A Man of Appetite

Jay Sarno.jpeg

In the summer of 2001, as the 35th anniversary of the opening of Caesars Palace approached, I was asked by Las Vegas Life to report and reflect on the life of Caesars founder Jay Sarno. Here is the resulting story, “A Man of Appetite,” from the magazine’s August 5, 2001 issue:

Toward the end, Jay Sarno, father of the Vegas theme resort, was big-bellied, full-cheeked, and insatiably hungry. He was known on occasion to diet, which meant replacing his breakfast salami with filet mignon. He rehabilitated his bum ticker by hoisting an ice-cream cone in each fist. He had philandered his way out of a marriage, gambled his way out of a million and dreamed his way out of the casino business. He hoped to remedy this state of affairs with girls, dice and dreams.

Indulgence, for Sarno, had always been part of a creative process. You want something. You taste it. You re-create it, writ large, for the world. If you want to party like Bachhus, you build the Bacchanal room and serve six-course meals with neck rubs and bottomless wine goblets. “His insights all came from his own appetites,” says Don Williams, Sarno’s right-hand-man at Circus Circus in the late 1960s and early ’70s. “Get prettier girls, build bigger buildings, get better restaurants, have bigger gamblers around. All these things came from his loins, not his brain.”

Sarno was the Freud and Ford of Las Vegas, the first in town to fully realize the link between our dreams and our appetites. The central assumption of his career was that we wanted the same things he did. Once upon a time, Sarno decided that he wanted a palace. So he built one and called it Caesars. That’s plural, no apostrophe. Every guest was an emperor. Sarno knew that we, too, had dreams. We, too, were hungry.

Caesars Palace opened on August 5, 1966, with a three-day party featuring 1,400 well-heeled invitees, an Andy Williams-fronted show and a busty blond Cleopatra as greeter. The Palace wasn’t just a resort, it was a pageant. It was a wild baroque dream of imperial antiquity, and the artifacts of the dream were everywhere, from the come-hither Roman costumes of cocktail girls to the curve of the bathroom faucets. Out front, a statue reproduction of the Winged Victory of Samothrace reached skyward from a great oblong pool—a headless sentry leading you to a place where you, like fiddling Nero, were welcome to lose your head. For the first time, a Vegas hotel was all about storytelling, a suspension of disbelief.

From 1965, when construction began, to 1969, when he sold the palace, Sarno worked ceaselessly to create the resort experience he wanted, He kept his hands on as many facets of the operation as possible. While designing the Palace, he traveled to Europe and photographed columns, pilasters, rooftops and flying buttresses. He spared few expenses. He wanted marble sculpture, so he headed to the town where Michelangelo had obtained marble.

The hotel’s theme, in truth, was not Imperial Rome, but Sarno’s vision of it: Faithfulness to that vision was more important than verisimilitude. Sarno had the help of designer Jo Harris, who would often tone down or transform or harmonize his exuberant concepts. But in the end, the place was Sarno’s, and it kept him running … READ MORE from the original magazine layout. Story picks up from here at the end of the first page.

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