The Incredible History of the Cal-Neva Lodge on Lake Tahoe:

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Last days: In this 1959 photo, Monroe and Sinatra chat with an unnamed man at the Cal Neva lodge. Monroe would go on to spend her last weekend at Cal Neva before dying of an overdose in 1962 Read more: Follow us: @MailOnline on Twitter | DailyMail on Facebook
Last days: In this 1959 photo, MarilynMonroe and Sinatra chat with an unnamed man at the Cal Neva Lodge. Monroe would go on to spend her last weekend at Cal Neva before dying of an overdose in Los Angeles in 1962.

We’ve all heard the stories about Frank Sinatra, the Mafia, the secret tunnels, JFK and Marilyn Monroe, as well as the glamour and glitz of the Cal-Neva Casino on the north shore of Lake Tahoe.  It all sounds like fantasy and legend, but many of the stories are true.  Tahoe was a place for the rich, famous, and infamous in those days and they flocked to North Lake Tahoe’s Cal-Neva Lodge, “The Lady of the Lake”, from all over the world in droves.

The Rat Pack at Cal Neva
The Rat Pack at Cal Neva

The Cal-Neva Lodge was built in 1926 by a rich San Francisco businessman who simply used it to entertain friends and guests.  In the 1930s, the lodge was sold to new owners who were able to obtain a Nevada gaming permit.  The lodge instantly became a hit with the rich and famous of the 1930s right until the place burned down in 1937.  Somehow, they rebuilt the lodge using 500 workers in only 30 days.

Not long before burning down, in 1935, an 11-year-old girl named Frances Gumm performed at the Cal Neva, was discovered and signed by an MGM agent.  Frances Gumm changed her named to Judy Garland and became one of the most famous entertainers of the 20th century.

Marilyn Monroe at a Frank Sinatra concert, Cal Neva Lodge, 1960
Marilyn Monroe at a Frank Sinatra concert, Cal Neva Lodge, 1960.

The Cal-Neva Lodge became a hit with big gamblers and mafia types in the 1940s and 50s.  The owner of Cal-Neva in the 50s was a good friend of JFK’s father, Joseph Kennedy and the Kennedys were known to frequent the Cal-Neva throughout the 50s and into the 60s.

Marilyn Monroe with Frank in the back.
Marilyn Monroe with Frank in the back.

In 1960, Frank Sinatra bought the Cal-Neva and was determined to turn the place into a world-class casino/resort.  Sinatra had an immaculate concert hall built along with a helicopter pad and secret tunnels between the showroom and bungalows behind the hotel on the lake.

The secret tunnels were carpeted and lined with brick.  Celebrities and Sinatra himself could easily travel to and fro without being detected by fans, paparazzi, and media.  Entrances to the tunnel were in Sinatra’s office, at the heliport, and a closet of one of the lakeside bungalows.

Cal Neva swimming pool.
Cal Neva swimming pool.

Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. all performed at Cal-Neva during Sinatra’s tenure as owner.  They also vacationed there and invited their celebrity friends such as Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, Will Rogers, Peter Lawford (brother in law of JFK) and more to join them.

Did JFK hook up with Marilyn Monroe at the Cal-Neva as legend would have it?  Maybe…

Sinatra’s close friendship with movie star Peter Lawford, the brother-in-law of President John F. Kennedy, inspired rumors of furtive exploits in Tahoe by JFK and his younger brother Robert. Legend has it that whenever Jack or Bobby were visiting Sacramento, Sinatra would send his private helicopter for them. One especially juicy nugget suggests that the blonde “sex goddess” Marilyn Monroe and JFK once made love in the Cal Neva tunnel, but a little fact-checking suggests the alleged tryst probably never happened. –

Sadly, Marilyn spent her last weekend alive at the Cal-Neva before dying of an overdose in Los Angeles in 1962.

Sinatra at the Cal Neva Lodge, 1962
Sinatra at the Cal Neva Lodge, 1962

Sinatra’s Cal-Neva was booming after his remodel and parade of celebrities in the early 1960s.  By 1963 the Cal-Neva had grown to include 11 cottages and 55 rooms.  Sinatra’s only problem was his affinity for the unsavory characters of the 1960s mafia.  Sam Gianaca was a friend of Sinatra’s and was discovered by authorities in the Cal-Neva in August 1963.  At the time Sam was the top head mob boss of the Chicago mafia, Al Capone’s successor, was suspected to have ordered the murder of over 200 men, had been arrested over 70 times and was referred to as “The Godfather” of the American Mafia.  

Upon discovering Sam Gianaca in the Cal-Neva in 1963, the Nevada Gaming Control Board revoked Sinatra’s gaming license and began pressuring him into selling the casino.  The pressure became so great that Sinatra gave in and agreed to sell the Cal-Neva on October 7th, 1963 effectively ending the golden age of North Lake Tahoe gambling and entertainment.


The Cal-Neva has changed hands many times and has seen many hard times since those golden days.  It was shut down due to lousy business in 2010 but was fortunately renovated in 2013.  The Cal-Neva is now a 219-room, 10-story hotel with a 6,000-square-foot casino.  The goal of the new renovation was, of course, to try to return the Cal-Neva to that golden era that Frank Sinatra created.

“Our goal is to bring it back to its former glory and to make it what it was like in Sinatra’s day.  It has such great soul and character, and it’s needed this redo for many decades.” – Robert Radovan co-owner of Criswell-Radovan told The Associated Press

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50 thoughts on “The Incredible History of the Cal-Neva Lodge on Lake Tahoe:

  1. Man, I used to get 2 dollar breakfast from the Biltmore across the street, hardly ever went to the CalNeva. I’m guessing no more 2 dollar breakfast at the Biltmore these days?

  2. I grew up in Truckee Ca, and new the Cal Neva very well. There was a lot of Mob business back in the day, and there was more that when on, than any of us will ever know.

  3. My Uncle was the General Contractor for the rebuilding somewhere along the line. Line used to run down the middle of the front lobby. Been there. Lost some money there. had a good time there. If I were not too old, I would travel from Oklahoma to there again.

    1. James, I hope you are still alive and in good health and that you will still be so when and if the Cal Neva ever opens again

  4. took the tour and live in Carson City now…unbelievable history and unfortunately not for the faint of heart…suffice it to say that evil permeates the place and what went on their would shock most people! not just most but probably all but .5 %

  5. Worked there as a bus boy when it was Clouds Cal Neva . Lots of great memories of the greats coming thru the place . Lived in one of the bungalows adjacent to it .

  6. Got a summer job as a pearl diver in 1970. Then my friend Gino got me on part time as a valet parking cars. Bill Harah wuould show up once in a while from Reno. Good old days!

  7. Marilyn was there with “friends” the last weekend before she died. Reports say she was very beautiful and cheerful during the afternoon, but at night she appeared in the ballroom, where Sinatra had just been singing, alone and apparently drugged. Frank was visibly very upset about the scene and sent a bodyguard off the scene. Shortly before his death, pianist Buddy Greco reported that Frank’s blue eyes looked like two ice cubes. Concerned about the actress, Buddy followed her and found her alone by the pool, her face very pale. “She seemed not to want to be part of this world anymore,” the pianist said. The next day, Sunday morning, Buddy looked for Marilyn, but she was gone. Some biographers say the actress would have been raped by gangsters this weekend. Others say that she mixed the two remedies for the first time five days later: Nembutal with Chloride Hydrate. What strikes me the most is the fact that Marilyn went to the place and didn’t receive any attention from the “friends”, because while everyone was having fun she seems to have forgotten to the point of drugging with pills and continue with the same clothes until night. Marilyn was an excellent singer. Why did not Frank Sinatra give her a chance to sing in such a casino? Why only five days later she would die naked and alone in her bed, victimized by an overdose of drugs?

  8. Pretty sure that photo of the pack in front of calneva sign was photoshopped. The original was them in front of the sands hotel.

  9. My family spent a few days across the street at a hotel just barely inside the California border around 1971. I was eleven or twelve at the time. We were walking around towards the lake just west of the Resort on the California side and I began to have strange feelings. I felt that something bad happened there and I felt like I might have known or been there!!

  10. Would anyone know if there was a gentleman named “Jerry” that worked there as a Pit Boss in 1965? My mother use to work there and apparently she had a relationship with this man. I have been told that he his my father and I Have been looking for him for over 20 years. If anyone has any info, could you please contact me. Thank you so very much.

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