Elaine Wynn: A Meaningful Use of Power

Elaine Wynn uses her influence for good

Elaine Wynn is many things to many people — a patron of the arts; a champion of education reform and mentor to children; a major philanthropist; a savvy businesswoman; an active member on numerous boards; a ferocious fundraiser; a devoted Taurus earth mother and grandmother; a die-hard basketball fan; and one of America’s richest self-made women.

Still stunning and elegant at 75, Wynn is also a “power influencer,” but when asked about that term, she said it makes her uncomfortable.

“It implies inequity, which is the thing I am fighting against the most at this time in my life. It gives me undue credit for something we’re all capable of doing and being. We all have skills and talents to contribute. I’ve always tried to encourage people by virtue of example so people say, ‘If Elaine can do it, why shouldn’t I be able to do it in my own way?’”

Wynn said she grew up on the cusp of women’s lib when women still played a traditional role as a nurturing, supportive spouse.

“I felt comfortable in that role, but things changed, and I feel stronger than ever that women need to be considered equals. It’s a daunting and frustrating struggle, but data shows when two or more females are on a company’s board, the company performs better. The value of our participation is quantifiable.”

Wynn likes the quote by another feminist, Susan B. Anthony: “The day will come when men will recognize woman as his peer, not only at the fireside, but in councils of the nation. Then and not until then, will there be the perfect comradeship, the ideal union between the sexes that results in the highest development of the race.”

She recommends the book We Should All Be Feminists by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who wrote, ‘Gender, as it functions today, is a grave injustice.”

Wynn’s ultimate objective is to contribute to enlightenment in the world.

She said, “When it comes to equality, women should ask the question: If it’s good enough for a man, why isn’t it good enough for me? Ability, intelligence and talent are things society should value regardless of gender.”

A lover of music, Wynn grew up in a modest, middle-class family that couldn’t afford a piano, yet she was always self-confident and outspoken.

“In high school, I was on the Student Council, treasurer of the choir, a cheerleader and a member of the National Honor Society. Those experiences were a microcosm of life where I learned I had leadership skills, was an effective communicator and highly persuasive.

“Then I went off to college and met Steve (Wynn) my first year. I wasn’t expecting to find my life partner at 18. We got married when we were 21, and my life drastically changed. I was no longer an independent young woman on her path to whatever her future was.”

Wynn is a stellar human being for many reasons, but her humility and compassion for humanity are high on the list.

“I’m very aware on a daily basis of the extraordinary good fortune I’ve had. I worked hard, but not harder than the housekeepers who cleaned 12 rooms a day in our hotels. There are all kinds of conditions that happen in life that cause you to need to ask for help, which I consider a strength not a weakness. That’s an epiphany I had late in life.”

Wynn attributes the aesthetic beauty she brought to The Mirage, Treasure Island, Bellagio, Wynn and Encore properties she co-founded to her mother, Lee Pascal.

“My mother opened my eyes and heart to beauty. She said it’s better to own one thing of fine quality than lots of things of lesser quality. She taught me beauty isn’t separate from our everyday lives, it’s part of our lives,” Wynn said, pointing to a flower arrangement her housekeeper made that morning that sits on the table next to an assortment of fresh fruit and cookies, that she, the consummate hostess, had laid out.

A decadeslong resident of Las Vegas, Wynn now also resides in Los Angeles where her two daughters and seven grandchildren live.

She has an appreciation for all art forms, whether it’s gardening, dance, singing or painting. In 2011, she was invited to join the board of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where she met the director, Michael Govan, whose brilliant stewardship has revitalized LACMA, attracting diverse crowds and elevating its importance as a significant leader in the community as well as the art world.

Wynn’s first donation to LACMA went toward acquiring a 340-ton rock called “Levitating Mass” by earth artist Michael Heizer, one of the few sculptures in the world designed to walk under.

Govan also told her about another piece of landscape art Heizer had been working on for three decades called “The City” located two-and-a-half hours outside of Las Vegas.

“Michael Govan and I drove out to see it, and I flipped,” said Wynn. “It’s a magnificent, modern sculpture that resonated with my deep Nevada roots, which loves what’s authentic and natural in contrast to the hyperstylized architecture of Las Vegas.

“When I found out Michael Heizer’s father had been a Nevada geologist, there was this connection that made sense to me. Michael Govan had also taken Sen. Harry Reid out there, and he was instrumental in getting President (Barack) Obama to designate 704,000 pristine acres surrounding “The City” as a national monument. One of the highlights of my life was the day we went to the White House for the proclamation,” said Wynn, who was appointed to the board of The Kennedy Center by Obama.

In 2013, Wynn put on sweats and a baseball cap and went to Christie’s Auction House in New York to secretly inspect a 1969 triptych by Irish-born British painter Francis Bacon called “Three Studies of Lucian Freud.”

“I was gobsmacked when I saw it,” said Wynn. “Bacon and the painting’s subject, Lucian Freud, who was Sigmund Freud’s grandson, were friends and two of the most remarkable artists of their time. I owned a piece by Freud, and several friends owned pieces by Bacon; and when I saw them, I always had the same visceral reaction. They all grabbed me by the gurgle. I knew I was seeing a tortured soul.

“I was in Chicago for a basketball tournament during the auction, so I had to bid over the phone, which was even more stressful,” said Wynn.

When the gavel came down, she had paid a record $142.4 million for Bacon’s triptych.

“On the way to the sports arena, I thought, ‘What have I done?’” she recalled. “I revisited all the reasons I wanted it, and by the time I got to the game, I was ecstatic. The background is a tequila sunrise gold that gets deeper each time I see it, and the images are fascinating.”

One day Wynn’s art collection, estimated to be worth $375 million, will hang in museums. With that in mind, she is spearheading a $600 million campaign to build a new home for LACMA designed by the Pritzker award-winning Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. She also personally has pledged $50 million toward that goal. Construction of the hottest new building in the art world is slated to begin in 2018 and be completed in 2023.

“It’s a wonderful civic project for every man with a little ‘e’ (everyone, regardless of economic status) to enjoy,” said Wynn.

Here in Las Vegas, her name is on the Elaine Wynn Elementary school, the Elaine Wynn Studio for Arts Education at The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, and the Elaine Wynn Palliative Care Program at Nathan Adelson Hospice.

Education is a cause dear to her heart. In addition to being president of Nevada’s Board of Education, she has served on the national board of Communities In Schools since 1999, and as chairwoman of CIS National since 2007.

“CIS is celebrating 40 years. It’s the oldest, most successful dropout prevention program in America, serving 1.5 million children in 2,400 schools,” she said proudly. “Over half the kids in America live in poverty. If they come to school hungry, traumatized by abuse, with no glasses, health care or adequate clothing, how can they learn like kids who don’t have those challenges?

“We work with a network of affiliates who provide services for kids K-12. We have a mobile eye care unit that gives free exams and glasses, and a CIS clothes closet where they can get items like coats and shoes. In Las Vegas, we partner with Three Square food bank, and kids go home with backpacks on Fridays filled with nonperishable items so they have food to eat over the weekend.”

One of CIS’s many success stories is Talitha Halley, who found help at the CIS chapter in Houston after her family was displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

“I met Talitha in Washington, D.C. where she was interning as a congressional page during her junior year in high school,” said Wynn. “When my daughters couldn’t go to the Mother’s Day Tea at the White House, I took Talitha, and she networked with everyone. She got a scholarship and graduated from Howard University two years ago.

“Michia Eberhardt is a girl I later found out went to the Elaine Wynn Elementary School. She enrolled in the After-School All-Stars program I started and took part in Future Dance put on by Nevada Ballet Theatre, which I also support. She auditioned for and joined the Alvin Ailey School for Dance in New York, another company I support. That’s four dots that connect us. Those stories are what make my life rich.”

On March 30, Wynn was honored at Planned Parenthood’s gala.

“I never expected that to be one of my causes,” she said. “I took for granted that Planned Parenthood was this sacred, protected institution. I knew it and Roe v. Wade were under attack, but I never thought they could be in jeopardy until now.

Like a ferocious mother bear, Wynn said, “Don’t poke the hornet’s nest. If anyone tries to do something bad to Planned Parenthood, the full power of women will be unleashed.”

“When I heard my friend Sheryl Sandberg made a million-dollar gift to Planned Parenthood, it took me an instant to decide to do the same thing. When I told a mutual friend, she said, ‘Sheryl will be thrilled,’ and I said, ‘She deserves the credit for inspiring the gesture.’

“I gave half to Planned Parenthood national and half to the Las Vegas chapter. I was surprised I got so many messages of gratitude from men as well as women.”

Wynn said she is in the golden chapter of her life.

“You know when you’ve got everything you could possibly want on your ice cream sundae, and then you pass by the marshmallows and you put a couple of them on top. LACMA, Communities In Schools, The Kennedy Center, the (Naismith Memorial) Basketball Hall of Fame, and all the other things I’m involved with are my marshmallows.”

Nevada is blessed to have a woman like Wynn, who uses her power in such a meaningful way.