Cursed gamblers and ‘promo girls’ – welcome to the real Las Vegas (2024)

If you want the defining story of a place, there’s no better way to get it than from the mouths of the common folk. The patrons of a local pub; the bouncers on the doors of the grungiest nightclubs; the taxi drivers who’ve learned, if they know what’s good for them, to turn a blind eye. Joan Didion realised this, and in her 1967 essay Slouching Towards Bethlehem, she drew on the voices of San Francisco drug dealers, hippies and starving artists to craft some of the most insightful prose ever written about a locale.

Now it’s the turn of Las Vegas. In What Really Happens in Vegas, the prolific novelist James Patterson and Vanity Fair contributing editor Mark Seal have brought Sin City to life though the words of limousine drivers, accountants, mob bosses and housewives, all of whom speak so nonchalantly that it’s as though we were sat with them in a fusty bar, or the back of a casino, surrounded by topless showgirls. Las Vegas is one of those places that’s so superfluous to anything necessary to society, a place so obviously debaucherous, that you might think that it couldn’t surprise you. But Patterson and Seal tell its secrets in beautifully presented snippets that often overlap not just surprisingly, but charmingly too.

Each chapter tours a new area of Las Vegas – “The Mob Museum”, “The Strip”, “The VIP Wing of a Major Las Vegas Resort” – and wherever we go, the high-rollers and lowlives of the neon city have stories to tell. Take Raymond Torres, a limousine driver who’s part of a group of seven chauffeurs known as “the Untouchables”. Nearly 30 years ago, however, when he was in his mid-twenties, his life was unrecognisable: he played, the writers tell us, a “central role in a high-profile art scam”, in which he ended up with “between $2-3 million dollars’ worth of paintings by the likes of Dalí, Matisse and Renoir”.

After trying to offload the artworks, he was stung by FBI and DEA informants, and sentenced to 19 years in jail. After his release, he bagged an interview at a limousine service, where the manager of the company asked: “How’s your driving record?” “I haven’t had a ticket in 18 years,” Torres replied, earning a laugh, and a lifelong career that has seen him drive the likes of Mariah Carey, Warren Buffett and Nicolas Cage.

Later, we meet Charolette Richards, the 88-year-old pioneer of the “drive-through wedding” that has become synonymous with Vegas. Richards presided over the Little White Wedding Chapel for 60 years, marrying Joan Collins and her fourth husband Peter in 1985, and Michael Jordan after he arrived by taxi at 2.30am to marry his first wife, Juanita Vanoy, in 1989. Richards’s ceremonies last 10 minutes; once, when the Chapel was a 24-hour business, she officiated at 124 weddings in a single day.

Her own life in Vegas began in 1959, when her “wandering husband… sent her $100 and instructed her to drive their old Ford from Sandy Hook, Kentucky (population 500) to Las Vegas, Nevada”. After an arduous drive in a record-breaking heatwave and with three children in tow, Richards arrived to find no husband. She spent a week traipsing the sticky streets in search of him, and had almost run out of money when she bumped into Merle Richards, a photographer and the owner of the Little Church of the West wedding chapel. The rest is history.

It’s often the most ordinary-sounding players who offer the greatest entertainment in What Really Happens in Vegas. There’s Kaitlyn, the 21-year-old nursing student who also works as an “atmosphere model”, an attractive “promo girl” whom, a “VIP superhost” tells us, resorts and nightclubs will pay thousands “just to hang out”. She borrowed money from an ex-boyfriend to secure breast augmentation so that she could really make it in Sin City. Now she “studies the gentlemen”, and offers us her tips: “He’s dressed head-to-toe [in] Gucci – not a good sign.” After four years in Las Vegas, she has banked around $300,000, and plans to buy a house in cash.

Or there’s the accountant, Robert Taylor, who, by his own admission, doesn’t have “any hobbies. Very mundane life.” His story is used to show how the shining, if deadly, promise of Las Vegas is kept credible. When Taylor walks away from a huge jackpot at a malfunctioning slot machine, he’s chased down, after a three-week pursuit, by the “high sheriff of Nevada casinos” and one of the latter’s most seasoned field agents. “You won just short of a quarter-million dollars,” the agent tells Taylor. “$229,368.52, to be exact.” For when a slot-machine malfunctions here, an investigative team will scour weeks of CCTV footage to find the player and honour any payout.

The magic of Sin City, it turns out, doesn’t just happen. It’s carefully created within the walls of all manner of buildings, from advertisem*nt firms to topless bars, by dedicated professionals – people whose lives are at once more mundane and more strange than anyone, until they read this book, could guess.

What Really Happens in Vegas is published by Century at £20. To order your copy for £16.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books

Cursed gamblers and ‘promo girls’ – welcome to the real Las Vegas (2024)
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