Nobody who knew him was neutral about Hank Greenspun. He was hated or loved, feared or trusted, respected as a crusader or dismissed as a journalistic loose cannon, admired as an entrepreneur or advanced as an example of how not to run a business.
He gave Las Vegas a newspaper, two broadcasting stations, and a cable network. The newspaper helped him fight political bosses and become one himself. It enabled him to become a land baron who built Nevada's first master-planned community. And his fortune helped UNLV mature.
Greenspun was born Aug. 27, 1909, in Brooklyn. His father was a Talmudic scholar too kind and idealistic to succeed in sporadic attempts at business; his mother was a practical merchant who pressed her children to stand up for themselves. In his 1966 autobiography "Where I Stand," Greenspun described what happened when a customer on his paper route refused to pay and added anti-Semitic insult to financial injury.
Mrs. Greenspun scolded her 8-year-old son. "You let him insult you? And you didn't even insult him back? What's the matter with you?"
She marched him back and pounded on the door. The resident opened it and hurled hot water on both, but Mrs. Greenspun charged in, slapping and clawing, while the boy kicked the offender's shins. They collected the bill and an apology.
Greenspun would continue such policies all his life.
He grew up to study law, as his parents wished, but quickly grew disillusioned with defending clients who were obviously guilty. Greenspun drifted out of law into general business before being drafted into the Army. He wrote for a military newspaper and liked it, but was accepted for officer training, became a captain, and spent most of World War II in the ordnance corps which is responsible for maintaining weapons, ammunition and related equipment. In Northern Ireland he met Barbara Ritchie and married her in 1943.
After his return to civilian life, Joe Smoot, a New York promoter, in 1946 talked Greenspun into driving him to Las Vegas, where he hoped to open a race track. In Vegas, Greenspun ran into a college buddy, Ralph Pearl, and pitched in with him to open "Las Vegas Life," a weekly entertainment magazine. They lost money, so Hank took a job as publicity agent for the new Flamingo Hotel, operated by Ben "Bugsy" Siegel. When Siegel was murdered, Greenspun quit the Flamingo. Later he invested in a rival casino, The Desert Inn, but his substantial interest would be reduced to 1 percent when Cleveland racketeers Morris "Moe" Dalitz, Sam Tucker and Morris Kleinman won control. He also became a partner in a new radio station, KRAM. And still later he founded Las Vegas' CBS affiliate station, KLAS-TV, Channel 8, which he sold to Howard Hughes in the late 1960s.
In late 1947, Greenspun was recruited by Haganah, the Jewish self-defense organization. The nation of Israel was to be re-established in 1948 as a homeland for Jews. War was certain, and Israel had few weapons.
His autobiography describes clandestine expeditions to buy artillery and rifles in Latin America, and airplane engines and machine-guns from a surplus yard in Hawaii.
Greenspun got caught and in 1950 pleaded guilty to violating the Neutrality Act. He was fined $10,000 but the judge, attributing the crime to noble motives, refused to sentence him to prison. Meanwhile, the International Typographical Union, during a labor dispute with the daily Las Vegas Review-Journal, had launched its own competing tri-weekly newspaper. Greenspun bought it in 1950 for $1,000 down, on a total purchase price of $104,000, renamed it the Las Vegas Sun, and turned it into a daily.
"If he hadn't done that, Las Vegas would have remained a community completely in the grip of people who .... were focused on their own interests, instead of those of the community," said Brian, Greenspun's son and now editor of the Sun. "The good old boys didn't want competition. When Benny Binion came here he had trouble getting a gaming license, not because he'd had a tough life in Texas, but because they were afraid of competition. Well, Hank helped him get a license. And then he had a friend of his own.
"Every time they tried to close a door he kicked it down. If somebody hadn't done that -- and people capable of doing it were rare -- we would not have had the second generation of builders, the Steve Wynns and the Kerkorians, who came here confident they would be allowed to fulfill their dreams. They would have gone somewhere else."
The most famous vested interest he tackled was Nevada's U.S. Sen. Pat McCarran and the political machine he used to control Nevada. Greenspun fought it partly because he disliked machines and considered McCarran anti-Semitic, but also because the editor of the rival Review-Journal, Al Cahlan, was part of the machine. Greenspun's anti-McCarran campaign escalated to include McCarran's ill-chosen ally, the red-baiting Sen. Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin. The Sun was one of the first newspapers to denounce the unfairness and lack of proof underlying McCarthy's accusations of Communist influence.
When a Greenspun column predicted McCarthy would be slain by some unfortunate McCarthy had ruined, Greenspun was indicted for publishing and mailing matter "tending to incite murder or assassination." He was acquitted.
Greenspun also labeled McCarthy "the queer that made Milwaukee famous." For years after, Greenspun proudly speculated that "outing" McCarthy pushed him into alcoholic decline and death, in 1957.
Michael Green, a history professor at Community College of Southern Nevada, and a former journalist who has published articles on Greenspun's role in state history, points out that Greenspun differed from most earlier Nevada newspaper publishers. "Usually, politicians or political bosses got control of the press in some way. But Greenspun, whether he wanted to admit it or not, was himself a kind of political boss.
"There were people who felt that if they didn't dance to his tune, their names would show up in columns, unfavorably, in the Sun."
Greenspun's newspaper influenced several political campaigns with devastating exposes. In 1954, Greenspun accused Clark County Sheriff Glenn Jones of having a financial interest in a brothel. Jones sued, so Greenspun hired an undercover agent to gather defense evidence by posing as a mobster trying to buy the brothel and the protection of Nevada politicians.
Secretly recorded conversations touched on names more important than the sheriff's. Greenspun published the most damaging implications. The sheriff withdrew his libel suit. Lt. Gov. Cliff Jones resigned as Democratic national committeeman for Nevada and never again held important public office.
In 1970, Republican Lt. Gov. Ed Fike was considered a shoo-in against Donal "Mike" O'Callaghan. Greenspun pointed out that Fike, while in office, had been an officer in a corporation which bought valuable land at a bargain from the Colorado River Commission, a state agency. National columnist Jack Anderson picked up the story. Fike lost the election to O'Callaghan.
When O'Callaghan finished his second term as governor, Greenspun hired him as a Sun executive.
Although he often favored Democratic candidates, Greenspun was registered as a Republican. In 1962, the year after President John F. Kennedy pardoned Greenspun's felony conviction, and thus restored his civil rights, Greenspun ran in the Republican primary for the Nevada gubernatorial nomination. He lost to Las Vegas Mayor Oran Gragson, who then lost the general election to the incumbent Democrat, Grant Sawyer.
The Las Vegas Sun once came within striking distance of becoming the dominant daily in Las Vegas, but never did. One reason was a fire that destroyed the Sun's offices and production plant in November 1963. Investigators blamed spontaneous combustion but Greenspun suspected arson, and in 1984 named his suspect: Labor racketeer Tom Hanley, who at the time of the fire was embroiled in a fight with the newspaper. Hanley died a convict after murdering another union boss.
Another reason for decline was neglect, which sapped the newspaper's former energy in the 1970s, allowing not only the Review-Journal but the upstart North Las Vegas Valley Times to break stories first and better. Hiring and salary freezes limited the Sun's reporting staff. There weren't enough typewriters for even those few, and stories missed deadline each day because reporters had to wait for a typewriter.
Used office typewriters in perfect condition sold for $25 at the time. Greenspun's widow, Barbara, who succeeded her late husband as publisher, said earlier this year, "We didn't have the $25. In those days nobody was paying their advertising bills. I used to go down ... to collect $5 at a time."
In the same era, however, visitors in Greenspun's office sometimes remarked on the unusual paperweights on his desk: fist-sized bars of silver bullion.
Greenspun, or his immediate family, was active in dozens of charities ranging from People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals to the Sun Summer Camp Fund, which solicits money from the public to provide camp for children who couldn't otherwise afford it. This year, said Barbara Greenspun, the Greenspuns expect to send 1,000 children to camp at a total cost of $185,000, and to make up the difference out of the family pocket if they fail to raise so much.
In later years the Greenspuns and O'Callaghan corrected many organizational problems, but the Sun had deteriorated too far to survive on its own. In the final months of his life, in 1989, Greenspun helped negotiate a joint operating agreement by which the rival Las Vegas Review-Journal sells the advertising for the Sun, prints it and distributes it. The Sun retains independent editorial control and demonstrates it regularly with bitter attacks on the Review-Journal. In mid-1999, the Sun retained 33,466 daily circulation to the Review-Journal's 156,382.
The newspaper was neglected because Greenspun had other fish to fry. For years, said Barbara Greenspun, every spare dime the family had went into land investments. "We didn't own a house for years, we rented, until about the 1960s." She owned a lot on prestigious Rancho Circle, but Hank refused to build on it, and it finally became so valuable that Barbara sold it and used the money to buy a penthouse in the Regency Towers complex, where they lived at Greenspun's death and where she still does.
But much of the Greenspun fortune was based on a single, controversial land deal. The city of Henderson was surrounded by federal land and had no room to grow. Congress released thousands of acres to the city. Greenspun asked Henderson to sell him a large share of the land, and instructed his own staff to write nothing of his proposal. Council members who opposed the deal were hammered mercilessly by the Henderson Home News, which was owned by Greenspun ally Morry Zenoff. Opponents of the deal ultimately were defeated in re-election bids.
In 1971 the newly constituted council sold the most desirable land -- 4,720 acres lying near the upscale Paradise Valley suburb of Las Vegas -- to Greenspun for $1.3 million, or about $280 an acre. They did so largely because he promised to include it in his proposed Green Valley development, increasing the city's tax base and establishing nearby residential areas and amenities, which would attract further development in the stagnating small town. Instead, Greenspun sold much of that land at $3,000 to $5,000 an acre.
Henderson had also extracted from Greenspun a timetable calling for 20 percent development by 1977 and completion in 1981. The agreement called for a penalty of $1.7 million if he did not comply. In fact, development of the former city land had not even begun by the promised completion date, but the city never enforced the penalty.
Instead, Green Valley was begun in 1973, on land Greenspun already owned, closer to Las Vegas. Although Henderson had annexed this land as part of its deal with Greenspun, this meant Green Valley became a suburb of Las Vegas, rather than of Henderson. Henderson did get its increased tax base, and also has become one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States.
Through protracted negotiations with the Nevada Public Service Commission and other governmental agencies, beginning in the 1960s, the Greenspuns won franchises to provide cable television to most of the Las Vegas Valley. Their company, which became known as Prime Cable, began serving Las Vegas households in 1980. By 1998 it had more than 300,000 subscribers, when Cox Communications, an Atlanta-based media group, bought an 80 percent interest for $1.3 billion.
"I have always heard, and believed," said son Brian, "that the land investments, his billboard company, and KLAS-TV, were always designed to keep the newspaper going." His father started Prime Cable, said Brian, largely because his bitter rival Donald Reynolds, the media baron who owned the Review-Journal, had plans for a Las Vegas cable network. Federal authorities eventually denied cable rights to Reynolds because he owned a Las Vegas television station. Greenspun had sold KLAS by then.
Greenspun died of cancer in July 1989. His estate became a major benefactor of UNLV, where two institutions bear his name: The Greenspun College of Urban Affairs and the Hank Greenspun School of Communications, fitting memorials for a man who changed his city and built a fortune on the power of words.