Monday, March 21, 2011

News from 1964

My current WIP is set in Las Vegas in 1964. The upside of this is that I can walk Rachel's neighborhood and decide which house she might have lived in. The downside is that other opportunities for research are very limited. Las Vegas is a city that doesn't consider its own history very important.

Oh, sure, we have a lot of lore: Busgy Siegel...Benny Binion...Howard Hughes. But uncovering ordinary life in Las Vegas is hard. For instance, the microfilms of Las Vegas' two newspapers are kept at UNLV. But they're not indexed. Actually, they are partly indexed, but those partial indexes are kept in a different location, across town. So when I do get down to UNLV to do look at those microfilms, I'm just going to have to fish around.

Until I can get to UNLV, however, I've been relying on the Henderson Home News. Henderson, the suburb where I now live, was in those days a small industrial town way some ways out in the desert from Las Vegas. The Henderson library has digitized every issue since 1950 and put it online. Keep in mind that Henderson was a small, small town in those days. The Home News came out two days a week and ran about 4-6 pages, plus advertising. Sample front page articles: someone found a lost dog out in the desert. Two rattlesnakes are killed on Texas Street. A square dance is held to raise money for a local family with a sick child.

But as I read a little more, I began to see the Henderson, for all its sleepiness, had some major stuff going on. Perhaps not surprisingly for a small town dominated by industry, there was some political corruption. The Home News ran a number of headlines critical of the mayor, a man named William Byrne. In January of 1964 they criticized him for keeping Henderson out of the state health district. By March, they were able to show that he had enriched himself in a local land deal. In April they began a recall drive. By August (I skipped ahead), there was a new "mayor pro tem," which suggests that Byrne resigned. In February an Esquire magazine writer named Thomas K. Wolfe accuses the Henderson hospital, St. Rose of Lima, of catering to Vegas call girls, an allegation loudly denounced by all. (Seems unlikely to me...the hospital was still run by nuns in those days.) In late January, Mrs. Maralyn Warmington goes on trial for shooting her husband, who had threatened to kill her if she left the house to go to a ceramics class. Mrs. Warmington is acquitted a week later, after the police mishandle the evidence in the case. (On purpose, I wonder?) In September of 1963 John F. Kennedy visits Henderson and makes a speech at the Convention Center. Two months later the newspaper comments on his death are shocked and heartfelt.

I also begin to see, a little bit, the town I know. One of the Home News reporters, Jim Gibson, was mayor when I moved here, and then ran for governor. His father, Fred Gibson, was one of Henderson's first residents, and every day I drive to work on a road named after him. Then there's this article from 1963, a few weeks before Kennedy's assassination: "Basic High Graduate Harry Reid Passes Bar Exam."
(For my non-American followers, Harry Reid is now the Majority Leader of the US Senate.)

Of course, I'm writing my WIP about Las Vegas, not Henderson. But I think a lot of the stuff in the Home News will still be useful. The paper ran a lot of advertising, which is great for getting a handle on prices of things. There are bits of local color: rockets trails from the Nevada Test Site seen in in the sky at sunset. High school basketball standings. A "teen-age rumble" which resulted in a locker search at the high school, which resulted in a bottle of gin being found in a girl's locker.

No word on what happened to the girl, or the gin.

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