Editor’s note: This is the seventh in a series of stories by historian Bob McCracken on the history of prostitution in Nevada and Nye County. A new feature in the series will come out every Friday for the next several weeks.
The original Buckeye, as Bobbie Duncan’s Tonopah bar and brothel was known, was not an architectural gem. But it had plenty of atmosphere—not the artificial kind we see everywhere today, but the real thing. It would have made a fine movie set.
The building had started out as a one-story frame house that Bobbie had moved onto the Buckeye Mine site. Patrons entered through the original house’s front door, which opened into the original living room that served as the brothel’s parlor. The parlor was sparsely furnished with a couple of overstuffed chairs and a sofa that had all seen better days.
Centerfold drawings of curvaceous, scantily clad women from Esquire Magazine—this was prior to the Playboy centerfolds, which featured photos of live models—were tacked to the walls.
Off the north end of the parlor was a small bar with a half-dozen or so bar stools. Windows provided a view to the west. The barroom was small and had a homey, cozy feeling. Off the parlor to the east were bedrooms occupied by the girls where they entertained their patrons. A kitchen was located off the bedroom area. Bobbie occupied a trailer that sat on the south side of the house.
Bobbie was a good businesswoman and, over the years, the Buckeye made money, some of which she saved. In early 1963, she undertook a major expansion and remodeling of the entire establishment.
She purchased an expensive new double-wide mobile building about 45 feet long whose interior consisted of one partially trimmed-out room. The double-wide was set flush against the front of the old joint and a beautiful bar featuring hammered copper trim was constructed lengthwise in it. The new building became a combination bar and brothel parlor. A large sliding-glass door on the west side served as the front entrance. Beside the door sat a huge state-of-the-art jukebox, playing such standards as Ray Charles’ “Take These Chains from My Heart.”
Perpendicular to the new bar/parlor, flush against the north wall of the new addition, Bobbie placed another new trailer that featured a hallway and four or five rather small, but nicely furnished, bedrooms for the girls. When the remodeling was completed in late fall of 1963, the Buckeye was a sight to behold. As the brothel addition was being built, the old house was remodeled and became her new living quarters, to which the girls had access. The living room featured a great stone fireplace and in Bobbie’s personal bathroom was a sunken, heart-shaped red-and-white tiled tub.
A Surprise Party
In mid-June of 1963, while construction was going on, four girls were working at the Buckeye. All were quite fond of Bobbie and wanted to do something special for her. They knew her 48th birthday was drawing near and decided to throw a surprise party for her. They planned it down to the last detail. There would be decorations, food (a variety of hors d’oeuvres), and lots of champagne and other beverages. Her many friends in the area were invited and sworn to secrecy. All of this, of course, would have to be done without Bobbie becoming suspicious. A couple of hours before the party, Bobbie would have to be lured away from the premises so the parlor/bar could be decorated, food set out, and gifts stacked. The party was scheduled to begin at about 5:30 p.m. on June 25.
Among all the girls working at the Buckeye at that time, one of them, Vera, was probably closest to Bobbie. Bobbie had apparently known Vera for several years. They were good friends and got along well. When the big day finally arrived, all the arrangements had been made and everything was set. The plan was for Vera to lure Bobbie away from the Buckeye just hours before the party was scheduled to begin. Vera used the excuse that she needed a ride downtown to take care of some business and do some shopping. At about 3:30 p.m., Bobbie drove Vera downtown in her Cadillac and waited patiently as Vera made up one excuse after another about things she had to do. The longer Vera could keep Bobbie away, the more time the girls, along with a couple of men from town who were helping out, would have to accept the food and champagne deliveries, set the food out, and decorate the place with balloons and colored paper streamers. Vera’s stalling worked. They finished setting up and guests began to arrive. Soon, 50 or 60 guests were there, including a number of Tonopah’s leading citizens; mostly men, but a few women. The parking lot was packed.
By 5:45 p.m., Vera couldn’t stall Bobbie any longer, and they headed up the hill. Just past the summit, Bobbie turned the Cadillac off Highway 6 and onto the dirt road that led to the Buckeye’s parking lot. When she saw the many parked cars, she exclaimed happily, “Oh, my, business is going to be good tonight!”
“Yes,” Vera replied, trying to keep a straight face. Bobbie parked the car and as she and Vera walked into the bar. “Surprise! Happy Birthday!” everyone shouted. “Happy Birthday!” Bobbie gasped, raised her hands, and covered her face. She was nearly overcome with emotion.
The party warmed up fast. After everyone sang Happy Birthday, Bobbie blew out the candles on her cake. She opened her gifts. Early on, there were testimonials for her. Guests toasted her character and warm heart. Many noted the affection and love felt for her in the community, and her importance to life, not just in Tonopah, but all over central Nevada. Right off, Bobbie declared that drinks were on the house for the night. Most people started with champagne; quite a few soon switched to their beverage of choice. Many guests stayed for only an hour or so, but a sizable number stayed on into the night, with the majority of them consuming more than their fair share of the O-Be-Joyful. None of the girls took a man back to her room that night—it was a holiday! There was laughter, dancing, and good conversation. It was a grand party; they don’t get any better. And that jukebox!
The next day, one of the men from town went back to the Buckeye to help clean up. He told me, “There were some sick girls up there this morning. Poor Bobbie could barely function.”
As luck would have it, I arrived back in Tonopah after completing my first year in graduate school on Bobbie Duncan’s birthday in June 1963. I found my father, Robert G. McCracken, at his cabin in Tonopah.
He was blowing up balloons and making decorations out of colored crepe paper. “What are you doing?” I asked. “I’m making decorations for Bobbie’s birthday party at the Buckeye later today,” he answered. “You’re invited. Here, give me a hand.”
We finished with the decorations and took them up to the brothel. We found the women there decorating the new barroom. Bobbie, they said, had gone downtown. My dad and I joined in, helping them.
About the time we finished decorating, the many guests began to arrive. Then Bobbie and Vera got back. Bobbie was so surprised and appreciative. The festivities began. Many folks drank more than a little, including me. I danced with the girls and struck up a good conversation with Vera.
At some point, I told her I was interested in writing. She said she was, too, and had thought about writing her biography. We talked about that and then I asked her, “Why don’t you let me help you? I can interview you for your book.” She enthusiastically agreed.
The next morning I told my dad about what Vera and I had discussed. Bless his heart, without telling me, that day he went downtown and purchased a new tape recorder for $125. At the time, that was the equivalent of a week’s gross pay for a member of the laborers’ union in Nevada working at the Nevada Test Site.
I quickly learned that for the previous several months my dad had worked with Bobbie Duncan in remodeling the Buckeye. He had brought in the new trailers for the new bar and rooms for the girls, finished their interiors, and constructed the beautiful bar in the lounge area.
He had remodeled the old brothel into Bobbie’s living quarters, including construction of the large native stone fireplace and heart-shaped sunken bathtub for her private bathroom.
After the party, Bobbie hired me as my dad’s helper until I was able to get a higher-paying job through the laborers’ union in Tonopah. While working at the Buckeye, I would take an hour or two off each morning from helping my dad and interview Vera in her room. I ended up with what was at the time a leading-edge interview on the life and times of a prostitute in the modern American West.
Unfortunately, because of my graduate studies, it took me over three years to get the tapes transcribed and another couple of years to get the book written, using the tape transcriptions and my own embellishments.
At one point I had asked my PhD advisor if I could use the interview as part of a PhD dissertation. He said “no.” Interestingly, about ten years ago I was talking to the widow of another of my professors and told her my rejection story. She told me her husband, whom I had not asked, would have been delighted to supervise my use of that interview for my dissertation. He was much more open to the topic of sex.
I was teaching at Long Beach State University in 1968 when I finished the book based on my interviews with Vera. I realized I needed a literary agent to find a publisher. Since I knew no agents personally, I selected the name of an agent out of an article on literary agents in Time magazine.
His name was James Brown—as it turned out, one of the leading agents in New York City. I called him and told him about my manuscript. He said he would like to see it. I sent it to him; he liked it and said it would sell.
In those days literary agents represented manuscripts to one publisher at a time. If the publisher liked it, they made an offer. If they didn’t, they sent it back to the agent saying thanks but no thanks. He would then send it to another prospective publisher. This all took time.
James Brown sent my manuscript to a number of publishers over the next year or so. Their reaction was always the same: “Everybody here loved it, but it’s not for us.”
In the meantime, I got a job teaching at UCLA and moved. I was a bit slow in getting my change of address to James Brown.
One day I called him. He said, “I’m glad you called. We got an offer on the book. It’s from Grove Press. They’re offering a $10,000 advance.” I replied—naively, in retrospect—“I was expecting more than that.” He said, “So was I.” He suggested we could do better, so he sent it out to more publishers over the next year. Their response was the same as before: “Thanks but no thanks.” Meanwhile, the Grove Press offer had evaporated.
Finally, James Brown returned the manuscript to me. When I talked to him about it, he said he didn’t understand it. “They all loved it, but they didn’t want to publish it.”
I recognized that, between my interviews with Vera and James Brown sending the book to publishers, a couple of big-selling books with a prostitution theme had been published. James Brown told me, “If you had sent me the book a little earlier, we’d both be rich now.” So close, but so far away, as the old miners used to say.