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Harrah, William, 1911-1978


William (Bill) Fisk Harrah (1911-1978) was a Nevada businessman and founder of Harrah’s Inc. Bill Harrah’s success in the gaming industry began in 1946 when he purchased a casino in Reno, Nevada that he renamed Harrah’s Reno Club. In 1956 Harrah opened Harrah’s Tahoe Club and established a busing program that brought lower income and working class gamblers from northern California to his Reno and Lake Tahoe casinos. Harrah’s busing program, as well as his hands-off management style, contributed to the profitability of the casinos in the 1950s and 1960s. Leaving the day-to-day management of the casinos to employees, Harrah spent a majority of his time devoted to his vehicle collecting hobby, amassing a large collection of automobiles, motorcycles, and airplanes. Although the Harrah’s casinos were profitable, Harrah’s personal spending placed a financial strain on the business, and in 1971 he decided to take the company public. In 1973 Harrah’s Inc. became the first gaming company to have stock traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

Bill Harrah, son of Amanda Fisk Harrah and John Harrah, was born in Pasadena, California in 1911. He grew up in Venice, California and was first introduced to gambling when his father opened a gambling shop on the Venice pier in the 1930s. Bill Harrah briefly attended California Christian College and the University of California, Los Angeles before quitting school to help run his father’s gambling business. John sold the business to Bill who then relocated the business to Reno, Nevada in 1937.

Between 1937 and 1946 Harrah had small successes with various joint venture businesses. In 1946 he opened the casino Harrah’s Reno Club as the sole owner. In 1956 he opened a second casino called Harrah’s Tahoe Club in Stateline, Nevada. The two casinos were highly successful because of a busing program that brought gamblers from Northern California to Reno and Lake Tahoe. Harrah also brought internationally famous performers to his casinos as entertainment for his customers.

Harrah married six times and had two sons. He wed Thelma Batchelor in the late 1930s and divorced her in 1948. In 1948 Harrah married Scherry Teague Fagg and, apart from a brief divorce and remarriage, the couple stayed together for over twenty years. They adopted two sons together, John and Tony. After divorcing Scherry in 1969, Harrah married country musician Bobbie Gentry. He divorced Gentry in 1970. He also was briefly married to Mary Berger and then Roxanne Carlson before marrying Verna Frank in 1974.

Bill Harrah spent a large portion of his time and wealth creating the Harrah Automobile Collection of over 1,500 automobiles, motorcycles, and airplanes. In the 1970s, due in large part to his personal spending, the company experienced cash-flow issues. Harrah decided to take the company public in 1971 and in 1973 Harrah’s Inc. was traded on the New York Stock Exchange. In 1978 Bill Harrah died while recovering from a surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm.


King, R. T., Mary Larson, and Dwayne Kling, eds. Every Light Was On: Bill Harrah and His Clubs Remembered, from Oral History Interviews by Dwayne Kling. Reno: University of Nevada Oral History Program, 1999.