Claudine Williams was raised in the rackets and proud of it. As a schoolgirl in Louisiana and Texas, when others her age were practicing their arithmetic, she was putting her skills to a practical use by dealing cards at a backroom casino. She was just 15 years old.
Williams, who died last week at age 88, would go on to enjoy a hugely successful business career, shatter barriers for women in the male-dominated gaming industry, and see her name added to Nevada’s gambling and business halls of fame, and become known as a generous philanthropist and contributor to higher education in Nevada.
Williams did all that without losing the common touch that endeared her to friends, employees, and customers alike.
With her running mates Thalia Dondero and Kitty Rodman, Williams made the scene at the best restaurants in Las Vegas until just a few months ago. Dondero, the former Clark County Commissioner and longtime University Regent, and Rodman, who helped run building giant Sierra Construction, had plenty in common with their closest friend.
But even in that trio of groundbreaking women Williams was a standout. When you’ve come up during gambling’s rough-and-tumble days and managed to thrive well into the corporate era, you’re something special. And she was.
Claudine took her first job in the casino business at 15 in an effort to support her family. After breaking in, she ran an after-hours club in Houston for a while and dealt cards in a hush-hush gambling joint before catching the eye of one of Benny Binion’s associates.
The fellow called Binion and said, “I’ve got this smart girl I want to send down to you.”
“Good,” Binion replied. “I’ve never met one of those.”
Williams strolled into that chauvinistic atmosphere and proceeded to soak up knowledge and learn the intricacies of a deceptively complex and at times treacherous business.
Binion gave her more than a job; he provided a chance for the kind of education not taught in public school.
Williams is recognized as the first woman in Nevada to lead a major casino, operating the Holiday Casino on the Strip for many years following the death of her husband, gambling pioneer Shelby Williams. In a rare husband and wife partnership, Shelby and Claudine operated the Silver Slipper until they sold it at a handsome profit to Howard Hughes in 1969.
After Shelby’s death in 1977, Claudine emerged as president and general manager of the Holiday, a first in Nevada for a woman. When the Holiday was purchased by Harrah’s, Williams remained with the corporation.
In an interview for my 1995 book on Steve Wynn, “Running Scared,” Williams was charming and candid as she described the kind of risk-taking personality necessary to make it in the gambling business. It was one of the things she admired about Wynn. During the interview she recounted how she’d had to pawn her own jewelry for cash to put down on real estate during her business career. Those risks clearly had paid off for her.
In an interview a decade later for my book on casino host and Vegas character Dan Chandler, she laughed as she keenly described big Dan’s sense of humor. When it came time for Chandler’s irreverent 2006 memorial service at the Las Vegas Country Club, Claudine was the hit of the gathering.
According to Nevada’s official online encyclopedia, Williams in 1981 became the first woman in Nevada history to chair a bank board of directors when she took over the helm at American Bank of Commerce. More recently her generous donations to UNLV created dormitories and provided scholarships for a generation of students who received the educational break life’s circumstances denied her in youth.
Joanne Goodwin, associate professor of history at UNLV, conducted the interview with Williams that was published in 2007 and titled, “Claudine Williams: A Life in Gaming.“
“A real woman of grace and integrity is kind of what I found her to be,” Goodwin said. “When I did the interviews in her office at Harrah’s, there was always this great feeling of care and respect for the people she had worked with in the casino. When we did the photo shoot there for the cover of the book, it was real clear to me that respect was on both sides. Dealers and even security guards fell all over themselves with respect for her.”
In her oral history, Williams explained how her formal studied had stalled in high school and had been supplanted by her gambling education.
"I didn’t have an education,” she told Goodwin. “I know how hard it is in business without one. I had to stay up late at night and study something when the others went on to sleep because they already knew it. I had no choice. I want to try to help anybody that wants an education.
"I’d like for the young people to realize that without an education they may be working for minimum wage the rest of their life. It’s a different time and everything else is electronics and engineering. Listen, even to be a waiter you’ve got to work a computer. And young people a lot of times want to quit school ’cause they’re making a good bit of money bussing. Or, I would like to try to convince them how hard it is out in the world without an education. You’ve got to work twice as hard."
Williams always put her money where her mouth is. She was an original member of the UNLV Foundation, and a dormitory is named in her honor on theuthern Nevada campus.
Although Williams was wildly successful by anyone‘s measure, Goodwin was impressed by work ethic. “She said she knew how to deal every game in the casino,” Goodwin recalled. “She always wanted to be prepared to do so.”
For many years Williams kept an office at Harrah’s, and it was always known as a place an employee of any station would find a sympathetic ear. After all, they were dealing with someone who had literally been in the gambling racket her entire life and had worked from the ground up.
“They would come in and they would talk about the things that were going on in their lives, the good and the ugly,” Goodwin said. “It wasn’t something for P.R. She was a worker all her life. I think she understood that (working class) perspective in a way that’s maybe gone now.”
Rather than tell gory stories of the perils of being a woman in a man’s world, Williams told her interviewer that it was her hard work and straight-ahead style that had impressed her toughest critics.
“She was really rather consistent in telling about the feeling that if you put your head down and did the work you would gain the respect, and that she had been treated very well by the businessmen at that time in this community,” Goodwin recalled.
Williams provided inspiration to a generation of women who knew her struggle and success. Before she became a Vice President at Harrah’s Entertainment, Jan Jones was a success in her own right. With a degree from Stanford, Jones had reached a crossroads in her business career and was considering running for political office.
She turned to her friend Claudine for advice.
“Claudine is the one who told me to run for mayor,” Jones recalled.
“We were walking through Neiman Marcus, and we talked about my plans. She said, ‘I think you should run for mayor, and I’ll support you.’ And she did. I could always count on Claudine.”
When Jones returned to the private sector at Harrah’s she watched Williams deal with working stiffs and casino executives with uncommon understanding.
“She had a grace, tenacity, intelligence, integrity, worth ethic, and a confidence in herself that didn’t require her to be pushy or abrasive,” Jones said. “If she walked into a room … Claudine controlled that room. Many of the men in the gaming industry learned their craft from Claudine. She didn’t learn from the men.
“And that skill enabled her to go back and communicate with her employees. They would have done anything for Claudine because she was so fiercely loyal to them. She found that balance between being incredibly confident and successful, but not doing it at a loss of her humanity. She was one of the most beautiful people I have ever known.
“Some people become seduced by the kind of business this is: The glitz and the glamour and the money and the power, and the accoutrements. I don’t think Claudine could have cared less. She cared about her employees and cared about the business.”
Jones made it clear that Williams was so much more than a successful gaming icon.
“When you look at this whole list of what she’s done, it shows she was accomplished, but it doesn’t capture how fearless she was: How willing she was to push the envelope, but do it with such a gentle touch.”
For Jones, Williams’ appreciation for the importance of education cannot be overstated.
“That was one of the reasons she did support the university to such an extent,” Jones said. “She’d never been able to have that, and she still succeeded beyond what most people could ever imagine in a lifetime. But she always wanted others to have more, to be better. She was so humble.
“I can’t remember ever calling Claudine and asking her for anything whether it was advice, support, or consideration of a donation that she ever said no. And yet she never did it for recognition.”
She was a hard-working Louisiana girl at heart.
Her combination of business acumen and strength of character made her a one-in-a-million woman on the Boulevard.