Those of us who are fans of gangster stories have been saturated (oversaturated, perhaps?) in the Lucky-Bugsy-Meyer saga, rooted in New York but with memorable offshoots in Havana, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Well, here’s a fresh cast and venue: the casino crowd of Hot Springs, Arkansas, arguably America’s gambling capital until it all came crashing down in the mid-1960s.
Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky do make cameos in The Vapors: A Southern Family, the New York Mob, and the Rise and Fall of Hot Springs, America’s Forgotten Capital of Vice, David Hill’s true crime narrative of the spa resort town from the ’30s through the ’60s. But the big players are the less-remembered mobster Owney Madden, casino boss Dane Harris and a raft of crooked homegrown pols, judges and cops—with a fleeting appearance by Hot Springs resident Virginia Clinton and her promising son Bill.
It’s still astonishing how open Hot Springs’ vice industry was, with city leaders acting as an integral part of the criminal establishment. Madden was the mob’s guy in town, but he quickly assimilated to the local landscape. Harris, the son of a bootlegger, had aspirations of respectability; he’s the Michael Corleone of the story. He wanted the clubs, led by his gang of Vapors, to be glossy entertainment palaces. Harris did his best with payoffs and vote-buying, but internecine fighting that featured bomb explosions and pressure from Bobby Kennedy’s Department of Justice ended his dream.
The history is fascinating, but what makes The Vapors a compelling—and ultimately heartwrenching—book is the author’s account of his own family, who lived in Hot Springs during the casino heyday. His grandmother Hazel Hill landed there as a teen, drifted into casino work after leaving her violent, alcoholic husband and neglected her sons as she fell into her own sad addictions. Hill tells the hard truth of her life with compassion and context.
Amid all this mayhem, one person in the book emerges as a beacon of decency: Jimmy Hill, Hazel’s youngest son and the author’s father. Intelligence, hard work, athletic talent and loyal friends led him to a better life. Dane Harris should have been so lucky.