Race fans who’ve wagered on Oaklawn Park or traveled to Hot Springs, Ark., during the meet may be familiar with the town’s colorful history: In the early 1800s, people began coming to experience the thermal waters, which were thought to have healing properties and were later erroneously recommended by the surgeon general. In the early 1960’s, Spa City ranked fourth in the nation for visitors, including many revelers who came during racing season and for the illegal, yet wide-open gambling scene. The small town had over 70 establishments offering some form of gambling and, at different times, it rivaled or overshadowed the strip in Las Vegas despite competing casinos and political factions fighting each other and opposition from Bible Belt ministers.
Recently recommended by The New York Times, “The Vapors,” subtitled “A Southern Family, The New York Mob, and the Rise and Fall of Hot Springs, America’s Forgotten Capital of Vice,” by David Hill, reveals history that even people who have made many trips down Central Avenue, the home of Oaklawn Park and Bathhouse Row, may not know. Hill, who spent five years researching FBI transcripts, newspaper reports, personal correspondence, audio recordings, and court documents and interviewing family members with firsthand and secondhand memories, focuses on three figures during the years 1931 through 1968: Owney Madden, New York City crime boss who “retired” to Hot Springs after serving time in Sing Sing; Dane Harris, a son of Hot Springs who rose from humble beginnings to the position of boss gambler; and Hazel Hill, the author’s grandmother, whose horse trainer father left her in Hot Springs, a city she believed could be her ticket to a different life if it and her own choices didn’t ruin her first.
The lives of these three people intertwine at The Vapors, a nightclub Harris opened in 1960 aiming to rival any in the country, at a cost of more than $1 million. The Vapors featured Tiffany chandeliers, an expansive mahogany bar, a casino, a swank restaurant and a showroom that hosted acts like Liberace, Jerry Lee Lewis, Mickey Rooney, Red Skelton, and Les Paul. The club’s flourishing trajectory was tied to the success of Hill’s central figures and the town until, facing political pressure, Gov. Orval Faubus, who received money from the gambling combination for years, eliminated illegal gambling, and the final wagers were placed the eve of Easter Sunday 1964. The after-effects changed Hot Springs and the lives of Owney Madden, Dane Harris, and Hazel Hill, and the author alludes to how these ghost-like vapors still haunt the town and their families.
“The Vapors” weaves in many instances Hot Springs intersects with American history and culture. The town was a home for baseball spring training and an asylum for criminals like Al Capone and Charles “Lucky” Luciano, public enemy number one. It healed 1,500 veterans a month during World War II at the Army and Navy Hospital, the only one of its kind in the United States. Entertainment greats Elvis Presley, Ella Fitzgerald, and the Duke Ellington Orchestra walked her streets and so did presidents and presidents-to-be, including Bill Clinton, who was raised in Hot Springs. Jack Ruby, the nightclub owner who killed Lee Harvey Oswald, had ties to Spa City.
Readers who have visited Hot Springs will enjoy the backdrops of the Arlington Hotel, the Ohio Club, the Southern Club, Maxine’s, Bridge Street — the shortest working street in America — and the Aristocrat Manor, whose construction was financed by Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters.
David Hill is a contributor to America’s Best Racing. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, GQ and New York magazine. “The Vapors” is his first book. Read an excerpt of it here.