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Women also helped shape Vegas

Over the years, I’ve written a considerable amount about important male figures in the rise of Las Vegas. But I’ve been negligent in discussing significant female figures in our city’s history. So allow me to rectify this.

Any short list of important women in the evolution of our city would include Helen J. Stewart, Claudine Williams, Elaine Wynn, Jan Jones, Carolyn Goodman, Catherine Cortez Masto and dozens more that would lengthen the list beyond my weekly word count. But one could argue that the most intriguing and colorful woman to reside in Las Vegas, albeit for a brief time, was Bugsy Siegel’s girlfriend Virginia Hill.

Although the movie portrayal of Virginia, by Annette Bening in the 1991 movie Bugsy, was boring compared to the original article, the film at least brought public awareness to a woman who was immensely liberated and outspoken decades before the rise of the women’s movement in America.

Raised in a large, poverty-addled family of 10 children in Alabama in the years after World War I, Hill married and left home when she was just 15. That marriage was short-lived and over the next 20 years, living mainly in Chicago but traveling freely around the country, she consorted with a number of notorious figures such as Joey Adonis and members of the Lucky Luciano and Al Capone crime families. It was believed she also worked as a high-priced call girl during that time.

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Hill resided in Las Vegas for parts of only two years, between 1945 and 1947, as Bugsy was completing the construction and later opening of his Flamingo Hotel, the first glamorous resort on the Strip. Those who knew the pair described their relationship as passionate and volatile. The fact that the hotel cost far more than the original budget and the gaming tables took a merciless pounding in its first year probably contributed to the stress they were both feeling.

Shortly after Hill left on a quickly planned trip to Paris in June of ’47, Siegel was murdered by a hail of bullets fired through the front window while seated on a couch in Virginia’s Beverly Hills mansion. That murder has never been solved, but associates of Meyer Lansky quickly took over operation of the Flamingo with little pause in routine procedures. There has been speculation through the years that Virginia was well aware that Bugsy’s murder had been planned.

My personal interest in Ms. Hill originated in the years after Bugsy’s demise. In 1950, she found her way to the Pacific Northwest, where she married a dashing Austrian Olympic snow skier, Hans Hauser. The couple moved to my hometown of Spokane and purchased a modest home, one block from the house I was raised in. Their son Peter was born that same year.

My parents met and socialized with Virginia and Hans several times over the next couple years. They played bridge together and Virginia even had dental work done by my father and another local dentist. The Hausers fit in comfortably in this middle-American lifestyle, which was so radically different from that of her earlier life. 

But when the IRS closed in on her in 1954, their home was seized and her expansive jewelry and fur collection was put up for auction. My mother bought a few trinkets at that sale, which she treasured in later years as memorabilia.

During her Spokane residency, Hill was called to Washington to testify in front of the Senate’s Kefauver Crime Hearings. Despite having been called by TIME magazine earlier that year, “the queen of the gangsters’ molls,” Virginia denied any involvement with organized crime figures. (If you Google her televised testimony, you will see that she pinned the senators’ ears back with her colorful blue-tinged answers to their accusations.)

Hill moved to Austria with her son after she was forced to leave America, and she lived peacefully there for the next 12 years. She died at age 49 of an overdose of sleeping pills. Peter Hauser enlisted in the U.S. Army and served honorably, earning a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.

Although her time here was brief during what is considered the birth of the Strip, it’s a certainty the name Virginia Hill will resonate for decades as an important woman in the legacy of Las Vegas.