Last roundup at the Mustang Ranch

Bordellos R Us: In the Nevada desert, a new management style is coming to the world's oldest profession.

Published August 12, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

"It's sure been a wild ride," said a former working girl on Monday as the feds shut down America's most famous legal brothel after its owners were convicted of fraud. "It's the end of the road for the Mustang Ranch," she sighed.

The Mustang, a 104-room bordello on a 440-acre spread near Reno, Nev., was established by Joe Conforte, a onetime cabdriver, in 1955. Sixteen years later, he won a court case that paved the way for the legalization of prostitution in Nevada -- where whether to sanction or forbid the establishments is left up to county government. Twelve of the state's 17 counties now permit the operation of bordellos. Indeed, not since New Orleans' legendary Storyville has prostitution in the United States had such a large, legal land base, and Storyville was a mere neighborhood on the edge of the French Quarter, not a vast slab of sagebrush-dotted desert.

Conforte has been on the lam most of this decade from U.S. tax authorities and is believed to be living in South America, though in recent years he reportedly remained a $10,000-a-month "consultant" to the ranch.

Yet while the closing of the Mustang may end one era, it apparently signals the beginning of another. The upshot is that Nevada's sex-for-sale business is (surprise, surprise) rolling right along. However, Conforte, wherever he may be, might not recognize it: The management smoothies are definitely moving in.

Conforte was an old-style scoundrel and he looked the part: a natty dresser with a fireplug physique, bald with slicked-back black hair. The kind of guy you see milling around in Scorsese movies cleaning his cuticles. He certainly didn't have the Godfather look even if he was one, after a fashion. He promoted himself and his business with the zeal of a small-town appliance-store owner holding forth at a Saturday afternoon Maytag sale. He gave away free turkeys on Thanksgiving and offered Gulf War veterans a free ride at the Mustang.

Perhaps another time we can argue the morality of Conforte's vocation or discuss his entanglements, or lack thereof, in the unexplained fires, numerous fraud cases and the murder of boxer Oscar Bonavena at the Mustang's gates. Our focus today, class, is changing trends in the flesh trade.

They say the Mustang went down with its fiery loins ablaze. In its last days, according to Deutsche Presse-Agentur, it was "swamped by an influx of visitors intent on tasting [its] delights ... In sumptuous public rooms adorned with red velvet and leather armchairs, and in private chambers with names like Cowboy's Dungeon ... it was by many accounts one of the wildest weekends the Mustang has known."

Alas, while the state's first legal whorehouse is now just a few flickering embers of fast passion, legal bordellos in Nevada are the coming thing -- multiplying faster than Starbucks in Silicon Valley. There are currently 40 of the sex outlets -- charging $300 dollars a pop and up -- and their success (along with the Mustang's failure and its tawdry reputation) is ushering in a whole new management approach.

Some say the resurgence in Nevada's legal nookie biz is due to the introduction of Viagra. In the Deutsche Presse-Agentur, journalist Andy Goldberg credits "rejuvenated ... older men who are willing and able to pay small fortunes in order to be feted in an old-fashioned style by the painted ladies of Nevada." But Goldberg also theorizes that it is equally the result "of a new breed of brothel owners ... who have learned from Conforte's downfall. They make every effort to abide by every possible regulation and hope to reap a windfall from the demise of their famous rogue competitor."

Dennis Hof, manager of the nearby Moonlight Bunny Ranch, says he'll double his staff of working girls to 100 and follow regulations meticulously. "We don't want any of the negative reputation the Mustang has," Hof said.

Meanwhile, one former Mustang employee, Honey Love, who's been in the business for 18 years, said that many of the Mustang's girls will be moving over to the Sagebrush Ranch near Carson City. "We are world famous," Love crowed with irrepressible entrepreneurial zeal. "When we go to the Sagebrush, we will take over the house."

But the Nevada Brothel Association's legislative lobbyist George Flint, who's coincidentally also Conforte's spokesman, brings up a hitherto unplumbed altruistic -- and decidedly more novel -- defense of legalized whoring. It's a service to dysfunctional or physically impaired men, he told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "We had a 600-pound man come in over the weekend. He had never been with a woman before."

Honey Love could not be reached for further comment.

By Douglas Cruickshank

Douglas Cruickshank is a senior writer for Salon. For more articles by Cruickshank, visit his archive.

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