Jerry E. Smith
II. NORMAN HENRY BILTZ
In 1953 Norman Biltz was called "Mr. Big" by Time Magazine at the apex of his career as a multi-millionaire financier, rancher, industrialist --and head of a political machine that ran the Silver State. They described him as "baronial-minded," and his financial and political grip on the state of Nevada as "a kind of all-embracing, behind-the-scenes influence." The following year Fortune dubbed him the "Duke of Nevada" and said of him: "to do business of any kind, anywhere in Nevada, anyone is advised to get the blessing of Norman Biltz."
Incongruously, Biltz, despite the national media attention, was hardly known in Nevada outside of a huge circle of close friends and "partners" --business associates by the hundreds that he had worked with over the years. He was a low-key man, one who was successful at nearly everything he tried --including keeping his name out of the papers. As Time expressed it: "Until the last controversy-lighted weeks, not one in 20 inhabitants of Nevada had ever heard of ... a go-getting New Englander named Norman Biltz. A Norman Biltz, it is true, was known along the Humboldt River as a big buyer of ranches. A fellow of the same name was remembered as a big real-estate operator around Lake Tahoe. A good many people in Reno were familiar with a Biltz too --a stocky, blue-eyed fellow with iron-grey hair, a Hollywood jacket and Humphrey Bogart gestures who didn't seem to have anything better to do than hang around the Riverside Hotel. But since Biltz doesn't like his name in the paper (and seldom has to see it there) few connected all the Biltzes into one fabulous whole."
A precursor to the "laid back" California-style businessman, he preferred to work in open-collar sport shirts and was far more likely to be seen conducting business from an alcove of the world-famous Corner Bar at the Riverside Hotel than from his office, a wedding ring's throw away across the Truckee River. He was a tall, handsome man; easy to know, easy to talk to, easy to like. He as a charmer by all accounts, even his enemies liked him. As well as being one of the great "schmoozers" of all time, he was also scrupulously honest, a man of his word, loyal to a fault.
When he died by a self-inflicted gunshot wound at age 71 in 1973, his death made the front page of every newspaper in Nevada, and was on the front page of The Reno Evening Gazette for two days in a row. At that time, Reno businessman Bill Stremmel, a 20-year partner of Biltz, said of him: "He did things in a giant way. He didn't want a lot of publicity, a lot of hurrah, but he was a giant in friendliness. His contacts reached to every state in the nation. He worked behind the scenes to accomplish things. It is safe to say that his decisions have directly or indirectly affected every citizen in Nevada."
Then-State Attorney General Robert List, stunned by the news of Norman Biltz' death, told the Nevada State Journal: "Nobody has contributed more to Nevada, since statehood, to its progress, its prosperity, than Norman Biltz. It's the end of an era, and we are going to miss him very much."
How Norman H. Biltz rose to become arguably one of the most powerful men in the history of Nevada, one whose vision continues to shape Reno today, is a fascinating story --and one that is hardly mentioned in history books.
Born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on July 6, 1902, he was an only child, and a rebellious one at that. Norman Biltz's fondest memories of childhood were of family visits to his grandparents in Northampton, Massachusetts (where he was occasionally able to pick up odd jobs in the textile mills). At home, Biltz was an inveterate truant, which kept him constantly in trouble with the school authorities and his hot-tempered German father. By high school Norman was clearly failing in public school, and his father, a contractor whose fortune was on the rise, sent the lad to Peekskill Military Academy on New York's Hudson River in hopes of their whipping the boy into shape. Young Biltz, however, played hooky so often he was dismissed from the Academy.
In spirited, if ill-conceived, defiance of his angry father, the 17-year old Biltz promptly got married and moved to New York City. There he took a short-lived job as an ice skating instructor at the Iceland Rink. The marriage proved no more enduring than the job and, despite having a daughter from that union, he soon found himself alone and heading west.
He was broke by the time he reached California, and like so many his age since, drifted through a string of nickel and dime jobs: dishwasher at a cafeteria, movie extra, stevedore, strikebreaker on the waterfront, salesman for Rubberset shaving brushes... One of those early jobs was as a wiper and fireman on a coastal steamship of the Dollar Line, owned by Stanley Dollar. Working there, Biltz made up his mind to meet Mr. Dollar, which he did --and two decades later he and Dollar became partners in building the Holiday Hotel in Reno and a number of other ventures.
He was still not out of his teens when he took another sales job, this time selling a number of high-quality products including Caron perfumes. He soon discovered that as a salesman he was a "natural." At age 20, Biltz took on a partner (the first of what was destined to be scores) and set up a sales operation in San Francisco. A year later, in 1923, their organization had grown to employ 120 salesmen up and down the West Coast. By the end of that year, Biltz and his partner had cleared over $100,000 each --which, converted to today's inflated money, would make them millionaires. Biltz sent east for his mother, who by then was widowed. He installed her in the fashionable St. Francis Hotel and bought himself a brand-new Rolls-Royce.
Soon after that he learned some important lessons about partners and responsibility. One day, after commuting to the office in his new Rolls, he discovered that his partner had blown the firm's funds at the horse races and that his prosperous little company was $40,000 in debt to the bank. He dissolved the partnership, but paid back every penny of the debt within five years.
In 1927 he took the job that would lead to his future and fortune. He met a San Francisco real estate agent named Robert Sherman and took a job with him that Biltz described as being something akin to "assistant to the president." Sherman's father had been a wealthy man, owner of an electric railway. Robert Sherman had inherited a lot of land, including considerable acreage on the shores of Lake Tahoe.
The forests around the lake had been clear-cut to near extinction during the Comstock Lode days of the mid- to late-1800's, as shoring for the silver mines of Nevada. In the 1920s Tahoe's forests had "just" grown back, and the area was still little known, much less developed as a vacation destination; it would take men like Bill Harrah and Harvey Gross in later decades to give us the glittering resorts we associate with Tahoe today. There were few or no hotels in the Tahoe area in the late 1920s, so Biltz took up residence in Reno's Riverside Hotel, which was to become his informal office for decades to follow.
It was through his position with Robert Sherman that he got the "hang" of selling big things. For the first few years Biltz did a lot of commuting, in his Rolls, from Reno to Sherman's headquarters in San Francisco and to Los Angeles. In L.A. Biltz sold the M.G.M. movie lot in Hollywood and Santa Monica Beach, both of which had belonged to Sherman's family. Eventually, however, he assumed complete responsibility for the Tahoe development and settled into being a Nevadan.
Tahoe straddles the California-Nevada stateline, and Biltz initially worked both sides of that beautiful, cobalt-blue lake. But when the California Legislature made stringent changes to that state's tax laws, Biltz looked to the Nevada side and conceived a brilliant plan. Nevada had no state income tax, no sales tax, no gift tax, no inheritance tax, and (perhaps most important of all) no tax on intangibles such as securities and bank accounts. It was then that he realized that millionaires would receive considerable benefit from having their legal residences in Nevada --and that he could receive considerable commissions for selling the Nevada side of Tahoe to them.
Legal residency involves more than just a Post Office box, or the address of an up-scale downtown hotel. Biltz had to make his potential clients understand that in order to ensure the tax advantages of legal residency, the incipient Nevadan must own property in the state as well as live and vote in Nevada; one must keep one's money in the state and, if possible, even have business interests there. This last point, having a business in the state, proved the most important a few years later, as we shall soon see.
The "Biltz Plan" proved as effective as it was simple. He compiled his version of the "Forbes 400" by drawing up a list of the 200 people in America with personal fortunes of $10 million or more (of which a sizable percentage were billionaires). These were the men and women Biltz considered wealthy enough to significantly benefit from relocating their legal residences to Nevada. He then set out to discover everything that it was possible to know about each of these 200 potential clients: from how much they gave to charity, to what their favorite whiskey was, to what the maid said they did when they over-indulged. Then he began what became a long career of importing multimillionaires to Nevada.
His first client nearly broke Norman Biltz' back --literally. The target was one James L. Stack, a rich Chicago advertising man, whom Biltz had interested enough to come to Tahoe to take a look. Biltz wanted the man to see the property first-hand, but the acreage was a mile from the road and the man was partially crippled. Undaunted, Biltz carried Mr. Stack piggy-back, trudging through late winter snows. Perhaps as much impressed with the sales presentation as with the property, Stack plunked down $35,000 to become the first full-time millionaire immigrant to the Silver State since 1897 when Anson Phelps Stokes sent his son to live at "Stokes' Castle" in Austin, Nevada, while overseeing the family holdings there.
By combining an encyclopedic understanding of tax laws (not just of Nevada's, but of the states wherein his would-be clients lived), exhaustive research into the personal foibles and preferences of his millionaire prospects, and an inexhaustible willingness to take pains on their behalves, Biltz succeeded in transplanting between 50 and 60 millionaires to Tahoe and, eventually, to Reno and all across Nevada. In later years Blitz said: "When any of these people were persuaded to look at Tahoe, I already knew their likes, dislikes, whims and secret needs. And after making the sale, I worked even harder to keep them happy."
Among those whom he enticed to move to Reno were Doris Duke, Jello heir O. F. Woodward, and A. K. Bourne of the Singer Sewing Machine family. Bourne liked the area so much that he bought additional property from Biltz up at the lake. There, to the amusement of the locals, he spent long hours every summer selling orange juice by the glass to motorists from his roadside stand. By a strange coincidence these all settled in the same block in Reno. A little farther down the street were the homes of the Salt Lake City Tribune's Kearns family, steamship owner Thomas W. Dants, and auto and aircraft magnate E. L. Cord.
Cord later become a partner with Biltz in numerous ventures, and (after buying ranch property from him in Esmeralda County) became a part of the Biltz political machine by running for the State Senate. With the help of Biltz and his lobbyist co-workers, Cord soon became the most powerful of Nevada's 17 State Senators, giving the Biltz faction significant influence over the legislature.
As well as falling in love with Nevada, Norman Biltz fell in and out of love with a number of women. His first too-hasty marriage ended in a Reno divorce in 1927. A second, equally short-lived marriage ended childless in 1928 --easy Reno divorces quickly became another reason for him to love the state. About this time a woman who had told the press that Norman Biltz should be billed as "America's Sweetheart" sued him for "alienation of affections," and yet another woman in a fit of jealous rage fired a bullet through his leg. In 1929, however, he met the woman who would be his wife for the remainder of his life. She was Mrs. Esther Auchincloss Nash and he met her when she came to Reno to get a divorce.
Mrs. Nash was the mother of three children, Edmund, John and Anita, when she met Norman Biltz. Born Esther Auchincloss, she was the granddaughter of Oliver Burr Jennings, one of the founders of Standard Oil. This made her an aunt to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis (another member of the Auchincloss klan) and a "cousin" of-sorts to her future neighbor, Mrs. Murial Hubbard McCormick (who would marry into the Standard Oil extended family).
The socially and financially prominent Auchinclosses, with offices in Manhattan and homes in Fairfield, Connecticut (where Esther was born) and Newport, Rhode Island, reportedly took a dim view of Esther becoming engaged almost before she was divorced. Some of them probably thought she had gotten herself snared on the rebound by a slick Reno fortune hunter. The author of the 1954 Fortune biography of Norman Biltz, Freeman Lincoln, said that Biltz refused to comment on his first meeting with the Family Auchincloss to discuss the forthcoming marriage, but, Mr. Lincoln speculated, "no doubt the frost was heavy on the pumpkin." He reported that the upshot of that meeting was that Norman and Esther agreed to delay their wedding for a full year --and that they married in 1930 virtually to the minute that the year was up.
Norman Biltz, undoubtedly stung by the idea that he might have been a fortune hunter, vowed never to touch a penny of his wife's considerable fortune --a vow which all who knew him believed he kept. Considering the Midas touch he developed, it's a good chance that if he had played with Esther's money she would have become even richer. "This is not to say" wrote Mr. Lincoln, "that Biltz's marriage to a Standard Oil granddaughter has had no effect on his career. Bankers with money to loan are not likely to shut their eyes to the sight of an Auchincloss-by-marriage. Moreover, as a professional connoisseur, collector, and importer of choice multimillionaires, Biltz married the right girl."
Theirs was a story-book "happily ever after" marriage that lasted throughout Norman Biltz's life. They had two children together, both girls, Sheila and Jeanne; one was born in 1932, the other in '34. Between these girls and the three children from her first marriage, Esther Biltz could boast of having 20 grandchildren. She died on November 7, 1987, in her home in Reno at 90 years of age.
In the early 1930s, while Norman Biltz was raising his young family and pursuing his plan of bringing millionaires to Nevada, major changes swept across the United States. The 1929 Stock Market Crash nearly took Biltz with it. Biltz, however, was a fighter, a man who rose to a challenge. While the Great Depression destroyed many, it made Norman Henry Biltz. His step-son, John Nash, who worked closely with Biltz, was quoted in 1981 in Nevada Magazine as saying: "Norm knew how to make the best of every hand he was dealt."
Working for Robert Sherman, Biltz had sold thousands of Tahoe lots at $500 each. By 1932 the Depression had devastated the market to a point where Biltz was forced to sell off one group of one hundred lots at $6.00 each. It is hard to imagine how a real estate salesman could survive, much less profit, in such a hostile environment, yet Biltz not only survived, but by the mid-thirties had become a millionaire several times over.
The two keys to his success were the success-oriented quirks of his own personality and the Biltz Plan of importing millionaires. For Norman Biltz, challenges invigorated life and made it worth living; he intended to succeed no matter what --and did. The tragedy of it was that that same need to overcome adversity to give meaning to life led ultimately to his death. Although he had been in failing health (cancer had been rumored) before he ended his life with a gun, friends who knew him well said that he just "ran out of things to do," that there were "no more mountains left to climb."
Not that Norman Biltz's career was one unbroken string of successes. One deal that didn't go his way occurred shortly after he and Esther were married. He had quit his job with Robert Sherman to join forces with another San Francisco real estate man, Henry Trevor. Trevor was to become one of Biltz' most important partners over the years. Their first project, however, ended up as Biltz's biggest regret. They found a great buy on about 45,000 acres that ran for 27 miles along the Nevada shoreline of Lake Tahoe. The acreage was available as a unit because it had been bought up during the Comstock days for its timber. The problem for Biltz and Trevor was that even at a modest $2 an acre the total sum was still a considerable amount. That was when they cut a deal with George Whittell, a second-generation multimillionaire from California.
At first blush, Whittell looked like another successful catch in the Biltz' millionaire importation program. Under the terms of their agreement Biltz was to buy the land, then immediately resell it to Whittell at the same price he paid for it. Biltz would get his cut by being in charge of developing the property. The tract of land was supposed to have been carved up into small lots, with Biltz receiving 25 per cent of all profits from their sales. Whittell apparently had no intention of honoring his end of the deal, for as soon as he had clear title to all 45,000 acres he promptly began building his own home --a huge castle-like stone house --and refused to sell even so much as a square inch of the remaining acreage. When Whittell informed Biltz that there would be no sales, Biltz protested: "But what do I get out of the deal?"
"You, my boy," Whittell replied, "can say you just had a college education."
Biltz went to his grave regretting that Whittell had kept all that prime property to himself. "I really did Nevada a great disservice when I sold all this land to George Whittell," Biltz said in 1954 when taking the Fortune reporter on a motor tour through the Whittell domain, "It's a crime that this part of the lake can't be opened up for the people." Today the Whittell property is in the hands of the public as a regional park.
George Whittell was every bit as weird as he was dishonest. He kept a pet elephant to pull his lawn mower and was accompanied wherever he went around Tahoe by a lion named Bill. Whittell, and the orange juice selling A. K. Bourne, weren't the only eccentric millionaires Biltz relocated to Lake Tahoe. One was Major Max C. Fleischmann, the immensely wealthy Cincinnati yeast king. He had himself sworn in as a deputy sheriff and was never thereafter seen without his official star and pistol. From that time on Max reportedly spent nearly every waking hour in hot pursuit of evil-doers. Unfortunately for Max, Lake Tahoe had nary a Bonnie nor a Clyde to chase, and the "best" he could come up with were some adolescent hot-rodders who, when his back was turned, let the air out of his tires.
Yet, by and large, powerful people and sweet deals just seemed to fall into Norman Biltz's well prepared lap. Perhaps the greatest single piece of good luck for Norman H. Biltz was the failure of the Wingfield Banks. Throughout American history, politics has been dominated by the political machine, and Nevada is no exception. While Clark County, home to Las Vegas, tends to dominate Nevada today, in the 1920s Vegas was little more than a wide spot in the road, a place to get gas and water in the middle of a seemingly endless desert. Then politics in Nevada was ruled by the big money interests in the state's "Biggest Little City," Reno, and those interests were personified by George Wingfield.
At the beginning of the century Wingfield had made a fortune in mining and in the early twenties invested heavily across Nevada in hotels, banks, and real estate, especially in ranching and livestock --a portfolio that Norman Biltz would very nearly duplicate a few decades later. As both a natural leader and one of the state's richest men, George Wingfield came to hold perhaps the most significant, controlling position in the state in his day. He virtually ran the state legislature and the Congressional delegation from behind the scenes, as well as having considerable financial influence through his banks and other holdings --feats that Norman Biltz would also accomplish. Wingfield, like Biltz, also preferred to stay out of the limelight --indeed, it took considerable effort on Wingfield's part to prevent his supporters from running him for Governor in 1926.
Financially, Nevada has never been terrifically secure. Its farms and ranches are prone to suffering from droughts, and mining (its other major industry prior to gambling and tourism) has gone through several dizzying periods of boom and bust. While the Stock Market Crash and the downwardly spiraling economy that followed in its wake were taking out Eastern bankers, drought (and severe banking irregularities ignored by banking regulators installed by the Wingfield Machine) destroyed George Wingfield's banks.
Nevada's ranching industry had been declining throughout the 1920s, and a drought going into the '30s didn't help. Wingfield kept many ranchers afloat throughout this period with loans of dubious wisdom. When the national depression reached Nevada, Wingfield's banks, stretched to the breaking point with questionable investments and even more questionable banking practices, folded up like a house of cards, taking the Wingfield political machine with it. Waiting in the wings was Norman Biltz, who promptly stepped in and made George Wingfield's kingdom his own.
Biltz had learned early on that for his millionaires to come and stay, they had to be guaranteed that Nevada's tax climate would remain favorable --and that meant putting those tax laws into the State's Constitution, from which it takes six years for an amendment to be removed. To execute the Biltz Plan, Biltz needed his own political machine, and with the destruction of Wingfield's there was a political vacuum waiting to be filled.
When Time Magazine described him as "Mr. Big" in 1953, they spoke of the Biltz machine saying: "Though Biltz is a Republican, crusty old Democratic Senator Pat McCarran communes with him from Washington almost daily by long-distance telephone. Nevada's bumbling G.O.P. Senator Malone is beholden to him. And Biltz hand-picked Nevada's Governor Charles Russell. As a result, Nevada's big gamblers (who are also big campaign contributors) listen when Biltz whispers, for the governor appoints the tax commission, and the tax commission licenses the gamblers. The legislature meets infrequently and seldom disappoints Biltz."
In History of Nevada, Russell R. Elliott wrote: "Norman Biltz had become a powerful figure in Nevada's economic and political life by taking advantage of the depression and subsequent New Deal taxing programs and the lack of taxes in Nevada to promote the state as a haven for the wealthy. The promotion worked and Biltz became rich in the process of bringing millionaires to Nevada. Somewhere along the line John Mueller, who had been an assistant state engineer, joined Biltz and became extremely useful as a lobbyist for his interests."
John Mueller became Norman Biltz's closest business associate and perhaps his most important Nevada partner. From his travels about the state as an assistant state engineer Mueller knew every town and village in the state, and most of the people in them. In this way he learned of the state's resources, particularly water; later, traveling for a bank, he learned the value of many properties and the financial condition of ranchers, mine operators and others. Additionally, he knew the state capital, Carson City, every bit as well as he knew the rest of the state. He had been active at the capital since 1921, giving the legislators expert advice on such matters as state parks, water rights, highways, condemnation proceedings, etc. and, as he put it, making sure his own job wasn't legislated out the window. John Mueller became one of the most successful lobbyists in the history of that often derided profession and in doing so, became a principal spokesman for Norman Biltz in Carson City. There were few laws that came before the legislators in the four decades that Mueller plied his trade that he did not sponsor, approve, or at least advise on.
Norman Biltz's legacy can be seen all around us today. He, through the work of John Mueller and others, persuaded Nevada's depression era lawmakers to prime the state's business pump by liberalizing its laws. In addition to getting the lenient tax codes Biltz needed to make his plan work written into the State Constitution, it was the fledgling Biltz machine that pushed through legalized gambling in 1931 (it had been illegal since 1911), that rewrote the laws reducing the residency requirement for divorce from three months to six weeks, and that made it legal to buy liquor twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
In November, 1932, the Wingfield Banks collapsed; within a year hundreds of ranches followed them into bankruptcy, hundreds more joined them in the next few years. Norman Biltz looked on this swath of destruction from a financial tornado across his state and saw opportunity. Selling Tahoe to the rich, Biltz had been selling pretty little tax havens; but in ranching, he recognized that he could sweeten the deal by offering a business too. A man with sufficient capital to put the ranch back into operation could make good money ranching, or, Biltz reasoned, at least keep himself too busy to wish he'd never left Chicago. And at these fire-sale prices a man could buy up several ranches, creating an estate larger than the whole county he lived in back East. What's not to love?
Biltz and Mueller shoved the Biltz Plan of importing millionaires to Nevada into high gear and began frantically buying and reselling ranches, or merely selling them on commission. Within a few years they had succeeded in disposing of nearly 90% of the ranches that had fallen into receivership --at millions of dollars' profit. One famous example of this was a 100,000-acre spread they bought near Tuscarora in Elko County, which they sold to singer/actor Bing Crosby for $300,000.
The real genius of the Biltz Plan was in the follow-through. He didn't just bring millionaires to Nevada; once they were here, he made sure that they had everything their hearts desired. Once, when asked the secret of his charm, a somewhat disconcerted Biltz replied: "Charm is largely a matter of effort. To charm, simply serve!" His service went far beyond the sale. In the early days of selling Lake Tahoe properties he had gone out of his way to make his clients happy: if a rich man liked to fish, Biltz made sure he caught his limit of trout. Later, selling ranches, he correctly believed that if his clients made money, he made money, so he hovered over his imported millionaires, doing all that he could to ensure their success.
Biltz used to complain humorously that he spent half of his life getting his clients New York theater tickets, persuading their neighbors to restrain their dogs, or finding new maids for them. But in the end, he owed his success to the reciprocating friendship of those same clients. Biltz made thousands of profitable investments over the years because he discovered what is known today as "networking."
The power in Biltz-style networking came from just being able to broker deals, to put the right people together. Because Blitz could draw from a veritable and voluminous Who's Who of wealthy friends, associates and acquaintances, he could, for example, introduce a rich Texan with a heavy problem to a Chicago banker who might be the only money-man in the country who could solve it. Biltz proved himself to be the ideal networker because, above all else, he could be absolutely trusted by all parties involved. He often made no direct profit off of such deal brokering, but that didn't bother him a bit. Of this Biltz said, "There's no need to grab. If I help other people make money, sooner or later some of it will rub off on me."
Buying and selling land was really only the beginning for Norman Biltz. By the mid-thirties he had become involved in everything connected to improving the land and building houses on it. Following in his father's footsteps he became a contractor and builder. He went beyond that to paving streets and supplying building materials, electrical equipment, utilities, even insurance. If there was something that one of his clients wanted that he couldn't provide, he would gather up some "partners" and form a company to meet that need. Between his far-flung direct business interests and indirect participation in transactions through networking, Norman Biltz made millions of dollars and got a finger in just about every pie in the state.
By the time Fortune crowned him the "Duke of Nevada" in 1954, Biltz was worth between $8 million and $10 million. This, Biltz insisted, only made him a "two-bit capitalist," preferring to list his collection of friends as his greatest asset. "If I need to," he was quoted as saying, "I can raise real dough, fast, from real capitalists." Fortune went on to say that: "What makes Norman Biltz so important, however, is not what he is, or even what he can call on; it is his enormous personal influence over all sorts of business enterprises, conducted by all sorts of people, practically everywhere in Nevada. Biltz can call the tune. The deals he blesses do not necessarily gallop home, but if he seriously opposed one, it would never even get up to walk."
Despite the Biltz charm he still made some enemies, and these mostly through his opposition to uncontrolled growth. Biltz was the most powerful advocate of slow growth in the history of the state --he wanted the state to grow, all right, but his way. It was this argument over growth that brought Norman Biltz national attention by being spotlighted in the Time Magazine article of 1953. Time reported that Tom Mechling, an inexperienced would-be politician, had "cried over the radio that Biltz gouged him in the clinches in his unsuccessful Senate race with Republican George ('Molly') Malone." Time went on to say that Mechling "...charged that Biltz was a sinister political boss, who held the state in a 'Gestapo-like grip' and stifled the state's press."
While Time did not buy the "Gestapo-like grip" bit, it did reveal that Biltz was not above attempting to control the press. One of Biltz' most outspoken opponents was a then-recent emigre from New York, Hank Greenspun, publisher of the Las Vegas Sun. Greenspun told Fortune: "Norman Henry Biltz has the habit of talking as if he owned this state --as if it were his own little duchy, which he has to protect, for which he has to plan, and scheme, and work." That quote may have been the impetus behind that article dubbing Biltz the "Duke" of Nevada.
Greenspun was probably not far off the mark. Time had quoted Blitz the year earlier as saying: "I love this state, and I'll do any damn thing I can do to keep it the way it is." An example of what he could do was to nearly put Greenspun out of business.
After one too many attacks by Greenspun's newspaper on Senator Pat McCarran (whom many believed was the real mastermind behind the Biltz machine) all gambling advertising was suddenly pulled from the Sun. Greenspun sued Senator McCarran and the gamblers who had pulled their ads for conspiracy to bankrupt him --and won an whopping $86,000 out-of-court settlement. To this day many believe that Reno could have grown like Las Vegas, which today is the symbol of Nevada the world over, if it had not been for Norman Biltz and his insistence on slow, controlled growth.
By the 1950s the Biltz empire included the Bullhead Cattle Co., which Biltz owned in partnership with Nevada cattleman Ed Waltz and four New Yorkers. Biltz had picked it up in the '30s along with the many other Humboldt River ranches that he and John Mueller had bought only to resell. Bullhead owned four ranches (the C-S, the North Folk, the Kelly Creek, and the Bullhead) all near Winnemucca, a small town three hours east of Reno on Interstate 80. These ranches totaled 44,000 acres which gave the company federal grazing rights to another one million acres. These were used for the raising of calf-producing cows. Meanwhile, the calves were raised at yet another ranch, the Nevada-Nile, located near Lovelock, about halfway between Reno and Winnemucca. In addition to the calf raising, the Nevada-Nile had some 7,000 acres under cultivation producing hay and alfalfa. As if that weren't enough, Bullhead leased another 11,000 acres in Merced County, California (from Ed Waltz' mother) as winter and spring range land. In 1951 the Bullhead Co. ran about 14,000 head of cattle to a profit of around $125,000.
Beyond his ranching, Blitz also dabbled in mining: holding a borax mining claim on ten acres of borax rich land in California's Mojave Desert in partnership with E. L. Cord; sharing eight oil syndicates that controlled oil leases on about 120,000 Nevada acres with John Mueller; and again with E. L. Cord, he speculated successfully on uranium finds in Utah. Additionally, he had interests in gold mining, and owned a hot springs that he hoped to develop someday into a facility that would heat the city of Reno. Today the Steamboat Springs facility is the largest geothermal electrical generating plant in the state.
He also tried his hand at manufacturing by putting up half the capital needed to start up Nevada Air Products Co. (the other half came from Marsh Johnson, a Reno Chevrolet dealer). The company had a defense subcontract from Douglas Aircraft to assemble parts for the Navy Sky Raider airplane. Freeman Lincoln, in his article on Biltz in Fortune, speculated that Blitz's real interest in this venture was not his $500 a month job as Director of the company, but that it gave him jobs he could dole out to friends and relatives of his supporters.
And, of course, he was knee-deep in land speculation. He and John Mueller, as the Crystal Bay Corp., had built the still-in-business Crystal Bay Lodge in the mid-1930s on Lake Tahoe's north shore; additionally they held a few hundred more acres in the area that they slowly sold off over the next couple of decades. Shortly after building the Crystal Bay Lodge, Biltz and another set of partners purchased the nearby Cal-Neva Lodge on the Nevada side of the border. When the Cal-Neva burned down in 1937, Biltz and associates had the resort ready to reopen in just 35 days, to the astonishment of all.
In 1939 Biltz also tried his hand at the banking business by helping to found the Security National Bank. Perhaps fearing a repeat of George Wingfield's problems, some years later he bailed on that project and with Ed Waltz of Bullhead Cattle, and Stanley Dollar, sank his profits into buying up virtually all of the property around Donner Lake. Donner is a lovely body of water high in the Sierras (just east of the trans-Sierra summit of I-80 that bears that name), and they came to hold about 1,900 acres around its shoreline. Today there is a small state park near the lake commemorating the fate of the Donner Party, an immigrant wagon train that was blocked by snow and forced to winter it out there in 1846-47. The Donner Party's resorting to cannibalism before a rescue team could arrive from Sacramento has found it an enduring place in legends of the pioneer West.
Another of his land deals was the previously mentioned Holiday Hotel. In 1981 Guy Shipler, in Nevada Magazine, related the tale of the opening of the Holiday. "Whenever disaster loomed," Shipler wrote, "Biltz' genius for business found a way to turn it into success, just as he had done during the Depression. When he was almost ready to open Reno's $5 million Holiday Hotel, his partner, Stanley Dollar, announced that he would not have his name associated with gambling. The loss of Dollar's backing threatened to ruin the project."
Shipler went on to relate the story as told to him by John Nash, Norman Biltz' step-son: "Norm," Nash said, "immediately saw an opportunity to benefit from this devastating development. He let the newspapers know from coast to coast that he was opening a hotel in Reno, Nevada, which would not have gambling. The columnists shouted, 'The fool, he'll never make it!'
"Six months or so later, Norm found a lessee for the gambling in Newt Crumley of Elko. He convinced Stanley Dollar that this arrangement would remove both their names from gambling. He then let the newspapers know that gambling was going into the hotel. The same columnists shouted in glee, 'See, we told you you couldn't make it!'
"Norm smiled. He had benefited from a million dollars worth of publicity at no cost."
The power of the press was not lost on Norman Biltz. He formed his own paper, the Nevada State News, to champion his political machine's causes. Its editor was Wallie Warren, who had been a reporter and World War II foreign correspondent, as well as ad-man and lobbyist. Warren first met Biltz on his arrival in Nevada in the mid-thirties, and after that meeting he went on to handle public relations for Biltz, his partners and his machine for decades. Perhaps as a demonstration of just how small the Biggest Little City was, he was also a close friend of Bill Harrah. He handled public relations and lobbying for Harrah at one time as well, culminating their frindship as one of Bill Harrah's 76 Honorary Pallbearers.
SEE PAGE THREE
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