Hot Springs,Arkansas was heating up. Sarge the Syrian was there, and so were Amarillo Slim,Nigger Nate, Bones Martin and The Dreamer, gamblers all. Atlantic City Red, thepool hustler, was there, though he kept denying his identity. "You're the20th guy who's confused me with him," he said, feigning innocence. Hisconfrere, Daddy Warbucks, was expected there any minute. Tiny, the "heavyman," or bouncer, at The Vapors, was there, and the Round Man was outshooting at the golf course. Tommy Freeman, ex-welterweight champion of theworld, was there, and so was a little geezer of 94, Cap'n Joe Piggott, who saidhe had been Teddy Roosevelt's bodyguard. Colonel Reed Landis, son of the lateJudge Landis, the baseball commissioner, was there, and so was Lon Warneke, whowon 192 games for the Cardinals and Cubs. Texas millionaires were there, alongwith some moonshiners from the Possum Kingdom in the hills near by. Chicagocloak-and-suiters were there, to say nothing of arthritics from St. Joe,Mo.
These and manymore piled into the little city of 36,000 that snuggles in a valley of theOuachita (wash-i-taw) Mountains. The most unusual spa in the United States, HotSprings is also, pound for pound, the greatest sporting town anywhere. Lastweek marked the middle of the town's traditional spring season, and by all oddsthis one shapes up as the hottest in history—unless the FBI interferes. TheFBI, you see, was also there. The only people who were leaving were thecarnival folk who winter in town; they were outward bound for the SeattleWorld's Fair and other midways near and far.
Hot Springs,sometimes celebrated as the Paris of the Bible Belt, attracts characters andcrowds galore because it has something for almost everyone. "Free BeerTomorrow," flashes a neon sign over one saloon. At times it seems as thoughthe town was dreamed up in a collaboration of W. C. Fields and the Mayobrothers. Besides legal betting on the horses at Oaklawn Park, there is illegalgambling—craps, roulette, chuck-a-luck, bingo, blackjack, slots, you name it—atthe lavish casinos. There is bathing in the radioactive waters from the hotsprings at the Quapaw and other bathhouses along the Row on Central Avenue,bow-and-arrow shooting at Crystal Springs, where the National ArcheryAssociation holds its annual championship, superb fishing in the nearbycountryside, sailing and skin-diving at Lakes Hamilton, Catherine and Ouachita,championship cock-fighting not too far away, coon hunting in the mountains andgood jazz in the Skyline Lounge, where John Puckett plays the piano, and theBlack Orchid, where Charles Porter, piano, and Reggie Cravens, bass, hold forthuntil 5 in the morning.
Hot Springs haslured people since time began. Warring Indian tribes used to gather there inholy truce to partake of the waters bubbling from the earth. Legend has it thatPonce de Leon was really looking for these springs when he was chasing afterthe Fountain of Youth. In 1832 the U.S. Congress recognized the therapeuticvalue of the water by setting aside four square miles with the 47 springs as afederal preserve. As far as anyone knows, the water has always flowed steadilyfrom its unknown underground source at a rate of almost a million gallons aday, with an average temperature of 143°. "An unutterable, unspeakable,awesome miracle," intones Nate Schoenfeld, a local lawyer and bath booster,braced at attention, hat over heart.
A National ParksService plant cools the water to body temperature and pipes it into thebathhouses, where private concessionaires, operating under strict lease fromthe government, serve it up to customers by the tubful. The water not only hasa favorable effect on arthritis, bursitis and rheumatism, but is also mostrelaxing for the visitor un-afflicted with anything save a hangover or thetensions of modern life. The peak of bliss comes when the attendant pulls theplug after your daily 15-minute soaking. As the water surges down the drain,you are plastered to the sides of the tub like a wet leaf on a curbstone.
The reputationof the spa built the town of Hot Springs. It was one of the first springtraining sites for baseball teams. As early as 1886 the Chicago White Stockingsrepaired there to "boil out the alcoholic microbes" picked up fromwinter "lushing." Boxers came down by droves, from John L. Sullivan andBattling Nelson to Harry Greb and Jersey Joe Walcott.
In the 1930s and'40s Hot Springs was notorious as a sanctuary for gangsters on the lam. PrettyBoy Floyd stayed a spell, and so did the Alvin Karpis gang. They had thefreedom of the city; indeed, a phone call from the mayor's office is reputed tohave triggered the Kansas City massacre. The mayor was Leo Patrick McLaughlin,an evil rogue who refused to let the kids in town have a playground. Hepreferred that they continue to loiter in pool halls. Known as Dixie's JimmyWalker, Leo always sported a fresh carnation in his lapel, wore his hat brim upin front and down in back and paraded around town in a carriage drawn by twohackney ponies named Scotch and Soda. His only advice to the gangsters was,"Check your irons at the state line." He met his downfall in 1946 whena group of G.I.s, led by Sid McMath, an ex-Marine officer who later becamegovernor of the state, and Nate Schoenfeld, a onetime Syracuse halfback andHarvard Law School graduate, rallied an independent party that defeated thecrooked machine. The G.I.'s were reformers but not bluenoses. They closed downthe gambling, purging it of Leo's cronies, but after McMath became governor itopened up again. The people wanted it that way. "The best way togovern," says Schoenfeld, who is not a gambling man himself, "is to doa hell of a lot of leavin' alone. The people are the ultimate repository ofwhat the good God has put in them. The gambling is home-owned and operated.There's no hoodlum element, no oppression, no scum. No one forces himself onanyone else. There is no guy around here with greasy hair and a Mafia smile.The people are capable, clean, decent, friendly. This place reflects thequality, character and charm of all of us. This place has got roots. It's 24hours of happiness."
At present thereare three large gambling casinos in Hot Springs: The Vapors, the newest andplushest; the Belvedere, the biggest, just outside the city limits (free cabrides to and from); and the Southern Club, the oldest and most centrallylocated, just across the street from the Arlington Hotel. All have nightclubs.Jan Garber and his orchestra play regularly for dancing at the Belvederethroughout the season. In addition, there are about half a dozen smallergambling places and two Negro clubs—the Atmosphere, run by huge Honey Tweedle,and the Cameo, operated by his pal, Bubba Page.
All the gamblinghouses in the city pay a local tax, $500 a month for what the law definessimply as "a large place" and $200 a month for "a small place."When the city fathers passed this law in 1958 they noted, "It is not theintention of the City Council to legalize any of the operations, but if sameare conducted, taxes shall be paid." The tax money goes into the HotSprings Municipal Auditorium and Civic Improvement Fund, and this year the cityclerk expects to collect $80,000. A few years ago the town, led by the localstate senator, with the wondrous name of Q. Byrum Hurst, tried to get thelegislature to legalize the gambling, but a handful of rural representativeshelped beat the bill. By custom and tradition, the governor of Arkansas keepshands off Hot Springs. The state needs the tourists for its economy.
A spokesman forthe gamblers is Dane Harris, 43, president and general manager of The Vapors, apartner in the Belvedere and an enthusiastic member of the Chamber of Commerce.A boyish-looking six-footer with a crew cut, Harris could pass for a youngcollege professor. "Of course this town's illegal," he says, withcandor, "but it's been running open for years. People expect it and wantit. This is strictly a local operation, has not been anything else and will notbe anything else. This is a different type of element. Check the police recordsfor the lack of prostitution and narcotics. Probably our own interest ingambling is more of an interest in it as a business than gambling for its ownsake. It looked like probably one of the few things that could be big enough tobuild the town on."
The Vapors,which books such acts as Les Paul and Mary Ford, the Andrews Sisters and JaneRussell, has 200 employees, and Harris hesitates to think what would happen tothem and the town, and his partners and himself, if the FBI brought a caseagainst the casinos. "We're fixin' to build a new auditorium here," hesays. "If there were no funds from the amusement tax that would not bepossible. The partners in The Vapors, the Southern and the Belvedere built aswimming pool for the colored people, which we operate free, and last year webuilt a white swimming pool here. It's the biggest filtered pool in Arkansas,6,000 square feet, and we also operate that one free."
So far theDepartment of Justice has not made any charges, but 40 to 50 FBI agents havejoined the three in the local permanent bureau in seeking violations of aninterstate gambling law passed by Congress last September. Townspeople arehopeful that the federal agents will not find anything wrong.
"Our advicefrom our attorneys," Harris says, "is that this law is designed tocombat the national syndicates with big operations, not local intrastateoperations. And all of the investigations by the government—and we don't knowwhat they show—have got to show that this is a local operation. We don't carehow long they hunt, they can't show what's not there."
The swarm ofagents has put an end to only one game in town, and that is not a game manypeople see. This is "the muscle game," a good old-fashioned crap gamewhere the players bump heads with one another, not against a house. In formeryears the muscle game was held in Hot Springs during the season, and itattracted the top dice shooters in the country, if not the world. It was notuncommon to see $100,000 in cash on the table for one roll.
Unlike thecasinos, which are open the year round, Oaklawn Park, the racetrack, operatesonly seven weeks a year, in the spring. This meet is the backbone of the HotSprings season. When the track, which opened February 17, closes on April 7with the Arkansas Derby, the season will be formally over. The rest of the townwill keep on running.
The track does abooming business, and touts thrive by the score. It may just be the magic ofHot Springs, but the touts there look more like touts than touts anywhere else.Five of them who hang together near the main gate, coats flapping, arms waving,their cries assailing the heavens, are so wild that they look like somethingout of Macbeth. The leader of this merry band has a wonderfully ruined andexpressive face, but absolutely vacant eyes that give no hint of any innerlife. "They look like the eyes in a stuffed animal," a fascinatedtrack-goer remarked.
Undoubtedly themost unusual tout in town is a live hen known as The Pickin' Chicken. Thechicken, a graduate of a local institution called the I.Q. Zoo (let's not stopto explain that), usually is stationed in a cage on Central Avenue down thestreet from the Southern Club. When a customer drops a quarter in the coinslot, a kernel of corn drops down a chute in the cage. But before the chickencan get the corn she has to pull a chain that marks a horse's name on a cardthat then pops out near the coin slot. Alas, The Pickin' Chicken is not ondisplay this year because Keller Breland, her owner and trainer, got sore whenhe had to spend $150 for a tout's license for her last year. "This," hesays, still irked, "is an interesting point in jurisprudence." One ofthose who misses the chicken is John Cella of St. Louis, the owner of Oak lawnand a former president of the Thoroughbred Racing Association. "Do you knowwhat?" Cella said recently. "In the first 10 days of last year thatchicken picked more winners than the Racing Form's Trackman."
As the onlytrack for hundreds of miles in any direction, Oaklawn pulls in huge numbers ofeager horseplayers, especially from Texas. The track even runs in three specialtrains from Texas during the season. But for some Texans that's not enough.Consider R. P. Bergfeld, a Dallas investment broker, no millionaire but a manwho does things with a Texas flair. Bergfeld opens his Dallas office at 8:30and conducts business until shortly after noon, when he goes to the airport tocatch the 1:15 American Airlines flight to Little Rock, 300 miles due east. Helands at 2:18 in Little Rock, where a chartered plane and pilot wait to fly himback 50 miles due west to Hot Springs. There a limousine and chauffeur speedhim to the track. He arrives in time to bet the fourth race—the third if thewind was right. He bets through to the eighth race, but he usually has to leavebefore it is run so he can catch the 5:33 Trans-Texas flight back to Dallasfrom Hot Springs. He eats on the plane, and by 7:30 he is home in bed watchingtelevision. "As long as you don't come up here for blood, you're allright," Bergfeld says.
Oaklawn itselfis a charming little track with a nine-hole golf course in the infield. Golfersplayed there opening day, but they are usually barred when the races are on forfear a slice will conk a horse. Flanking the old wooden clubhouse areglass-enclosed, steam-heated grandstands. "The first in the world,"says Cella proudly. Ordinarily Cella is a traditionalist: instead of using acar to haul the starting gate around he uses a team of Clydesdales.
Although Cellahas been coming down to Hot Springs for years, he never fails to be delightedby the varieties of life on exhibit in the town. "I don't know of any placelike it," he says. "It has a unique flavor all its own." As a casein point he cites the sermon Father Mac, the assistant pastor at St. John's,delivered at Mass a couple of Sundays ago. From the pulpit, Father Mac said hehad been out at the track a few days before and noticed a man who kept staringat him after one race. Finally the man came up to him and said, "Father,you cost me $100." "How could that be?" asked Father Mac."Well, Father," the man said, "when the horses were parading to thepost I saw you blessing the No. 9 horse. I bet him, and he finished last.""Son," said Father Mac, "I wasn't blessing him—I was giving him thelast rites."
The flavor ofthe town not only extends to but permeates the Hot Springs Golf and CountryClub, where the annual Hot Springs Open is played in May. Only this countryclub could have a teaching pro like Gib Sellers, a onetime golf hustler knownas the Round Man. For years the Round Man hustled with the best, often as ababy-faced kid in partnership with Titanic Thompson, the great con artist. Whenthey traveled through the Midwest together, Thompson liked to set up thesuckers for killing by airily pointing toward Sellers, who had only two woodsin a dilapidated bag, and saying, "I'll just take that kid over there andplay you two guys."
A Hot Springsnative, Sellers practiced hour after hour on the local course, trying to lookbad, and he trimmed everyone who came in for a game, even the other hustlers."No hustler ever came in here and went away happy," he says with asmile. "They all got beat here. There wasn't a player in the world whocould beat me here. I shot that thing anywhere from six to eight under par. Mybest round was a 62, playing five guys low ball."
When nothustling, the Round Man played with the gangsters who used to frequent HotSprings in battalion strength. "They all had a truce when they camehere," he says. "They were real gentlemen here." The best golferamong them was a gent known as Phil—he used sundry last names—who shot aroundpar. Joe Adonis was in the high 70s, Ralph (Bottles) Capone around 80, FrankCostello between 80 and 82 and Lucky Luciano high man with 95.
For thosevisitors who eschew golf or gambling, there is fishing the year round. (In thefall there is wild turkey shooting in the mountains.) Lake Ouachita, anine-year-old 48,000-acre man-made stretch of water, is only 10 miles away.Colonel Reed Landis operates the Brady Mountain Lodge there, one of the fewresorts in the wilderness area stretching back from the 975 miles ofshoreline.
The colonel'sprices are low ($10 a day for a room for two), and he can supply everythingfrom tackle to a boat and a guide. Biting now are bass (smallmouth, largemouthand Kentucky), crappie, bluegills, walleyes, pickerel, catfish and oceanstriped bass that were planted there in a novel experiment five years ago. Thestripers, protected until last year, run up to 16 pounds. Colonel Landis hasfished all over the country, and he says he just had to retire near Hot Springsbecause the fishing couldn't be matched. "When our fishing isordinary," he says, "I don't know any place in the United States whereit's as good. I've never seen anything as consistently comforting as thislake."
Fishermendesiring to go on a float trip down the Ouachita or Buffalo rivers can hire LonWarneke, the old pitching star and National League umpire. Lon, who was raisedin Mount Ida, a small town back in the mountains, has retired from umpiring andnow lives in Hot Springs. Years of fishing and pitching have made him amarvelously accurate caster. He can hit a half dollar from 50 feet.
A float tripcosts $25 a day, and Lon furnishes everything: transportation, the boat, foodand himself. "I do it more for fun than anything else," he says. He hasa Ouachita River float down to a science. When he floats it alone he spends theday following an oxbow bend. Just as the sun sets, he pulls ashore and fromthere it is only a five-minute walk through the woods to where he parked histruck in the morning.
Everythingconsidered, there isn't anything in the world like Hot Springs—or the people init. This is not to say the town couldn't be improved. Part of it could use acouple of coats of paint; there are junky signs and assorted clutterdisfiguring some of the land around Lake Hamilton; and a local restaurant maymar a good meal by serving the Chianti ice-cold. But perhaps it would be betternot to tamper with Hot Springs, and that goes for the FBI, too. As NateSchoenfeld says, "We have bounty. We have many things no one else has. Wewant to share it with all the world. We invite you."