Brothels found foothold around Beatty

Vickie Starr —

Vickie’s Star Ranch

Vickie Starr, whose given name was Goldie, apparently—and I emphasize apparently—purchased the brothel located about two miles north of Beatty from Joe Conforte or from someone who got it from him. She acquired the property in about 1959 or 1960. Under Conforte, it had been named the Jolly Dolly. She changed the name to Vickie’s Star Ranch. The Willow Trees and Red Rooster were apparently closed when she took over the Beatty property.

Vickie was from a small farm in Missouri. In her 2010 biography “Death Valley Madam: The Saga of a Hellish Hooker,” she described herself as a “poor country girl from the Ozarks.” She hit the road at the age of 16 and spent her life as a prostitute; as she said, “Always a prostitute, never a whore.” There is a difference. She did, however, admire women who make a lifetime commitment to one man. She began her career in Oakland and San Francisco, liked to gamble, and once won $50,000 at Keno.

When Vickie moved to Nevada she hoped to find the freedom she desired. After working a year at the DuArt brothel in Winnemucca, she wasn’t finding what she wanted. She had heard that a brothel was for sale in Beatty and that it sat on a few hundred acres. Workers at places with colorful names such as Jackass Flats on the Nevada Test Site as well as people from California would drive to that one brothel in Beatty to enjoy themselves and spent a good deal of money.

Vickie drove to Beatty, looked the place over, and purchased it. The place had seen a couple of floods, but the retiring landlady, Betty Anderson, told her, “not too much damage.”

The place had five bedrooms and a “nice kitchen.” The structure did require some work. Betty told her, “People in this town are good folks. Some might help you.”

Vickie, of course, needed to hire some girls. She wrote, “I wanted classy, smart, sexy-looking ladies, which goes against all the principles of successfully operating a joint. If the girls are really good-looking and smart, then guys fall in love with them and want to marry them and haul them off. It’s a true axiom, but one that didn’t worry me. While they were waiting for Mr. Right to come along, I’d make a fortune off their sexy good looks.”

Vickie figured in the years she operated the brothel she hired more than 25 girls. Weekends were always a busy time.

Although she didn’t say so in her book, it may be that Vickie purchased the brothel from the group that brought in Joe Conforte. At any rate, Conforte had given Vickie permission to use his name just in case she had trouble. “Just in case you need protection,” he said. And she did use it on occasion (Griffith, p. 195). Vickie always had a good relationship with Beatty residents and local law enforcement officials.

At one point the 1965 film “The Reward” was being filmed at Rhyolite. Residents of the brothel went to the old mining town to watch the filming, including stars Gilbert Roland, Efrem Zimbalist, and Yvette Mimieux. The crew spent time at the brothel. So successful were the activities with the stars and crew, Vickie considered moving the business to Hollywood and setting up “a house outside one of the studios.”

Toward the end of her time in Beatty, Vickie became romantically involved with a married man who talked of marrying her. She became emotional for a short time over the affair, which did not work out. She left the brothel in the care of a woman she trusted and stayed in Las Vegas, where she turned a few tricks. She returned to Vickie’s Star Ranch but she was restless. In early spring (probably 1970) heavy rains hit the area and floodwaters damaged the brothel. So it was goodbye Wayne Burns (her love interest) and goodbye Beatty. Fran York took over the property in 1971.

Vickie Starr then opened the Star Ranch brothel in Ash Meadows at the south end of Death Valley in Nye County located north of Shoshone, California, and southeast of Beatty. At first she called it, like the Beatty brothel, Vickie’s Star Ranch. Its real name was the Ash Meadows Sky Ranch.

Fran’s Star Ranch

When Fran York acquired Vickie’s Beatty brothel, she changed the name to Fran’s Star Ranch.

Fran, who in 1986 gave her age as “plenty-nine” years old, said she became a prostitute at age 15 in Nebraska and was a madam in Deadwood, South Dakota, in the 1950s. At that time Deadwood was wide open, but as of 1986, she said, all the houses had been padlocked and all the landladies had departed.

After years employed in several lines of work including running a bar and leading bus tours in Las Vegas, Fran and an investor purchased the Star Ranch in 1971. After eight years of running the establishment, Fran bought the investor out in 1979 for $250,000.

Brothel Management

Four or five girls were typically employed at Fran’s at any one time. They received their weekly medical checkups in Beatty. When the girls were in town on a medical day, they were often greeted by or conversed with local townspeople. One of Fran’s girls indicated that it was quite different in Winnemucca on doctor day. “You couldn’t talk to anybody on the street at all. And nobody talked to you. That’s a pretty big contrast,” she said.

Fran typically hired women over the telephone. She said, “I ask them how old they are, how much they weigh, what hair color they have. Sometimes I just ask, ‘Are you fat?’” Since federal law prohibits recruiting for prostitution across state lines, she almost never asked them where they were calling from, just whether they’d be coming from Reno or Las Vegas. Fran’s was a 24-hour operation, which meant that customers could obtain service any time of day or night. In the mid-1980s, customers paid anywhere from $20 up.

Rules were posted in the dining room regarding women’s behavior at the brothel. Among them: Girls must bathe daily. Girls must not wear jeans in the parlor. Girls must not chew gum at any time. Girls must not congregate in any bedroom. Another rule, this one unwritten, was that during her monthly week off, a girl must leave town. Fran believed that a brothel coexists best with a community when the girls do not hustle in the local bars.

Women at Fran’s brothel split their fees and tips with management 50-50. Women were charged $20 per day for room and board. Brothels in Nye County were licensed for three months by the number of working girls: $500 for fewer than five; $1,000 for five to 10; $1,500 for 11 to 15; and more than 15, $2,000 per quarter (Las Vegas Review-Journal, Sunday Supplement Nevadan, Oct. 12, 1986, “A Brothel Beacon Burns in Beatty”).

Business was highly variable at Fran’s Star Ranch. One Friday evening when a reporter from the Las Vegas Review-Journal was there, they had a total of four customers. The next night the Ranch had 30 visitors.