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The Vapors: A Southern Family, the New York…
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The Vapors: A Southern Family, the New York Mob, and the Rise and Fall of… (original 2020; edition 2021)

by David Hill (Author)

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1106211,327 (4.1)1
One of "21 books we can't wait to read in 2020" --Thrillist A New York Times Book Review summer reading pick A Kirkus Reviews hottest summer read | A Publishers Weekly summer reads staff pick The incredible true story of America's original--and forgotten--capital of vice Back in the days before Vegas was big, when the Mob was at its peak and neon lights were but a glimmer on the horizon, a little Southern town styled itself as a premier destination for the American leisure class. Hot Springs, Arkansas was home to healing waters, Art Deco splendor, and America's original national park--as well as horse racing, nearly a dozen illegal casinos, countless backrooms and brothels, and some of the country's most bald-faced criminals. Gangsters, gamblers, and gamines: all once flocked to America's forgotten capital of vice, a place where small-town hustlers and bigtime high-rollers could make their fortunes, and hide from the law. The Vapors is the extraordinary story of three individuals--spanning the golden decades of Hot Springs, from the 1930s through the 1960s--and the lavish casino whose spectacular rise and fall would bring them together before blowing them apart. Hazel Hill was still a young girl when legendary mobster Owney Madden rolled into town in his convertible, fresh off a crime spree in New York. He quickly established himself as the gentleman Godfather of Hot Springs, cutting barroom deals and buying stakes in the clubs at which Hazel made her living--and drank away her sorrows. Owney's protégé was Dane Harris, the son of a Cherokee bootlegger who rose through the town's ranks to become Boss Gambler. It was his idea to build The Vapors, a pleasure palace more spectacular than any the town had ever seen, and an establishment to rival anything on the Vegas Strip or Broadway in sophistication and supercharged glamour. In this riveting work of forgotten history, native Arkansan David Hill plots the trajectory of everything from organized crime to America's fraught racial past, examining how a town synonymous with white gangsters supported a burgeoning black middle class. He reveals how the louche underbelly of the South was also home to veterans hospitals and baseball's spring training grounds, giving rise to everyone from Babe Ruth to President Bill Clinton. Infused with the sights and sounds of America's entertainment heyday--jazz orchestras and auctioneers, slot machines and suited comedians--The Vapors is an arresting glimpse into a bygone era of American vice.… (more)
Member:radicarian
Title:The Vapors: A Southern Family, the New York Mob, and the Rise and Fall of Hot Springs, America's Forgotten Capital of Vice
Authors:David Hill (Author)
Info:Picador (2021), 416 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:****
Tags:None

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The Vapors: A Southern Family, the New York Mob, and the Rise and Fall of Hot Springs, America's Forgotten Capital of Vice by David Hill (2020)

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Showing 1-5 of 6 (next | show all)
Not sure why I enjoyed this quirky little book so much.

Was it the opportunity to travel back through time to revel in the nostalgic mid-century dazzle of cocktail dresses and fedora hats, Friday dances and varsity football, boxers and hard-living Hollywood stars, resorts and race meets and spectacular MCM architecture?

Or perhaps it was the vicarious thrill of learning more about the internal operations of mid-century mobsters, sans most of the most objectionable horror? (You can think of Hot Springs as a sort of “Chicago Light”: all the mobsters, none of the Tommy-gun massacres.)

Maybe it's the way better-known historical events and milestones lace their way into the narrative – the role of Jimmy Hoffa’s Teamsters in laundering mob money, the birth of the amphetamine crisis, the Cuban revolution, Robert Kennedy’s anti-mob vignette, Hollywood scandals, the Little Rock Nine, Bill Clinton, and more?

Or could it have been the opportunity about an aspect of history that was, until now, totally unfamiliar to me? Going in, I had no idea going into this that Hot Springs, Arkansas came so close to rivaling Las Vegas as America’s gambling destination!

The author cleverly parallels the story of the rise and fall of Hot Springs with the rise and fall of his grandmother Hazel, providing an opportunity for him to tell his tale not just from the point of view of the “big shots” whose names we recognize but who lived lives most of us can only imagine, but also from the point of view of the many innocent citizens of Hot Springs whose lives were irrevocably intwined in the towns’ booms and busts. By the time the Baptists finally manage to shut down gambling in Hot Springs in the 1960, some Hot Springs residents will have emerged as winners, some will have been lucky enough just emerge unscathed, but others – like Hazel – will have lost themselves in the whorl of alcoholism, drug addiction, petty cons and lost dreams.

Who cares which of the above kept me turning the pages? All I can say is that I tore through this in a weekend and have already recommended it to several friends. Informative and fun! ( )
  Dorritt | Mar 1, 2022 |
Hot Springs, Arkansas! What a great detailed look at the history from the 1930's-1970's...Lots of gambling, mafia and the sad life of the author's grandmother.. Very interesting, great book. ( )
  loraineo | Aug 15, 2021 |
Fascinating story of a town in Arkansas that preceded Las Vegas' heyday. This is a chronicle of the families and personalities involved in the thriving gambling venue built up around the hot springs in Arkansas. The politics and corruption around gambling in a state where it was ostensibly illegal, brings in not only corrupt law enforcement and judges, but also the mafia.

Along the way we learn of connections with Vegas and Cuba as well as references to the Kennedy and Clinton families. This is a tale full of drugs and alcohol, broken families and politicians focused on how they can take over the town and avoid the long arm of the state and federal government. Peyton Place meets the Godfather with some Valley of the Dolls thrown in along the way – and it’s all true. ( )
  dbsovereign | May 1, 2021 |
This books covers the once popular gambling town of Hot Springs, Arkansas. We visited there in the 1970's and I had no idea about its history as a gambling Mecca. The book follows two of the town's gambling kingpins and a woman whose life is negatively affected by the Hot Spring's various temptations. The book follows the town's struggle to keep the national mob out at the same time fight against local and state officials who wanted to close them down. The book covers the 1920's to the mid 60's Very interesting. ( )
  muddyboy | Feb 5, 2021 |
Juicy, compulsively readable Americana. ( )
  Menshevixen | Oct 13, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 6 (next | show all)
From about 1870 until 1967, when the reformist governor Winthrop Rockefeller shut off the vice spigot, the town’s chief municipal expression was a wink. The mayors winked. The cops winked. The preachers winked, or at least averted their gaze. Winking was how a Bible Belt town of 28,000 (circa 1960) attracted upward of five million visitors per year and why, as Hill writes, on any given Saturday night, there may have been “no more exhilarating place to be in the entire country.” ... Hazel’s story, as “The Vapors” progresses, provides the emotional ballast, the counterweight to all the good-timey glitz, the darkness behind the neon signs. It gives the book its heft, and its warmth. The mob, Hill writes, turned to gambling after Prohibition partly because it considered gambling, like alcohol, to be a “victimless crime.” Hazel’s story — complex, turbulent, as haunting as a pedal steel solo — serves as a soft rebuttal to that idea, and is the wellspring of David Hill’s achievement here.
added by Lemeritus | editNew York Times, Jonathan Miles (pay site) (Jul 7, 2020)
 
Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky do make cameos...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.... 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.
added by Lemeritus | editBookPage, Anne Bartlett (Jul 1, 2020)
 
Journalist Hill’s fantastic debut blends true crime and Southern history to chronicle the transformation of Hot Springs, Ark., from a spa town into a hotbed of horse racing, prostitution, and illegal gambling between the 1930s and 1960s.... Expertly interweaving family memoir, Arkansas politics, and Mafia lore, Hill packs the story full of colorful characters and hair-raising events. This novelistic history hits the jackpot.
added by Lemeritus | editPublishers Weekly (Apr 6, 2020)
 
The history of a small town in Arkansas that once rivaled Las Vegas in gambling, booze, and prostitution. For most Americans, Hot Springs, Arkansas, doesn’t raise an eyebrow, but folks who lived in the state from the 1930s to the ’60s knew the place as “the most sinful little city in the world.” ... In highly detailed, novelistic prose, Hill chronicles the rise of the power brokers and their ballot-stuffing control of local and state elections. In 1965, J. Edgar Hoover and Attorney General Robert Kennedy finally shut it all down. A captivating, shady story about massive, brazen corruption hiding in plain sight.
added by Lemeritus | editKirkus Reviews (Apr 5, 2020)
 
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Epigraph
I got a letter from Hot Springs,/ tell you how it read./ Lord you come at once, boy,/ You sure enough girl is dead. -Mississippi Fred McDowell, 'Letter from Hot Springs'
Dedication
For Jimmy
First words
Down in the valley beneath the shadow of Sugar Loaf Mountain, where the hot vapors rise from the healing waters of the springs, L.V. Rowe was on one hell of a roll at the dice table. -Prologue
Hazel wasn't sure where she was headed. -Hazel, Part I
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One of "21 books we can't wait to read in 2020" --Thrillist A New York Times Book Review summer reading pick A Kirkus Reviews hottest summer read | A Publishers Weekly summer reads staff pick The incredible true story of America's original--and forgotten--capital of vice Back in the days before Vegas was big, when the Mob was at its peak and neon lights were but a glimmer on the horizon, a little Southern town styled itself as a premier destination for the American leisure class. Hot Springs, Arkansas was home to healing waters, Art Deco splendor, and America's original national park--as well as horse racing, nearly a dozen illegal casinos, countless backrooms and brothels, and some of the country's most bald-faced criminals. Gangsters, gamblers, and gamines: all once flocked to America's forgotten capital of vice, a place where small-town hustlers and bigtime high-rollers could make their fortunes, and hide from the law. The Vapors is the extraordinary story of three individuals--spanning the golden decades of Hot Springs, from the 1930s through the 1960s--and the lavish casino whose spectacular rise and fall would bring them together before blowing them apart. Hazel Hill was still a young girl when legendary mobster Owney Madden rolled into town in his convertible, fresh off a crime spree in New York. He quickly established himself as the gentleman Godfather of Hot Springs, cutting barroom deals and buying stakes in the clubs at which Hazel made her living--and drank away her sorrows. Owney's protégé was Dane Harris, the son of a Cherokee bootlegger who rose through the town's ranks to become Boss Gambler. It was his idea to build The Vapors, a pleasure palace more spectacular than any the town had ever seen, and an establishment to rival anything on the Vegas Strip or Broadway in sophistication and supercharged glamour. In this riveting work of forgotten history, native Arkansan David Hill plots the trajectory of everything from organized crime to America's fraught racial past, examining how a town synonymous with white gangsters supported a burgeoning black middle class. He reveals how the louche underbelly of the South was also home to veterans hospitals and baseball's spring training grounds, giving rise to everyone from Babe Ruth to President Bill Clinton. Infused with the sights and sounds of America's entertainment heyday--jazz orchestras and auctioneers, slot machines and suited comedians--The Vapors is an arresting glimpse into a bygone era of American vice.

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