The Elaine Townsend Story

American Weekly Magazine 1948 Article About Elaine Townsend, the First Female Gambling Impresario (PDF opens in new window)
Click Image for American Weekly Magazine 1948 Article About Elaine Townsend, the First Female Gambling Impresario (PDF opens in new window)

Elaine Townsend was born Margaret Helgeson in Wyoming in 1919. She graduated as valedictorian of her high school class at age of 15, with award sfor the debate team. She was awarded an academic scholarship to the University of Denver’s business program, which she graduated from in 1936 with a BS in business at the age of eighteen. (pictures available) She worked at a variety of jobs throughout her college career to cover living costs and expenses, including waiting tables, modeling, bellhop, real estate.

After graduation, Margaret worked in the Denver area for about two years until she was able to save enough money to book ocean passage to Hawaii. She moved to the island of Oahu in 1940 at the age of 20, where she first opened a photography studio.

While it is unclear exactly when or for what purpose, she changed her name to Elaine Townsend while living there. [The assumption we’re making is that during WWII, a name like Helgeson was something you would want to distance yourself from if you wanted to be successful in any number of different career paths. It is also possible that she married someone named Townsend; we just don’t know.]

When the US entered WWII after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Elaine saw a higher calling, that of nurturing the hearts, and the stomachs, of the multitudes of sailors that landed on the island. So she closed the photography studio and opened hot dog vending stands on Waikiki Beach to feed the sailors on leave. She later open a trinket jewelry business to provide them with souvenirs at a reasonable price.

Elaine TownsendShe also opened a billiard concession on the newly-constructed boardwalk, owned various pieces of real estate, and started a publication called The Islander.  She was very successful, and earned a lot of money.

While the details are sketchy, at some point around 1946, she had either a business partner or love interest whom she granted Power of Attorney and began managing her finances. Whether by bad luck or something more devious, he lost a sizable chunk of her fortune. She moved back home to Wyoming in 1946 to regroup for a short while (6-12 months).

Next, she traveled to Cuba in the Spring of 1947 for a business deal. At that time, Cuba imported most of its beef from South America via container ships, which took time to get there and added additional refrigeration costs. With the advent of more widespread air travel postwar, she wanted to try flying the beef from SA to Cuba as opposed to shipping it there. This would get the product there faster, and wouldn’t incur the refrigeration cost. The difference would be profits in her pocket. [That’s what supposedly led her to Cuba in the first place. Not sure if any of that is true, or if it’s a front story for what would later happen in her gambling life.]

So she arrives in Cuba in the Spring of 1947, at roughly 28 years old. She meets a local resident who suggests that she consider buying into the dice concession at the Grand Casino Nacional in Havana. While she didn’t know anything about gambling, being a risk-taker she said why not, lets try it.

Elaine TownsendShe was first laughed at when she approached the casino management, who were surprised and shocked that a woman would be interested in doing this, and didn’t give her the time of day. But she was persistent, and eventually they agreed to sell her the casino concession for $30,000 cash.

At that time, that very concession would have normally been purchased by the New York Syndicate in the fall, right before the tourist season began. Traditionally, they would run it through the season, then unload it, and then come back and do it again. This was, at least partly, why the casino didn’t want to sell to her in the first place; they knew the NY Syndicate people would be coming in a few months to buy it. She told them that her money was as good as theirs, and that she was willing to pay for it now, 2 or 3 months in advance of normal. After much deliberation, it was decided to sell her the concession. Thus was the birth of Elaine Townsend in the gaming business in Havana.

After securing the deal with the casino, it was recommended to her that she contact a man named Connie Immerman, who had run the concession in previous years. Being unfamiliar with casino operations, she contacted Immerman and went to visit him in NY.

Connie Immerman was a white Harlem bootlegger in the 1920s, who opened the speakeasy Connie’s Inn in 1923, which was one of the main competitors to the more well-known Cotton Club.

Elaine TownsendHe was 65 or 66 at the time Elaine contacted him (probably near or at the end of his business life) but he agreed to help her. He ended up managing Elaine’s dice concession in Havana for the better part of a year or a year and a half.

Right before the government-owned casino was shut down, Elaine sold her interest in it and partnered with a man named Efron J. Pertierra, from a family of “wealthy sportsmen.” [The family reportedly owned Oriental Park, the only race track in Cuba in the days before Fidel Castro came to power in 1959.] The two purchased and remodeled two former casinos, the Montmartre and The Jockey Club, which was on the Oriental Race Track property. As of early 1950, the two casinos dominated the market share in Havana’s Gaming industry, with twice the share of the nearest competition.

One of Elaine’s clients was Virginia Kellogg, an accredited screenplay writer. Another was Rita Hayworth. The three took an interest in each others lives, and At some point, a screenplay was written for a comedy about Elaine’s life. A director named Wolfgang Reinhardt was lined up, and a movie was in the works to be produces. Three titles were under consideration: “The Elaine Townsend Story,” “Hotbed in Cuba,” and “That Townsend Girl.” Rita Hayworth was tapped to play the part of Elaine in the movie.

Rita Hayworth got pregnant and ended up going to Europe to have her baby. Reinhardt, who initially was willing to wait for Hayworth to return, eventually got impatient and decided to move on without her. He lined up Lucille Ball (as Elaine) and Desi Arnez to star in the movie instead. But for some reason, the movie never got made. We’re not sure why the movie didn’t get made, but my opinion is that the Mob didn’t want it to be made.

Elaine TownsendSpeaking of The Mob, there are some interesting connections in Elaine’s story with the Mob, more specifically, the Lucky Luciano Crime Family. Research I’ve done shows that Dr. Indalecio Pertierra, a member of Cuba’s House of Representatives and co-owner of the Oriental Race Track, brought Charlie “Lucky” Luciano to Cuba from Italy, where he had been deported by the US government after WWII, to help run the gambling and prostitution operations there, which caused some backlash from the Cuban community who were fearful that Luciano was going to take over the drug trade as well, which was supposedly a closed business.

Luciano had been arrested and convicted of prostitution in 1937, and sentenced to 30 to 50 years in state prison, where he continued to run the Luciano crime family, relaying his orders through acting boss, Vito Genovese.  However, his notorious luck seemed to still be working. In 1942, the US Office of Naval Intelligence, concerned about German sabotage on the New York waterfront, struck a deal with Luciano using his good friend and fellow crime boss Meyer Lansky as an intermediary. In exchange for a transfer to Great Meadow Correctional Facility, which was much closer to New York City, and a commutation of his sentence after the war was over, Luciano promised that his organization would provide intelligence to the Navy and keep the docks under control and strike-free during the war. Additionally, Luciano allegedly provided the U.S. military with mafia contacts in Sicily in preparation for the 1943 allied invasion of Sicily.

Elaine TownsendNew York Governor Thomas E. Dewey commuted Luciano’s pandering sentence in January of 1946, on the condition that he would not resist deportation. He sailed for Italy from Brooklyn harbor on February 10, 1946, never to see US soil again.

Luciano arrived in Havana in October of 1946 to attend a conference of “Family” bosses that took place in December of 46, four months before Elaine arrived in Cuba. The conference had been organized by Lansky, which was dramatized in the movie Godfather II, to discuss the organization’s business and plans for the future, including what to do about their friend Bugsy Siegel, who was out of control building the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, and a plan to take control of not just Cuban gambling, but the Cuban government, as well, and establish their own, mob-run, country.

Basically, Lansky, Luciano and Siegel, friends since growing up together in NYC, were responsible for creating what we now see as the modern-day Mafia that was not so much about killing each other as it was about making money.

While their plans to take over Cuba never came to fruition, Lansky, Luciano, and the other conference attendees did put out a “contract” on Siegel, which was successfully fulfilled on June 20, 1947.

Shortly after the conference began, the U.S. government learned about Luciano’s presence in Cuba, and was not happy about it. They put pressure on the Cuban government to expel him, but were rebuffed, at first. Eventually, the US threatened to block all shipment of narcotic prescription drugs to Cuba while Luciano was there. Just days later, the Cuban government capitulated and announced that Luciano would be deported to Italy. He left Cuba on February 23, 1947.

My research indicates that Elaine successfully operated in Cuba until the Revolution began on New Years Day, January 1, 1959 when Fidel Castro took over the country and all the Americans fled from the country. Elaine left with nothing but one suitcase and the clothes on her back. The details of her life in Cuba from 1952-59 are clouded in mystery.

A Bit About Cuban History

For most of the time Elaine lived there, Carlos Prío Socarrás (July 14, 1903 – April 5, 1977) was the President of Cuba, from 1948, whose government was tainted by increasing corruption and violent incidents among political factions until he was deposed by a “bloodless” military coup led by Fulgencio Batista on March 10, 1952, three months before new elections were to be held. It was Batista who hired Meyer Lansky to be the gambling “Czar” and oversee gambling concessions in Cuba.

Elaine TownsendThe gaming industry in Cuba had garnered a bad reputation due to a game called “Razzle” or “Razzle Dazzle,” which was seldom, if ever, run honestly. The nature of the game makes it a particular money-maker for the casinos.  After many wealthy Americans lost a great deal of money playing Razzle (which from the get-go was basically a scam; even if the game were run honestly, the mathematical nature of the razzle board made it entirely unlikely that a player would ever win before running out of money,)  word spread and the American tourist dollar dried up, to some degree, in Cuba because of it. Las Vegas was being developed at this time, so there were other opportunities for legal gambling outside of Cuba. Because of the reputation issues of a “dirty” game in Cuba, it had an effect on tourist dollars.

When Batista took over the government in 1952, one of the first things he did was to hire Lansky to clean up the gaming industry in Cuba to try to bring the American tourists and their money back to the country.

Lansky initially bought majority interest in the Montmartre Casino, in which Elaine was a partner. [We’re not sure, but it is possible that Lansky bought her out at that time. Unfortunately, Elaine’s history gets very sketchy after the movie deal fell through. We garnered a lot of the details of her life from the press clipping in and around the making of the movie; once production stopped, we pretty much lose track of Elaine. We are trying to pick the trail up to figure out what happened with her from 1952-53 until her death in Miami in 1965, the cause of which is still unclear.]

Back to Elaine’s Story:

An article from The American Weekly (an insert in the Hearst newspapers) dated September 5, 1948, reported about Elaine’s purchase of the Grand Casino Nacional concession. A photo (taken by Tony Sarno) that accompanied the article showed Elaine sitting at a table with some gaming accessories, roulette wheel, chips, dice, etc. While trying to track a copy of this photo, Ken Z discovered that Tony Sarno has four images in the Bettman Collection of the Corbis Archive of early 20th Century photographs (available for licensing,) including Frank Sinatra making an announcement on an NBC microphone. His brother, Dick Sarno, also has images in the archive, including the one and only photo taken at Bruno Hauptmann’s trial for the Lindberg baby kidnapping, one of the most famous and iconic images in American photojournalist history. Assigned as a pool photographer, Sarno smuggled a camera into the courtroom hidden in his muffler. He ended up being the Director of Photography for the Hearst Corporation.

[Details about the Sarno family are on the last half of file DS_2007. Pertinent info for tracking down the picture are that:

  1. Tony Sarno has a relative (son,) Anthony, living in Guadalajara, Mexico
  2. Dick Sarno’s son, Richard, lives in NJ
  3. Ken has spoken with the son of one brother Tony, Arthur, who has a box of photos, but Ken doubts it contains a copy of the one we’re looking for because it is owned by Hearst.]

Rumor has it that all of the mob bosses that attended the Havana Conference brought cash to Luciano as a way of thanking him for keeping quiet while he was in prison. This was the first real chance he had to meet up with all his former colleagues since his release. It is believed that person who acted as courier to bring the money to Cuba was Frank Sinatra, but it’s all just hearsay and rumor, there are no concrete facts to back that up.

Elaine TownsendOne of the news articles we have includes a quote from screenwriter Virginia Kellogg that basically outs Elaine as an informant for both the American and Cuban governments. Whether or not that information was credible is difficult to say, but the interest in Elaine was due to the kind of business she was in and the types of people that surrounded it, so she would have proved a valuable source of information for those governments. This may be why there are not a lot of details about her life from 1953 – 1959.

Kevin believes that the article about Elaine’s life that he has may not be exactly accurate, but a cover story for her actual activities. It is possible that one of the things discussed at the conference was the use of clean “front” people like Elaine to run their operations. At this point, Prio was still in power, so the syndicate was not yet “sanctioned,” as they were when Batista came to power, thus legitimizing their activities. His belief is that Elaine was specifically targeted by the Mob to be a front. So, very possibly, the information in the article about how Elaine innocently came by the opportunity to buy into the Grand Casino Nacional may all be a cover to the real story of how she was targeted, approached, and recruited by the Mob.

One of the things that is fascinating about Elaine is that as you pursue her history and life experience, there appears to be  discrepancies between what is visible and what is not. There is an undercurrent of mystery around her life in this timeframe which is really quite fascinating, and in many ways has taken on a life of its own. She seemed to be in the right place at the right time on many occasions. The more we discover about Elaine, the more answers we get about her life, generates more questions.

Elaine Townsend is the great-aunt of Robin DeTrude. Elaine’s story and spirit inspired Robin and her husband Kevin to launch GamblingLadies.com, with the hope that other women will also be inspired to Take a Chance.

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(Gambling Ladies Interview Transcript – 7/13/2012)

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