Steve Wynn reflects on the influential hoteliers, designers, dream makers, and even showmen who helped inform his vision for Wynn Resorts at a very young age.
Steve Wynn and Frank Sinatra at the Golden Nugget, circa 1984
Should you ask Steve Wynn about himself as a real estate developer and hotelier, he might describe a composite of Jay Sarno (the founder of Caesars Palace), Ben Novack (who built Fontainebleau Miami Beach), Bill Harrah (founder of the Harrah’s empire), and Walt Disney. In fact, on a recent visit, he went so far as to suggest that if you were to shake them all up in a test tube, out would pop a fully developed Steve Wynn.
His component personalities couldn’t have been more different. Sarno, for instance, rode into Caesars Palace in a flower-bedecked chariot for the resort’s 1966 grand opening, while Harrah studiously avoided the limelight, allowing the Harrah’s brand to take center stage. Disney, meanwhile, worked diligently to conjure up a Magic Kingdom that would forever occupy an important piece of real estate in every child’s brain. Novack and his hotel were symbols of the glamorous party culture of mid-century Miami Beach. But each man belongs to the postwar pantheon of dream weavers most influential to a young Steve Wynn. Even as an adolescent, Wynn had an innate sense for luxury, and he grew up in the golden age of burgeoning resort kingdoms—Disneyland and Fontainebleau—critically evaluating them from the age of 15.
The obvious opulence of Wynn’s resorts belies his sophisticated ideas about luxury, based on the notion that guests should be cared for as if each is the most important person on earth. At this moment, you can conspicuously consume a $10,000 cocktail (the Ono) at XS; dine on a beef even rarer than Kobe (Hokkaido Snow Beef) at Mizumi; design your own exotic bag at the bespoke table in the new Prada boutique; bask in the reflected light from a monumental Jeff Koons sculpture; be serenaded by a frog with the voice of Garth Brooks at the fantastical Lake of Dreams—and any number of other things impossible to do in whatever city you came from.
“Listen, the commodious rooms with the hand-woven fabrics, the beautiful stone and ornamental iron—all of that is pretty standard stuff ,” Wynn says. “If you’re surrounded by beautiful things, you could feel lonely and disconnected. But when you’re being attended to, then the story comes to life. I could put you on a nylon carpet in a chair that cost a fraction of the one you’re sitting in, but if your every need was met, you would have the feeling of overwhelming luxury.”
In Wynn’s last year of prep school, his parents sold the family home in Utica, New York, and moved to Miami Beach, a change of address that he calls perhaps the biggest factor in determining his future career. “From spring break at prep school my senior year until my father died five years later during my senior year at Penn, I spent every holiday in Miami Beach at our home on Pine Tree Drive,” he says. “My folks had cabana 364 at the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach, which in the ’50s was the single most important destination on the planet. The Fontainebleau was a world unto itself. There were French gardens, shopping, restaurants, swimming pools. Goldfinger was filmed there. You see the cabana there where he was playing cards? Right above him was cabana 364.”
The Fontainebleau Miami Beach entrance in 1955.
In the consumerist years following World War II, everyone was talking about luxury, Wynn says. “All of them, men and women, would sit around the coffee shop in the hotel and talk about the owner, Ben Novack, and his glamorous wife, Bernice.” That downstairs shop, Chez Bon Bon, was the hotel’s nerve center, a 24-hour-aday New York deli (despite its French name). Legendarily, the air-conditioning in the hotel lobby was turned up high so that female guests could comfortably swan up and down the Morris Lapidus–designed “staircase to nowhere” in their mink stoles in the heat of summer. “The place dazzled me. It didn’t even have a sign, and you had to have a key to get into the lobby. They didn’t allow lookie-loos.” It was in the hotel’s La Ronde Room that Wynn first saw some of the performers who were hitting it big in Las Vegas, including Sammy Davis Jr., Jack Benny, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, and Elvis Presley.
Even as a teen, Wynn was forming incisive conclusions about how a sense of intimacy and fantasy should inform hotel architecture. “The idea of creating a world that was better than the outside world is, in literary terms, very romantic,” he says. “The thing about the Fontainebleau is that it had parts that you could go to—from a two-story lobby with massive windows to smaller spaces, formal French gardens— that felt like you’d just discovered them. I thought it would be a great life to build a place like that. I changed my major from premed. I wanted to be a developer like Ben Novack.”
Wynn credits two men as being the drivers of fantasy destination resort development in the late 1950s: Ben Novack and Walt Disney. “Walt became much more famous for the park than he did for the cartoons,” he says. “That television show that was all about the wonderful world of Disney was always about the park. Remember, the theme of the show was to look at the palace.”
Jay Sarno was similarly affected by the Fontainebleau, Wynn explains, building the first themed resort in Las Vegas, Caesars Palace, partly with money from Jimmy Hofa’s Teamsters union. “Caesars almost became as big as the town,” he says. “It was hard to separate Caesars Palace from all its prize fights and stars. Prior to Caesars, all the hotels on the Strip were identical. The Riv, the Flamingo, the Sands, the Dunes—they were all casinos in front of a motel building. Caesars Palace was a fantasy world totally integrated like the Fontainebleau, only more themed.
“All of those infuences matured while I was impressionable,” Wynn adds. “Disneyland became an institution by 1960, as did the Fontainebleau. And then I get a chance to come to Las Vegas, which seems to me the perfect way to combine the glamour of the movies and the Fontainebleau with the security of the bank. The father of one of my fraternity brothers from Penn was the chairman of Caesars, so there I am at Caesars on opening night in 1966, and I’m 24 years old. And Las Vegas feels like the promised land.”
Fontainebleau cabanas as enjoyed by James Bond in Goldfnger.
Years before Wynn would build the Mirage, with its 3,000 rooms and spewing volcano, capitalizing on the “fantasy factor” that the Strip was ready for in 1989, and the $1.6 billion Bellagio, which blew Las Vegas’s collective mind in 1998, he learned another important lesson about luxury—one having nothing to do with Roman chariots, summer furs, or pyrotechnics. It was 1973, Wynn had been elected chairman and president of the Golden Nugget, and he was going to visit the Nevada Gaming Commission in Carson City for the final hearing on his license.
“In those days, you had to be found suitable,” he explains. “I rented a car at the Reno airport and made a reservation at the Harrah’s hotel on Virginia Street, a downtown hotel in Reno that’s bare-bones. And when I pulled up my rental car to the curb, it felt like pulling up to the Plaza. This young kid comes and says, ‘Welcome to Harrah’s. Are you just visiting or are you checking into the hotel, may I ask?’ And he gave me his card with an extension and had my bags sent directly up and said, ‘Don’t you worry about a thing, Mr. Wynn. If you call that number, we’ll have your car waiting.’ And I’m thinking, Whoa. He walks me over to this cheap glass door and welcomes me again to Harrah’s. I go up the escalator, and there’s a young woman behind a wooden front desk, and she gives me a greeting that’s just as nice as the one I got downstairs.
“Now at this point she looks down—they didn’t have computers in those days; they had registration cards—and she sees the reservation request and it’s in red, which means complimentary, and the authorizer is Rome Andreotti, the guy who ran the casino. And I’m in the Presidential Suite. She says, ‘Oh my goodness, Mr. Wynn, you’re in the Presidential Suite. Are you gonna love this room—it’s the nicest one in the hotel! Mr. Andreotti has taken very good care of you! We’re delighted to have you. Are you just staying the one night?’ ‘Yeah, I’m going to Gaming Control in the morning.’ ‘Well, good luck, Mr. Wynn, and again, if there’s anything you need, just pick up the phone—there’s a butler service in your suite. Your bag will be upstairs.’ I hadn’t even made it to the room yet, and okay, it was a lobby with a nice carpet, but I’m dazzled. And I make up my mind that that’s what I want with my employees. What the hell were they feeding these guys? How did they get that warmth? You know, 40 some odd years later and I can still see her face and hear that valet door kid. Now there’s luxury.” (Wynn tracked down the Harrah’s human resources consultant and hired him right away at the Golden Nugget.)
Somewhere between the Fontainebleau’s cabana 364 and Carson City, Steve Wynn found his hospitality core. “I was influenced by a whole bunch of forces that the men before me could not have experienced the way I did,” he says. “Disney played no role to Novack. Bill Harrah didn’t know from the Fontainebleau and he didn’t know from Disney. Sarno never gave a damn about Reno because it was Squaresville.” But Wynn saw them all in their heyday, “and I had that Harrah’s experience tattooed on me forever. And that gave me a richer experience. I was going to combine all the magic I’d seen with the service of Harrah’s.” And he’s been doing it ever since.