Coming from Cleveland, Ohio, Carl Cohen was one of the most notable figures in the casino world. He started out as a bookie and an operator in illegal gambling clubs, backed by a notorious local crime family in his hometown, the Mayfield Road Mob.
The ‘family’ was affiliated also with Moe Dalitz, one of the major figures who shaped Las Vegas in its early days. Soon enough, Cohen got a chance to move to Las Vegas and become a casino manager at the El Rancho Vegas, which is what he did in 1941.
Being very successful at the job, Carl knew how to treat the casino guests. For the wealthiest, he always took care that they were provided with special services, and for one of them particularly, Howard Huges, he even kept a room permanently reserved. His catering to Hughes, at the time regarded as one of the most financially successful individuals in the world, was the reason why Carl lost this job in 1955, only to be offered a new one at the Sands a few hours later.
According to witnesses of the event, one night the El Rancho owner, Beldon Katleman, was inspecting the casino and noticed a man dressed in jeans and tennis shoes sitting beside well-dressed people at the gambling tables. Katleman had apparently disliked what he saw and ordered the person to be removed from the room. The man wearing jeans and tennis shoes was Howard Hughes, and Cohen refused the order.
This even led to a fight between Carl and Beldon in the midst of the resort. As Cohen became a manager at the Sands afterward, many well-heeled guests of El Rancho followed after him; they, including Hughes, preferred to spend their fortunes where Cohen was working.
At the Sands, Carl was one of the key persons to take the resort to a whole new level, introducing all kind of novelties in the resort service. For the ones with the thickest wallets, he even offered secret rooms where there were no betting limits. Whatever he did, there is still one event which surpasses them all; it is the violent encounter with the iconic singer Frank Sinatra, who regularly performed at the resort.
Frank Sinatra was maybe not like Moe Dalitz who put Las Vegas on the map, but he certainly played a part in making the city worth the trip. He was the one who brought the style, swing, and swagger into venues like the Sands, the Sahra, or the Golden Nugget, to name just a few. So Frank was largely responsible for helping to create the Las Vegas image of a city as the ultimate adult playground.
Reportedly, the incidents with Sinatra at the Sands happened because the singer had been drinking and gambling to an unreasonable level for two long nights in a row without stopping.
Creating a debt of $200,000, Hughes had ordered his casino credit to be stopped.
It was a Saturday night, on September 9th, 1967 when, in an outburst of rage, Sinatra walked out before a scheduled performance. He also yelled at the personnel, destroyed furniture in his room, and steered a baggage cart through a glass window before leaving the building and heading to Caesars Palace to immediately arrange a new contract. As that was the end of the cozy relationship the singer had with the Sands, more casualties followed when he returned to the resort in the early morning of Monday, the 11th of September, demanding to see Cohen.
The casino manager agreed to see him but headed first to get breakfast, however, Frank was already there. Sinatra shot all sorts of curses and threats at Carl, including upending the breakfast table onto Cohen, spilling hot coffee on him.
It must have been a wild morning, as Cohen had responded with punches, a report on the incident reads: “At six a.m. today, Sinatra appeared at the Sands, made one hell of a scene and insisted on seeing Carl Cohen. He threatened to kill anyone who got in his way, used vile language, and said he would beat up the telephone operators if they did not connect him with Cohen, etc.
In an effort to calm the situation, Carl agreed to meet him. Sinatra called Cohen every dirty name in the book, said he was going to kill him, pushed a table over on Carl, picked up a chair and attempted to hit Carl over the head. Carl ducked, took a pass at Sinatra and floored him“.
Though everybody thought Sinatra had one of his front teeth knocked out, it was only the caps he had that had been dislodged. Surprisingly, the dramatic event only enforced Carl’s reputation, making him somewhat into a local hero.
As municipal elections were scheduled for November that year, there was even one poster which appeared with a picture of Sinatra and his front teeth blackened out, reading a slogan “Carl Cohen for Mayor”.
Cohen further advanced his career in the casino world in the years following, but the confrontation with Frank Sinatra, which must have looked like the clash of the titans, will remain one of the most memorable events of his life.