Sons of a Basque sheepherder led the state through politics and the pen. 

Laxalt Family © University of Nevada, Reno Special Collections

From adventurers and gunslingers to writers and thinkers, Nevada’s history was shaped by individuals witah grit and drive. Each issue, we look at one of these notable heroes from the past. Whether born or raised, these aren’t just Nevadans: they’re Legendary Nevadans. 

If ever there was Nevada royalty, the Laxalt family would certainly top the peerage. From humble beginnings to the pinnacle of success, both Paul and Robert Laxalt carved indelible marks in the Silver State’s story.  

Paul and Robert grew up in the 1920s, two of Dominique and Therese Laxalt’s six children. Their parents had emigrated separately from France’s Basque Country before meeting in northern Nevada. Dominque was a sheepherder, while Therese was the matriarch and ran The French Hotel in Carson City, which she bought for $100. A graduate of Le Cordon Bleu cooking school, Therese’s delicious meals—always served family style—quickly became as popular as her boarding house. 

Paul, the eldest son, served in WWII and then used his GI Bill to attend law school. Robert, the second eldest, also served his country and received his degree from the University of Nevada, Reno. The brothers began similarly, but their paths quickly diverged.

Paul Laxalt © University of Nevada, Reno Special Collections


Paul received his law degree in 1949 and quickly turned his sights to politics. He successfully ran for district attorney of then-Ormsby County (now a part of Carson City) and served from 1950-1954. He resumed his law practice and counted Thunderbird Lodge magnate George Whittell and Sparks Nugget founder Dick Graves as clients. 

Politics again came calling, and Laxalt ran for lieutenant governor in 1962. He served in that role for one term, from 1963-1967. In 1964, the senate race lacked a Republican candidate, and despite wanting to remain in his current office, Laxalt threw his hat in the ring. He was defeated, but then later successfully ran for the state’s highest office. He served as governor from 1967 to 1971. 

During his one term, Laxalt helped shape the gaming industry’s future. Casinos were often associated with the Mob, at least in public perception, so when Howard Hughes sought a gaming license, Laxalt allowed him one without making him appear before the gaming board. The billionaire would add an air of legitimacy, Laxalt reasoned, and Hughes certainly added to the mystique of Las Vegas. Laxalt also supported corporate ownership of casinos, which is how most gaming licenses are held in Nevada today.

While governor, Laxalt developed a lasting friendship with California Governor Ronald Reagan. The two helped create the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency in an effort to protect Nevada and California’s shared natural wonder. 

Paul Laxalt © University of Nevada, Reno Special Collections

In 1974, Laxalt ran again for the U.S. Senate, this time winning. He wielded significant influence in prestigious committees and introduced numerous mentees to the political landscape including future Assemblyperson Barbara Vucanovich, the first woman to serve in Congress from Nevada, and future Governor Brian Sandoval. Laxalt also managed Reagan’s three presidential campaigns as senator and was often referred to as “the First Friend” by political insiders.

When he left the senate, Laxalt was remembered as a gentleman and a politician who worked with members of both parties with respect and to great effect. He went back to work as an attorney and lived until the age of 96, passing in 2018. 

Robert Laxalt © University of Nevada, Reno Special Collections


Just one year younger than his brother, Robert Laxalt graduated college in 1947 and started his career as a journalist. He wrote for local papers in northern Nevada and was also employed by United Press International. He started his own news agency, Capital News Service, and to make ends meet, began freelancing. His nonfiction pieces appeared in national papers and magazines such as “National Geographic” and the “New York Times,” where he wrote on Nevada’s political scene. For 50 years, he contributed articles to Nevada Magazine. His writing was evocative yet direct, without flowery prose but full of action and depth. 

In 1954, he went to work for the University of Nevada, Reno, as the director of news and publications. He developed a life-long love of teaching, and it was during this time that he wrote his seminal book, “Sweet Promised Land.” Published in 1957, the story of his father’s visit to his homeland put Laxalt at the forefront of Basque American literature and introduced the culture to many. It was one of the first books to shed light on the contributions and character of the Basques, who were often looked upon with disdain. Critics have called the book a parable for all immigrants. The Basque culture was a topic he would often revisit during his prolific writing career, both in articles and books. 

Laxalt was one of the founders of the University of Nevada Press, serving as director from 1961-1983, and he was a co-founder of the university’s Center for Basque Studies. He wrote 17 books in his lifetime, and his novella “A Cup of Tea in Pamplona” was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. 

Robert Laxalt © University of Nevada, Reno Special Collections

He was a journalism teacher for 18 years, and he encouraged his students to take their writing seriously, but not themselves. He has influenced generations of Nevada authors and still does through the Robert Laxalt Distinguished Writer program, which the university created in his name. Robert Laxalt died in 2001 at the age of 77.  

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