WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS, NORM CLARKE KNOWS (by Danny Funt, CJR)
FOR 17 YEARS, GOSSIP IN LAS VEGAS wasn’t gossip for long. Until Norm Clarke retired from the Review-Journal last summer, what may have started as whispers among blackjack dealers, cab drivers, or casino managers could be found on page 3A as reliable facts. “Las Vegas had become the center of the universe for entertainment in many ways, and Norm wielded an awful lot of power,” says Felix Rappaport, who for more than two decades ran some of the Strip’s premier hotels. “If you read something in Norm’s column, as outrageous as it might seem, you were pretty damn sure it happened.” Almost instantly upon arriving from Denver, Clarke became one of the most recognizable faces in Las Vegas. To promote its new man-about-town columnist in 1999, the Review-Journal paid for a prominent billboard to read simply, “NORM,” with an eye patch drawn over the O. “Vegas Confidential” debuted just as the city’s nightlife scene was reaching extravagant new heights, and it helped eliminate the expectation that celebrities could move—and misbehave—in secret. Clarke broke national stories featuring the biggest stars, along with the outrageous bets, brutal tips, and all-night benders that seem to happen somewhere on the Strip every day.
Clarke, 74, left the newspaper after a 15-year battle with cancer forced his hand. Yet retirement from journalism proved unlivable, and he recently took his column to Vegas Stats Information Network, a multimedia startup backed by the legendary former ESPN broadcaster Brent Musburger. A dozen billboards appeared around town in January to announce his return, now under “Vegas Diary.” His face was pictured this time, though it’s unlikely anyone in the know has forgotten it.
The press-wary pop star Britney Spears once could be heard complaining to a hotel owner after spotting “that guy with the eye patch.” For tipsters, the patch was an invaluable identifier, as it was with celebs who crave publicity. At a post-fight press event a few years ago, Floyd Mayweather saw an overaggressive cameraman ram into Clarke’s shoulder. “Hey, you, move back!” the champ called out. “Norm, what do you need?”
Clarke managed over the years to recruit an “army of spies” throughout the city. One day in August 2015, he pulled away from McCarran International Airport and left 16 years of reporting at the curb. His iPhone must have fallen from the car when he got out to hug his wife, Cara, goodbye. The phone held maybe 2,700 contacts: direct lines to power players like casino magnate Steve Wynn and Caesars headliner Céline Dion, plus anyone from bartenders and bellmen, to lawyers and strippers. “Losing it was so crushing,” he says, still grimacing. “I nearly gave up my career.”
Months later, he was elated to discover that some of those numbers were backed up; regardless, his status as the most deeply sourced celebrity journalist in Las Vegas was never really in jeopardy. Hotel presidents and parking attendants read the column three to seven days a week religiously. He hunted nonstop for scoops, but “the real magic,” explains Review-Journal entertainment writer Mike Weatherford, “was that Norm got people trained to call him. That was fairly astonishing.”
The strange thing about gossip is that the thrill of spilling can be as powerful as our insatiable thirst for anything juicy.
Sources came to respect Clarke because he applied the rules from his years as an Associated Press reporter to the celebrity gossip beat. Robin Leach, the Brit famous for hosting Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous—the MTV Cribs precursor—arrived in Las Vegas around the same time as Clarke. Of his longtime rival, Leach is now deferential: “He was the dean of showbiz journalism here in the city.”
I met Clarke last month at a 7 am Rotary breakfast in a Las Vegas suburb, where he’d been invited to speak about his career. His fluffy, Wayne Newton-esque hair has greyed, and nerve damage gave him a slight limp, but his magnetism appears undiminished. “I’m here to see Norm because he’s the only guy who stops to talk to me on the street,” one of the several dozen Rotarians in attendance said, “and he doesn’t even know me. He’s just a friendly guy.”
It may seem odd for a Rotary club to honor a celebrity gossip writer, but Norm Clarke brought unusual class to the job. That, and everyone, deep down, is dying to hear his stories.
CASINO BOSSES GREETED “Vegas Confidential” with suspicion. They’d experienced nothing like it, and within a month it was a hit. At MGM, which owns some of the biggest hotels on the Strip, executives would often begin morning meetings in the Bellagio offices by asking if everyone had read Clarke’s latest. His popularity did little to subdue their paranoia. At one meeting in those early days, a top MGM executive announced, “No good can come from being in Norm’s column.”
As Alan Feldman, an executive vice president at MGM who has been with the company for more than 25 years, recalled in an email to CJR, “Norm immediately began writing a column about all of the things that were being discussed in offices and hallways and at dinner tables all over town. It was fascinating because he was, at the outset at least, an outsider.”
Indeed, the population of Clarke’s hometown of Terry, in Eastern Montana, would take up about six floors at the Bellagio. A lifetime of ruthless bullying—“Cyclops,” etc.—began with a freak childhood accident. When Norm was 3, his brother unhooked one of his suspenders and it snapped into his right eye. At 10, the injured eye had turned dark purple and doctors, fearing cancer, had it removed. His father had died just months earlier. Clarke flunked out of a local college after a year of studying to be a mechanic, and returned home to bag groceries. Sent to deliver an ad to a nearby newspaper, he convinced an editor to let him cover a high school basketball tournament. It paid $5.
By 1973, Clarke was covering the Cincinnati Reds for the AP, and later hard news in San Diego and Los Angeles. “He was known as ‘Stormin Norman,’ the guy who was always going after the story,” recalls Linda Deutsch, one of the nation’s most renowned courtroom reporters, who worked alongside Clarke at the AP’s LA bureau. On November 21, 1980, both received an urgent assignment to fly to Las Vegas. The MGM Grand was on fire.
The fire took 87 lives and left 650 injured. (Clarke had covered the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire in Cincinnati three years earlier, which killed 175.) He arrived hours after the MGM Grand fire erupted, and the trip turned into “one of my greatest coups.” Driving up Las Vegas Boulevard in his rental car, he saw a school bus full of firefighters and followed it to their station, where he overheard excited talk of “a cowboy who came down on a rope.” He mentioned that to his editor, who said pursuing it was sure to end up “a wild goose chase.” Hours later, a pit boss in the Barbary Coast casino told Clarke that the man in a black cowboy hat had done a radio interview downstairs. The clip was just 20 seconds of hyperventilating, but the deejay gave a name, Randy Howard, and a guess of where he was staying: a dodgy motel behind Caesars Palace.
The motel receptionist said Howard wasn’t answering calls to his room. After waiting half an hour, “I started schmoozing her,” Clarke says. “You can always start a conversation with, Where’d you grow up?” She replied, “Eastern Montana.” She checked his room again, only to find that Howard was gone, then said, “I know I shouldn’t do this, but I think he called his mother several times. I’ll give you the number.”
He dialed Moline, Illinois, and eventually reached Howard. It turned out that the 26-year-old was in a room on the MGM Grand’s 14th floor when he awoke to smoke and chaos. He ran out on a balcony and saw a rope that helicopter rescuers had hung from the roof. Below he could see the body of a man who tried the climb and failed. But Howard, an ex-Marine, leaped from the balcony anyway, his hat somehow surviving, too.
Clarke pursued Howard on and off for almost three decades until some context finally emerged: He had been a drug dealer fleeing to Mexico. Five days after the fire, Howard’s suitcase arrived at his mother’s house, shipped by MGM. Inside, undisturbed, were several joints, a loaded .357 Magnum, and $170,000 cash. It made for quite a follow up.
Clarke remained at the AP for four more years and coordinated its coverage of the ’84 Olympics in Los Angeles, during which he was recruited to return to sports writing at Denver’s Rocky Mountain News. Five years later, he filled an opening as the paper’s man-about-town columnist. That year, his doctor removed his artificial eye and had him wear a patch while an infection healed. In the summer heat, it was itchy, sweaty torture. Clarke told his editor how he couldn’t wait to be rid of it. The editor replied, “You’d be really crazy to give it up. It’s become your signature.”
Celebrity gossip in Denver revolves around athletes, and Clarke eventually tired of the third John Elway sighting in a row at a Taco Bell. A month after moving to Denver, he had bought 19 scratch-off lottery tickets at a 7-Eleven. Number 17 won $50,000, half of which he used to buy a house in Las Vegas for his brother, Jeff Scheid, a photographer at the Review-Journal. While visiting him in 1999, Clarke was invited to meet the R-J publisher, Sherman Frederick, for a planned 20-minute chat that went over an hour and a half. As it happened, a consultant had recently told the paper it needed something that screams, “This is Las Vegas.”
“Las Vegas in the old days had columnists like this, but they really weren’t up to journalistic snuff,” Frederick recalls. “A lot of their stuff was promotional, and there was a lot of pay in exchange for favors. It occurred to me that what I needed was a guy like Norm who was a real newsman and could write stories without becoming entangled.”
Clarke jumped at the offer. A couple months into the job, Frederick invited him to a star-studded fundraiser at the MGM Grand, where performers included Elton John and Luther Vandross. Clarke said hello to those at Frederick’s table, then disappeared for the night. He was busy working the room.
“WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS, STAYS IN VEGAS” didn’t debut until 2003, but a code of silence was ingrained since the days when the Mob had a stranglehold on the city. Laura Herlovich, head of a high-powered local PR agency that represents businesses and performers, says, “Vegas was starved for someone like Norm.” It’s not hard to see why.
On his first month, a crowd of A-listers stormed out of the MGM Grand after a Mike Tyson fight ended in one round. Clarke caught Pierce Brosnan on the way out. “If I paid my own money for this, which I didn’t,” the James Bond star said, “I’d be demanding it back.” Soon Clarke found himself confronted by three security guards. “Who are you, and why are you asking so many questions?” he remembers being asked. “If you’ve got a question, fax it to our PR department. If you set foot on the sidewalk, we’ll have you arrested.”
Less than a year later, “spies” inside the Hard Rock Hotel tipped Clarke that a boozed-up Ben Affleck had won $600,000 at blackjack while playing $20,000 hands, sometimes three at a time. Affleck was in rehab within a few days, and Clarke was banished from the hotel. After several months, the Hard Rock president offered a truce if Clarke promised not to speak with employees. He refused, and the ban stood for a year.
Scrupulous reporting helped break down that sort of resistance. Subjects could count on the chance to comment, and it was clear that Clarke didn’t play favorites or burn confidants. “He is one of the hardest-working reporters on a gossip beat—the definition of shoe-leather,” says Mark Hinueber, general counsel at the Review-Journal during Clarke’s tenure. Not once was the paper sued for something in “Vegas Confidential.”
Clarke does cringe a little at the “gossip” label. His reporting was double-sourced, snark-free, and unembellished. No palms were greased, he says. Most days, he’d wake up around 7 to hundreds of emails from publicists, and his phone would buzz incessantly, yet nothing was more valuable than roaming the Strip in search of chance encounters with that jackpot preface: You didn’t hear it from me.
Sordid rumors earned special care. Despite receiving tips that Tiger Woods was out late at an ultra-private gaming salon with an unknown woman, Clarke wasn’t comfortable running with it. The National Enquirer ended up breaking the story of Tiger’s infidelity. So it goes.
“You should walk into a restaurant or casino with Norm Clarke. Everyone just flocks to him,” says Mike Fleeman, a former People magazine editor based in Las Vegas. When potential sources approached, Clarke would say hello, ask that they not hand him a business card but instead call later, and walk away. “I want to protect my sources,” he explains. “If you don’t think there are cameras everywhere in Las Vegas, you’re crazy.”
In 2002, The Palms provided its 28th floor to MTV’s reality show The Real World and wooed celebrities to its deluxe restaurant and nightclub. Doing so helped hotels begin to see the obvious value in feeding “sightings” to media. If you’re going to pay Paris Hilton thousands of dollars to pass through your club for 20 minutes, why hide it? Clarke’s cachet brought access beyond self-serving tips. Dave Kirvin, a longtime PR executive in Las Vegas, recalls promoting new hotels on the Strip. “As big as the national media were that came into town, more than one hotel president would say to us, ‘We’ve got Norm squared away, right?’ ”
Frederick, the Review-Journal publisher until 2010, believed an older columnist could better resist the job’s temptations: “Everyone wants to be your friend. Everyone wants to send the champagne over.” He gave Clarke, 57 when he took the job, a generous expense account with the understanding not to take freebies. When Clarke went out with his wife, he made clear to restaurants that they were paying for their own dinner, “and then a dessert tray comes out with five different things on it.”
After a pause, he adds, “I’m not going to say we haven’t nibbled.”
Clarke was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2001. During his recovery from surgery, a complication from kidney stones caused nerve damage that put him in a wheelchair for three months, including his 60th birthday. On a phone call with the publicist for the famed lion-tamers Siegfried and Roy, the feebleness of Clarke’s voice was alarming. The publicist promised to connect him with the duo’s doctor, who identified the source of the nerve damage. “I was failing fast,” Clarke says. “That doctor saved my life.”
After Clarke appeared on Matt Drudge’s radio show a year later, “Vegas Confidential” became a featured link on the Drudge Report, one of the most extreme conservative websites, yet among the most-trafficked. “Holy mackerel, it lit up the internet for us,” Frederick says of the bump, which crashed the Review-Journal site multiple times. “We didn’t monetize it very well, but it was a beautiful thing to watch.” At dinner one night with his wife and Drudge at the hottest restaurant at The Palms, N9NE Steakhouse, Clarke was greeted by Tom Brady and the hotel’s owner, George Maloof Jr. Those two just missed the night’s biggest highlight.
A week earlier, Clarke had given Pete Rose a copy of his recent book, 1,000 Naked Truths, a sort of tourist guide-slash-gossip anthology. It included a list of the 10 worst celebrity tippers, with Rose, baseball’s all-time hits leader, ranked fifth. In Cincinnati, Clarke had covered—and repeatedly angered—the former Red, now a disgraced gambler living in Las Vegas. Clarke spotted Rose at the steakhouse and called out to him, not remembering the book mention. Rose waved and appeared to walk away, then turned around, stormed up to Clarke, and slapped him across the face.
“That’s going in the column?” Drudge asked. Of course.
CLARKE DIDN’T RECOGNIZE the 402 area code when his cell phone rang the morning of January 3, 2004. The caller with a Nebraska number said that Britney Spears had just married George Maloof. Assuming it was a prank, Clarke thanked him and hung up.
Moments later, a local attorney and reliable source called. “Have you heard the news?” he said. “Yeah,” Clarke replied. “Britney Spears married George Maloof?” “No! She married a childhood friend, and now they’re working to get it annulled.” Clarke immediately phoned Maloof, a friend of Spears’s, who confirmed the attorney’s story. One of the biggest stars in the world had eloped at a Las Vegas chapel at 5:30 that morning. The Review-Journal raced to break the news online, beating People by 45 minutes. Clarke was invited on the Today show with Katie Couric and Matt Lauer the next day.
The following year saw the launch of the routinely shameless celebrity website TMZ and the often sleazy celebrity blog of Perez Hilton. Social media now offered an awesome and perilous tool for columnists, who for years relied on intimacy with their subjects. Since the 1920s, nationally syndicated writers such as Walter Winchell and Ed Sullivan in New York, Aileen “Suzy” Mehle in Miami, and Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons in Hollywood established the allure of professional gossip. (A New Yorker profile of Winchell famously exposed hundreds of falsehoods in his column.) Clarke’s boyhood hero was Herb Caen, the San Francisco Chronicle daily columnist for nearly six decades who offered a more soft-hearted take on city life compared to the outrage fetishizing of, say, the New York Post’s Page Six.
Unlike some gossip writers who, in a bizarre way, thrive on being off-putting, Clarke is widely known for being unwaveringly cheerful. That seems challenging in a job that deals constantly with celebrities’ egos and publicists’ evasiveness. “You have to be skeptical to do this kind of work,” explains Ira David Sternberg, host of the radio show Talk About Las Vegas, “but in all these years, Norm never became cynical.”
And he did so despite being F-bombed by a host of celebrities including, but hardly limited to, Robin Williams, Steve Wynn, the Vegas magician Criss Angel, and Joe Pesci. At an anniversary party for the Las Vegas run of Jersey Boys, which chronicles the rise of the Four Seasons, Clarke bumped into one of the original band members, Tommy DeVito. Asked if he still keeps in touch with Pesci, a childhood friend, DeVito said they planned on opening some pizza parlors together. Clarke ran the scoop, then got a call: “Where the F did you get that story about the F-ing pizza stores?” he imitates Pesci huffing in his heavy Jersey accent.
“You haven’t lived until you’ve had Joe Pesci chew your ass out.”
Five years after surgery, Clarke’s cancer returned, for which he received radiation treatment. “The past 10 years have been hellish,” he says. He went on a seven-week medical sabbatical last summer, but shortly after returning, a turn for the worse forced him to retire from the Review-Journal.
The casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson had purchased the paper months earlier for a reported $140 million. Clarke’s replacement on 3A, John Katsilometes, tells CJR that new ownership doesn’t inhibit his coverage. He’s been a respected journalist in Vegas for two decades, but it’s still hard not to wonder what might happen were he or his colleagues to go public about intimidation from management. As Frederick puts it, “It’s always going to be in the back of some folks’ minds.”
THE BALCONY of Clarke’s ninth-floor condo in the gated Las Vegas Country Club offers a spectacular view of the Strip. It looks out on a skyline of one-upmanship: the 614-foot Wynn, the 631-foot Wynn Encore, the 640-foot Trump tower, and, in the distance, Adelson’s 642-foot Palazzo—Vegas for you.
While being relentlessly licked underneath the dining table by Clarke’s silky terriers, Rumor and Scandal, I squinted to tell apart two photos on a nearby cabinet, each of a tuxedo-clad Clarke beaming alongside a blonde-haired woman. One is with Britney Spears, who, like many celebrities who’ve beefed with Clarke, is now friendly. (“I love your hair!” she said when they posed together.) The other is from his wedding four years ago with Cara Roberts, who introduced herself by sending Norm tips when he was a columnist in Denver, and reconnected with him in Las Vegas soon after he regained the ability to walk.
When Clarke left the Review-Journal, he and Cara looked forward to spending weekends together for essentially the first time in their 13-year relationship. They traveled for five “glorious” months, but Norm soon found himself writing column-length posts on Facebook, and later on a personal site, norm.vegas. In January, Brent Musburger left ESPN to help his family launch a betting news service. They asked Clarke to write a celebrity and sports column for their website and got an immediate yes.
Clarke was composed whenever we discussed his illness, but he suppressed tears when asked to explain his choice to come out of retirement.
“At some point the cancer will outsmart the medication,” he says. “So, part of the reason I’m getting back into it is that I realized no matter how healthy you are, you never stop being a journalist.”
Earlier that day, Clarke appeared for a few minutes on The Morning Blend at KTNV studios, as he continues to every Thursday, to discuss the latest rumors around town. There seemed to be a pep in his step as he walked on set. With new medicine, he’s pain-free for the first time in 15 years.
“I’m feeling great,” he tells one of the co-hosts as they ready to roll. “It’s so good to be writing the column again.”
Over 17 years at the paper, Clarke became an icon in the adopted city he covered. In the final scene of Ocean’s Thirteen, the hit film about a Vegas casino heist, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, and George Clooney part ways in McCarran Airport. On a TV in the background, taken from a real commercial for “Vegas Confidential,” is a grinning Norm Clarke.