Elaine Wynn has been pondering her legacy for a long, long time.
Before she was Miss Miami Beach of 1960, before she was Mrs. Steve Wynn twice, before she became the “Queen of Las Vegas” with the rise of the Wynn megaresorts in the 1990s, before she was ranked No. 13 on Forbes’ 2021 list of “richest self-made women,” before success and scandal, happiness and heartbreak and healing, Elaine Pascal Wynn knew:
Her legacy depended on her own hard work and self-reliance, not some pie-in-the-sky dream.
“I think back to when my senior-year English teacher at Miami Beach High asked our class, ‘If you could do something to improve humanity, what would it be?’” Wynn recalled.
Her classmates tossed out grand ideas, like “solve world hunger,” while teenage Elaine declared: “I hope to set a good example.”
And here she is, one of America’s most generous businesswomen, a pioneer example in what is now a billionaire ex-wives club of philanthropists.
Forbes estimates Wynn’s net worth at $2.2 billion (right behind Oprah’s), and she’s given away millions, leading the way for others like Melinda French Gates and MacKenzie Scott, ex-wife of Jeff Bezos, who just gave $133.5 million to Communities in Schools, a nonprofit close to Wynn’s heart. She is chairman of the board and has been devoted to boosting educational opportunities and reducing dropout rates among low-income children for 20 years.
Wynn will talk about philanthropy, art, Vegas and style when she speaks at the Society of the Four Arts on Wednesday.
She may even talk about her ex-husband, though he’s an infamously delicate subject.
Steve Wynn, who lives in Palm Beach, left Wynn Resorts in 2018 after the Wall Street Journal reported he had engaged in a long pattern of sexual harassment, which he has consistently denied. In July 2020, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed against Wynn Resorts Ltd. by nine unnamed women who claim they were sexually harassed by Wynn when they worked in a salon at Wynn Resort Las Vegas. A decision in November 2021 by an appeals court revived the case.
Elaine Wynn kept her shares in Wynn Resorts, she told The New York Times in 2018, because “my mission is to resurrect the integrity of this extraordinary company that is really the capstone of my professional life.”
In a telephone interview, she said she is “grateful for the good things” that came from her 50-year relationship with Steve – especially their two daughters and the “tremendous amount I learned from him.”
“I’ve had a fantastically big, fabulous life,” she said. “I would not have had it without him.”
They met as college students and married in 1963, then headed to Las Vegas, where she still lives, in 1967. Elaine had a baby on her hip “and already felt old,” since scantily dressed showgirls seemed to be strutting on every corner.
“It took me a while to get used to its flamboyance,” she said of Vegas.
Now, she loves it. Of course, “you help support the thing you make.”
And the Wynns helped make Vegas, no doubt. They co-founded Mirage Resorts in 1976, opening The Mirage in 1989, Treasure Island in 1993, the Bellagio in 1998 and Wynn Las Vegas in 2005.
They divorced the first time in 1986, remarried five years later, and divorced for a second time in 2010.
“There’s a trademark feeling in the places we built,” she said. “They are more refined, more textured, more real – even in a city known for its artifice. We created sumptuous environments. When I return here, I sense the ambience of the property, and each space feels good and comfortable.”
If you’ve ever stayed at the Wynn and been impressed by the five-star décor, you’ve experienced Elaine Wynn’s style.
If you’ve been to the Bellagio and admired the ceiling of more than 2,000 glass flowers in the lobby, you can thank Elaine Wynn, too.
She commissioned “Fiori di Como,” Dale Chihuly’s interpretation of Italian flowers in the spring, after visiting Chihuly at his home in Seattle and seeing his colored-glass installation in his swimming pool.
“I want that for our ceiling,” she decided.
No matter where Chihuly travels around the world and no matter what other art he creates, he has said, people come up to him and talk about the Bellagio ceiling.
That installation inspired Wynn to bring more fine art to Vegas and expand her own personal collection — to “take my burgeoning love of art and explode it … give more people a chance to experience it.”
When she talks about art, there’s a thrill in her voice, like she still can’t believe her life.
She remembers how excited visitors got when the Wynns added a gallery to the Bellagio, and gamblers who might never have traveled to the Louvre found themselves face-to-canvas with masterpieces.
“This Picasso is 3 inches away from my nose!” she exults, recalling the reaction. “How incredible is that? How incredible is it to touch a painting that Van Gogh touched?”
Oh, and there’s that triptych by Francis Bacon, “Three Studies of Lucian Freud,” hanging in her living room. She paid $142.4 million for the pleasure of its company.
Where will her treasures go after she’s gone? That’s something she considers now more than she used to. She’s co-chair of the board of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, so that’s one possibility.
She turns 80 on April 28 — “I’m a Taurus, I’m stubborn!’ she laughs — and calls this time of her life “my golden age.”
That term “softens the blow that you’re on your way out,” she said. “You reach your 70s and you think, ‘I can have a good decade.’ When we approach 80, we know, the flight path is getting shorter. This is a golden time because I do start to think more about my legacy.”
That legacy. There it is again.
Las Vegas grew on her over the decades, she said, because it is “resilient. It has that frontier spirit, and It continues to evolve.”
The same could be said of Elaine Wynn — but she’s far too down-to-earth to take that compliment.
“Resilience is universal,” she said. “My life may have been more public and a bit more splashy because of the nature of the place and players, but I don’t see myself as being more resilient than anyone else who has to keep carrying on when faced with challenges. I’ve been privileged to have extraordinary, accomplished people be there for me. When the chips are down, you see who they are.”
And she sees a new generation of good examples coming up behind her, like MacKenzie Scott. Wynn thanked Scott recently in the Chronicle of Philanthropy for “being intentional” about choosing important causes that touch her heart.
“It’s gratifying to know that we women are leading the way,” Wynn wrote. “Scott is courageously showing us how philanthropy can be conducted differently … We are separated by generations and by degrees of wealth, but in terms of intentionality and the results we seek, we’re very much the same. I consider us to be kindred spirits…”
These kindred spirits share both money and mission, plus a gracious way of moving on.
Perhaps that is their best example — and giving well is their best revenge.
If you go
Elaine Wynn at the Four Arts
“Conversations on Style with Steven Stolman, featuring Elaine Wynn,” starts at 3 p.m. Wednesday in Johnson Hall at The Society of the Four Arts, 240 Cocoanut Row, Palm Beach. Tickets are $25. Visit fourarts.org or call customer service at 561-655-7226.
This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Daily News: Philanthropist Elaine Wynn reflects on legacy while reveling in 'golden age'