floors, almost everywhere but the bed."

     In 1961 a Chicago hood named Joseph "Crackers" Mendino died of a heart attack. Over the years, he had worked under everyone from Torrio to Giancana in the juke box, pinball and gambling end of the business. Tony Accardo was one of his pallbearers, and anybody who was anyone in the Chicago outfit was there for the burial, probably the last big time mob funeral since the days of Al Capone.

     At the funeral, Accardo and Sam Giancana held a meeting and directed Johnny Roselli to plant in Nevada somebody to watch over Frank Sinatra because the boys had decided that Sinatra was much to enamored with the Kennedys and wasn't thinking straight anymore.

     When Roselli returned to the West Coast he called a hood named Lewis McWillie, whom he had first met back in 1938, when Roselli did a short stint as the Chicago representative to the Sans Souci Casino in Havana.

     McWillie had worked in Cuba for years, mostly for New York racketeer Meyer Lansky, McWillie was never clear to anyone on exactly what it was he did for Lansky, telling the Warren Commission only that he was a "key man" at Lansky's Tropicana Casino in Cuba. When Castro booted Lansky out of Cuba, he brought McWillie with him and placed him inside of his Las Vegas Casino, the Tropicana in Las Vegas. Otherwise, there was very little known about McWillie, who also used the obvious alias of Lewis N. Martin. It is known that he had deep contacts within the New York and Chicago mobs, and, although never a member of any one specific outfit, the FBI kept him under surveillance and considered him to be a top mob hit man and enforcer for hire.

     Roselli told McWillie that Chicago wanted him out at Sinatra's Cal-Neva Lodge to keep an eye on their investment in the place, and to watch over Sinatra and report his activities back to Roselli.

     McWillie did as he was told, and created a job for himself at Sinatra's casino, working under the title of "pit boss," but McWillie, a trained card sharp, was no mere pit boss as he made himself out to be. Instead, he was a very rich, seasoned, major gambler who traveled in the highest circles of organized crime, always driven around in a sleek, new limousine and seldom went anywhere without a bodyguard. Whenever he worked in a mobbed up casino, it was always as a high level executive, several times removed from a lowly blackjack dealer on the floor that he purported to be.

     At about that same time, McWillie was in frequent contact with Jack Ruby, the man who silenced Lee Harvey Oswald forever. In fact, one of the last persons Ruby spoke to before he leaped on to history's stage, was Lewis McWillie. The little that is known about their odd relationship is that, according to what McWillie told the Warren Commission, he and Ruby had known each other from their childhood days in Chicago, and McWillie was Ruby's host for an eight-day vacation in Cuba in August of 1959. That same year, the Dallas Police department's Office of Intelligence listed Jack Ruby and "Chicago-Las Vegas hood Lewis McWillie" as being among those connected with mob run gambling in Dallas.

     Gray haired and stylish, McWillie impressed the easily impressible Ruby, who admired McWillie and called him "a very high (class) type person" who reminded Ruby of "Like a banker or a man who understood and enjoyed the finer things in this life, which we are given."

     Yet, after Ruby gunned down Oswald, the FBI asked him to draw up a list entitled "people who may dislike me" and at the top of the list was Lewis McWillie.

     On Sunday, November 17, 1963, five days before Kennedy was gunned down, Ruby showed up at the mob owned Stardust Casino in Las Vegas where he invoked McWillie's name to cash a check and was later seen at the equally mobbed up Thunderbird Casino with Lewis McWillie. Two days after meeting McWillie in Las Vegas, Ruby was back in Dallas, flush with nough cash to pay off his back taxes.

     The party didn't last long. After only two years, the Cal-Neva was starting to sour on Sinatra and overall, only added to the miseries he was having in the summer of 1963. On June 30, 1962, an intoxicated Chuckie English, a Giancana hood, staggered out of the Armory lounge and bumped into one of the FBI agents tagging Giancana. English told the agents that if "Bobby Kennedy wants to know anything about Momo all he had to do was to ask Sinatra."

     The agent reported the conversation back to Hoover who brought the comment to Robert Kennedy's attention, who told Hoover to increase the FBI's surveillance on Sinatra and the Cal-Neva. The casino was already being investigated because the Feds suspected that the casino's manager, Skinny D'Amato, was running a state wide prostitution ring out of the place. The agents suspected that the women were being flown in from San Francisco with the operation being run openly from the hotel front desk.

     Then, a few days after the Chuckie English fiasco, there was the attempted murder of a Cal-Neva employee who was shot on the front steps of the lodge. No one knows if it was mob related or not, since the incident was hushed up. Then, on June 30, 1962, Deputy Sheriff Richard Anderson came to pick up his beautiful brunette wife at the lodge where she worked as a waitress because she had been one of Sinatra's girlfriends for a while before she married Anderson, three months before. Anderson had noticed the way Sinatra stared at his wife and heard about the rude and off color remarks he made to her and the Deputy, who was twice Sinatra's tiny size, warned the singer to stay away from her. Sinatra backed down and apologized and promised to leave the woman alone.

     But Sinatra was a man who brooded and let things build up inside him and on the night Anderson came to pick up his wife, as he stopped by the kitchen to talk with some of the help there, Sinatra came in, saw Anderson and ran up to him and screamed at him, "What the fuck are you doing, here?"

     Anderson remained calm and said he was waiting for his wife, then, suddenly, while the cop was still in mid sentence, Sinatra grabbed him and tried to throw him out, and after a brief wrestling match, Anderson ended up punching Sinatra so hard in the face that he couldn't perform on stage for a week.

     Several weeks later, on July 17, 1962, Anderson and his wife were driving down Highway 28, not far from the Cal-Neva, when they were driven off the road by a late model maroon convertible with California plates, driving at high speeds. Anderson lost control of his car, skidded off the road and smashed into a tree, killing him instantly. His wife was thrown from the car, and suffered severe broken bones and fractures.

     Anderson's parent said: "We still think to this day that Sinatra had something to do with our son's death."

     Anderson's left behind four children.

     But Sinatra's troubles with the Cal-Neva weren't over yet. A few days after Anderson was murdered, and one week before her own death, Marilyn Monroe flew to the Cal-Neva at Frank Sinatra's invitation. Sinatra told Monroe that he wanted to discuss their upcoming film together, What a Way to Go. Monroe didn't want to go, but someone told Marilyn that Bobby Kennedy would be there. It sounded logical to Monroe, since it had been in the papers that the Attorney General was in Los Angeles on business.

     Sinatra flew Monroe out on his own plane along with Peter Lawford, although the crooner was no longer speaking to Lawford after the Kennedys dumped him, and Lawford's wife, Patricia Kennedy Lawford.

     Exactly what happened that weekend at the Cal-Neva, isn't known and may never be known. Louis McWillie, an outfit related gambler who worked for Sinatra at the Cal-Neva said: "There was more to what happened up there than anybody has ever told. It would have been a big fall for Bobby Kennedy."

     What is known is that there was dinner with Sam Giancana, Peter and Pat Lawford, Sinatra and Monroe. Giancana, of course, had no business being in the Cal-Neva since he was listed in the State's Black Book of persons forbidden to enter a casino, in fact, he was at the top of the list of restricted persons, but, as San Francisco's new columnist Herb Caen said: " I saw Sinatra at the Cal-Neva when Sam Giancana was there. In fact I met Giancana through Frank. He was a typical hood, didn't say much. He wore a hat at the lake, and sat in his little bungalow, receiving people."

     During the dinner, Monroe got uncontrollably drunk and was led to the cabin where, while she was passed out, several hookers, male and female, molested her while Sinatra and Giancana watched, with Giancana taking his turn with the actress as well.

     While the female prostitutes had their way with Monroe, someone snapped photographs of the entire thing and before the night was over, Sinatra then brought the film to Hollywood photographer Billy Woodfield, and gave him a roll of film to develop in his darkroom.

     The next morning, Peter Lawford told Monroe that Robert Kennedy was in Los Angeles and that he didn't want to see her, speak to her or have any contact with her in the future. When she protested, someone showed her the photographs from the night before. That afternoon, she tried to commit suicide with an overdose of pills and had to have her stomach pumped.

     Later on, when Giancana told the story to Johnny Roselli, Roselli said to Giancana, referring to either Monroe or Campbell: "You sure get your rocks off fucking the same broad as the (Kennedy) brothers, don't you?"

     Exactly a year later, Sinatra's involvement with the Cal-Neva came to an end, when the McGuire sisters were scheduled to perform there, mostly due to the fact that Giancana was dating Phyllis McGuire, with whom he shared a chalet during her performance there.

     Unfortunately for Giancana, McGuire, Sinatra and the Cal-Neva, the FBI photographed the hood playing golf with Sinatra and having drinks and dinner together in the Cal-Neva dining room. The FBI was also watching that same evening when, during a small party in McGuire's room, Victor LaCroix Collins, the sisters' road manager, became irritated when Phyllis McGuire kept walking by his seat and punching him on the arm. "So I told her," Collins said, "you do that again and I'm going to knock you right on your butt. A half an hour later she punches me again and so I grabbed her by both arms and meant to sit her in the chair I got out of, but I swung around and missed the chair, she hit the floor. She didn't hurt herself...but Sam came charging across the room and threw a punch at me wearing a huge big diamond ring that gouged me in the left eye.

     "I just saw red then and grabbed him, lifted him clean off the floor, and I was going to throw him through the plate glass door, but thought, why wreck the place? So, I decided to take him outside and break his back on the hard metal railing on the patio. I got as far as the door and then got hit on the back of the head. I don't know who hit me from behind but the back of my head was split open. It didn't knock me out but I went down with Sam underneath me, he had on a pearl gray silk suit and blood from my eye was running all over his suit. I had a hold of him by the testicles and the collar and he couldn't move, that's when Sinatra came in with his valet George, the colored boy, they were coming to join the party, the girls were screaming and running around like a bunch of chickens in every direction because nobody knew what was going to happen. George just stood there with the whites of his eyes rolling around and around in his black face because he knew who Sam was and nobody ever fought with Sam...Sinatra and George pulled me off of Sam, who ran out the door."

     The next morning, the FBI, which had a fairly clear idea of what had happened the night before, as a well as several rolls of film of Sinatra with Giancana, filed its report, with photographs, with the State of Nevada Gambling Control Board.

     After reading the report, the Control Board's chairman, Ed Olson, called Sinatra at the Sands Casino in Las Vegas and asked about Giancana being on the property and Sinatra said that he saw a man who looked like Giancana and that they just waved and nodded to each other and that was all.

     But the FBI also had wind of the fight and told the investigators and flew to Nebraska to interview Collins who filled them in and then back to Sinatra who denied knowing anything about it. Olson thanked Sinatra for his time and hung up. There was little else he could do. Sinatra was a casino owner, with substantial investments in the state, and he was also a major celebrity who was singularly responsible for drawing tens of thousands of tourists into Nevada.

     Then the newspapers got hold of the story and backed Olson into a corner, forcing him to remark that his investigation would not conclude until "certain discrepancies in the information provided by various people at Cal-Neva could be resolved."

     Sinatra read that and called Olson and asked him to come to the Cal-Neva for dinner "to talk about this, your statements."

     Olson said that he felt it was inappropriate to be seen at the Cal-Neva having dinner with Sinatra, since the singer was, technically, under investigation by Olson's office, and even if Sinatra weren't under investigation, Olson said, it would still be unacceptable for the Gaming Commissioner to be seen fraternizing with a casino owner.

     "But frank kept insisting," Olson said, "and I kept refusing. The more I refused the madder he got until he seemed almost hysterical. He used the foulest language I ever heard in my life."

     To calm Sinatra down, Olson agreed to meet Sinatra in Olson's office but Sinatra did't show up. An hour later Sinatra called Olson in a rage. "You listen to me Ed... .you're acting like a fucking cop, I just want to talk to you off the record."

     Olson, in an attempt to take back the high ground that his position required said: "Who I am speaking to?"

     "This is Frank Sinatra! You fucking asshole! F-R-A-N-K, Sinatra." Olson avoided the insults and said that any meeting between them would have to be on record in the presence of witnesses. Sinatra cut him short and screamed, "Now, you listen Ed! I don't have to take this kind of shit from anybody in the country and I'm not going to take it from you people...I'm Frank Sinatra!"

     Sinatra went on and on, until, at one point, Olson warned Sinatra that if he didn't show up for an interview that Olson would have him subpoenaed. "You just try and find me," the singer threatened, "and if you do you can look for a big fat surprise...a big fat fucking surprise. You remember that, now listen to me Ed, don't fuck with me. Don't fuck with me, just don't fuck with me."

     "Are you threatening me?" Olson asked.

     "No...just don't fuck with me and you can tell that to your fucking board of directors and that fucking commission too."

     The next day two investigators came to watch the count at the Cal-Neva and Sinatra yelled across the casino to Skinny D'Amato, "Throw the dirty sons of bitches out of the house."

     But since the count had already started, the agents left before an incident could be started, but came back the next day, only to have D'Amato offer them $100 each "to cooperate." The agents reported the bribe to Olson, who took moves to revoke Sinatra's license.

     When the news was announced that Sinatra was under investigation and would probably lose his casino license, very few people in Nevada rushed to his aid. There were a lot of people in Nevada who resented Sinatra, others despised him and very few people felt that he should have gotten a state gaming license in the first place, and the word around the capitol building in Reno, was that Sinatra needed to be taught a lesson.

     The lesson they taught him was to take away his license to operate a casino or hotel in Nevada, thus forcing him to sell not only his 50% in the Cal-Neva, but also his 9% interest in the Sands, about 3.5 million dollars worth of holdings in 1963.

     "I talked to Sam (Giancana) the next day," said Joe Shimon, a Washington, D.C. police officer assigned to the Central Intelligence Agency, "and he told me that Sinatra had cost him over $465,000 on Cal-Neva." He said, "That bastard and his big mouth. All he had to do was to keep quiet, let the attorneys handle it, apologize and get a thirty to sixty day suspension...but no, Frank has to get on the phone with that damn big mouth of his and now we've lost the whole damn place. He never forgave him. He washed Frank right out of his books."

     Nevada's Governor, Grant Sawyer, stood behind the Gambling Control Board's decision to yank Sinatra's license. However, while the case was still pending, President Kennedy came to the state and was given a caravan parade through the streets of Las Vegas, and found himself sitting in the same car with Governor Sawyer. Kennedy turned to Sawyer, and said, "Aren't you people being a little hard on Frank out here?"

     The Governor didn't reply, but later repeated what Kennedy had said to Ed Olson, who was startled by the remark. "That's about the highest degree of political pressure you could ever put into the thing," Olson said.

     But the Cal-Neva incident was, for the Kennedys, as Peter Lawford said, "the end of old Frankie boy as far as the family was concerned."

Mr. Tuohy can be reached at

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