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So we made another new plan: The photographer and I would head back to L.A. with the photographer’s girlfriend, who luckily happened to be betting the horses at Santa Anita that day, and drive our own car out in the morning. Fleiss would head to Nevada with the film crew. The photographer’s girlfriend arrived to rescue us. There was only one thing I wanted to know before we left.
“Is it always like this?” I asked Fleiss.
She smiled for the first time in a little while. “Chaos, baby. I thrive on chaos.”
It was gold miners who brought prostitution to Nevada, and ever since, the sale of sex has been part of the culture. Both Reno and Las Vegas had thriving red-light districts until 1951, when they were declared a public nuisance and shut down. Brothels were allowed to continue — though not in a way that pleased the mostly mobbed-up pimps who ran those joints. Responding to this, in 1970, Joe Conforte, owner of the Mustang Ranch — a man about whom The Economist once wrote “spent time in jail, tried to float the brothel on the stock market, fled charges of money-laundering, racketeering and bribery, and is now rumored to be in Brazil” — successfully lobbied the state for the licensing of brothels and brothel workers, thus providing protection against similar enforced nuisance closures. This law was, however, amended in 1971, when a clause outlawing prostitution in counties with a population over 400,000 was added. At the time, Clark County, home to Las Vegas, was the only one affected. Since then, five other counties have passed antibordello legislation, while the other 11 continue to permit it.
Economically, the brothel business is no small thing. As Jessi Winchester, ex–working girl turned political candidate, and author of From Bordello to Ballot Box (and the phrase, “In the bordellos I worked with professional businesswomen who rented their bodies, in politics I was surrounded by whores who sold their souls”), pointed out, “Brothel taxes literally support whole counties in Nevada.”
Currently, there are roughly 300 licensed Nevada sex workers, 30 cathouses and one prospective Fleiss-run doghouse. The Nevada State Health Division estimates there are 365,000 paid sex acts annually in Nevada, roughly 1,000 a day. According to George Flint, chief lobbyist for the Nevada Brothel Association, the average customer drops about $600 for an amorous adventure, which adds up to a multimillion-dollar industry. It wasn’t too far in the past that the taxes on the Mustang Ranch accounted for one-third of the Storey County budget. These days, Dennis Hof alone contributes $200,000 a year to state coffers. In Nye County, where Fleiss plans on opening her establishment, similar sin taxes pay for the $120,000-a-year EMT service, among other things.
Oddly, the last, and perhaps most formidable, of Fleiss’ hurdles is the lobbyist George Flint himself. It was Joe Conforte who started the Nevada Brothel Association and George Flint whom he hired to run it. Fleiss maintains that Flint’s problem stems from her refusal to join his association, but whatever the reason, Flint has been the most publicly vocal about his dislike for both the stud farm and its owner.
“Who knows what the fuck that girl’s going to do next?” said Flint, when I phoned his office. “She’s not planning on opening anything. All she wants is the publicity. Let me tell you something: We’re not so stable that the business can sustain this kind of an attack. If she tries to open her stud farm, she’s going to get the whole industry outlawed.”
Bob Price, who served 28 years in the Nevada state Legislature and has been a longtime brothel supporter, disagrees. “There’s no such danger,” he said. “Every now and then legislation gets introduced to shut down the brothels, but the bills never make it out of committee. We’re very protective of our old-time traditions here. Like it or not, prostitution is just one of those traditions.”
I was still eager to check out Fleiss’ twist on those traditions. So the morning after the truck debacle, I rang her at home. She told me to get on the road, then — in typical Fleiss fashion — told me to call her back in five minutes. She was always telling people to call her back in five minutes. Usually she answered.
We got on the road, but she didn’t answer. She didn’t answer while we were cruising through California, and she didn’t answer when we reached Nevada. Not knowing where in Nye County she lived, we decided to head to Las Vegas to test an idea.
A few weeks back I had spoken with Nye County Commissioner Candice Trummell, one of the two fundamentalists who now control Fleiss’ fate. She was up-front about her religiosity. “My father is a Southern Baptist minister,” she said, right off the bat. “I’m opposed to legalized prostitution. But as long as Fleiss doesn’t break any laws and as long as the public wants this, I won’t let my personal agenda stand in her way.”