AT 80, OSCAR GOODMAN LOOKS BACK AT LADY LUCK BREAKS
Rabbi Oscar Goodman? Instead of redeeming lives in a synagogue, he ended up in Sin City.
Before choosing the path that led to stardom as a legendary mob attorney, Goodman was torn between two career prospects.
"Being a lawyer wasn’t necessarily my first choice,” said Goodman, reflecting on a pivotal decision in his life
“But my dad was an attorney and (wife) Carolyn, she loved my father. If I had my choice I wanted to be a football coach or be a rabbi, and she said, no, no, no!,” said Goodman, who turns 80 today. The celebration started early, with an 80-martini salute on Fremont Street a week ago.
On that decisive day in the early 1960s, his wife implored, ‘Why don’t you go to law school?’ I went to law school and I hated it. I loved college. I went to a small liberal arts college, Haverford College, a Quaker school, and studied philosophy and sociology and social sciences and read books all the time. It was like the Elysian Fields, it was so refreshing. Every day was a wonderful learning experience.”
That idyllic lifestyle didn’t last long.
“Then I got to law school and they were nice enough fellas, don’t misunderstand me,” he said, “and I say fellas because in those days I think there were only two women in our class. The fellas were all very, very nice, but they were interested in doing things that I was not interested in doing. They wanted to work for big law firms, what we call white shoe law firms, legitimate law firms that do business litigation and draw up contracts and that didn’t interest me.”
After getting pointed in the right direction, a murder led to Las Vegas.
In a sweeping 40-minute interview in an office chock full of tchotchkes, Goodman revealed how a current presidential candidate helped him decide whether he wanted to run for governor, the harrowing mob years, martini-splashed sessions with his cronies, and Lady Luck breaks that altered the course of his life.
Here is the Q and A, condensed in some segments, on how it how it happened:
AN EARLY BREAK
“So one day, I had gotten married after my first year at Penn, I didn’t like the fact that Carolyn was carrying the load as far as supporting us. But people in those days when they went to an Ivy League law school like Penn, they went to school, they didn’t have jobs. But I couldn’t stand it so I went down to city hall in Philadelphia and I didn’t know the district attorney at all and I went up to the district attorney’s office and I said, ‘May I see Mr. Crumlish?” and I explained to him I was a student at Penn and I really would like to have a part time job as a clerk. He said I’m going to send you down the hall to a fellow named Emmet Fitzpatrick. Emmet was the first assistant and he said, ‘I know just the person you should talk to.’ So he sent me down the hall and that was Arlen Specter. He had just come off the first conviction of a Teamsters official and he was riding a high crest.
“He said, ‘Well, I don’t know. If you work here I’ll pay you a dollar an hour and it’s a 40-hour week and if you can’t do that, than wait until you graduate.’ I said, ‘No, no, I’m going to take it.’ He was a stern taskmaster and he was a great mentor.” Brash and tenacious, Specter went on to a legendary career during his 30 years in the U.S. Senate. He died in 2012,
A MURDER LED TO LAS VEGAS
“A wealthy widow was killed in Philadelphia, and the fellows who murdered her took $300,000 from under her mattress and came out to Las Vegas to launder it at the craps tables. They were arrested out here for some violation not concerning the murder at all and Harry Claiborne was retained by them and got them released on a writ of Habeus Corpus so they left Vegas and they went to Omaha. They were arrested in Omaha for the murder and were brought back to Philadelphia for trial.
“Arlen said I want you to talk to the cops in Las Vegas just in case there’s an issue there. It’s funny, those cold dreary nights that only the East Coast can have and the old, old buildings that were still there and the city hall building where the DA’s office was there and they were built out of stone and the winds were just blowing the cold air through it and for four hours we went over their testimony.
“And at the end of the evening they said, ‘What are you doing here?’ I said, ‘where else is there?’ They said, ‘Las Vegas.’ I said, ‘You mean people actually live there?’ They said, ‘It’s a great town.’ So I said to Carolyn, ‘How would you like to live in Las Vegas?’ She said, ‘Whatever you’d like to do, sweetheart.’
So we came out and I had an interview with Ted Marshall, who was the D.A. at the time. He said, ‘I’ll give you a job when you graduate from law school. Take the Nevada bar, pass that and you’ll have a job in my office.’ I said, ‘great.’ I think I made the munificent sum of $500 a month and I was happy to have it. I didn’t realize they only gave the bar once a year here at that time. Now it’s twice a year.
“So we arrived on August 28, I think everybody recalls the day they arrived here. We arrived in 1964, and they gave the bar in November and they had to have a resident’s requirement so I blew that year, but I used it to good purpose. I used it as a clerk in the D.A.’s office here and met a lot of politicians and judges. I used the time well so by the time I hung up my shingle myself I had a built-in clientele. The day I practiced law I never had a bad day of practicing law again.
‘IT ALL HAPPENED BY ACCIDENT’
“Remember the cartoon character Joe Btfsplk in the ‘Little Abner’ cartoon strip?,” he said. "Wherever Joe went, there was a dark cloud and rain over his head. I’m the opposite. Wherever I go, I don’t know why and I’m grateful for it. I thank God for it everyday, but the sun shines. I don’t know if it’s my personality or whether I’m lucky but... people say I was sent out by the mob. It all happened by accident.
“It was just being nice to a guy who needed a bankruptcy. A mobster called up, his brother was in trouble. He took a call at the pit at the Hacienda, where this guy was a dealer. He’s dealing and the guy who answers the phone, the floorman, he cups the phone and says, ‘Who’s the best criminal lawyer in Las Vegas?’ This guy I did a bankruptcy for said, ‘Call Oscar.’ And that’s how it all started. It so happens this guy was a mobster and he was close to Meyer Lansky (the mob’s powerful accountant) and then I represented Lansky and just one after another after another.”
MORT THE MENTOR
“Mort Galane. He was a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful lawyer. As Arlen Specter was a wonderful lawyer, Mort Galane was a wonderful lawyer. I worked for him while I studied for the bar. Once again, he was a very stern taskmaster and you learn from guys like that. You don’t want to disappoint them and they won’t tolerate incompetence or anything else than excellence.
“So Mort was probably my mentor in the beginning and there were people over the years I respected: John Mowbray. He was a judge here and I respected him. Lloyd George and I had our differences and at one point we really didn’t care for each other, but I consider him a friend now and he’s been very, very decent with me as a judge. I don’t consider them mentors as much as people I respected along the way.”
MARTINIS WITH BOB MARTIN
“Well, my favorite martini companion was Bob Martin. Bob was the fellow who made the (betting) line for the whole world as far as sports were concerned. He’s the one who really taught me how to drink martinis. He took a liking to me. I was a baby lawyer and he would invite me out to the Desert Inn, or The Sands or The Dunes and we’d sit in the nice bars and nice dining rooms. It was a level of class you don’t see anymore. We would be drinking and there would come a point where he would say, ‘You’re schlurring your words.’ He was slurring his words. He was a wonderful raconteur and I enjoyed being with him.”
TIMES WITH TONY SPILOTRO
“I did not socialize with Tony Spilotro but I spent so much time representing him on murder cases and racketeering cases and Black Book cases, I became very close with him. He was always very good with me and he was a very different Tony Spilotro than the FBI tries to portray. He would come into my law office and the people loved him there because he would say thank you, and please, and he was always gracious towards them and that’s how our relationship was. I didn’t tell him to kill anybody and I don’t know if he killed anybody. He didn’t ask for my permission. Those were tough cases but he never spent a day in jail with me representing him. So he would be interesting to talk to to find out what really happened back in the Chicago area. The cornfield.
Frank Rosenthal was a very interesting fellow. Represented him for years and fought all of his battles to keep him in the gaming industry as entertainment director of food and beverage and this and that. And he was an interesting guy because, first of all he was a genius. He was the one who designed the race and sports book over there and he was the one who brought Siegfried and Roy over there. He knew what he was doing. He was the kind of guy who, if he saw a cigarette on the carpet, he would bend down and pick it up and throw it in the trash can and then fire the person whose job it was to do it. So I learned lessons from him.”
WHO ELSE MADE YOU LAUGH?
“I had lunch with Benny Binion (of Horseshoe fame) almost every day. Claiborne and myself. Ted (Binion) would stop by, Jack (Binion) would stop by. Eddie LaRue, the private detective (who reportedly inspired the Dan Tanna character in the 1978-1981 ABC series “VEGA$.”) Oh, we had good times. But my clients were under siege here and there wasn’t much time for frivolity and there wasn’t much time for socialization because of the government. And I paint a very broad brush here, the investigators, when they said the intelligence unit at Metro, I said ‘That’s an oxymoron, I don’t want to hear anymore about that.’ They were always following me and they wired people up and sent them into my office to entrap me. One guy was found over by Friendly Fergie’s, which you wouldn’t remember, it was over on the 700 block of east Sahara. It was a little local bar. He was found in the ladies room with a bullet hole in his head, .22 (caliber). And on his body was a tape recorder. He had just been in my office trying to get me to do something illegal. It was just incredible.”
ANY SAFETY CONCERNS?
“No. Well, I found out at one point in time, huh, very interesting, someone called me up and said, ‘did you read the obituary of Frankie ‘The German’ Schweiss?’ I think his daughter was in one of these ‘Ladies of New York or Atlanta,’ whatever they call those programs. “Housewives.” She was in one of those. It’s amazing. I don’t know how this runs in an obituary but in his obituary it said he had told the FBI that he had an Uzi and he was going to kill Tony Spilotro, Michael Spilotro and Oscar Goodman. The FBI never told me that. So that sort of set it off.”
‘I LOVED THE COURTROOM’
“Well, I practiced law for 35 years actively. Everybody says it was the toughest practice. I represented these reputed mobsters from all over the country and their cases were big cases: Judge Claiborne’s impeachment trial before the U.S. Senate, Jimmy Chagra on THE assassination of a federal judge. These were tough cases but because I loved it so much it wasn’t work. I went to work and I put in a tremendous amount of hours. I loved the courtroom. I loved the banter, I loved the confrontations. And I was very fortunate because I lived during a time when the Supreme Court was very much concerned about individual rights and the protection of those rights under the Constitution. I was the beneficiary of that because I could file my motions and win cases based on government misconduct or violation of a constitutional principle. They always sent the best against me, not me, but because of my clients. They were high profile people, so I loved that.”
LIFE AT 80
“I feel great. I really do. You know when I leave the house every morning Carolyn says carpe diem to me and before she slams the door in my face, I say ‘hashtagYOLO’ to her. We live every day to the hilt. We do everything we wanted to do with our lives. I really do and I have the energy of a little kid. I feel like I’m 25. I feel like I could go out there and pitch a baseball game or snap a football as a long snapper at center. I’m not in a place where I could do either of those things, but in my mind I feel I could do it.
“You only live once. I picked that up. I was speaking at a graduation class about three years ago and I said to them, ‘You know I’ve been to a lot of graduations: myself, high school, college, my kids, my wife. I can’t remember the speakers’ names and I can’t remember what the speakers said, but I’ll tell you one thing, you’re never going to forget what i’m going to tell you. I said, ‘Hashtag YOLO’ and all the kids knew what I meant. ‘Hashtag YOLO,’ they went nuts. They went absolutely bonkers. They screamed and I said, I have nothing else to tell you.”
GREATEST POINTS OF PRIDE?
“Oh, my family. I don’t even hesitate when I say that. I have a very strong devotion to my wife and my children. They have done beautifully and they’ve done wonderful and they’re wonderful. They have children and they married well. The grandchildren are doing well. That’s the best accomplishment. I’m not a person who believes in talking about legacies. Once you start talking about legacies you’re looking backwards. I like to look forwards. Going backwards, I’m not impressed with that.
PRESIDING OVER THE DOWNTOWN TRANSFORMATION
“I loved being the mayor for 12 years. I really went down to city hall--people will tell you-- I went down there seven days a week because I loved it so much. It wasn’t work. It was terrific. But once again, I was lucky, I guess.
“When I was the mayor, the city was awash with money so everything we did we were able to afford and the projects took off. Look we acquired Symphony Park land and we were able to make arrangements with Larry Ruvo to have the Ruvo Brain Institute there and then he brought in the Cleveland Clinic. It was a giant, giant step for us as far as academic medicine and for our community. The Smith Center. For years everybody was talking about a performing arts center. We were able to get that off the ground. The city was able to get the bonding for it in conjunction with the Smith family. We have, I think, one of the greatest buildings and programs. I think Myron Martin has done a phenomenal job. The Mob Museum. I think Jonathan Ullman has done an unbelievable job with the programming over there.
“I had it easy. It was my poor wife who took over during the Great Recession. She had to work her way out of it and now she’s having development like never before. People are coming downtown like never before. Restaurants are opening up one after another. It’s lively and hotels are not only being built but it’s the first time since the Plaza was built, I think it was 1967. We have Derek Stevens building that beautiful Circa hotel and the other hotels have fixed things up. They’re all thriving and gaming revenue is high. People are there all the time and restaurants are crowded. It’s great seeing it.”
POLITICS CAME CALLING
“I’ve been here since 1964 and I couldn’t have had the life we’ve had here anywhere else. And I’m not saying that because I represented reputed mobsters or I wouldn’t be elected mayor. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about living in a community that hasn’t changed. A lot of people think there is a society, a caste system, here, but I find that people take you for your worth, not because you have money, not because you’re running one of those joints out there. They accept you for what you do and whether you’re a decent human being. I don’t think there’s another place like it in the world, and I wouldn’t leave for...look, I’m not saying I’d win anything but I’ve had people that wanted me to run for the (U.S.) senate. I went back to Washington, D.C. and they took me from senator to senator and, oh... you had a feeling of great importance when they do that, let’s put it that way. I said, ‘I don’t want to come back here. I had already seen Washington when I represented Harry Claiborne during the impeachment. Claiborne was a U.S. District Court Judge here from 1979 until his impeachment and removal in 1986.
“I said, “No.” It’s not a good town. They’d forget you in two seconds. I said, “No, I’m not interested.” Then they wanted me to run for governor a couple times and I tried a couple cases in Carson City a couple times, and fact, and I had been to Cafe at Adele’s up there, it’s a very good restaurant right downtown. But they ran out of gin when I was trying my cases, after two days, and I said I can’t ever come up to Carson City. So I’m stuck here.”
HEEDING HICKENLOOPER’S ADVICE
Goodman paused. “DId you know John Hickenlooper?”
Yes, I said. Before he was mayor of Denver and governor of Colorado, Hickenlooper opened one of the city’s first brew pubs, which attracted many a media type. I was a sportswriter from 1984 to 1989 at the Rocky Mountain News and the man-about-town columnist from 1989 before moving to Las Vegas in 1999.
I knew Hickenlooper, now a Democratic presidential candidate, before he moved into politics.
“Hickenlooper went to my high school (Philadelphia’s Central High. Raymond Teller of Penn and Teller fame also attended the school). “I’m older than (Hickenlooper). One year we received an award for being distinguished alumni or something like that. I couldn’t go back.” A few years later, they met and had a conversation about running for governor in their respective states.
“His background is fascinating. He’s a honky-tonk pianist and he’s very good. We were mayors at the same time and became, I would say, friendly.
One day they were on the phone. Hickenlooper offered some advice. “He said, ‘For me to be the governor, it’s easy, because the statehouse is in Denver. I’m just going to walk a block or two and my life’s not going to change.
“For you to be the governor” -- ‘and I listened to him very carefully,’ said Goodman -- “You’re going to leave the city that loves you and you’re going to be in the middle of nowhere and you’re going to be so unhappy in Carson City.”
“I listened to what he said,” Goodman said.
“Well, of course, my children. You always want to have your children around you. My mom and dad. Probably the only days of my life I was sad was when they passed away. They were special people. My father was a very, very respected person. He would take me with him to the police station where he was handling cases in the district attorney’s office down there and we’d walk down Broad Street, the main street in Philadelphia, and people would tip their hats and say, ‘Good morning, counselor’ and they said it with such respect it was a wonderful thing for a kid to see how the world looked at his father. And he was a good father. There was a federal judgeship available which was a lifetime appointment and he had really paid his dues and he’d like to have gotten that appointment but then the politicians said ‘You’ll have to pay $25,000 for it. He told them to go eff themselves, and that taught me a lot about politics, about government, about people. You’re better to control the situation yourself or else you’re not going to be able to do. If you can’t rely on other people, it’s not to turn out the way you need it.
“My mother was unique. She was an artist and sculptress and she really was the first Bohemian I ever came in contact with. She was a free spirit. She studied with some of the great artists in the country. She won prizes: The Philadelphia professional sculptors prize. And she was a great mom. I would want to see them come back. My grandmother was a special lady. She was an immigrant. Very timely under these current circumstances. She was from Prussia. Spoke English. My grandmother actually learned English by taking me to grade school, first grade, second grade, sitting in the classroom, in the back. Just listening to the teachers. At the end of the day she spoke better English than I do. That’s the way people were in those days.”
‘TOO MUCH HATRED OUT THERE’
“That’s why I’m so disturbed about what’s happening today. To me, there’s too much hatred out there. I really mean it and I’m really disturbed about it. There’s this silent majority, I hope they’re not the majority, but the silent people who have a lot of hatred and animus in their life and there’s no time for that. This is a wonderful country. It’s a country that welcomes people. But when you start this divisiveness, it drives me nuts. You know, in the beginning I guess it’s funny when it was taking place, but it’s not any more.”
DIGGING INTO HIS PAST
“I got a document in my desk here, a copy, the original is now in the Mob Museum. The watch book which is the book that Metro where they put down every day when they come off the shift they write down what they had done. They were following me and this is the kind of thing that you would get: ‘Oscar went to the airport,’ ‘Oscar came home,’ ‘Oscar is mad,’ ‘Oscar is pissed off.’ I mean, it’s actually in here.”
Goodman stood up, turned away from his desk and pulled open a file. Rustling through papers in a fat folder, he said, ‘I want you to see it. I mean, it hasn’t all been fun.’ He pulled out a tattered sheet with a yellow tab on it. “I got it asterisked. This is a good one. Oh, here! ‘Received info that Oscar Goodman left for Kansas City at 14:55 hours on Frontier flight number 156.’
“Whooo cares! I had a case back there. I represented Nick Civella (the head of the Kansas City crime family) and they had to put that in the book? I was careful. I wasn’t going to give them a reason to even try to frame me. And as a result of that I didn’t have the freedom that I have today, and when I was the mayor, of having friends, because you didn’t know who you could trust. You might think the guy is your best friend but he might be wearing a wire or you think you might be talking to someone on the phone and they’re listening to your conversation and recording it. I’d stop people (in mid-sentence) and say ‘No, no, no, who do you want to bring and what place and where are we meeting?’ because, unless you say that... they can say whatever they want to say. I’ve been in cases where they had a video tape, but they didn’t have the audio, on the boardwalk of Atlantic City and if I wasn’t in three separate cases involving these particular cases involving clients back in Philadelphia, I would never have known this.
“The main rat, a guy named Nicky ‘The Crow’ Caramandi (former alleged hitman for the Philadelphia crime family), he testified as to what was being said on the boardwalk between (Philadelphia crime boss) Phil Leonetti, (Philadelphia crime boss) Nicky Scarfo and himself and in each case it was a different story. It just fit whatever he wanted it to fit and I told people, ‘Don’t give him that opportunity.’ If you are not doing anything wrong, say what you are doing.’”
ON BEING OSCAR
In the beginning, he said, he didn’t care for his first name. “I got teased everywhere I went.” He tired of hearing the words from the promotional z “Acquire the desire to buy from Oscar Meyer.’ That bugged me. My mother said, ‘OK, you can change your name.’ I said, ‘I don’t want to change it, mom,’ I was just a little kid. Iit’s just that they’re making fun of me.’ She said, ‘Well, you were named after your grandfather and he was a wonderful man’ and I said, okay, I’m going to keep it then.” It turned into a legendary headline. When he won his first run for mayor, the Las Vegas Sun banner read: ‘Oscar Mayor Winner.’”
CAROLYN’S GREATEST QUALITIES
“Is niceness a quality? She’s the nicest person I know,” he said.
“Wonderful mother, wonderful wife, wonderful person. I’m surprised she likes being the mayor so much. But she loves it. Look, singlehandedly, whether she likes to say it or not, she founded the Meadow School. First non-profit, non-sectarian private school in Nevada. She had plenty of help, but without her guidance, without her 26 years of working there without owning it, without owning any part of it, without her getting a salary, that’s pretty good. A labor of love for children and education. She’s as tough as they get. Tougher than any reputed mobster I ever represented.”
WHAT’S LEFT ON THE BUCKET LIST?
“I’d like to have a little more time with Carolyn. We’re always rushing. She more than me, these days. A quick kiss in the morning. A quick kiss at night and she’s just running from place to place. I’d love to take her away for a couple days more often because we enjoy each other, we miss each other and we make each other laugh.
EVER THOUGHT ABOUT BEING A COMEDIAN?
“No, not really. But I’ll tell you the best thing about being mayor was going out and making people happy. When we’d go out and about, shaking hands and patting people on the back, that may sound cliche-ish, but it made people happy and there’s nothing like that at the end of the day.”
ONE OF THE MOST MEMORABLE DAYS
“My 25th anniversary of practicing law. It was a roast at the Desert Inn and it’s a great party. Clients came in from all over the country. The guest list was awesome and Tony Curtis got up and said, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing here, I didn’t kill anybody.”