I’ve never been to Hot Springs, Arkansas. Chances are, neither have you. It’s a town of thirty thousand people, and the only air service is a Cessna from Dallas. But there was a time when this sleepy locale was one of the premier health and leisure destinations in the country.
Hot Springs’ reputation was initially built on the supposed healing potential of its eponymous natural waters. Native Americans had long bathed in these springs, and by the early nineteenth century white health tourists began to follow suit. The federal government protected Hot Springs Reservation in 1832, the first recreation area to receive such a status (today it is a National Park). The railway came, the Oak Lawn racecourse was built, and by the twentieth century, the town was firmly established (or so it seemed) as a popular destination for holidaymakers.
In the time leading up to World War II, “hydrotherapy” was believed to aid everything from consumption to rheumatism. The popularity of health spas grew concurrently with the ease of travel and increased leisure time now available to the American middle class. By 1930, there were over twenty thousand spring resorts in the United States. Hot Springs was one of a few such resorts that managed to expand beyond spa tourists to draw in a broader public.
Hot Springs’ reputation as a health resort also brought the nation’s first Army-Navy Hospital, which in the 1930s mostly treated older veterans with arthritis. The hospital kicked into high gear with the outbreak of World War II, with wounded soldiers arriving for treatment. Hot Springs also became a processing point for uninjured soldiers returning to the States, and this flow of young men with cash in their pockets was a perfect boost to the local entertainment industry.
David Hill’s The Vapors is a family story as much as it is a narrative of Hot Springs itself, tracing the town as it reinvented itself as a gambling mecca from the 1930s to the 1960s. Much of this transition was facilitated by a state government which turned a wilfully blind eye towards anti-gambling laws, content to leave such issues to local law enforcement (which was, shall we say, heavily invested in allowing the gambling to continue). This kind of arrangement was hardly unique in the United States, where many cities had unofficial casinos and gambling dens, and bookies operated with some level of police collusion. But by the Sixties the political winds were changing, and regulations began to be more actively enforced. In 1962, Attorney General Robert Kennedy and the FBI tightened the noose by going after casino patrons, tracking people who had cashed checks for more than $300 in the town. Needless to say, having G-Men show up at their offices or homes cooled people’s enthusiasm for making return visits.
The three key figures in The Vapors are Owney Madden, a New York gangster and the owner of Manhattan’s Cotton Club, who moved to Hot Springs and married a local girl, bringing his mafia connections with him; Dane Harris, a local boy who worked his way up to casino owner and impresario; and Hazel Hill, the author’s grandmother. The book’s chapters move between these characters, and alongside them we’re treated to approximately thirty years of Hot Springs’ history. The book provides snapshots of these individuals, but the author presents little direct testimony, to the point that much of The Vapors consists of hypotheticals. The discussion about who said what to whom and regarding backroom deals relating to various crooked elections causes the narrative to get bogged down in excessive details at times.
Hazel receives special focus, although she was only a peripheral figure in the larger history of Hot Springs. Nevertheless, we follow her journey from a teenage bride during the Depression to a middle-aged divorcée in the Sixties, broke and addicted. After her divorce, she worked as an occasional casino shill or card dealer: a tiny cog in the gambling wheel. But the arc of Hazel’s life nevertheless matches the town’s fortunes.
Hill’s narrative records the downfall of Hot Springs, which he links to the government’s crackdown on casinos in the Sixties. No longer could the club operators count on the local authorities’ complicity, so the slots and roulette wheels got packed up for good. The Vapors, Dane Harris’s hotel and casino, once hosted some of the top entertainers of the day, from Frankie Laine to Mickey Rooney and Liberace. But fancy floor shows and good chefs alone weren’t enough to keep the crowds coming.
Hill tells a tragic tale indeed, but he overlooks the broader context of the changes in American travel habits taking place at the time. Hot Springs was no outlier. Other gambling towns (like Atlantic City) had also hit the skids by the mid-Sixties, left behind by a changing market. International travel became much easier, and the well-heeled clientele that such resorts depended on were now able to hop on a Boeing and fly somewhere more interesting than backwoods Arkansas.
Meanwhile, the town’s original attraction, the springs, were no longer such a draw. The health resort concept had become obsolete with the introduction of sulfa drugs, followed by antibiotics and more effective surgical treatments. Today, medical progress is such that no doctor recommends that a patient go and “take the waters”—much to the regret of faded spa towns across the country.
The town’s glory days depended on a convergence of circumstances and the powerful personalities of the men who controlled the gambling world. Hill’s research gives a detailed portrait of the corrupt governance, avarice, and glamor that brought the town enormous prosperity but also eventually sealed its fate. Hot Springs’ period of fame was brief, and the resort was quickly surpassed by Las Vegas as the country’s gambling capital. But Hill’s book is a reminder of how quickly a city’s fortunes can change when key industries disappear: a story that many residents of such towns know all too well.