Joe Conforte deserves his induction among the inaugural six honorees in the Nevada Hall of Fame. Nevada author and publisher David Toll (“The Compleat Nevada Traveler”) announced the lineup last week. Mr. Conforte was the only one of the six still alive. Then came news of his death down in the land of Cariocas and breast reductions.
The only other name you might recognize from Mr. Toll’s freshman class is that of Wovoka, the legendary Native American prophet. All earned their places in Nevada legend and lore but none stands with the world’s most famous brothelmeister.
You could not have lived in these parts in mid-20th Century and not run across the diminutive Italian driving the ostentatious “Bugazzi” custom luxury car (actually a Lincoln Continental Mark IV that looked like Moby Dick and Aquaman had gotten crazy during spring break on the Island of Dr. Moreau).
Joe stands in the rogues gallery of foundational Nevadans, a quintessentially American success story. He even scored a Hollywood movie. Director Taylor Hackford helmed “Love Ranch,” a 2010 film partially shot in these parts. It starred another Joe, Oscar winner Pesci (“Goodfellas”), as a thinly-veiled Conforte and Hackford’s Academy Award-winning wife (“The Queen”), Dame Helen Mirren as a somewhat Sally Conforte. The Hackfords maintain a home at Lake Tahoe these days.
Without even trying, Joe Conforte generated all the elements of a folk hero. He was flamboyant, ostentatious, extroverted, self-promotional, crass, criminal and tasteless. (Remind you of anyone in the news a lot these days?)
Joe and Sally once announced that Mustang Ranch would start taking payment in Japanese currency to accommodate an increasing tourist trade for times when “a gentleman has a yen for a lady.” Worldwide press.
From Reno to Rio, media loved his act. Foolish journalists got scoops and often comps at Mustang. (Major mistake. He filmed anyone of prominence, including high officeholders.)
A local TV station which had been started on a shoestring couldn’t pay for more than 200 grand in new equipment. Threatening to shut the station down, the manufacturer sent a collector. Execs called Joe, the collection agent got an all-night Mustang comp and the bill magically disappeared. Tall story? My sources are solid.
The late Washoe DA and State Senator Bill Raggio, R-Reno, had a longrunning internationally famous feud with his Italian paisano. Doing his best imitation of Carrie Nation and Cotton Mather, Raggio burned down Joe’s first cathouse. Joe retaliated by setting Bill up in hotel room with some comely wenches. Raggio had him busted.
In the senate, Raggio consistently introduced bills to make all Nevada prostitution illegal. (It remains optional for small counties but banned in Washoe and Gomorrah South. Wink, wink.)
The two Italians buried the hatchet decades ago, and not between each other’s eyes. They figured out that each was good for the other’s business. They would occasionally have a clandestine dinner and laugh about their PR con job. Tall story? My sources are impeccable.
Joe actually controlled a majority on the Sparks City Council from 1971 to 1975. They couldn’t wait for council meetings to adjourn and head out to Mustang on serious city business. One corrupt councilcritter even tried to extort money from the Catholic Church which needed a city zoning change. He made the demand under the seal of the confessional. There’s chutzpah, then there’s messing with God hisself.
Joe’s folk hero status grew dark when his client, world-class heavyweight boxing contender Oscar Bonavena, was shot and killed by Willard Ross Brymer, a Mustang security guard. Then came his second losing battle with the IRS. So Joe defected to extradition-free Brazil. Fairly recently, Conforte offered to pay the feds a million dollars for the small tax bill he owed, but they wanted him in prison.
The Reno Gazette-Journal won the 1977 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing for a series advocating “get Joe Conforte out of our community.” I ran into Joe on a downtown Reno street right after it was announced.
“I think I’ll call the paper and tell them they couldn’t have done it without me,” he said only halfjokingly. He damn well might have called. Three editorial writers shared American journalism’s most prestigious prize. The paper fired one of them a year or two later because management found out he was gay. Tall story? My sources are impeccable.
Joe was a criminal, a corrupting pimp. Carson High School banned him from the premises for recruiting girls to go to work. At least one did. He hated the term pimp, insisting “I’m a businessman.” In that, he was correct, truly Nevadian and an American success story.
Few knew, but he actually purchased an area of his native Sicily and became Don Conforte. Nothing like returning to your poverty stricken childhood wearing furs and diamonds. Tall story? My sources are impeccable.
The Silver State as we know it was founded by exploiters and remains that way today. The Italians who created modern Las Vegas were worse criminals than Joe.
Actress Shelley Winters once said of Hollywood moguls from the fabled golden age: “They were bastards, but they produced great art.”
So it was with Bugsy Siegel, his Mafiosi bros and their frontman, Howard Hughes.
They all knew one thing: The best way to sell a vice is to cut the government in on a piece of the action. So it is with gin, gambling, girls and grass.
Thanks to Joe Conforte, modern day pimps are respectable members of the community. Businessmen. L. Lance Gilman pimped Nevada’s biggest welfare queen, Tesla, to pliant politicians and Nevada schools still starve. The late Dennis Hof got elected to the Nevada State Assembly. One era’s pimp becomes another’s president.
Joe Conforte scored a hall of fame career because that Italian immigrant became a quintessential Nevadan, searching for legitimacy and acceptance like so many others. Saints and sinners can become folk heros here. He proved it.
Be well. Raise hell. Esté bien. Haga infierno.
Andrew Barbano is a 50-year Nevadan and editor of NevadaLabor.com/E-mail Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Tribune since 1988.