“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.
“There are three things in life,” said Conforte, “three things that will make you number one in anything you do. You gotta have all three; two out of three is not gonna get it for you. First, you need breaks. In other words, the opportunities. No matter how great or strong you are, unless you are near the gold line, you could dig all your life and not find any gold.
“Number two, you need guts. To become on top of anything, it’s not something for a gutless man to do, because you’re gonna have a lot of challenges, you gotta take chances.
“Number three, you need brains. If you don’t have the brains, then once you’ve had the opportunities and you’ve had the guts to get there, if you don’t have the brains to keep it going and manipulate it, you won’t last. So: Breaks, guts, brains.”
Conforte bit off another chunk of banana and continued the story of his rise to success. “This is very interesting,” he recalled. “The first time I started driving a cab was right after I got out of the Army in ’50. This was even before I had the house of prostitution in Oakland. That was in ’52. But back in ’50 I was in Oakland, driving a cab.
“I didn’t even know what the word trick meant. I didn’t know anything at all about the business. A sailor gets into my cab and says, ‘I want to see a girl.’ I says, ‘What do you mean?’ He says, ‘Oh, I want to see a girl, I want to have some fun, and I want to pay for it.’ And I said, heh, heh, ‘Well, I can’t help you. I don’t know anything about it.’ And he got a sad look in his face.
“But the very next day, or two days later, a colored girl gets in my cab. We had quite a bit of colored trade — uh, black trade — and she says, ‘If you ever have any business, send it to me.’ Just the opposite! So then it hit me.” He laughed, rolled his eyes and hit his forehead with his flattened palm.
“I said, ‘Ooooooooooooo! You mean customers! You mean guys that want to have intercourse with you and pay for it!’ So. A couple days later that same sailor comes by again. I says to him, ‘Hey, now I know where to take you.’ I took him to this girl’s apartment, and when he got through, she hands me three dollars.
“Well, I didn’t know what the hell it was. I didn’t know I was supposed to get money. Naturally, I took the $3; then I put two and two together. And that was the start.”
With this new knowledge his taxi/pimping business flourished, and before long Conforte discovered Nevada, where houses of prostitution had been operating unobtrusively since the days of the Comstock Lode. Prostitution was illegal in the two counties where Reno and Las Vegas are located, but in the rest of the state it was condoned; which is to say there were no laws against prostitution, and as long as brothels didn’t locate too near schools or churches, or advertise, they were tolerated.
Unless, Conforte learned, they were owned by newcomers like himself with noisy ideas about legal prostitution. But he soon devised a method for dealing with the authorities — a sort of trailer shell game. He parked his one trailer at a spot where three counties come together. When it got hot with one set of county officials, he’d simply tow his business a few feet to another county.
In 1955 he settled in Wadsworth, 30 miles down the Truckee River from Reno. Here he prospered for ten years until another brothel owner staked out territory 20 miles up the river, intercepting his Reno trade. Conforte’s operation countered by moving to Mustang, two miles closer to the city than his competitor. Pretty soon a gang war was raging. Thugs with shotguns began cruising the area, firing at each other and throwing bombs. Finally, someone managed to blow up the Mustang Bridge, the sole access to both brothels.
“If anybody has anything that’s successful and lucrative,” Conforte philosophized, pushing his empty breakfast dishes into the center of the table, “there’s always people that try to muscle in. Most of that stuff you can prevent before it starts by …” He searched for the right words. “… you build up a reputation that, uh, that I don’t take any shit from nobody. For instance, that you don’t leave no stone unturned.
“But this time they had the DA on their side. They tried to muscle in when I was, uh, gone.”
“When you were gone?” I asked. Conforte picked his teeth and stared through sliding doors to the kidney-shaped pool in his cement backyard.
(He avoided the question, but later, Bill Raggio, DA of Warshoe County from 1958 to 1970, told me the answer. “There was a statute on the books back then,” recalled Raggio, “that a pimp, which is what Conforte is, was defined as a vagrant. He liked to come around with his girls, parading himself all over the city. So every time he came into town, we arrested him on a charge of vagrancy.
(“It was during that time that Conforte arranged a meeting with me. He told me that if I didn’t leave him alone he would let out a story that I was having relations with a teenage girl. He likes to do that, have something on people.
(“Well, I got that conversation down on a tape recorder. There was a jury trial, he was convicted of extortion and sent to Nevada State Penitentiary for three years. While he was there he was tried for income tax fraud and sent on to McNeil Island for another year.”)
Conforte finished picking his teeth, then continued, “When I came back … I straightened things out. They learned their lesson, there’s been nothing since.”
“You straightened things out? What did you do?” I joked. “You give them an offer they couldn’t refuse?”
He tossed his napkin on the table and rose, chuckling softly. “They never even got the offer.”
One Day Like a Lion
Wherever he drove that afternoon, taking care of business, people treated Conforte like a celebrity. Dressed to kill in a diaphanous overblouse of multicolored swirls, electric blue raw silk slacks and blue suede go-go boots, he exploded into their worlds like bright fireworks, adding some flash to their routine hours. Bank tellers abandoned their dull calculations to gawk as Conforte paraded into the bank with his “entourage” trailing behind him — photographer Annie Leibovitz and I and Patrick Riley, “Sales Liaison Person” of the Bugazzi Company.
Riley was a haughty, pinched-faced man in a foppish pink suit who had driven Conforte’s new automobile from Los Angeles expressly to deliver it to him.
Those employees who could leave their desks gathered around the amazing car of steel and black alligator vinyl, while Conforte and the bank manager, backslapping and chortling, headed into the vault. Conforte emerged with a brick-sized stack of bills and presented them to Riley — $31,000 in cold, pale green cash.
Back in the car, Conforte told us, “I’m not bragging, I’m just telling a fact: Because I’m Joe Conforte, because I’m in this business, no president in the world gets treated any better than the way they do me here in this state.
“People treat me good because I’m human. I’m not ever above their head. I don’t wait for them to say hello to me, I say hello to them. You need public relations, you need tolerance from the public, when you are in a controversial business.”
He piloted us through the Nevada badlands, on the hairpin road that winds through steep hills to Virginia City, the Storey County seat. Inside the bulletproof car, we felt invulnerable, surrounded by grey suede and imported black marble. A plaque on the dash read MADE ESPECIALLY FOR JOE CONFORTE. We seemed to hover somewhere above the scenery more than drive through it, removed from the fierce heat of the desert that only blasted into the car when Conforte buzzed down a window to spit or throw out some refuse.
A few miles south of Virginia City, near Silver City, we screeched off the road and up a steep grade to the peak of the highest hill around. The view was magnificent — a 360 degree panorama of sagebrush hills and pure air.
“A few months ago, there was nothing here,” said Conforte, parking the Bugazzi and proudly introducing his newest pet project — a swank, plushly carpeted roadhouse called “Cabin in the Sky,” Cab inna Sky, as he pronounced it. He owned 40 acres here, the whole hilltop, and if the place caught on, he’d put in a hotel-casino, as big and brassy as one of the Harrah’s chain. “A first-class operation,” he promised. “Build big or stay home.”
Everyone in the bar filed out to the parking lot to greet Conforte and his car. The manager of the club, a big lug who practically stood on top of people to address them, ordered one customer to move his pickup truck so the Bugazzi could have the prime spot.
One disgruntled young woman, sloppy from too much beer, stood away from the crowd. “He’s an asshole,” she muttered, waving her beer bottle in Conforte’s direction. “He’s a prick, a show-off. Son of a bitch. Jus’ ’cause he owns a bunch of whorehouses. … If I had enough guts, I’d go up and tell him he’s an asshole.”
She considered this idea a minute, then turned on me. “And people who go around writing down what people say in notebooks are assholes, too.”
But for the rest of them, his arrival was a celebration. Women turned and radiated in his direction, and a mandolin player seeking work at the club serenaded him. Conforte allowed himself to be dragged off to the bar by one woman, who talked to him earnestly, if a little drunkenly, inches from his pudgy, smiling face.
Later, as we headed into Virginia City, the legendary gold rush boom town where Mark Twain once worked as a reporter, I asked Conforte what the woman wanted. “A business venture,” he said. “That’s what they all want. She wants me to open a bar with her, she wanted $500. I told her, ‘I’ll talk to you later.’ But,” chuckled Conforte, “later doesn’t ever come.
“But another lady, she come up with a real constructive idea. A stagecoach between the club and Virginia City. Now that would be really something. I like that.” He chewed the idea up with his cigar.
“It seems like once you get in the limelight, once people think you’re making big money, they just won’t leave you alone. Favors, donations. I donate a lot — churches, Boy Scouts, cancer, always something. I gotta turn at least half of them down because they’re silly things. But the important things — I donate probably $50,000 a year. I don’t keep track, but this is my guess.”
He stopped briefly at the one red light in town, then ran through it. He laughed at us when we craned our necks looking for cops. “Don’t worry,” he said gaily, “It’s my county!” Conforte’s Mustang Bridge Ranch pays $18,000 a year to this county for its operating license. Next year the price will go up to $24,000.
We pulled up in front of an antique building, the Storey County courthouse, and Conforte strutted up the wooden stairs like he owned the place. Inside, a broadly grinning policeman in a sharp khaki suit welcomed him. “Just the man I wanted to see,” he said, and with a friendly arm around Conforte’s shoulder, he whisked him away to his office, carefully shutting the door. When the two emerged, the other deputies — a pack of young, eager-faced men — welcomed “Joe” and gladly accepted free passes to the Mustang before they rushed outside to inspect Conforte’s new wheels.
Conforte walked on back to the assessor’s office, the scene of more family-type reunionizing, this time hand pumping and hugging with Judge Coletti and the county assessor, a leathery old man in a pearl-buttoned shirt and cowboy hat.
“How can I get out of paying the tax?” Conforte asked when they got down to the business of registering the car. “Now, Joe,” the assessor drawled, winking, “you know you’re gonna have to pay some tax.”
After they figured it out, Conforte dug out his bankroll, big as a bocce ball, and peeled off some fresh bills. “Always pay cash,” he advised others in the room who were waiting to see the assessor. “Credit cards, piss on ’em. They leave a record of where you been, how much you spend. They’re still on me, the IRS. And I paid over $100,000 in tax last year.”
“You should get a good lawyer,” suggested an obese cowboy in a baseball cap.
“I do have a good one,” Conforte chuckled. “That’s why I only paid $100,000.”
The happy mood of the day was shattered when the assessor called Carson City, the state capital, and found out that the license plate Conforte wanted — MY CAR — was already taken. It put Conforte in a black mood. He perched on the gas heater, in the assessor’s office looking glum and helpless. With his round shape, skinny legs and zippered boots he looked like an Italian Humpty Dumpty. The assessor asked for a second choice. “MY CAR is perfect,” Conforte lamented. Someone suggested Dream. Conforte thought that was bragging too much. Joe was another suggestion. But his initials were already on the car. “It’s too much,” he decided. “Bad taste. You’ve got to use discretion.”
It was a tense and silent few minutes before the assessor clapped his hand over the receiver and said eagerly, “How about this, Joe? MY KAR. K-A-R? Carson City says it’s OK.”
Conforte looked skeptical for the first instant, but as the idea sank in, his scowl melted into a full-faced grin. His whole face brightened like a young boy’s. He jumped down from the heater and hugged the man. “He’s smart,” he told us, then to the assessor: “We’ll have to give you a nice Christmas present.”
That evening, as we headed down Route 50 to Carson City bound for a $100-a-plate barbecue at Governor Mike O’Callaghan’s mansion, Conforte explained his tactics for getting prostitution legalized in Clark County, which includes Las Vegas.
“Anytime you have a law you can change it,” he explained with a confident laugh. “It’s politics, just politics. Those who are making money illegally in the hotels and from the street in Las Vegas, they have juice in the legislature to do that. Now we got juice in the legislature.”
“Yeah. How can I say it? Connections! Yeah, connections.”
Earlier Conforte had mentioned the white bearskin rug in his bedroom and told me a prominent Clark County official had brought it back from Australia as a gift. And now I remembered two guests I’d met at Conforte’s house — the Assistant DA of Clark County and a patrolman from Henderson, Nevada.
“I’m not saying that I bribe officials, or anything like that,” Conforte went on. “I don’t bribe officials. But it doesn’t hurt to be on good terms with them, to be on the right side of them. So you make sure the right people get in office.”
“How did you do that?” I asked. “I’ll tell you an example. Take Storey County, the county where I’m at. It has a population of about 800. It is a small county. That district where I’m at, we have about 300 voters. I put in a trailer park for them, I put in an apartment house, and so on and so forth; and I’m more or less acquainted with those people. When it comes to voting, most of them vote the way I ask them to do. And this, by having those votes, it gives an advantage to the right guy in getting in.”
He pulled into the driveway of the Governor’s mansion, a white-columned, colonial place, driving nearly into the back yard with his new Bugazzi. Hundreds of people who had paid $100 each to the University of Nevada football team were milling around smoky pits on the back lawn. It wasn’t until we piled out of the car that we noticed they were all men.
In his glow-in-the-dark clothes, Conforte disappeared into a sea of blazers and polo shirts. He wanted to see if Annie and I could attend the stag party. The most important people in Nevada would be there, and Conforte relished the idea of two newswomen following him around.
But he emerged with a disappointed shrug. He had even tried to arrange for us to wear aprons and look like waitresses. But it was no go. He fished the money ball out of his pocket and peeled off a $50 bill. He told us to go into town, have dinner and try our luck at the casino.
Later, Conforte joined us and played craps with hundreds of dollars. Annie and I learned blackjack. When we ran out of chips, he’d toss a handful onto our table, saying “When you’re with Joe Conforte, you never run out of chips.”
When Ralph Adano arrived at Conforte’s house, he was treated like a son. Conforte embraced him and announced with obvious pleasure: “This is gonna be my singer at Cab inna Sky. We’re gonna bill him as the New Sinatra.” Ralph was beaming. This might be the lucky break the former insurance salesman had been waiting for.
Last June, while driving to the Tijuana bullfights with a prostitute named Sugar, Conforte discovered Ralph performing at an Italian restaurant near Disneyland. He was immediately impressed. He thought Ralph looked like Dean Martin and Eddie Fisher and sang in the style of Frank Sinatra. But when he sent up a request for his favorite song, “It’s All Right With Me,” Ralph Adano shrugged. “See if he’ll remember it for this,” Conforte told the waitress, giving her $50 for the crooner’s tip box.
Somehow, with the help of his piano player, Ralph was able to oblige Conforte and ad-lib the song. “When I saw that $50 bill,” he later recalled, “I knew he had to be somebody.”
Now Conforte was rubbing his hands together like a social director, announcing the evening’s plans. He would give Ralph the grand treatment. “We’ll go eat, we’ll go to the nightclub, we’ll go to the whorehouse.” Then he took Ralph off to discuss a contract.
During a high-spirited ride to the restaurant, Conforte reminisced about his childhood. “I came over in 1937,” he said, “eleven years old. My father was already over here, he met me at the ship. I remember it was called the Rex.”
“No kidding!” Ralph exploded. “Me too! 1937. The Rex!”
“Hey!” said Conforte.
“Hey!” said Ralph.
“Hey! Where you from?” Conforte asked.
“Calabrese, eh? They’re very relaxed people.” Conforte grew quiet for a moment, then frowned. “How old are you?” he asked. “You look so young …”
Ralph, a trim, gorgeous man with dazzling teeth, said he was 42 but often passed for 35. Conforte was 46 and knew he looked it; he fondled a roll of his own growing paunch. “I got this here. I don’t see how you do it,” he said enviously.
“I work out in a gym,” Ralph told him.
“Yeah, I should, too … but I got no time. No time. …”
But soon Conforte dispensed with these worries and returned to his childhood. “I finished the 5th grade — that’s the equivalent to the 8th or 9th grade here,” he said. “I remember we used to wear them little black shirts.”
“Yeah,” said Ralph, “Mussolini. Remember those songs?” Ralph sang a few bars in Italian.
“Oh, yeah, revenge songs. Everything was patriotic-oriented then.”
“And the black armbands ….”
“He had a motto, Mussolini,” Conforte recalled. “‘It’s better to live one day like a lion than to live 100 years like a sheep.’ It’s my motto, too. I believe in that. When they write a book about my life, it should start off with that. One day like a lion. …”
At dinner Ralph Adano was gay and confident. In the past, when he was feeling skeptical, he’d shake his head and tell friends that he was born at the wrong time — too young for the Sinatra crowd, too old to be a rock star. But now, with his contract freshly signed, things might work out.
“You know,” said Ralph, cutting into a juicy slab of roast beef, “you only heard me singing at 60 or 70 percent. I had a strained vocal chord that night you came in. They had a crummy microphone system at that place, no reverb. Usually I never strain because I sing almost naturally. My voice records like you wouldn’t believe. Wait till you hear.”
But Conforte seemed to have lost his enthusiasm for the project with the contract consummated. He was busy shaking salt onto his butter dish. He dipped a green onion into the salt and chomped off the end. “You see these scallions? They put these on the table wherever I go to eat because they know I like them.”
Adano tried again. “I think it’ll be a kick for you, promoting me as the new Sinatra,” he ventured.
Now Conforte was concentrating on his coffee, sipping it slowly and loudly. “Yeah, I would love it.” He stirred the coffee to cool it. “Except the time. If I have enough time to spend for you and with you.”
“We could get somebody else to do the coordination,” Ralph suggested eagerly.
“Yeah …” Conforte carved out a spoonful of spumoni. “But even going out and looking …”
He shook his head.
“You get an agent. He does everything.”
“Well, even calling somebody, even that. Because I got so many other things on my mind. I got a 24-hour operation to take care of — 30, sometimes 40 girls. I got calls to return, appointments to make. And I travel a lot — Frisco, L.A., Chicago, New York.”
Ralph wilted in his chair, like day-old lettuce, nodding in grim understanding. Conforte looked at the check, then threw $70 on top of it. “Entertainers are a dime a dozen,” he finally said. “I’m talking about the mediocre ones. I only heard you one night, so I don’t know. Like I said, we’ll try it for two months. If you make it, fine. Then we’ll see.”
Ralph knew what Conforte was talking about. He had tried and failed before. “Well,” he said in a subdued voice, “if I don’t make it, that’s it. I don’t make it.”
“Oh, you’ll be all right,” said Conforte, trying to console him. “I’m usually right about these things. You’ll make it. Don’t worry.”
Conforte used the same psychology with his girls. He said you have to let them know they can be replaced. You have to get tough with them sometimes, show them who’s boss, treat them rough, wake them up. That way they try harder. And then, the next day, you act nice, give them a compliment to make them feel better again.
Life Among the Neutrals
I can be ruthless at times,” Conforte admitted, settling into a sateen chair in his formal living room. “On the other hand I can be as gentle as a lamb. Just like she was.” With his cigar he pointed to a gilt-framed portrait of his mother on the wall.
“To put it a different way, to one that’s against me, one of my enemies, it would not phase me at all if anything happens to them, no matter what it is. Whereas to one that’s my friend, or even the neutrals, even if they cut their little finger, it bothers me.”
He shifted his cigar from one cheek to the other, thoughtfully. “But you want to know what I’m like, I’ll show you.” He took out his wallet and rifled through it until he found a piece of paper folded and refolded limp. He handed me the document and I unfolded it gingerly, afraid that it would disintegrate in my hands. It was a horoscope, carefully torn from some magazine.
“Read which one fits me most,” he said. “Number 11. Sagittarius.”
“Optimistic visionary,” I read. “Rushes forth to conquer the unconquerable and usually succeeds. When he doesn’t, the reason could have been this sign’s compulsion to tell the brutal, tactless truth.”
“You know,” said Conforte, his eyes misty, “that really fits me; it really fits me.”
There was a picture of a young boy in his wallet, a black-haired, dark-eyed youngster resembling Conforte. It was his son. “I used to go with his mother — she worked at the house — ten, 12 years ago. It was during that stage he was born. This is my girlfriend now.” He leafed through to a picture of a blond woman, “Linda.” He kept her in an apartment in Oakland, he said.
He also had three grown daughters by his wife, Sally, an allegedly ferocious woman who was now vacationing in Miami. Two were married and lived in San Francisco. The third ran a PBX machine at Harrah’s in Reno. I asked what he’d do if one of them wanted to become a prostitute.
“I would discourage her. I would do everything in the world to discourage her from engaging in that business. Now you’re gonna ask me, ‘Then why do you engage in that business?’ Right? That would be the logical question. Because, the fact remains that no matter how many fathers try to discourage how many daughters not to engage, some will anyway. So as long as they’re going to engage, isn’t it better to have it controlled and legalized where they don’t catch VD, where they don’t rob customers, where they themselves don’t get robbed and beaten over the head?”
But why would he tell his daughter not to do it?
“Well, let’s face it.” Conforte sounded irritated. “Let’s be realistic. There’s better occupations in life than being a professional prostitute.”
“You mean financially, or …” “No,” he said, suddenly tired, rubbing his eyelids. “Morally?”
“No, not morals. We’re talking about what a girl likes to do.”
“More interesting?” I continued.
“Whatever she wants to do,” he snapped. “There’s other things she could do. She can get married and raise kids or something like that.” Conforte sighed and finally relaxed. “But if she wants to become a prostitute, then fine. Let her. That’s her business. If she don’t, she shouldn’t. That’s the only reason. I see nothing wrong with it. Preferably I would not want my daughters in there, but not because I think it’s wrong.”
Like life in a submarine that submerged three weeks at a stretch, time at the Mustang Bridge Ranch had a different rhythm. The women worked in 14-hour shifts, most of them from four in the afternoon until six in the morning. Only a few worked the daytime hours, when business was slow. They worked seven days a week, three weeks in a row. They stayed at Mustang 24 hours a day. Those were the rules.
Actually, there was no immediate reason to leave the sealed, cyclone-fenced area. Every service was provided — hair-dresser, masseuse, laundress, maids. Traveling salesmen vended racks of clothing in a back room. A snack kitchen was stocked with a dietician’s nightmare: Mother’s cookies, cakes, potato chips, marshmallows, candy, donuts, a wide range of ice cream.
When they weren’t working, the girls hung out in a back room lounge, a narrow room in one of the Mustang’s 13 interconnected trailers. It was here that I came across Kathy as she relaxed on a folding chair, her legs spread apart, chewing on a fudgesicle. She was a lanky, worldly looking 24-year-old, dressed in a simple halter-top bathing suit and high-heeled clogs, her blonde hair done up in a fashion model’s topknot. When she learned how much money I made in a year, she guffawed in a coarse laugh not unlike a crow’s caw and slapped her thigh. She could make that in two months there, she said. “How much you make depends,” she explained.
“You can have $10 tricks all night long and not make as much as if you had three tricks spend $100. For $10 you give a straight lay. You can give a half and half — a blowjob and a lay — but you try to get more.”
But, Kathy wanted to make one thing perfectly clear. “The guys can’t kiss you. No matter how much they spend, they can’t kiss you. Period.” She tossed the clean fudgesicle stick into a trash can and started on a pile of M&Ms.
“This is the best house in the valley,” she went on. “J.C.? He’s beautiful people. He’s like a father to everybody out here. I remember the first time I met him, I was working at the Starlight, his other place. It’s run the same way as this one, only smaller. Anyway, he walked over to me and grabbed my ass. Well, I didn’t know who he was. I said ‘Fuck off.’ He’s dug me ever since.”
Kathy was a veteran of the “illegal” Las Vegas call girl scene. She said call girls made more money, but there was always the threat of being caught by the police or being maimed by sadists. But here at Mustang, a girl could have peace of mind. If anything went wrong, she could scream.
“I had a freak last night,” she said, warming to the subject. “He couldn’t come unless I had a certain pair of patent leather shoes on and bobbysocks. I didn’t have any, so he’s going to bring them for me next time. But it’s a lot more convenient if you have your own equipment. That way you don’t have to go running around all over the house looking for what you need, spending his time and yours. You need a good vibrator, a garter belt and bra, a bullwhip or a large belt, some rope — although a lot of guys like to be tied up with nylons.”
“By their feet?”
“No, you tie their balls and everything together and beat on ’em. There’s some guys, you can slug ’em in the balls as hard as you can and they won’t move a muscle. We get some can’t come unless you call them a motherfucker.”
Suddenly we were interrupted by a rasping, alarm-like buzzer so loud it could be heard throughout the Mustang’s 30-odd rooms. It signaled that a customer had just been let through the front gate and in ten seconds would be entering the main parlor, ready to choose a girl Kathy rushed in and joined the other prostitutes for the “lineup.”
There was Tony: a wiry, energetic girl with a wide mouth and an easy grin. She looked and moved like a female Mick Jagger. She always said she intended to leave Mustang after one more year, but she said it so often, and the years slipped by so quickly, that most people figured she’d probably stay there forever.
Brandy: Six feet tall “in my wig and heels,” hefty, with milk-perfect skin. She’d been in the business a decade and loved a life with no worries and everything done for you.
Chi Chi: Dark and tough as a panther, she purred her name cat-like and spent most of her hours filing her nails. The walls and ceiling of her room were covered with greeting cards from satisfied customers.
Pam: A high-strung, 19-year-old Texan who looked like a coed, but attracted mostly elderly types. When I talked to her, she grabbed my notebook and said, “What you writin’?” then grabbed my pencil and proceeded to cross everything out.
Plus Tiger, Cherry, Dolores, Gypsy, Yoko, Toy. All the girls were dressed in the briefest bikinis or lingerie and, standing tall and sexy in a stunning semicircle, they offered each customer his own private beauty pageant. The judges included cowboys, construction workers, teen-agers, bureaucrats and businessmen.
Blacks, lesbians, transvestites and members of other minority groups enjoyed their pageants in a special side room, attended only by volunteer prostitutes. Later that evening, for instance, the front door opened and in wobbled a tall man with the build of a football player. He wobbled because he was wearing a spiffy pair of black high heels — also a black miniskirt, white blouse and black pageboy wig. He was quickly ushered to the side room.
“Now that’s unusual,” said Joe Conforte, who had stepped momentarily from his private office. “That’s very unusual. We get a few like that, but it’s unusual.” Although I was free to wander between the front parlor and the back lounge, I was unable, of course, to witness the real order of business, which took place behind closed, soundproof doors. Much later, however, I heard tapes recorded by filmmaker Robert Guralnick, who is producing a feature-length documentary about the Mustand women, tentatively titled Working Girls. Here’s what he recorded in one girl’s room:
Prostitute: [kind voice] Hi, honey. What’s your name? (door closes)
Man: [deep, gruff voice] Jim.
Prostitute: Hi, Jim. Where you from? [sound of running water as she washes his cock]
Prostitute: Yeah? What kind of business you in, Jim?
Man: I own a filling station. [Here the tape gets fuzzy, but she makes a deal with him, he pays her, she leaves the room to turn the money into the cashier. A card which she carries in her bikini bottom is punched to indicate she had a customer. The sound picks up again after they’ve finished their party, and she is washing him, and herself, again.]
Prostitute: Ever had two girls, honey?
Man: No. Uh, how much?
Prostitute: Thirty apiece.
Man: $60? Uh, Ok. [gives her the money]
Prostitute: Listen, you’re undressed, so why don’t I go and pick one for you? That Ok?
Prostitute: You like big tits? Want me to get one with big tits?
Man: Yeah, get a big one. [sound of door closing, pause, sound of door opening] Prostitute No. 2: [hearty voice] Hi! How are you, honey? What’s your name?
Prostitute No. 2: [laughing] We got a lot of Jims here tonight. What kind of business you in, Jim?
Man: I own a filling station.
Prostitute No. 2: Where you from?
Man: Santa Barbara.
Prostitute No. 2: Mmm. Santa Barbara, [doors open when first girl comes back from turning in more money] You like to eat pussy, honey? OK. One of us will sit on your face while the other will sit on your peter. [long silence, then, in a disciplinary tone] If you bite her, honey, I’ll bite you. [more silence, then the hum of a vibrator] You ever had a Siamese French? You never had two girls french you at the same time? Wanna try?
Man: Sounds like a winner.
“Mmmm-mmm: Give me some champagne! I don’t make a dime if I’m not drunk!” laughed one of the girls as she stuck out her empty cup toward the head of the table. Tonight was Brandy’s birthday, and the girls of Mustang Bridge Ranch had decided to do it up right.
“Drunk or not drunk,” drawled another, “Ah could do somersaults tonight and Ah wouldn’t get picked.”
The girls had provided everything — presents, bottles of champagne, a bowl of pink passion punch with white gardenias floating in it, and, of course, cake. They sang “Happy Birthday to Brandy,” and Brandy grew giddy with all the attention.
“I’m shakin’ like a leaf,” she said as she opened her presents — first some perfume, then an electric razor, a wooden toy cannon, some brandy, naturally, and an elaborate black plastic brandy snifter set shaped like a coach with a flask, four snifters, and a music box that played “How Dry I Am” when she lifted up the flask.
“Hey, listen to that,” said someone. “You’ll never be able to sneak a drink with that thing!” And the girls shrieked with laughter and asked for more champagne.
Then it was time to cut the cake, a flat, rectangular model with flowers and white icing. But hardly had the girls begun to eat it when the gate buzzer sounded and they bolted into the front parlor for the next line-up.
Brandy stayed behind to collect her presents and clean up the wrapping paper. This was her 31st birthday, her seventh celebrated at Mustang. The party had lasted nine minutes.
Perhaps it was the late hour or the birthday champagne, but Joe Conforte was acting looser than I’d seen him before, kind of wild-eyed and frisky. He led me to his office and told me, “Remember what I told you? Talk to the girls, I tell you. They will talk, the others will not. There’s a way to talk to them that you can make them do anything. It’s like a baby that won’t eat. There’s a way to talk to them; they’ll eat.”
He said to wait there — I sat down on his office bed — and when he came back he was laughing mischievously and dragging Chi Chi behind him by the wrist. “This is Chi Chi. Chi Chi will talk to you. Won’t you?” She smiled obligingly and nodded.
“Look at this girl, isn’t she beautiful?” said Conforte. And he was right, she was a stunning woman — black-skinned, broad-nosed, wearing a sleek black wig. “Look at this body. Did you ever see such a body?” She wore a bright yellow bikini outfit, the top a complicated rig that displayed her bosom like trophies on a shelf.
“Turn around, Chi Chi. Show what a nice ass you have. Such a nice ass.” He turned her around. The bottom half of her outfit was so brief that half her buttocks overflowed the top of it. “I like a big ass,” Conforte said. “If a girl doesn’t have a big ass, I have no use for her. I’m not talking about for the business, but for myself. I love a big ass.” He squeezed and pinched her. “Such a firm, good body. Take off your clothes, Chi Chi. Show what a nice body you have.”
Chi Chi laughed at this suggestion, and kept laughing when he lunged at her and tried to pull her pants down. She squirmed away from him and ran around the bed, where he cornered her. Again, he told her to take her clothes off. Still smiling, Chi Chi stopped trying to fight, and in a resigned but pleased sort of way started to unfasten her bra.
“I can tell,” Conforte said. “I can tell by the appearance of a woman, by the way her face and mouth are built, I can tell how she excels in lovemaking with her mouth. There is a test.” He reached for Chi Chi’s face and grabbed her cheek between his thumb and fingers. There was a smacking noise as the inside of her cheek left her teeth. “You hear that noise?” he said. “Now, without that noise …”
Chi Chi’s arm moved out like a dart. “Ow! What did you do?” Conforte yelled, grabbing his thigh and Chi Chi’s wrist. “What did you do, stick me? What did you stick me with?” He was laughing as he rubbed his wounded thigh and twisted her arm away from him. She brought up her hand and presented him with a safety pin, as if it was a delicate flower. She was smiling — a wide, sly, foxy smile.
“Now take off your clothes,” Conforte ordered her. He sounded angry, but not that angry. He seemed to like them spirited.
“I am taking off my clothes,” cooed Chi Chi. “That’s where the pin come from.” She undressed, put her things on the bed and stood there naked and proud, hands clasped behind her back like she did in the line-up. “Look at those breasts.” Conforte took one in his hand and exhibited it like a prize grapefruit. “Did you ever see such a round, firm breast? And the ass.” He moved up behind her. “It’s beautiful. So high and firm.” He grabbed her hips and rubbed himself against her backside. “Oooooo,” he murmured, “I think I’ll take you home with me tonight.”
Chi Chi stood like a statue, smirking. Her eye makeup gave her a cat-like, devil woman appearance. She had painted green extensions from her eyelids to her temples. Her eyes were cold and wise, as if she were saying, “This is nothing to me. It doesn’t touch me. So don’t let it bother you, honey.”
When he let her go, she asked permission to get dressed, and with practiced speed she picked up her pieces of clothing, put them on and quickly slipped by him. But not fast enough to prevent him from grabbing her one more time. He bent over and took a bite of her ass.
“Oooo,” drooled Conforte, “black meat!”
“Jus’ well done, honey,” she purred. I remember seeing his spittle on her ass as she strode by me out the door.
By 6 a.m. all traces of the birthday party had been removed from the long formica table, and it was now set for another ceremony. In front of Joe Conforte was spread the night’s receipts, a chart showing how much each woman had turned in and a stack of cash six inches high.
Usually someone else paid the women, but Conforte wanted to show me how businesslike and efficient legalized prostitution could be. He had the women who’d just finished their 14-hour shift form a line down an adjacent corridor. One by one they stepped up to the table and presented their punch cards. Solemnly he tallied up the holes in the cards against the cashier’s ledger.
Some in bathrobes now, some dressed for the street, the women waited, tired and impassive while he carefully counted out their take and handed it to them with a flourish — and a compliment if it was large. For some he had words of encouragement and advice.
When this process had been repeated 14 times, the stack of bills was diminished by half. The women got to keep 50 percent of what they turned in. Out of that they paid about $200 in room and board for the three weeks. Most of the women made a little over $100 for the night’s work. For his efforts, Conforte kept the other 50 percent.
He took the remaining stack of money and folded it in two. He lifted up his overblouse and stuck the bankroll in his pocket. It made a large bulge in his pants. Then he took the receipts and systematically tore every piece of paper in two and then in two again. He picked up the scraps and put them in a pile at the center of the chart. He folded the corners of the chart together to make a neat, square package.
Horace, a security guard, came forward and took the package from Conforte. Then the kitchen door to the outside was opened and the girls filed outside into the cool, pastel light of morning. The only sound was the soft crunch of footsteps through the dirt parking lot as the girls who were dressed headed for the road to the Mustang Bar. They would be allowed 45 minutes, a little change of atmosphere to unwind before returning to go to sleep.
Conforte stayed inside the cyclone fence, as did Horace who now marched to a corner of the yard, knelt in the dirt and laid the package down. He took a match and scratched it into a flame with his thumbnail. He tipped the match down to let the flame get strong, then set it on a corner of the package. The flame spread and soon the whole package was ablaze.
“We try to make believe this is like a grocery store or any other business,” Conforte was saying. “We have rules — no narcotics, no robbing. We have a doctor come once a week. A girl who works here knows that we put up with no trash.
“It is as I said,” he continued, climbing the stairs to the house. “You are not going to eliminate prostitution. So. You have two choices: Control, or uncontrol. Now, which do you want?”
He paused thoughtfully outside the door. “You should finish the article with that,” he told me. “Yeah. Just the last statement I said. ‘Two choices. Which do you want? This one or that one?'” He dictated while I wrote in my notebook. “This is my opinion. You should finish it off with that.”
And I would have finished it off with that … except that a month or so later, as I was walking down Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, a license plate caught my eye: “MY KAR, Nevada.” There was Joe Conforte, smiling from the cockpit of his Bugazzi and sporting a new pencil-thin moustache that made him look something like Chef Boy-ar-dee.
He motioned me into the car, next to a glamorous blonde he called Goldie, and sped off to a dark Persian restaurant on the Avenue. Here I learned the reason for his Berkeley visit: he knew the waitress.
“She used to be called Crystal at the joint,” Conforte explained after we were seated. “Remember that picture in my wallet? That girl, Linda, I showed you? She used to live in the apartment in Oakland?” To refresh my memory he fished the photo out of his wallet and showed it around the table. “She’s the girl I’m trying to forget … and I’m pretty sure Goldie, here,” Conforte took the blonde’s hand in his, “is gonna help me do it.”
Obviously, the appearance of Conforte and Goldie was upsetting to Linda, who had given up Joe and the Mustang Ranch and was waitressing to put herself through school for a teaching degree. She was embarrassed and she said so. And when she returned with our drinks, she spilled one of them down my back.
“I must be nervous,” she apologized, “I never did that before.”
But Conforte was in an impish mood, and after dinner, as Linda was serving coffee, he put in a special request.
“Light my cigar for me,” he demanded, shoving one of his huge Nicaraguan numbers at her. “For old times’ sake.”
“No, Joe,” she demurred. “I’d feel funny. Let Goldie do it.”
“Aw, come on, light it.” He implied she was acting silly, but it didn’t work.
“No, Joe,” said Linda. “I’m on to your game, Joe.”
After she left to turn the money into the cashier, Conforte became puzzled and asked us, “What game? Am I playing a game?” He picked up the cellophane cigar wrapper, flattened it and used it like dental floss to clean his teeth.
When Linda returned with his change, Conforte took her wrist. “Wait a minute, I want to give you your tip,” and from his breast pocket he produced a crisp $50 bill.
“Thank you, Joe, that’s sweet,” she said, taking the money.
“Yeah.” Conforte shrugged modestly. “I know you need it. It’s nothing.”
“Well, thank you,” she repeated.
“That’s okay. Just give me a little kiss, okay? To say thank you. Here, on the cheek, that’s all. Will you do that?” He had a way of being endearing and hard to resist, like a begging puppy dog.
Linda bent over and dutifully kissed his cheek. He smiled, his dark brown eyes sparkling.
“You see?” he joked. “I can still get you to serve me — even if I have to pay for it.”