Henri Lewin's passing marks end of an era

Apr 22, 2008 7:00 PM

by Phil Hevener | First time visitors to Henri Lewin’s Las Vegas Hilton office were always struck by the presence of the ice cream cooler in Lewin’s reception/waiting area.

It was a cooler of the type you’d find in a Ben & Jerry’s or Baskin Robbins store, with half barrels of assorted flavors under a sliding glass cover, complete with cups and spoons.

What no one could miss was the sign over the cooler urging visitors to help themselves because "nothing beyond this point is free."

Good for a chuckle, is what it was – another one of the flourishes of a hotel president who sometimes seemed to put more effort into being a humorist and showman than a hotel operator.

But Lewin was a premiere operator of hotels, according to MGM Chairman Terry Lanni, who saw Lewin as a "visionary with a sense of the importance of fine dining and a quality hotel product long before many of us were paying attention to anything other than the casino."

 Yes, it’s a cliché, but what is there to say about Henri Lewin except that he was one-of-a-kind, as brilliant as he was outspoken and even outrageous.

The former top Nevada executive for Hilton Hotels died last week at his San Francisco home. He was 85. The German immigrant who was born Heinz Lewin began his hotel career as a busboy at San Francisco’s Fairmont.

Lanni says he first met Lewin shortly after joining Caesars World in 1977.

Lanni came away from that session thinking of Lewin as a "character," the likes of which the casino business has seldom seen. He says he quickly came to appreciate Lewin’s talents as a hotel executive.

Lewin headed Hilton hotel operations in Nevada until 1985 and was later recruited to run the Sands after its purchase by Sheldon Adelson.

Dennis Gomes, who ran the Hilton casinos during Lewin’s last years at the Hilton, remembers his one-time colleague as "a genius and a showman … all wrapped up in the persona of an executive with an old-school European appreciation of quality and service in a hotel."