If you’re not from Arkansas, the town of Hot Springs probably conjures little in the way of vivid imagery. If you are, as both sides of my family can claim, just the mention of the name evokes a kind of bygone backwoods Las Vegas, a sweaty, pulsing line of casinos both posh and down-market, flanked by the town’s famous bathhouses, bookie joints, and brothels, that rare American spot where illiterate locals could double down alongside vacationing midcentury gangsters such as Al Capone and Frank Costello.
The Brooklyn writer David Hill’s history of all this, The Vapors, is a capable if ultimately disappointing biography of the town in its heyday, from roughly the mid-20s to the mid-60s. It’s a story that’s probably overdue to be shared with a national audience, and if Hill’s book isn’t exactly the rip-roaring gangster yarn you might be expecting, it’s still a valuable, professionally produced contribution to American criminal history and lore.
Members of my family took vacations in Hot Springs for years, and I dipped into its history during my research for 2004’s Public Enemies, a sprawling tale of the F.B.I.’s Depression-era war on Midwestern kidnappers and bank robbers. My narrative began and almost ended in Hot Springs, and afterward I gave a thought or two to writing more about the place. But I eventually passed when confronted by the problem Hill can’t quite overcome. Yes, Hot Springs was a big deal back in the day. Yes, just about every gangster you’ve ever heard of passed through at some point. But in the end, well, not much happens.
The Town’s Last Boss Gambler
Hill, whose family hails from Hot Springs, tackles this challenge by dividing his own narrative into three biographies: of his grandmother Hazel, a boozy casino shill; Dane Harris, a 50s-era Organization Man and the town’s last “boss gambler”; and Harris’s longtime not-so-silent partner, the exiled New York Mob boss Owney Madden. This approach works well enough, allowing Hill to back and fill on the history and politics.
Rising in the late 1800s around a line of government-owned bathhouses featuring its fabled warm springs, Hot Springs had by the turn of the century added gambling to its effervescent mix. After a long slumber brought on by the closing of the gambling dens, it re-emerged in the late 1920s when they were reopened, though the town’s prime time was marked by near-constant squabbling between locals and the state government over their legality. Most of the time, Hot Springs was defiantly illegal in nature. One after another, Arkansas governors and senators decried it all, then took money under the table to keep it up and running. Outside the state, no one much cared.
Much of the narrative, such as it is, revolves around local elections and the pitting of pro-gambling forces against the anti-gambling ones. This gets tiresome fast. There’s just so much you want to read about heated elections for county judge in 1948. Dashes of excitement dot Hill’s tales on the occasional intrusion of outside gangsters; other than Madden, who quietly takes over the national racing wire’s local feed, they struggle to find purchase in Hot Springs. You’d think this would lead to a string of bullet-riddled bodies and bombings, but, alas, no. There are a few anonymous bombings late in the book, in the early 60s, but by and large the competition to control the town remains bloodless. Really, these Arkansas gambling bosses were incredibly well behaved. Exactly why that was, Hill is at pains to explain.
That rare American spot where illiterate locals could double down alongside vacationing midcentury gangsters such as Al Capone and Frank Costello.
One yearns for the major characters to spring to life. But the story built around Hill’s grandmother Hazel is straight out of Hillbilly Elegy territory, pill-popping adults raising wild, itinerant children. Dane Harris should be the marquee character here, a straitlaced, zero-handicap local boy who leads a group of young World War II veterans taking over the town in the late 40s. Harris wants to clean up Hot Springs, toss out the hookers and shills, and all but Disneyfy it in an effort to attract middle-class tourists. And with Owney Madden’s backing, he succeeds. His own casino, the Vapors, features headline entertainers such as Mickey Rooney.
By the 1960s, under Harris’s management, Hot Springs is bringing in nearly as much revenue as every casino in Nevada. Madden, banished from New York in the 30s, should be the sizzle but isn’t, settling down to a quiet life of gambling management. In New York he was called “the Killer”; in Hot Springs he becomes a biller, content to make the trains run on time and referee the seasonal conflicts among the gambling bosses. He and Harris do a good job keeping the Estes Kefauvers of the world at bay, but Bobby Kennedy proves too much, and his anti-gambling crusades whip up enough controversy that, in the end, Harris simply surrenders, voluntarily closing up shop in 1964.
It’s an oddly anticlimactic ending to an oddly mannered book, but history is history, and Hill does his best with the facts he’s given. The tangents on Meyer Lansky’s work in Havana and Vegas are vivid if well known. Hill’s prose is clear and unadorned, occasionally repetitive but not to a bothersome degree. The Vapors ends up a worthwhile addition to a canon of criminal and gambling history that too often relies on schlock.