“Better to live one day like a lion than to live 100 years like a sheep.”
— Benito Mussolini
“It’s my motto, too.”
— Joe Conforte
True Beauty Comes from Inside
It was noon before he was awake and receiving visitors. Wearing tan kid slippers and a black velvet robe with satin lapels, he slid open the glass door of his plush, hot pink bedroom and stepped outside to a narrow cement balcony. Squinting in the white glare of the midday sun, he scanned the desert haze and mountains beyond Reno, then shuffled quickly around the balcony, surveying his grounds. His respectably expensive, two-story brick dwelling was similar to other suburban homes except for a surrounding cinderblock wall so high and formidable that it gave the place a fortress quality. Two German Shepherds, trained in Kansas to attack intruders, patrolled the shadeless front lawn. Inside an iron gate, his tank-like, silver-steel Bugazzi roasted in 105 degrees, his initials — J.C. — etched in silver plaques on both sides of the car.
This panorama of self-made wealth pleased Joe Conforte. He took in a deep breath, let it out, spat expertly on the manicured lawn below, swiveled and stepped back inside his air-conditioned home. Like a museum guide he moved through thickly carpeted, silver-walled hallways, then down the stairs into rooms as stark and opulent as a mortuary. The house, draped in soft, pastel silk, was crammed with statues, gold marbled mirrors and crystal chandeliers. Every available surface and cabinet shelf was stocked with glazed figurines — dogs, roosters, birds — gleaned from world travels.
Yes, America has been good to this poor immigrant boy from Augusta, Sicily. When he stepped off the boat in New York 35 years ago, he was simply the pudgy, uneducated son of a Massachusetts bootlegger. Today, at 46, he is still pudgy and uneducated, but he has accumulated more money and real estate than he knows what to do with, has appeared nationally in magazine and television profiles, and is widely heralded as a folk hero for his fearless, one-man crusade to legalize prostitution in Nevada — and then “the whole goddamn country.”
His fiery, often idealistic defense of legally controlled prostitution has enthralled jam-packed service club audiences throughout the state. “If a girl wants to screw,” he tells members of Kiwanis and Rotary, “whether she charges or not, it’s her business. The moralists,” he says scornfully, “they say it’s immoral. How can anything be immoral if it hurts no one and gives people pleasure? Morality is a thought, it’s not a fact, it’s not a thing that you can see.
“There have been prostitutes since the beginning of time. But!” Here Conforte’s black, marble-like eyes light up dramatically. “You cannot let them out on the street with no control. Because they’ll go wild. They’ll kill each other. They’ll spit on each other. They’ll never go see a doctor. People will look and say, ‘You see that? They’re all mixed up with dope. You see that? VD!’
“But! If you legalize it, control it, then the right things are done to it. Like we do at my places.”
Oh, right, Conforte does own two whorehouses himself, including the Mustang Bridge Ranch, Nevada’s largest; and for this he has been called such ugly names as “vice lord” and “pimp” by those who fail to appreciate the community service nature of his crusade. But he is not easily discouraged, replying with a shrug: “I’ve been called vice lord so many times it just doesn’t bother me anymore.”
Now it was time for Joe Conforte to start his day with a hearty, crusader-sized breakfast. Down in the kitchen Louise, the maid, was arranging a spread of bacon, eggs, toast, cantaloupe and sliced tomatoes. She was dressed in black slacks and a sweater and wore her wiry red hair in a laundromat queen’s ponytail. She had worked as a hairdresser at the Mustang Bridge Ranch until Conforte hired her for his personal maid.
On his way to the table, Conforte stopped by the stove to give her an affectionate hug and a pinch on the ass. It was easy to see from the way she looked at him and the way she radiated when she talked about him that she loved “J.C.” He was rowdy, all right, but he was 100 percent good people.
When she bent over to serve him his freeze-dried coffee, he stuck a finger in her chest and tweaked her nose when she looked down. Louise smiled and blushed slightly at this favorite joke, enjoying the attention.
“Look at that nose,” Conforte chuckled. “It would keep a cigarette dry in the rain.”
He patted his mouth with a napkin and readied himself for another lecture. “But she is beautiful,” he began in a husky voice with a slight Italian accent. “True beauty comes from inside. It’s just like that bowl of fruit over there. From the outside that apple looks good. Red and shiny, no bruises. But if I had been the one at the market, I would not have bought it. You know why? Because … they’re out of season.
“But give me that banana. On the outside it is brown and rotten looking. But! On the inside it’s ripe and juicy and full of flavor.” He peeled the banana and bit off a chunk, continuing with a full mouth. “I know about women. And I know about fruit. When I was 16, in Los Angeles, I owned my own fruit market. On Robertson Boulevard, it was. I had it for five years.” His voice grew sentimental as he recalled that time when he was just starting out in life. “Yeah, five years. ‘I bought the business for practically nothing, because the guy who owned it, he … had to go away.”
The guy who owned it was a Japanese-American who, like most Japanese-Americans in 1942, was ordered by the US Government to give up his business and “relocate” in a detention camp. To Conforte this was just one of the many breaks in life that success requires.