High Stakes

Ben Cobb recounts the long intertwined history of casinos, gambling, glamour and fashion

The Ritz Club, London. Casino de Capri, Havana. Casino Baden-Baden, Germany. Casino de Monte-Carlo, Monaco. These names alone conjure up images of glorious opulence and splendour; exotic locations and exclusive worlds where men and women dressed in immaculate tuxedos and lavish gowns hold their nerve on the flick of a card. Each a cathedral devoted to chance, where unimaginable spoils are just within reach and utter ruin teeters on the turn of the roulette wheel. The air charged like a thunderstorm, heavy with promise and peril, they come to worship at the altar of fate. Sealed from the realities of the outside world, these grand rooms are designed to suspend disbelief, seducing all inside into believing, against the odds, that this time, lady luck is on their side. This is the enduring allure of casinos. The first European casino, Il Ridotto, opened its doors in 1638 in a wing of Venice’s Palazzo Dandolo.

Humphrey Bogart plays a hand as Rick in Casablanca, 1942.

Humphrey Bogart plays a hand as Rick in Casablanca, 1942.

It was open to the general public but its high-stake games and formal dress code of three-cornered hats and masks inevitably restricted patrons to wealthy nobility. Its success was its eventual undoing: Il Ridotto closed in 1770 after the Great Council of Venice feared it was bankrupting the city’s affluent, but by then it had set the house-style rules for all future casinos.

Fast-forward to the 20th century and high-rolling betting had become inextricably linked to style, stars and scandal: all essential ingredients for good business. From the deserts of Nevada to the ports of Monaco, a new democratic golden age enveloped these pleasure-domes, where worlds collided and the international jet set, aristocracy and movie elite sat shoulder-to-shoulder at blackjack tables with businessmen, gangsters, pro-players and – quelle horreur – holidaymakers.

What united most of the disparate crowd at yesteryear’s casinos was not only cash to burn and a curious nature, they wanted in on the feverish game of fashion one-upmanship and with newspaper cameras allowed inside these velveted venues, the style stakes were often higher than the betting action.

In the early 60s, before the grip of the Las Vegas strip strangled all of its competitors, the hottest ticket in town was at the Cal Neva Lodge, a resort nestled on Lake Tahoe’s north shore at Crystal Bay, owned by none other than Frank Sinatra. It was here – with his merry band of hard-drinking, black-suited brothers Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr (aka ‘the Rat Pack’ ) and his then-lover Ava Gardner beside him – that the template of American casino style was forged. With a helipad on the roof, Hollywood stars soon flocked. Marilyn Monroe was a regular and even spent her last weekend there, staying in a small cabin. Sinatra also reopened disused Prohibition-era tunnels, allowing mobsters to come and go, away from the media glare.

John Huston gambling in Reno with Marilyn Monroe.

John Huston gambling in Reno with Marilyn Monroe.

The mob brought more than unwanted attention to casino land: expensive tailoring, bespoke shirts and exotic-skin shoes. Bugsy Siegel, the hitman-turned-Vegas-visionary behind the Flamingo Hotel, was always snapped in the sharpest double-breasted suits of the day. And if Scorsese’s 1995 film Casino is to be believed, 70s hoodlums introduced impossibly large sunglasses: useful protection against the Nevada sun and shifty eyes around the poker table. Of course, as femme fatale Ginger McKenna shows in Casino, it was the women who really made casinos inescapable: like sirens, they called gamblers to their rocky graves.

According to Hollywood producer Robert Evans, in his book The Fat Lady Sang, nobody knew this better than Prince Rainier III of Monaco. Evans claims that, with the casinos of Monaco suffering in post-war austerity, Rainier was under pressure to lure the crowds – and their deep pockets – back to his principality on the French Riviera. Cue a headline-grabbing marriage in 1956 to screen goddess Grace Kelly. Monaco was back in business. The new princess wasn’t adverse to a little flutter herself: Ava Gardner bet her $20 that Hyde Park in London, where Gardner lived, was bigger than Kelly’s new kingdom: ‘she got one of her palace flunkies to check it out and I was right’.

One person who kept the Casino de Monte-Carlo afloat in its leaner years was the painter Francis Bacon. He moved to Monaco in 1946, embarking on a champagne-fuelled gambling spree for the next five years (funded by advances from his increasingly anxious gallery): ‘You could go in at ten o’clock and needn’t come out until about four o’clock the following morning,’ he recalled fondly. Back in London, Bacon was a well-known face at roulette tables in smart Mayfair clubs and backroom Soho dens, he even owned a roulette wheel at home for private gatherings: believing ‘the vice of gambling is intricately linked with painting’, he likened the leap of faith in that first brushstroke to going all-in at a table.

Francis Bacon in Monaco, 1981, where he spent many an afternoon enjoying its casinos

Francis Bacon in Monaco, 1981, where he spent many an afternoon enjoying its casinos

When he wasn’t betting on horses, insatiable gambler Lucian Freud was often at Bacon’s side; at one point Freud owed the Krays £500,000, but it was only when losing £1 million in a day no longer dented his fortune that he finally called it a day.

Ian Fleming’s James Bond – in every incarnation – and Humphrey Bogart in 1942 film Casablanca as Rick, the owner of a Moroccan gambling hotspot, have come to represent the ultimate casino icons, as suave as the ivory dinner jackets they wear.

But, on balance, it will always be Omar Sharif, that real-life international man of mystery. The moustached Egyptian actor, who died in 2015 aged 83, spent a lifetime squandering his fortune in the world’s finest casinos. He blew all his wages while filming Lawrence of Arabia with co-star Peter O’Toole, he lost a $4.4 million mansion in a bet days after buying it and, after a £750,000 loss in one night, was forced to sell his Parisian home and move into a hotel – but he did it all dressed in elegant midnight blue velvet, with a gap-toothed grin. Sharif gave a masterclass in casino style and extravagance, but the one lesson he never learnt was the first rule of casinos: the house always wins.

Pic credits: This page: Rex Features, Eddy Batache/ Francis Bacon MB Art Foundation, MB Art Collection. Previous page: Eve Arnold/Magnum photos