DAVID HILL Pete D'Amato

Hot Springs native David Hill’s debut book, “The Vapors: A Southern Family, the New York Mob, and the Rise and Fall of Hot Springs, America’s Forgotten Capital of Vice,” tells the true story of three Hot Springs residents during the 1950s and ’60s when the city was poised to become one of America’s largest tourist destination on the back of organized crime and casino gambling. Braiding a story of national crime figures, local officials whose complicity was rewarded with financial benefit, and a family history, Hill’s deeply researched book reads like a crime thriller. 

READ AN EXCERPT OF THE BOOK HERE.

Advertisement

Hill highlights Owney Madden, a leader of the National Crime Syndicate who was exiled in Hot Springs; Dane Harris, the so-called “boss gambler” of Hot Springs who led the city’s vice as he tried to position Hot Springs as a tourist mecca; and Hazel Hill, David’s grandmother, who was dumped in Hot Springs by her father as a teenager and later managed an alcoholic husband, three boys and addiction problems of her own.

The Hot Springs of today is very different from the Hot Springs of “The Vapors.” City leaders’ willingness to allow illegal gambling and other forms of vice from the beginning had fueled an economic machine that supported everything from lavish hotels and nightclubs to basic city service and amenities.

Advertisement

From Lucianos to Kennedys, the book exposes readers to a secret history of how mobsters, politicians, wiseguys, reformers and hustlers alike scrambled to grab a piece of the action in Hot Springs. Throughout the book we see people at the highest level of the mafia and the United States government work to position Hot Springs in a way to get the most out of it for themselves, and how it finally ended in the early 1960s.

Hill and I have been friends since the beginning of the millennium, and during the writing of his book, I spent several hours going through microfilm, court ledgers and any other available records to help him with the research of his book. That said, my biggest connection to the book wasn’t any of the research I did, but the appearance of my own grandfather, whose story of wanting a piece of the action opens “The Vapors.” 

Advertisement

What follows is an excerpt from the book, and following the excerpt is my interview with Hill about how he was able to research a history that has always been filled with half-truths and tall tales, and how he was able to create a story that feels so vibrant and alive.    

One of the things that struck me while I was reading “The Vapors” is how well you treat each of the narratives and elevate each. I was curious how your family history would feel next to these stories of big players, Dane Harris and Owney Madden, and at no point does the story of Hazel and the rest of the Hills take a back seat. In fact, several of  the stories of people who were in no position of power are just as interesting and compelling as those who were plotting out the future of organized crime and gambling in back rooms in Hot Springs.

I think the process of doing the research and writing the book delivered me to that place. I don’t think I set out to write that book. When I first wanted to tell the story of Hot Springs, my sense of the story was colored by all the stories that we were told about it growing up, and I didn’t really know a lot of the real history.

Also, I felt like I was going to be much more sympathetic toward the gambling business than in the end I think that I was, and that’s totally because of what you’re pointing out. It was hard not to think there was something about the culture that existed in Hot Springs during that time that contributed to what my grandparents were going through.

Advertisement

A moment that I still remember from when I was writing: I came across this newspaper article written by a UPI reporter covering the night of the big shutdown of casino gambling in Hot Springs in 1964, which had national attention. In this story there’s a moment where the writer is on his way out of town and he asks the guy that’s pumping the gas what he thinks about the shutdown. And the guy pumping gas is just like “Who cares?” He says, ‘you know they all make all the money and I don’t make nothing, so it doesn’t doesn’t make a damn bit of difference to me.’ 

He had this attitude toward it and reading that hit me like a ton of bricks, and I wanted to reevaluate the way I had been telling the story. I wanted to ask myself whether or not I was glossing over how much everyday, ordinary people in Hot Springs were not benefiting from it. I don’t think it’s just so black and white though, and I don’t think the book comes down harder than one side of that question or the other. There were a lot of people in Hot Springs who did not benefit, but you know the city itself clearly benefited, and there was clearly some real social good. I think that I am showing some of that in the book. Hot Springs was different from the rest of Arkansas in so many ways, and that’s totally because of the gambling business, and because it was a tourist destination that brought in people from other places. 

That made the community more progressive, it made the community more high tech. So there was a lot of good that came from it, but I didn’t want to completely miss out on telling the bad, and unfortunately my grandparents’ story lended plenty of the bad. 

There are plenty of high-tension dramatic scenes involving the criminal underworld, but the stakes seem just as big regarding Hollis Hill’s alcoholism or how Jimmy and Larry Hill turn out. Or how Dane Harris is going to position himself to lead Hot Springs through this time. Owney Madden hopping from one setback to another. It’s fascinating seeing these people and events on a very human level.  Can you talk about the research you had to do to get here and how you were able to navigate the tall tales and half-truths that are out there about Hot Springs during this time? 

The research was difficult. Most of my interviews were with people who could only tell stories secondhand. In terms of documentation from things like newspapers or police reports, those are just not around. There’s so little that I could get my hands on, so I had to very heavily rely on FBI records. Things I FOIA’d with the Department of Justice. Right after I sold the proposal I filed these requests and had to wait years to get this stuff. And stuff is still coming. The book is done, and coming out in the month, and it’s still coming.

Those FBI records were a great resource though. A lot of the dialogue in this book comes from actual wiretaps and audio surveillance in Hot Springs. I think I’m the first person to get these records so there’s a lot of this book that very few people have seen before.

I was reading “The Executioner’s Song” [Norman Mailer’s book about the account of first execution in the U.S. after the death penalty was reinstated in 1976] when I first started writing and I wanted to write a book like that. I wanted it to feel just like a novel. I didn’t want to have my voice in there at all,  I just wanted to feel like you’re reading a novel, but it’d still be true.

So for a town that has been written on a whole lot, there aren’t many primary sources readily available. In a lot of instances, I know that records have been lost to flood or fire.

You know, I didn’t use the Sentinel Record [the largest newspaper in Hot Springs] very much in the book because I think it intentionally did not report on a lot of this stuff. They kept it out of the papers. So it was out-of-town papers that were writing about what was going on with the gambling business, and the local paper was just like we’re just going to not talk about what’s happening here, we’re not gonna snitch about the goings on, you know, among the gamblers in this town.

Advertisement

This is a good time to maybe mention that Hot Springs was getting a lot of attention at this time, both through national media and during televised U.S. Senate meetings on organized crime. Here’s a quote from a Hot Springs leader to Sports Illustrated in 1962: 

 “The gambling is home-owned and operated. There’s no hoodlum element, no oppression, no scum. No one forces himself on anyone else. There is no guy around here with greasy hair and a Mafia smile. The people are capable, clean, decent, friendly. This place reflects the quality, character and charm of all of us. This place has got roots. It’s 24 hours of happiness.” 

This is just a year before a series of targeted bombings in Hot Springs put the casinos in the national spotlight, and not long before the whole casino operation was shut down. Why would this quote be the message that was being pushed in Hot Springs?

I mean, it’s bullshit, but it was, you know, the reason that they felt compelled, the reason that they’re bending over backward to like make that point, is because that was the accusation right? Not just from within the state of Arkansas, but from Washington, D.C., and from around the country, that the mob was tied into Hot Springs. This was a real threat to them continuing to be able to operate. Throughout the ’50s with [Tennessee Sen. Estes] Kefauver’s hearing, and the [Arkansas Sen. John] McClellan hearings had really stirred up a lot of animus around the country, public animus against organized crime. And city after city, there were elections where DAs, mayors getting swept out of office and these reformers were taking over on the issue they were going to root out mobsters, root out organized crime figures in their city. 

So there’s a real shift happening around America. It’s real sea change in an attitude towards crime, and it was hard for Arkansas to make this case, because all these mobsters were hanging out in Arkansas, in Hot Springs, all the time. I mean there was a constant presence in Hot Springs. Nobody disputes that. I mean, you can see every bad figure in the history of American crime hanging out in Hot Springs on a regular basis. 

The argument they were trying to make was, “Oh, they just come here because they like hanging out here, they just come here because they like hanging out and gambling and taking baths and eating in our restaurants.” Which is kind of a weird argument because these are the guys that control gambling all over the country and in Cuba, so why do they like coming to Hot Springs when they can go to Havana where they run the joints, you know? 

So they have to really bend over backward to say like this is a home-run operation, because that gave the governor cover, that gives McClellan cover, that gave everybody the cover to gambling’s happening here, but it’s not really what you think. It’s not tied into the gambling that’s happening all over the rest of the country, it’s just local boys running it. But I don’t think that’s true; I endeavor in the book to show this wasn’t true.

Owney Madden was giving money every month to [Luciano crime family boss] Frank Costello and then [top-ranking Genovese crime family member] Jerry Catena after Frank retired. That’s in the FBI files. What’s he kicking up to them, his Social Security check? I mean this is not rocket science, you know, but I think even today people in Hot Springs really want to believe this idea that the mob had nothing to do with gambling in Hot Springs when it’s demonstrably untrue.  

It’s interesting how many people in powerful positions had connections to Hot Springs. I mean, both Kefauver and McClellan are leading these subcommittees on crime but both have connections and dirt on them from Hot Springs.

I was surprised at how often I kept finding the words Hot Springs in the Jimmy Hoffa file. There’s another book that came out recently from my publisher called “In Hoffa’s Shadow,” and it’s a book about Chuckie O’Brien, who was the main suspect in the Hoffa disappearance. The opening section of that book is set in Hot Springs. That’s because Chuckie O’Brien fled to Hot Springs to hide after Hoffa disappeared. Hoffa investigators came to Hot Springs and spent two weeks in Hot Springs digging up places around DeGray Lake and questioning people. 

Hoffa shows up in my book because [Hot Springs] state Sen. Q. Byrum Hurst represented Hoffa as his lawyer in a bribery trial in Chicago, and he did it because he was close to Hot Springs city manager A.D. Shelton, and Shelton’s sister was the judge in the case. So they put them all together so that they could fix the case. Hot Springs was wired in.

I mean growing up in Arkansas, we had a guy from our town become president. The biggest corporation in the world is from our state. Arkansas is a small state, and it’s considered by a lot of people outside of Arkansas to be kind of a Podunk place, but Arkansas has always punched above its weight in a lot of ways. I mean this has always been a running theme with Arkansas that Arkansas is that little dog who barks real loud at the big dog.

I think that my book in a lot of ways is about ambition, and the characters in my book are very ambitious. They all believe that they should have something better, and they all believe that that it’s all possible for them. They’re not cynics, and they take great personal risks and make sacrifices in service of their ambition. It sometimes works, and it sometimes fails spectacularly. But I think that’s very much a part of the character of the state of Arkansas,  for people in Arkansas to feel both the combination of resentment about how nobody takes it seriously, and a feeling that we should, and I think my book tells that story.

Moving out of the scope of  the book, but both of us grew up in Hot Springs. After gambling was shut down in ’64, the bottom kind of fell out in Hot Springs, and this is maybe why your book feels like a lost history. Maybe if gambling had kept up in that state, maybe these stories about it would have kept being told.  I’m a little younger than you, and my time growing up there is very much the ’90s. Growing up you would see these like big elaborate empty buildings and you don’t think anything of it because you don’t live somewhere else and you don’t know these sort of things aren’t in every town in America. Obviously Clinton being president was very exciting, but there was always this sort of disconnect between that kind of excitement and how sleepy things seemed in town.

I like that point you made about all the big empty buildings because it is true. If you grow up there you don’t realize it until you travel just a little bit outside town, it’s hard to find in other cities the same size as Hot Springs with these massive edifices, that are now either empty or they’re being used as assisted living or senior citizen homes.  

The Aristocrat is a perfect example of this hotel that clearly was a swanky joint. I mean it’s got like the little round drive, it’s got the lit up marquee and looked cool, but it was just old and dirty, and I’m not exactly sure what it was in the ’80s but I think it was for assisted living?  

Next door is this wax museum, which was once The Southern Club, and it feels weird and odd and no one ever tells you when you’re growing up there that the reason that there’s these massive buildings like the Velda Rose or the Majestic or the Arlington, these massive empty buildings, is because once upon a time this was one of the most popular tourist destinations in America maybe even the world. No one tells you this was Las Vegas before Las Vegas. 

I grew up with a friend who had a craps table in his house and his parents had covered the craps table with wood and then put a tablecloth over it. They were using the craps table like a regular table. We were not allowed to touch it, we were not allowed to look at it and I remember being at his house once for a sleepover and we were so curious about it that we wanted to go play with it. We got in so much trouble for taking up the plywood and messing with the craps table. And that’s kind of an interesting metaphor because that’s how the whole city treated its own history, it put like a tablecloth over and were like, “This isn’t a craps table, this is a hutch.” “There was no gambling here; these are nursing homes and wax museums.” They swept the sinful nature of the past under the rug and tried to make something else out of what was left over.

Of course, Hot Springs during the ’80s and ’90s was suffering because, and this wasn’t just unique to Hot Springs. Life was moving into the strip malls and moving away from downtown. So prior to that in the ’60s and ’70s Hot Springs had a downtown where all the action was and where the center of town where people hung out, that’s where they socialized, is where they did business. It’s where they ate lunch, that’s where they had dinner, and strip malls and the shopping malls moved everything away from downtown and downtown suffered. It really started to fall apart. Now I feel like all across America now there’s a real push to move things back into walkable areas, move things back and I feel like Hot Springs is already set up for that, so I feel like Hot Springs is rebounding and if you go downtown today you’ll see a whole new life there that just was not there in the ’80s when I was growing up. Nobody went downtown, now everybody’s coming back, you know. It’s really revitalizing because the culture is changing in America.

So how do we keep these stories alive? 

The thing about writing crime is the people involved in crime do everything they can to hide it, and they don’t want anyone to know, right? When writing about crime later, not only is it impossible because not only do people not record what they’re doing, they also tell people lies. When you go back later and try to tell these stories, you don’t have the benefit of — I mean, it’s easier to write about a war hero because people celebrate them and do everything they can to know all about them, but criminals, you know, it’s the opposite. I think this is a challenge that probably all writers  — especially people who write about crime  — run into. But in obscuring this crime, we obscured the history of an entire community, and that’s the real shame of it. In the attempt to obscure the criminal enterprise, of the corruption, that was involved in keeping the gambling business going, we culled a lot of important history that I think actually later generations would have been proud of. Not proud that their government was corrupt, or that they were breaking the law in order to gamble, but proud of the fact that their city was world renowned, and that important people from all over the world would travel to Hot Springs.

Maybe because I grew up in Hot Springs, and I grew up in a family of gamblers, and I grew up around carnies and gamblers, I’m completely drawn to these types of people and a lot of that exists there in that city. I may not be a great gambler, and I’m definitely not a con man, but there’s some of that DNA in me because that’s from whence I came and I guess I’m pretty fascinated by that, and I continue to want to explore and investigate it. I feel like in learning about these people I’m learning something about myself, too.