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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




Overview -

A 2020 New York Times notable book One of the Chicago Tribune's best nonfiction books of 2020

Complex, turbulent, as haunting as a pedal steel solo
--Jonathan Miles, The New York Times Book Review (Editors' Choice)

One of 21 books we can't wait to read in 2020 --Thrillist A New York Times Book Review summer reading pick A GQ best book of 2020 Named one of the 10 best July books by The Washington Post and The Christian Science Monitor 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 prot g 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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Overview

A 2020 New York Times notable book One of the Chicago Tribune's best nonfiction books of 2020

Complex, turbulent, as haunting as a pedal steel solo
--Jonathan Miles, The New York Times Book Review (Editors' Choice)

One of 21 books we can't wait to read in 2020 --Thrillist A New York Times Book Review summer reading pick A GQ best book of 2020 Named one of the 10 best July books by The Washington Post and The Christian Science Monitor 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 prot g 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.


 

Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781250086112
  • ISBN-10: 1250086116
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publish Date: July 2020
  • Page Count: 400
  • Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.2 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds


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BookPage Reviews

The Vapors

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.

 

BAM Customer Reviews