The Vapors: A Southern Family, the New York Mob, and the Rise and Fall of Hot Springs, America's Forgotten Capital of Vice
“The Vapors is a new take on the familiar gangster history, but it needs just a little bit more cohesion to make it all fit together.”
David Hill's The Vapors: A Southern Family, the New York Mob, and the Rise and Fall of Hot Springs, America's Forgotten Capital of Vice starts off with a bang of a prologue, thrusting the reader onto a smoke-filled casino floor, circa April 1961. The craps tables are hopping, the blackjack dealers snap their decks with crisp efficiency, wide-eyed tourists mingle with professional gamblers, and foolhardy cheats get what they have coming. Moving through this action are the three major characters of the book: a legendary New York gangster; a smalltime liquor dealer turned casino boss; and a weary single mother working as a casino shill, hustling suckers while looking for a way out this dirty business. It’s a near cinematic telling with rapid cutting from scene to scene, moment to moment.
The gangster is English native Owney “The Killer” Madden, exiled triggerman for the New York mob and former owner of Harlem’s famed nightspot The Cotton Club. The casino boss is a local liquor dealer and WWII vet turned Madden protégé, Dane Harris. The bar girl is Hazel Hill. Her story takes a compelling turn when the fourth wall between writer and reader is smashed open. In an almost throwaway sentence author Hill reveals that Hazel is his grandmother.
In the early 20th century Hot Springs, Arkansas was well known for the legendary healing powers of its natural steam baths. With the many tourists pouring into the burgh in search of cures, Hot Springs needed other attractions to maintain this lucrative source of employment and revenue. In such a vacuum only one thing could happen. When legitimate business needs a boost in comes organized crime. In the 1920s the serene Hot Springs atmosphere was a growing vacation spot for mobsters hailing from New York, Chicago, and other far flung cities.
Not that there weren’t enough local gangsters to fulfil the need. One Hots Springs boss, W. S. Jacobs, was feared by many. Sporting a pegleg, Jacobs limped around town, collecting money owed to both him and the politicians he owned. Jacobs inspired fear. Even Al Capone, who came to the spas of Hot Springs hoping to cure his syphilis by “taking the waters” learned not to run afoul of Jacobs. Capone’s brother and lieutenant Ralph once implored Scarface not to skip town without paying bills. The retribution from Jacobs, Ralph insisted, could lead to a terrible retribution even the powerful Chicago Outfit couldn’t stave off.
When Owney Madden came to Hot Springs he was more or less retired (and somewhat exiled) from the New York rackets. Motivation for this was considerable. He was under suspiscion for possible involvement in the high-profile gangland hit on Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll, a rogue Mafia wannabe who made the mistake of accidentally killing a child while attempting to gun down another mobster. Once he arrived in Hot Springs, Madden fell in love with both the town and a local girl, Agnes Demby, the daughter of an Arkansas postmaster. Their romance, unlikely as it was, was passionate and resulted in marriage.
By all appearances, Madden was a retired English businessman by way of New York, but letting go of his old life was impossible. Corrupt Arkansas politicians from mayors to state representatives to the governor’s office were glad to provide assistance. Madden and Harris developed the fledgling casino and horseracing industry of Hot Springs into a genuine Las Vegas of the south. Over the years Madden’s colleagues in the illicit gambling business, including Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano, and Frank Costello often came to visit. So did Chicago mobsters Tony Accardo and Sam Giancana. Despite the presence of these criminal heavyweights, control of the Hot Springs rackets remained local. That was something that even Vegas couldn’t pull off.
Adding to the allure were the many celebrities who brought their acts to Hot Springs. Liberace was a mainstay. So were Frankie Laine, the McGuire Sisters, Pinky Lee, Mickey Rooney, and Madden crony George Raft, who based some of his famed gangster movie roles on his old friend. Another Madden pal, former prizefighter "Slapsy" Maxie Rosenbloom premiered his Broadway revue in Hot Springs at Owen’s request. In an era in which racial segregation was a norm, eager music fans could count on African American entertainers like Ella Fitzgerald or Ray Charles to show up from time to time.
By outward appearances Hot Springs was something of a paradise, with enough gambling and entertainment to hold its own against Vegas and Lansky’s doomed casino empire in Havana, Cuba. Yet the fun and games went only so far. Hill's portrait of his grandmother is rich in detail, a sad decline of a bright eyed teenager who marries the wrong man, soon finds herself at the mercy of his alcoholic rages, and doing what she can to raise her sons, Jimmy, Larry, and Hollis Jr. amid a whirlpool of despair.
A powerful contrast is drawn between Jimmy Hill (the author’s father to whom the book is dedicated) and one of his high school classmates. Both boys were born on August 19, 1946. Jimmy’s upbringing was hardscrabble while his classmate found bearings despite his own familial difficulties. A budding saxophone player, his mother brought him to The Vapor’s lounge to hear legendary jazzman Jack Teagarden. Though he loved the music, Virginia Clinton’s boy just didn’t feel comfortable in the nightclub atmosphere and asked his mother to take him home. A few months later Bill Clinton was part of a national high school group meeting with President John F. Kennedy at the White House.
All the elements are in place for a rip-roaring yard of epic proportions. Hill has a marvelous cast of characters with unique story arcs. At times his grandmother’s story feels like a Greek tragedy; at other times the story of Dane Harris, the liquor dealer turned Madden apprentice, plays like a slapstick farce, colored by the various crooked public officials who keep the Hot Springs vice business running.
Hill tells the story with varying success. At times the book feels like three different plot lines all vying for attention: the gangster superstar, the corrupt casino owner and his politician pals, and the woman who lives in the corrosion beneath the glamour. Hill just can’t maintain the frenetic energy of his prologue as he switches back and forth between his characters and their varying story threads. The Vapors is a new take on the familiar gangster history, but it needs just a little bit more cohesion to make it all fit together.