[On June 20th, 1947, mobster Bugsy Siegel was killed in Beverly Hills. So for the 75th anniversary of that murder, I’m going to AmericanStudy Siegel’s role in the development of Las Vegas, along with other contexts for that tellingly American city. Leading up to a weekend post on Vegas in song!]
On the tennis great who has embodied both sides of the city.
Tennis legend Andre Agassi (1970- ) is more than one of the most famous people ever to have been born in Las Vegas; he’s also a figure who has, across the very distinct stages of his life and career, embodied the seemingly contradictory duality at Vegas’ heart. When Agassi broke onto the tennis scene as a teenager in the late 80s, he was the epitome of glitz and cool—granted it was only an advertising catchphrase, but the “Image is everything” of Agassi’s famous Canon ads certainly seemed to reflect the way in which his hair, his clothes, his style, his dating life, his image felt paramount, perhaps even more so than the undeniable tennis skills that had made him famous. If ever an American athlete has looked like a walking advertisement for the allure of Las Vegas, it would have to be this youthful native son in all his late 1980s and early 1990s glory.
Youthful glory never lasts, however, and (fortunately) image isn’t everything. By 1997, Agassi’s career had reached a profound low point, including injuries, a failed drug test (caused, he later admitted, by experimentation with crystal meth), a tabloid-friendly failed marriage, and a drop to 141 in the international rankings. No amount of glitz or glamor would be sufficient to pull an athlete back from that kind of hole—only serious, sustained hard work can accomplish that. And work is what Agassi did, on a brutal new fitness regimen and on the Challenger circuit (a tennis tour for professional players outside of the top 50). Not only did he get back to his prior level of success, but he far exceeded it—before 1997 Agassi had won three total major tournaments, and between 1999 and 2003 he won five of them, including the 1999 French Open (after being down 2 sets to 0 in the final) to complete the rare career Grand Slam. From his work ethic to his short hair to his marriage with low-key tennis great Steffi Graf, every aspect of Agassi’s second stage seemed designed to directly undercut the “Image is everything” mantra.
And here’s the thing—Vegas’ image isn’t everything either. I know most of my posts this week have focused on various sides and layers to that image, from organized crime to sin, with idealized dreams of wealth and romance on the other end of the spectrum. But Las Vegas is the 26th most populous city in the US, with a 2020 population of about 650,000 (and more than 2.2 million in the greater metropolitan area), and those residents are real people, not glitzy simulacra. If many of them do work in and around the Strip and the tourism trade in one way or another, that only amplifies my point—that behind the glamorous façade are real people, working hard to keep it all running as smoothly as it appears. The Strip is part of the real world as well, of course, as was the teenage Andre Agassi—but I’d argue that the most genuine Las Vegas is these residents, just as the most authentic Andre Agassi was the grown man who cut his hair, battled all the way back from all those low points, and went on to achieve a far more meaningful American Dream.
Next Vegas context tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Las Vegas contexts, histories, stories you’d highlight?