Ladies of Las Vegas

Ladies of Las Vegas

Women have often been overlooked in their lives, their work, and in our history. Countless times, they have overcome and fought back against struggle and prejudice, and have used their lives to enforce change for a better world and better lives for themselves and those around them.

Las Vegas, especially, would not be the same if it were not for the influence of so many unique and inspirational women who have walked through it and used their laughter, tears, blood, and sweat to change and grow it.

Here is a list of a few remarkable ladies in Las Vegas who showed the world that they could build their lives into whatever they wanted when they set their minds to it. 

These women left imprints in the history of Las Vegas that can never be eroded or erased by time. 

Helen J. Stewart (1854-1926)

Who She is:

Stewart was known as “The First Lady of Las Vegas”. She was a resilient pioneer, rancher, business woman, and Las Vegas’s first postmaster. 

Her Story:

Stewart was born in Springfield, Illinois. She attended school in Sacramento, California, after her father moved her family there. 

In 1873, Stewart was married in California and she and her husband moved to Lincoln County afterwards to live on a remote ranch at Pony Springs. Stewart and her husband then moved to an isolated Las Vegas Ranch in 1882, after her husband received it as collateral from someone who defaulted on a loan. Her husband profitably operated the ranch and sold beef, vegetables, fruit, and wine to mining camps in Southern Nevada.

Stewart’s world turned upside down and she had to quickly learn to operate the ranch by herself when her husband was murdered in 1884. She was left with four children and was pregnant with her fifth. 

She turned her lemons into lemonade, and became an extremely successful rancher and businesswoman. She began to buy land adjacent to her ranch because she realized that someday land in Las Vegas Valley would be valuable. She turned into the largest landowner in Lincoln County by 1890. At the time, that included present-day Clark County. 

Stewart was appointed Las Vegas’s first postmaster in 1893. In 1902, she sold the Las Vegas Ranch and moved her family to Los Angeles while waiting for the building of a new house. She married her second husband and then returned to Las Vegas. 

She then remained in Las Vegas for the rest of her life, where she continued to play an active role in the community. 

Her Contribution to Las Vegas:

Stewart was “The First Lady of Las Vegas”. 

One of the largest landowners of the time and Las Vegas’s first postmaster, Stewart moved into the growing community of Las Vegas and was intricately involved in social, political, and business circles.

She became the first woman to be on the Clark County School District’s Board of Trustees in 1916, and she donated land for the Las Vegas Grammar School, which was the first public school to accept Native Americans. She spent the remainder of her life in Las Vegas, continuing to help build it upwards.

Florence (Jones) Murphy (1911-2006)

Who She is:

A pilot and an airline entrepreneur, Murphy was a pilot pioneer for women. She was the first woman in Nevada to receive her commercial pilot’s license in 1944.

Her Story:

Born in Fernley, Nevada, Murphy was a tomboy with five brothers.  She had the mindset that whatever they could do, she could too, she had once told the Las Vegas Review Journal. 

Murphy attended the University of Nevada for two years. It was there that she met her husband, John Murphy, who she married in 1930. After she moved to Las Vegas in 1936 with her husband when he was transferred there for work, they both became interested in flying and earned their private licenses by 1938. She kept climbing and received her instructor’s license in 1941 and her commercial pilot’s license in 1944. She was the first woman in Nevada to achieve this.

She reported once that the moment she got hooked on flying was right after their arrival in Vegas when she and her husband rode in a small J-3 Cub plane that had landed in town. Murphy had been allowed to take over the controls for a few minutes, and from then on she was hooked and was determined to become a pilot herself.

Murphy and her husband recognized a need for airfields in Las Vegas for private pilots, and, with their friend and business partner Bud Barrett, they acquired a strip of land and built their own airfield, Skyhaven Airport (now known as North Las Vegas Airport). On its opening day, December 7, 1941, midway through the opening festivities, a plane arrived with news that Pearl Harbor had just been bombed and that all planes were grounded in the U.S. until further notice. 

During the war, Murphy’s husband and their friend, Bud Barrett, left Murphy to run the brand new airport by herself, as they volunteered to serve in the Army as flight instructors. They ended up selling the airfield in 1948 to become involved in Bonanza Airlines. A small charter service that connected Northern Nevada with Las Vegas, the route was in high demand. 

Florence grew with the airline company, and she went from being its business manager and overseeing the negotiations with local airfields and government authorities, to being the company’s vice president. She found herself as the only female airline vice president in the country during World War II. As the vice president, she also piloted many of the runs to Northern Nevada. 

She left the airline industry in 1958 to pursue a career in real estate, with Larry McNeil, a fellow pilot. They formed the Murphy-McNeil Realty company, and she left after his death in 1971 to form her own company, the Florence J. Murphy Realty Company, at which she remained for the rest of her days. 

Her Contribution to Las Vegas:

Murphy didn’t shoot for the stars, but instead shot for the skies. She showed women to not let anyone tell you what you can and cannot do. 

Murphy continued to make waves as a female pilot and entrepreneur, letting nothing stand in her way. She continued her climb and was involved in many national and international aviation organizations. Many times she was the only woman present. She fought against the hostility and mistrust of her male peers, and proved her seriousness, competence, and worth over and over again.

She once said that she was scared that people would jump out of her plane if they knew she was piloting it. It was thought to be a man’s world, but she showed them otherwise.

Phyllis Diller (1917-2012)

Who She was:

Diller was a renowned stand-up comedian, actress, author, musician, and artist. She was known for her garish baggy dresses, gigantic hair, and sporting a cigarette holder with a wooden cigarette. She was absolutely vibrant with her eccentric personality, self-deprecating humor, wild hair and clothes, and cackling laugh.

Her Story:

Diller was exposed to death several times while growing up, and she claims that was what led her to have an early appreciation for life. She later realized that her comedy was a form of therapy. 

She was 37 when she made her comedy debut as a stand-up comedian in 1955 in the basement of the San Francisco North Beach Club, The Purple Onion. Before then, the only people that she had tried her jokes out on were fellow PTA moms. However, she blew the crowd away with her first professional show, and her two-week booking turned into 89 weeks. She had found her calling.

After her Las Vegas debut in November 1964 at the Flamingo, she became a Las Vegas comedy legend until her final live performance, which was hosted at the Suncoast Showroom in May 2002. It was filmed for the 2004 documentary Goodnight, We Love You

Over her extremely successful career, she contributed to over 40 films and appeared in various television series. 

Her Contribution to Las Vegas:

Diller went from midwestern housewife to the world’s first female stand-up in Las Vegas.

One of the first female comedians to make a household name in the U.S, she paved the way for other female comedians to emerge and follow in her footsteps. 

Diller did admit to NPR once in an interview that she had no idea what she was doing when she first started out performing in clubs, and that she never saw another woman on the comedy circuit. She had no female role models in the male-dominated industry. That didn’t stop her though, and she became the role model herself. 

Sarann Knight-Preddy (1920-2014)

Who She is:

Knight-Preddy made leaps and bounds in Nevada’s history by becoming the first woman of color to obtain a gaming license in Nevada in 1950. She also worked effortlessly to revitalize West Las Vegas and to preserve its history. 

Her Story:

From the start, Knight-Preddy had an enthusiasm for business that she received from her parents, successful entrepreneurs. She was 13 when she ventured into her first business, which was selling pig’s feet for five cents, always determined to satisfy her customers. 

Knight-Preddy married soon after finishing high school in Oklahoma, and she moved to Las Vegas with her husband and father in 1942. Upon her arrival, she found a segregated town in which blacks were allowed to work at casinos and clubs, but they weren’t allowed to be patrons at them. She encountered very few work opportunities there, but she learned the ins and outs of the gaming businesses and to run keno games and deal blackjack. 

She left Vegas for a while when she followed her second husband to Hawthorne, Nevada. She saw the opportunity to buy the only bar for blacks there, the Lincoln Bar, and she leapt at it. She became the first woman of color to receive a gaming license in Nevada when she bought and licensed it and converted it into the Tonga Club.

She returned to Vegas after seven years and worked in “after hours” clubs until Vegas passed a city ordinance that banned black dealers. As a result, she opened a cleaning business and a dress shop, but she ended up  selling them so that she could buy the Playhouse Lounge. She tried to acquire a gambling license for her club, but was not allowed to. 

Knight-Preddy then secured a gaming job at Jerry's Nugget because the NAACP was pushing to integrate Las Vegas casinos, and they had secured a pledge from one casino to hire a nonwhite female dealer. Finally, Knight-Preddy, who was already a successful gaming entrepreneur, was “deemed fit” to deal blackjack. Even though she had planned to stay there for six months, she spent seven years there. 

After many other business ventures in which she was involved in to revitalize West Vegas, Knight-Preddy purchased the Moulin Rouge Hotel in 1985 and secured a gaming license for it. The city’s first integrated hotel-casino in the 1950s, it was restored to its glory days by her and continued to be an integral part of Vegas’s history for years to come. 

Her Contribution to Las Vegas:

Knight-Preddy fought back against segregation and became the first African American woman in the state to have a gaming license. She spent her life revitalizing Vegas, the city she loved. 

In 2011, she was awarded the Racial Harmony Hall of Fame Lifetime Achievement Award, among a multitude of other accomplishments. Before her death in 2014, the University of Nevada awarded her an honorary doctorate, the second African-American woman to be given the honor, and she participated in numerous projects, interviews and documentaries in an attempt to preserve West Las Vegas’s history. 

Ruby Duncan (1932 - )

Who She is:

Duncan was a maid employed on the Strip, who became an activist and fought time and time again for the welfare rights for the poor, especially women and their children.

Her Story:

Duncan’s parents, who were poor black sharecroppers, passed away by the time she was four. Most of her early childhood was spent as a laborer in cotton fields and attending a black school eight miles away the other part of the year. She left the relatives she lived with in Tallulah in 1953 to live with her aunt in Las Vegas, where she began to work as a house maid and then later on as a hotel maid on the Strip. 

She was fired in 1964 after she tried to organize other maids so that they could protest their working conditions and low pay. A struggling young mother at the time, she turned to Nevada's welfare system to get by while she attained another job at a Strip hotel.  However, she was forced to depend on the welfare system again to make ends meet for her family when she got injured at the workplace. 

Congress had passed new amendments in 1967 that required all women on Aid to Families with Dependent Children to enroll in job training programs, and the only one available to Duncan on her side of town was a sewing class. With no choice but to be there five days a week and eight hours a day for $25 a week, she and the other mothers began to share their frustrations with each other about the welfare system. Duncan and the other women soon realized that they would need to take action if they wanted their situations to change. 

Her Contribution to Las Vegas:

Duncan shut down the Las Vegas Strip in order to make her voice heard for the rights of women and children. 

Through her organization, she and other welfare mothers came together and succeeded in getting Nevada to enforce welfare rights, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children. 

However, her victory was short-lived when Nevada slashed welfare benefits for women with children by 75% in 1971. Duncan deemed this unacceptable and rallied welfare mothers and supporters once again, organizing two marches on the Las Vegas Strip. They effectively cut off businesses from most of the city’s biggest casinos, and they involved many celebrity supporters in the second of the two rallies. 

Duncan was triumphant once again, and her marches and protests were heard loud and clear when benefits were restored to their previous levels by a federal judge.

 She is now the President of the Clark County Welfare Rights Organization. 

Geraldine “Geri” McGee (1936-1982)

Who She is:

McGee was a model and Las Vegas showgirl who was notorious for her involvement with criminal activity in Las Vegas. She was married to Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, renowned for his involvement in Las Vegas organized crime. 

Her Story:

Born in Los Angeles, she grew up near Sherman Oaks, California, and attended Van Nuys High School in 1954, at which she met Lenny Marmor. He believed McGee to be extremely talented, and he entered her in swimsuit and dance contests in which she took home many prizes. They had a daughter in 1958 after graduating from high school. 

McGee moved to Las Vegas shortly afterwards to seek out more opportunities. She took her mother and daughter with her, and Marmor stayed behind in Los Angeles. 

She started as a cocktail waitress and chorus showgirl at the Tropicana and worked her way up in the 1960s. Successful, she bought a house for her and her family, and climbed the Vegas social ladder, at which time she met her future husband, Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal. They married in 1969. 

Due to her husband’s wishes, she became a stay-at-home mother after they had two children. He would go out working, and she became unhappy because she didn’t want to remain at home and take care of her children. To ease her boredom, she turned to drinking and going out at night. He responded with threats to leave her, childless and moneyless.  

Her marriage to Rosenthal was a turbulent one, with affairs on both sides, including hers with the mob enforcer Anthony Spilotro. After their affairs, physical altercations, and her being watched by private detectives hired by Rosenthal, they divorced in 1981. 

McGee died in 1982 in Los Angeles, three days after being found heavily drugged. Her sister claimed that she was murdered by the mob, who had tried to kill her ex-husband weeks earlier. However, it was said the cause of death was an accidental overdose of alcohol and drugs. 

Her Contribution to Las Vegas:

As a Vegas showgirl and the wife of one Vegas’s organized crime associates, McGee will forever be integrated in the heart and soul of Old Vegas, as well as into the history of its crime and mobster days. 

At one point, she was arrested for stealing her husband’s money, and that set off a chain reaction in which several casino bosses for their parts in “skimming” money for the Mafia. 

McGee was portrayed in the 1995 film Casino, in which her character’s name was “Ginger McKenna”. In fact, some of the scenes in the film were based off of real events that took place at the Golden Steer Steakhouse. 

Lola Falana (1942- )

Who She is:

In her youth, Falana was a soulful singer, dancer, model, and glamorous actress. She became symbolic of vintage Vegas. Talented and beautiful, she started out as a disciple of Sammy Davis Jr. and made a name for herself in show business. 

Her Story:

Falana started out in life with a love for and talent in dancing and singing. By age three she was dancing, and by age five she was singing in the church choir. When she was in junior high school, the star-to-be was already dancing in nightclubs, escorted by her mother. She went against her parent’s wishes and dropped out of high school a few months before graduation, in order to move to New York City and pursue a musical career. 

Falana’s first dancing gig was when she was sixteen, and it was during a Dinah Washington nightclub appearance in Philadelphia in 1958. She was given the opening act to perform, and afterwards Washington dubbed her as the “Queen of Blues”and played an influential role in helping to build her early career. 

Falana was discovered by Sammy Davis, Jr. when she was dancing in a chorus line in Atlantic City, New Jersey. He launched her career when he gave her a featured role in his 1964 Broadway musical Golden Boy. Afterwards, she released her first single, “My Baby”, and ended up recording under Frank Sinatra’s record label later on. 

In the late 1960s, Sammy Davis, Jr. became he mentor. Her fame continued to rise as she toured with Davis as a singer and dancer, and as she made films in Italy as well. She broke away from Davis in 1969, in order to further pursue her career. She claimed that she wanted to be known as something more than “the little dancer with Sammy Davis, Jr.”, although they still remained close friends. 

She continued her career in show business and starred in films, but she eventually stopped performing 1997 and began touring the country to give others a message about hope and spirituality. 

Her Contribution to Las Vegas:

Falana became the highest paid performer in Las Vegas history during her performing days, and by the late 1970s she was considered to be the “Queen of Las Vegas”. 

She brought her act to Las Vegas thanks to the help of Sammy Davis, Jr., and she skyrocketed from there. Her shows at The Sands, The Riviera, and the MGM Grand hotels sold-out. Eventually, she was offered a contract by the Aladdin in the late ‘70s to appear 20 weeks a year for $100,000 a week. 

She now lives in Las Vegas when she’s not touring and works at The Lambs of God Ministry, the ministry she founded that helps orphaned children in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Charo (1951 - )

Who She is:

Remembered for her beauty and low-plunging outfits when performing, Charo is a Spanish-American Actress, singer, comedian, and flamenco guitarist. She captivated crowds with her uninhibited manner and her catch-phrase “cuchi-cuchi”. Her heavy Spanish accent is part of her captivating charm. 

Her Story:

Born in Murcia, Spain, her exact birth year is not known for certain, although she claims it’s 1951 (some have disputed the year).  

Charo played guitar since the age of nine, and was trained under the famous Andres Segovia. However, Charo says that she was in a convent as a child and was there until she was 15. She recalls that a nun told her that she belongs in show business. She also recalls the first man to enter the convent - a music professor that was hired by her grandmother to give her weekly classical guitar lessons. 

Chaco married the bandleader Xavier Cugat in 1966 after being discovered by him, and they moved to the United States afterwards. According to some sources, he had been married four times already and married 20-year-old Charo when he was 66. She later claimed that she had merely married him as a business contract so that she could legally be brought to the United States. 

She frequently appeared on American television, and also performed and recorded in different styles as a musician for five decades. Although she wanted to be taken seriously as a classical Flamenco guitarist, her husband, who was also her manager, wanted her to have risque costumes and her renowned catchphrase “cuchi-cuchi”.

She once said in an interview that although she is known as a great musician around the world, she is known as a cuchi-cuchi girl in America, but that's ok because it took her all the way to the bank. 

Her Contribution to Las Vegas:

Charo took the Strip by a storm and became wildly successful with her musical skill and sex appeal in her performances. 

When performing, she had a gift for comedy, and she was a hit in Vegas showrooms. She was headlining Sahara’s Congo Room by the early 1970s. After that, she performed regularly on the Strip at venues, such as Caesars Palace Circus Maximus, the Flamingo Showroom, and the Tropicana’s Tiffany Theatre. One of the hottest stars on the Strip, she also regularly appeared on The Hollywood Squares and The Love Boat

By 1971, she was being paid as much as Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, and Dean Martin when she was headlining Las Vegas shows. 

Celine Dion (1968 - )

Who She is:

Dion is a world renowned singer, known and loved by many for her powerful voice. One of the best-selling artists of all time, the Quebecois Canadian singer took the Strip by a storm with her residencies in Las Vegas. 

Her Story:

Born in Charlemagne, Quebec, Dion is the youngest of 14 children. She was raised in a poor but happy home, the daughter of a French-Canadian butcher and his wife. 

With music as an integral part of her home, her first performance was at the age of five, at her brother’s wedding in 1973. As a child, she performed in her parents’ piano bar, which was named Le Vieux Baril, which means “The Old Barrel”, and she had high aspirations to be a performer. 

She first sent a recording out at age 12 that she wrote and composed with her brother and mother to music manager Rene Angelil, who ended up making her a star after he was moved to tears by her voice. He even mortgaged his home in 1981 to fund her first record, and she instantly became a star in Quebec and then her fame spread throughout the world. 

She was inspired by Michael Jackson after seeing him perform when she was 18. Her dream was to become a star like him, and she did. As her fame spread, by 1983 she won countless awards, including a gold record in France. She was the first Canadian artist to do so. 

The biggest international breakthrough for Dion was when Disney released its animated Beauty and the Beast in 1991, in which she duetted with Peabo Bryson in the movie’s soundtrack. It was her first top-ten hit in the UK and her second one in the U.S. She received a Grammy Award for best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal. 

In 2002, Dion was recruited and started a 600 show contract and appeared five nights a week in Las Vegas, where she skyrocketed sales and sang for millions, until her residency ended and she went back to touring.

Her Contribution to Las Vegas:

From a young age, Dion shot for the stars and to become one. With her voice renowned all over the world, she ended up landing among the ones in Vegas for many years.

The singer filled one of the greatest Vegas showrooms - the Colosseum. The Circus Maximus at Caesars Palace was even taken apart to make way for her showroom. She had two residences in Vegas, which ended in 2007. The whole time she continued to fill the colossal venue and never failed to sell out. 

Dion has one of the finest voices ever to fill a showroom the size of the Caesars Palace Colosseum. She also incorporated Cirque-style acrobats and dancing, video work, and an orchestra into her performances. She truly blew Las Vegas away, and grossed over $474 million dollars during her residencies, drawing in close to three million people.  

Geoconda Arguello-Kline (Birthday Unknown / Immigrated to the U.S. in 1979)

Who She is:

Arguello-Kline is the Secretary-Treasurer for the Culinary Workers Union, Local 226 here in Las Vegas, and she has been a constant voice and leader in the fight for workforce rights here in Vegas since the 1980s. 

Her Story:

After she moved to the U.S. as a political refugee in 1979 from Managua, Nicaragua, she moved to Las Vegas in 1983 and started working as a guest room attendant at Fitzgerald's Hotel (now known as The D Casino & Hotel). 

She started picketing for better working conditions outside the hotel in 1989. She joined the Culinary Union in 1990 as a negotiating committee leader and a picket line captain. She then joined the union’s staff, and she worked to organize employees in both union and nonunion casinos.

Arguello-Kline has worn countless different hats as part of the Culinary Union and she has continuously petitioned for better working conditions throughout the years. Her roles have included: Lead Organizer in the Frontier Strike, a Director in the Rio Campaign, Organizing Coordinator of the Housekeeping Study Campaign, and Staff Trainer of Organizers and Lead Organizers. 

She became the first Latina in 2002 to serve as president of Culinary Local 226 and then the Secretary-Treasurer for Local 226. She holds key positions with UNITE-HERE, the Center for American Progress Advisory Board, and the Immigrant Workers Citizen Project. 

Her Contribution to Las Vegas:

Arguello-Kline tirelessly fought for better working conditions for staff in Las Vegas casinos. 

Under her guidance and with her hard work, the Culinary Union membership grew in leaps and bounds and went from 18,000 members in 1987 to 60,000 members in 2021.  Under her leadership, they have been working to support working families during the Covid crisis. 

She was recently appointed to the Las Vegas Stadium Authority board of directors, which oversees the $2 billion soon-to-be home for the NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders. She plans to continue advocating for job training, equal opportunity hiring, and workforce development. 

Final thoughts

As Women’s History Month is upon us, why not take time to learn about some of the women who have, and who are, making a difference in this city with their gifts, voices, hard work, and lives? 

Let their stories inspire and motivate us to not let self-doubt hold us back from our aspirations.



Photo credit: Enis Gueler