Satre: Meade Dixon went with him to the Mayo Clinic along with Verna. I was back in Reno working on the documentation for Bill Harrah to buy the biggest retail auto dealerships on the East Coast. We had arranged a $25 million line of credit to make that acquisition, and we had all the documentation ready, and Meade said, ‘Do not sign it; do not send the cash until we know if he’s going to make it through this operation.’
[I’d asked Harrah,] do you want to do anything with Middlefork Lodge, or with the automobile collection? [He said] “No, those were things that I wanted, and they were how I approached the company, but I’m not going to try to dictate what happens to them after I die.”
[In fact, Bill Harrah did not make it. He died of a neural hemorrhage. He was 67. He was survived by his wife, Verna, 32, and their two sons, John Adam and Tony Lee]
Gooding: He ran out of time … I think he just bet on the fact that he was going to figure [the will] out and have more time. He was making an effort to have an even more extensive collection. My father had conversations with him about it and he said “No, I’ve got a plan in place.” He assured my Dad and many others.
Dixon: I think the first thing I did as chairman of Harrah’s after Bill died was to cancel that project [the new museum]. It would have been disaster for the company. The company had no money; the company’s earnings were in decline; and Bill had substantial personal debt besides the estate taxes to pay.
Cindy Wade: We started hearing that Harrah’s was going to be sold to Holiday Inns. Of course, this would have all kinds of ramifications for Clyde [Wade, her husband and manager of the collection] and me. There he was at the collection, and we knew that a new owner would not maintain the collection the way Mr. Harrah had done it, or even keep it, and so we knew the end was coming one way of the other. It was a year and a half then, when Holiday Inns finally took over.
[In 1980, two years after Bill Harrah’s death, the Holiday Inns Corporation bought Harrah’s Casinos, Inc. for $300 million.]
Satre: They appraised the assets, and I don’t have the appraisal in front of me, but it was in the neighborhood of $30 to $40 million, as I recall.
When you compare the value of the vehicles to the value of operating the museum, the museum operated at a pretty significant loss, of almost $1M annually. In those days, that was a lot of money. And the only way that they made up a little bit of that money was that long before Holiday Inn bought the company, they were holding auctions. These were primarily duplicate vehicles (and parts). Bill Harrah would buy a collection, and he had to buy the whole collection, and there would be duplication among vehicles, so he would turn around and sell them, and so did his estate before they made a deal with Holiday Inn.
Miles Collier (Collector, REVS Institute founder): A lot of collectors, back in the day, when it was revealed that Bill Harrah’s collection was part of Harrah’s Casino’s Inc., which was being sold to Holiday Inn, and the whole collection was going to be sold, got pretty pissed at Bill Harrah posthumously; What kind of a jerk are you?
There were consortiums, including the state of Nevada, who tried to buy the collection …
Tom Perkins (venture capitalist): I put a group together and I negotiated a purchase with Holiday Inn’s management in Memphis: $10 million cash, another $10 million cash from a bank loan secured by the collection, and a note from the seller for the balance—a total of $30 million dollars. A couple of weeks before we were to sign, the governor of Nevada got into the act. He let it be known that he considered the collection to be a vital part of Nevada, responsible for attracting thousands of tourists, and he would frown upon it being sold (his frown might possibly include cancelling the companies’ gambling licenses, my friends in Memphis feared). The deal was aborted.” [Excerpted from the book, “Valley Boy: The Education of Tom Perkins,” published in 2007]
Dixon: I had calls from all over to save the collection: from United States senators from other states; from Dave Thomas, the chairman of Wendy’s; and from the mayor of Reno.
Collier: When Holiday Inn first got involved, they knew that this was a fraught issue. And having no sense of the values yet, they committed to donating 115 or so cars, provided the local community could come up with the money to build a building—which turned out to be a herculean difficult task. But, once they met the letter of the agreement, then Holiday Inn forked over the cars. They talked about doing another backhand donation, which I think went up in smoke the moment they realized how valuable all this stuff was. [Holiday Inn ultimately donated about 175 cars for a non-profit museum, which became the National Automobile Museum in Reno.]
John Mozart (Collector) Holiday Inn just wanted to get rid of the cars. The cars were a big asset and they decided to start selling them off.
Clyde Wade: I feel that selling the collection was a big tragedy, a tremendous loss. There was a time when they considered it could have been a Smithsonian West … I suspect Holiday Inns figured they could realize more by selling it piecemeal and donating part of it rather than selling it intact.”