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Sheldon Adelson, 87, has died

GOP megadonor and peerless philanthropist built several empires

By Ken Kurson, January 12, 2021 1:00 pm

Dr. Miriam Adelson, Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, Sheldon Adelson, and President of Rwanda Dr. Paul Kagame are among those listening to an address by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach on Sept. 30, 2013, at Cooper Union. (Photo: Ken Kurson)

Sheldon Adelson was very good to me and to my family. But that’s not what made him a giant of a man. What made him special, maybe even unique in the annals of American business, was the sheer force of his will. Adelson himself would not have told you he was the smartest or most innovative or most cunning operator in any of the fields in which he succeeded wildly. But he was one of the toughest guys I ever met. And yeah, this very gruff son of a Boston cab driver, who stood up to anti-Semitic bullies as a youth—and not just his own bullies but those harassing his friends, as well—he was pretty damn smart, too.

The obituaries will tell the facts of this great American businessman’s life just fine. There’s no need for me to recount the incredible gumption it took to start Comdex, build it into a Colossus, then sell the whole thing for $800 million to enter the most competitive field imaginable, and then dominate that too, and then take on entirely new markets across the globe, all while getting his head bashed in by the many powerful enemies he seem to relish provoking.

That was the public Adelson. While it wasn’t always pretty to watch, it was always compelling.

But I got to know the private Adelson a little bit and those interactions revealed a man with a moral clarity and conviction that is painfully absent in virtually every image-obsessed weak-sister CEO on today’s global business playing field.

Sheldon Adelson was a man who knew what he believed. He believed the Jewish people have a right to survive, and that they required a single tiny, safe place to have a shot at doing so. One of the things I admire most about him was his refusal to play at the both-sidesism that infects thoughtful Jews who don’t want to support Israel forcefully.

Sheldon Adelson just got it. He understood that the daily painful realities faced by the Palestinians did not mean the Jews were automatically to blame or morally inferior, any more than Jews were to blame for the thousand other things history has laid at their feet. Enough, said Sheldon Adelson, and he put his billions where his mouth was. In the most audacious ways imaginable — spending hundreds of millions on Birthright Israel to ensure that young Jews outside of the homeland got a firsthand look at the issues they were expected to understand — and defend — on college campuses and beyond.

Adelson was also, of course, a megadonor to Republican causes and candidates, and let’s not pretend that those dollars didn’t ensure a larger megaphone and access to politicians.

At the yearly Republican Jewish Coalition convention, hosted at his Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas, a murderers’ row of Republican heavyweights would gather to address the well-heeled donors, despite a near lock that about 80% of Jewish voters will support the Democratic candidate. In a room filled with centi-millionaires and even a few other billionaires, Adelson stood out, not just because he was even richer, but because of his over-the-top commitment to the same causes embraced by everyone in the room.

I stopped going to these conventions a few years ago because I became physically ill watching different rabbis and holy men gather around Adelson’s electric scooter trying to get a minute of his attention in the hopes that he’d stroke a big check to their school or synagogue or whatever. It was nauseating.

I made a point of never asking Adelson for anything, even on behalf of others, as people who knew that I knew him would call and ask me to put a word in with the big man in the hopes that he’d send them some dough.

But whenever I would see him in the years to come, he would make a point of steering his wheelchair over to me to shake my hand and say my name so that the other people around would come up to me after he left and ask how I knew him or if I could put in a word for their tzedaka.

The author looks on as the twin towers of Jewish philanthropy, Michael Steinhardt and Sheldon Adelson, hold forth. (Photo: Candice Greaux)

Actually, how I first got to know him is a funny story. When Adelson sold Comdex and tore down The Sands to build the Venetian, he was taking a huge risk. Steve Wynn had gone way out on a limb to build the Bellagio and industry analysts pretty much assumed that was the mathematical maximum of Las Vegas casino luxury. The whole town was based on the idea that the rooms shouldn’t be so nice or have amenities like a mini bar, because you wanted rich suckers on the gambling floor not in their hotel rooms. Adelson turned everything on its head. He made the standard Venetian room a gigantic suite packed with things that would entertain and delight.

Tough on journalists

Even more controversially, he did it with nonunion labor, an existential affront to the powerful Culinary Workers’ union. By paying better than union wages, he got his palace built. The place was a massive hit. But back when the entire town was saying it was impossible for it to open, let alone succeed, I asked his team for an interview.

Adelson was known to be hostile to journalists and either refuse interviews or berate those who conducted them. I did my homework, I showed up, and on May 13, 1999, his team seated me at a ludicrous table that looked like Bruce Wayne’s dining room in the first Michael Keaton Batman. His guys put an ice cream sundae in front of him in an old-fashioned metal fountain cup with a long spoon. They offered me nothing. It was absurd. We talked and talked. I remember leading off the interview with one of my dad’s best Jewish jokes (“Oy, vas I thirsty”) and that helped set the tone. At the end of the interview, Adelson told me, “I think you’re one of the brightest journalists I’ve ever met. I really mean that. I’m not patronizing you.” (Click to hear that chunk of the tape and you can hear a bit of the clinking of spoon against sundae dish.)

We stayed in touch over the years. In 2012, Mr. Adelson’s “people” got in touch with me to see if I’d be interested in helping write his memoir. Jews, politics, gambling, business, wealth and blood feuds? Um, yeah, I think that would interest me.

They brought me out to Vegas to meet with Sheldon and some key advisors, to see if the chemistry was right. His right-hand woman, Betty, told me she wanted me to get the gig and gave me some great pointers. Always call his wife Miriam “Doctor Adelson.” Betty told me Sheldon loves to be called “Mr. Adelson” and that I had to pronounce his last name to rhyme with “saddle son” not “cradle son.”

We met for a few hours and he told me he loved talking with me but didn’t know if my co-writing style, which involves being with the subject constantly for a year, would work for him. Other writers had told him they’d interview him an hour every other week and then send Betty chapters to look at. That’s fine, but it’s not how I work, even for billionaires. While we were talking, a surprising thing occurred.

At that time, the long-running dispute between Adelson and Wynn was crackling with particular intensity. The nastiness was personal and even international, with their interests in both Vegas and Asia overlapping. The Vegas press was lapping it up and killing them both. Adelson’s office at the Venetian was on the ground floor with massive security and it had a private outdoor courtyard. All of a sudden, as Adelson was telling me of his Boston boyhood, Wynn materialized at the door in the courtyard. Adelson went out to talk to Wynn for 30 minutes and his son-in-law Patrick Dumont asked me not to mention that the feuding Adelson and Wynn had met. I never did, until now.

Another funny detail about this visit is that even though I was there doing work with Mr. Adelson, I still had to pay for my room. Sheldon Adelson was among the 10 richest people in the world, and was always extremely generous in our dealings. But I will be darned if I didn’t fork over the discount rate of $99 a night for a beautiful suite at the Venetian.

In addition to Patrick, Adelson had me meet his wife and her daughter and a bunch of others, to see if they thought I’d be a good fit to tell his story. I spoke a bit with Andy Abboud, who handled the Adelsons’ political commitments, and is one of the shrewdest operators in national Republican politics. In other words … Sheldon Adelson was a careful, thoughtful guy, and not merely the blustering, impulsive brawler as he was habitually portrayed.

A couple days later, Adelson called me to say everyone liked me, and that he’d asked others about me and been given strong recommendations, including from Matt Brooks, the longtime Executive Director of the RJC, who Adelson talked about almost like another son. Interestingly, given that they’ve both been much in the news together, he also asked Alan Dershowitz and Rudy Giuliani about me and told me they both gave me high marks.

A week later I got a call from Betty saying that Adelson had really enjoyed sitting with me. He wanted me to drive to Boston to interview his childhood friend Irwin Chafetz and also speak to Rob Goldstein, the Exec. VP of Global Gaming Operations for Las Vegas Sands Corp, and a few others. I did that and had excellent conversations and then … nothing. He decided he didn’t want me snooping around for a year. Betty told me he was going to go with one of the “easy interview” co-writers and knock the thing out in three months.

That was nine years ago. The book never happened.

But what did happen is that Sheldon Adelson continued to make his voice heard. He bought and started newspapers and funded conservative causes. But he also gave a fortune to fighting drug addiction and contributed to many other causes. And he and I stayed in touch. When Newt Gingrich ran for president, Adelson backed him and hired me to help. Later, when I became the editor in chief of the New York Observer, Adelson wrote an op-ed for the paper. When my mom died, I saw him at an event and he somehow knew about it and was very kind to me.

For all that he achieved in business and in politics—and it’s a lot, in both arenas—those contributions will not prove to be Sheldon Adelson’s most lasting legacy. No single individual on earth did more in the last 2000 years to secure a safe, enduring future for the Jewish people. I just wish he’d written that book, because it would have been awesome.

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