At Home with Elaine Wynn
The “First Lady of Las Vegas” shares her love for Sun Valley and her goals for the next chapter in a remarkable life.
PHOTOGRAPH Kirsten Shultz
The air was unusually warm and damp for a late summer evening in Hailey, Idaho, but the woman at the center of an event held in honor of four of the most powerful men in America exuded all the cool necessary to keep the focus squarely on the task at hand.
Covering what’s usually the horse arena of River Grove Farm, more than 600 guests were seated at tables adorned with centerpieces overflowing with gigantic, fresh-picked sunflowers. The night’s hostess took to the podium resplendent in white, a loose-ruffled, high-neck blouse tied at the choke by an oversized black ribbon.
A radiant Elaine Wynn stood to regale four Sun Valley friends who were all turning 90; Parry Thomas, Harry Rinker, Marshall Bennett and Ken Leventhal. Each was once a master of finance and development; men whose work built cities and transformed industries—and who found in one another fellow kindred spirits while traversing the ski slopes of Bald Mountain for more than a half-century. Every five years, the tradition holds, a massive joint birthday bash is thrown in their honors, an event that becomes more poignant and emotional with each party.
To set the right tone that September evening in 2011, Mrs. Wynn’s charge was to balance these diverse backgrounds, demanding families and understandably big egos. It was a tall order, but one for which she was uniquely qualified given her decades at the epicenter of high society both in Sun Valley and Las Vegas; the latter of which her (now former) husband transformed with the famed Mirage, Bellagio and Wynn resorts. “I suppose at this point there’s an expectation that I will tell jokes about old age,” she told the assembly. “Well, I’m not going to do that because there are no old men here. I prefer to say that they are chronologically accelerated.”
A Coming Out Party
The party at Thomas’ horse ranch was many things, most obviously and importantly a moving tribute to the men celebrated. But it also represented a triumphant moment that placed Elaine Wynn at the center of the region’s social landscape, on her own terms and not simply as the elegant half of what for decades was widely known as the “First Couple of Vegas.” In a previous incarnation, she would have at least shared the spotlight and podium with the man to whom she was married for 46 years. Instead, the recently remarried Steve Wynn wasn’t even present despite the fact that Parry Thomas had been a surrogate father and seminal business mentor since the 1960s.
Indeed, this was very much an Idaho coming-out party for Elaine Wynn, a woman who has long been regarded by those in the know—Maria Shriver, Anna Wintour and the late Nora Ephron, among others—as a tour de force in her own right but whose broader public identity had heretofore been wound tightly with that of her media-magnet of a spouse.
By the time of the Wynns’ 2010 divorce, Elaine had already staked a claim as a leading education reform advocate via work in Nevada and Washington, D.C., as well as by serving as chairwoman of the nation’s largest dropout prevention charity, Communities in Schools. She also was about to be appointed by President Obama to the board of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Despite being a lifelong Republican and having a husband who was staunchly opposed to Obama’s first presidential campaign, she aggressively supported the Democrat. Her itch to pursue her own causes and interests, she admits, “may have even created some of the tension that existed [in the marriage] because I was always going in this direction.”
Still, she didn’t ask for any of this, to be suddenly single late in her seventh decade and then to have to watch as her ex-husband wed a woman 25 years his junior with whom he began an affair prior to asking for the divorce. While the split was publicly amicable, Elaine grows quietly emotional at the mere mention of the end of her famous marriage. It’s one of the few moments when her upbeat demeanor turns sour. In response to an inquiry about whether the divorce was a surprise, she asks curtly, “Why are you asking that question?”
Whipped Cream and Cherries
This is not the first time Sun Valley has figured prominently in the life of Elaine Wynn. She first came to these parts 40 years earlier with her husband—then a bit player on the Las Vegas casino scene who was being mentored by banker and Sun Valley second home owner Parry Thomas. Intensely athletic, Steve Wynn loved the Sun Valley atmosphere and knew that this place away from the Vegas hubbub would further his business and personal relationship with Thomas.
There was one impediment, however: his wife’s lack of skills on the slopes. After the former Miss Miami broke a foot on a European skiing trip, Steve realized something had to be done about Elaine’s failure at one of his favorite pastimes. The antidote? The Sun Valley Ski School.
“We came up here around 1969 and Steve handed me over to the assistant director of the ski school, Konrad Staudinger, and said, ‘Teach her to ski.’ I just completely entrusted myself to this guy from Austria,” she explained “So Konrad was my guy and, after I finally got over my fear, he taught me how to ski. I finally had patient instruction. You should never have your husband teach you how to ski because they are not sensitive to where you are and what your fears are. The key, like with everything, is to have a good teacher and then to have mileage.”
While learning to ski, Elaine fell in love with this nook of the world where life moved at a different pace. In the 1970s, as Steve Wynn became owner of the Golden Nugget Hotel-Casino and a rising presence in the gaming game, Elaine found their home on the Fairways as a form of counter-programming for her children. “Oh God, it’s a dramatic contrast. Everything in Las Vegas for me was sort of internal and indoors. Everything in Sun Valley is outdoors. Everything in Las Vegas was manufactured and imagined, recreated and embellished. Everything here is natural and authentic and wholesome and spiritual. Sun Valley allowed me anonymity. It allowed me to bring my girls up with certain basic values that were a little hard to impose in Las Vegas, like not to be overly impressed with material possessions or not to be focused on hair and makeup. It was opening up for them different worlds of physical fitness, of exploring your own capacity for physical demands—hiking, skiing, ice skating, horseback riding, things that would get you outside of yourself.”
While Elaine Wynn is frequently credited with divining several of the decorating flourishes of the company’s famous resorts, her life in Idaho was also responsible for making such landmark casinos as the Mirage and Bellagio possible. Elaine is the one who became best friends with her Sun Valley next-door neighbor Barbara Zax, wife of then-Hilton vice president Stan Zax who, it so happened, was a cousin of financier Michael Milken. Milken would go on to provide Steve Wynn access to more than $600 million needed to complete the Mirage in 1989 at a time when conventional banks wouldn’t gamble that kind of money on casino development.
With the Mirage’s smashing success and the 20-year megaresort building boom it kicked off, the Wynns became the undisputed monarchs of Las Vegas. With her smart fashion sense, local community activism in the arts and education and an ability to project a softer public image to balance out her husband’s confrontational and bombastic persona, she instantly became one of the most important ambassadors for both their resorts and the City of Sin itself. In 2005, Vogue regaled her as one of the world’s most stylish and self-possessed women, noting her role of selecting everything from cocktail uniforms to bedding to floral arrangements throughout their properties. And New York Times readers might have done a double take to see the destination formerly known for tacky buffets and dingy gambling parlors being represented by the lady wearing Oscar de la Renta on the cover of the Sunday Styles section in 2006.
Elaine modestly describes herself as having provided the “whipped cream and cherries” for the hotels, but Wynn Resorts chief designer Roger Thomas, son of Parry, says she’s also been his “sounding board and creative confidant” who often previewed his ideas. As he explained, “When you open a shampoo in the shower, Elaine has created that texture, the scent. She’s the one to say, ‘Are the ashtrays the right size? Are the sheets of a good enough quality? What are the towels like? Do they still feel tingly after they’ve been washed a hundred times?’ She diminishes her role, but I’ve depended on her for 30 years for guidance.”
Another person who never downplays her influence is Steve Wynn. In the annals of divorces involving the super-rich, this decoupling may go down as one of the most pleasant, at least publicly, while also among the world’s most expensive. There were no recriminations, no spats in plain view, no lawyers filing harsh legal briefs designed to embarrass anyone. Although the total settlement was never published, each ex-spouse is believed to have received an equal $741 million in Wynn Resorts stock. Elaine also kept their homes in Sun Valley and New York City, as well as, Steve Wynn told me, her pick of their famed art collection. “Let’s put it this way: Elaine is a very wealthy woman and no one deserves it more and no one will use the wealth more intelligently, more compassionately than she will,” he says. “She has a very definite attitude toward money that it should go to charity and to her grandchildren.”
As of fall 2011, thanks largely to a run-up in the stock’s value since 2010, Forbes Magazine estimated Elaine’s net worth at $1.7 billion.
The Right Path
The phone interrupts us twice as we chat by the towering rock fireplace at the center of the living room of her nine-acre spread in Ketchum, both times with callers who represented important aspects of Elaine Wynn’s current life. The first was a close friend who called to talk about Warren Buffett.
Buffett is a dear friend who has been lobbying Elaine to sign something called “The Giving Pledge,” a promise to donate at least half her of wealth to charity before she dies. The likes of George Lucas, Bill Gates and Ted Turner have already done so. “As soon as I am in a position that I feel comfortable enough to make that commitment, I will, but I am still managing my affairs and I will get there at some point,” she said. She has long been a significant philanthropist, having given millions to Las Vegas’ Smith Center for the Performing Arts and having paid to furnish the Sun Valley Symphony with its big-screen TVs for guests seated on the lawn.
The other call is from one of her grandchildren, several of whom were due to visit. “This summer was all about being the matriarch in a place that has great meaning for my daughters and my grandchildren. I wanted to provide some stability for them after a couple of seasons of changes in our life. It was great to have all seven grandchildren come and go, and play,” she explained. “Having the luxury to reflect here, surrounded by nature, is just so valuable.”
What comes up little with Elaine these days is Las Vegas. She keeps an apartment there and remains as a director of the Wynn Resorts corporate board, but it’s evident that she’s emotionally elsewhere. Her ex-husband and his new wife now reside in a villa at the Wynn and there’s almost no development happening in economically traumatized Las Vegas for her to offer input on anyway. “I am on the move at a time when I think Las Vegas is very flat,” she explained.
It’s certainly not how she expected either Las Vegas or her life to go, but she’s philosophical about the ride she’s been on. As she explained, “I didn’t know when I married Steve Wynn that I would wind up in Las Vegas and that I would be in the casino business. I have always said that I put one foot in front of the other and what motivates me, I like to think, are good, sound things to keep me productive and fulfilled whether it’s a commercial enterprise, a philanthropic one or a personal indulgence. I am a serious-minded person, and I think now I was always on this path.”