David C. Henley: Election memories
My enthusiasm for newspapering in Nevada always heightens at election time. Before, during and after each election, I know I can count on writing serious election news as well as odd, goofy and even titillating stories that, hopefully, will inform and amuse our readers.
Take, for example, what befell brothel owner Dennis Hof who, in 2018, was elected to the Nevada Assembly in a heavily Republican district despite the fact that he had died six weeks before the election was held. His name, it seems, was still on the ballot!
Hof, who had starred in a HBO series about his brothel empire and fashioned himself as a Trump Republican, died of a heart attack at his Love Ranch brothel in Pahrump the day he turned 72. Five months earlier, when he won the Nevada GOP primary, he celebrated his victory with “Hollywood Madam” Heidi Fleiss.
A month following his death, Greg Hafen, manager of a Pahrump water utility district, was named as his replacement. In the Nevada primary election last week, Hafen was running ahead of his GOP challenger, Joe Bradley, by just 300 votes. The Nevada Secretary of State, I understand, has still not named a winner in the election. But no matter who wins, he will be a Republican because no Democrats or candidates from other political parties filed to run for the seat.
The election of the deceased Hof reminds me of Nevada U.S. Sen. Key Pittman, a Democrat, who died five days after winning reelection on Nov. 5, 1940. Pittman, a heavy drinker, who had taken ill in his suite at Reno’s Riverside Hotel following a day-long binge, had been rushed to a Reno hospital, where doctors said he had suffered a heart attack and his death was imminent.
But state and national Democratic leaders, who wanted to keep the Senate seat in the hands of a Democrat, had issued a cover story before the election that Pittman was exhausted, temporarily ill and would soon recover. After Pittman’s election victory and subsequent death, Nevada Gov. Edward P. Carville, also a Democrat, named Assembly Speaker Democrat Berkeley Bunker to fill Pittman’s Senate seat, thus keeping the seat in Democratic hands.
Howard Hughes, the eccentric, reclusive and flamboyant millionaire aviator, inventor, aircraft manufacturer, motion picture producer, Hollywood playboy, owner of film studios, Nevada hotels, casinos and mining properties and his relationship with his favorite Nevada prostitute also was one of the stories I have covered.
The young woman, whose name was “Sunny,” was a striking redhead, had a diamond embedded in one of her front teeth and plied her trade at the Cottontail Ranch brothel located at the intersection of Lida Junction and Highway 95 about 15 miles south of Goldfield, the county seat of Esmeralda County. Hughes, who visited her often, flew to the brothel’s adjoining airstrip from his home in Las Vegas. Hughes radioed ahead when his plane was landing so Sunny could be on hand to greet him as he emerged from the aircraft’s cockpit.
I had learned about the Hughes-Sunny relationship in June 1985 when, by a wonderful coincidence, I was having lunch in Goldfield with Virginia Ridgway, the Lahontan Valley News and Fallon Eagle-Standard’s part-time special correspondent in Goldfield. “Guess what happened last night!” Virginia gushed. “The Cottontail Ranch burned down to the ground! The brothel was full of customers at the time and I’ve been told by reliable sources that there were more than a dozen naked men and women outside in the cold. Some of them tried to put the fire out with garden hoses, but the flames spread too quickly and the brothel was destroyed,” she exclaimed.
Hearing this, I wolfed down my lunch, bade Virginia goodby and sped south to the Cottontail Ranch to discover it was not much more than a pile of ashes.
I was greeted by Beverly Harrell, the brothel’s madam and owner, whom I already knew and had written about in this newspaper. We hugged and she couldn’t stop crying. Her husband, Howard, who did odd jobs at the brothel and tossed out drunks and malcontents when they made trouble for the prostitutes, also presented himself and, like his wife, was crying and gave me a hug. Beverly said she would rebuild. She said the fire was caused by a malfunctioning electric heater.
I had met Beverly two or three years earlier when she was running in the Nevada Democratic primary election for the local Assembly seat. She won the primary and then began a strong campaign to defeat the GOP primary winner. Talk about great stories! The story about a brothel madam running for the state Legislature was a gift from heaven!
Beverly had always impressed me as smart, well-read, self-educated, well-spoken and a real lady. She would have been a fine legislator. Her campaign received national and international attention. I was interviewed on the telephone by a British newspaper correspondent about the upcoming election which, obviously, starred Beverly Harrell, the famous American madam.
Reporters from major U.S. newspapers flew to Reno or Las Vegas, rented cars and drove to the brothel to cover Beverly’s candidacy and speeches.
She was a wonderful speaker and could comment knowingly on all of the major issues facing Nevada. She also was funny and clever. She said in a speech, “If I win the election, I’ll be serving in the Assembly with many of my former and current customers.” A Carson City newspaperman wrote, “Why is a nice girl like Beverly Harrell getting mixed up in the dirty business of politics?”
Don Moody, Bev’s Republican opponent, rejected a friend’s suggestion that he use the campaign slogan, “Don’t elect anyone who lies down on the job.”
Alas, Beverly lost to Moody in the general election by only 122 votes out of 5,226 votes cast. The mostly-rural Assembly district had always voted heavily Republican, and I was surprised Beverly had done as well as she did.
Meanwhile, when I was comforting Beverly and Howard at the fire scene, the Goldfield fire chief drove up and apologized for not sending any of his three fire trucks to the burning brothel. One truck was being repaired by a mechanic in Tonopah, another was too old and infirm to climb the hill between Goldfield and the brothel and the third truck had to remain in Goldfield should a fire break out there, he said.
Beverly made an obscene gesture to the fire chief, Jack Foote, told him to “shove it” and stalked off. The headline on my story read, “Brothel Burns While Fire Engines Sit.” Beverly had the brothel rebuilt and it reopened for business in about a year. Three or four years later, she died of cancer. Howard, who backed her and others’ claims that Howard Hughes had been a Cottontail Ranch customer, died a year or so following Beverly’s death.
As for Sunny, the day after the fire she caught a ride to Reno and flew to Oakland to visit her husband and children whom she helped support with her brothel earnings.
David C. Henley is publisher emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News and Fallon Eagle-Standard.