Dixie grits meet Las Vegas glitz


Like any self-respecting Southerner, it’s hard for me to pass up reading a well-written obituary. Especially when it runs in the Wall Street Journal and begins with she was “a dash of Southern class in a raucous old boys club.”

Thus began the ending of the life of one Claudine Williams, a Shreveport, La., native, who remarkably showed her Southern prowess and charm in the toughest of worlds – the mob-run Las Vegas of the 1950s and ‘60s.

Reading of her remarkable life and accomplishments reminded me anew of something I’ve always known, of which I have long written and, yes, preached from the pulpits of my soul: Smarts and toughs wrapped up beautifully in charm, personality and Southern-style hospitality can take a woman a long way.

It took Ms. Williams to the chairmanship of the prestigious Harrah’s Las Vegas Casinos. (Word of note to Southern trivia fans: Bill Harrah was briefly married to Mississippi’s Bobbie Gentry, who wrote the famed Southern Gothic songs, “Ode to Billy Joe” and “Fancy.”)

The mayor of Las Vegas spoke of how the 88-year-old woman had blazed paths in the rough-and-tumble gambling town. “She charmed them with how smart and talented she was, and she really got gaming.”

Aw, that good old-fashioned Southern charm. See, it has a place everywhere in the world. Even at the blackjack table on the Vegas strip.

Her story is fabled. Born into a poor family to a single mother, she became the primary breadwinner by 15 and quickly realized she could make more money by dealing cards than waiting tables in Shreveport and, later, Houston.

I’m not seeing any formal education here and, again, this makes me cheer: Fortitude and ingenuity can take a person far. Most of life’s richest, strongest lessons do not lie between the pages of a college textbook.

One thing led to another. She married her business partner – a marriage that lasted until death did them part in 1977 – and moved from Houston, where they had run casinos, to Nevada where they purchased the small but prosperous Silver Slipper Casino.

It was famous – so famous that even I knew this – for the giant slipper that sat atop its sign. They sold that casino in 1968 to the eccentric Howard Hughes, then used the profits to build the riverboat-shaped Holiday Casino across from Caesar’s Palace. Eventually, it would become Harrah’s Las Vegas in a merger and she would become chairman of the board.

While she was running the Silver Slipper, though, it would become the after-hours gathering place for celebrities, and Ms. Williams would become famous for pioneering what has become a casino institution from the Vegas to Atlanta City to Biloxi and all casinos joints in-between: the 24/7 hot buffet.

There. Shouldn’t we have all known that a Southern woman was behind the most famous buffets in the world? Shouldn’t it have been a logical conclusion? After all, Southern women and food go together like Augusta National and green jackets.

But somehow it never occurred to me. I feel real disappointed in myself. I, the head cheerleader for a brand of women that cannot be defied, stared down or backed out of a room full of tough-talking men, never considered the possibility that one of our own had conquered a world where only the stoutest survive.

She not only conquered it, she helped to redefine it. With charm, femininity, perfectly coiffed hair, ever-present lipstick and mascara, she disarmed the armed and laid Southern hospitality at the feet of a gambling, glittering town.

Gee, I love obituaries and the life stories and lessons they reveal. And I especially love it when I read of a woman like Claudine Williams, who brilliantly blended grits with glitz.

A Southern woman set the table for a non-stop buffet. I should have known that.

[Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of “What Southern Women Know About Flirting” and “The Town That Came A-Courtin’.” Her newest book is “What Southern Women Know about Faith.” She lives near Gainesville, Ga. Sign up for her newsletter at www.rondarich.com.]