Wide-open days in the Spa City

It has been fun writing about the colorful characters who loved to hang out in Hot Springs.

One of the most colorful was Rodney Fertel of New Orleans, who became known as the Gorilla Man after running unsuccessfully for mayor of the Crescent City on the promise that he would buy a pair of gorillas for the Audubon Zoo.

Rodney’s wife from 1947-58 was Ruth Fertel, the founder of the Ruth’s Chris chain of steakhouses.

Their son, Randy Fertel, wrote a book about his parents titled “The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak.” It features a photo of Rodney and Ruth walking down Central Avenue in Hot Springs in 1948.

Here’s part of what Randy Fertel wrote in the book (published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2011), which I would highly recommend you read: “If we could return to the moment captured in a 1948 photo, this couple, Mom and Dad, Ruth and Rodney, might catch our eye as they stride down Central Avenue in Hot Springs. In full sunlight, Ruth holds the crook of Rodney’s right arm and gazes at the camera with self-assurance and an easy smile. While women behind her clutch their bags tight, she carries a handbag by its strap. She wears heels with bows.

“That sunny day in Hot Springs, an unseen ornate gold barrette tooled in her initials — RUF — holds her hair swept back from her high brow. The barrette is a gift from her husband, whose family is in the trade — pawnshops.

“His face in shadow and wearing sunglasses, not unaware of the camera himself, her husband gazes at her with fondness and regard. Rodney sports a tie with bold ovals, and in his right hand he carries a folded paper, probably the Daily Racing Form. He wears his shirtsleeves rolled. His left arm swings forward with a watch on his wrist, the first of many gold Rolexes, and a cigarette in the tips of his fingers — he has yet to give them up. One can almost see the ‘insouciant challenge of his loping walk,’ as Terry Teachout, Louis Armstrong’s recent biographer, paints it. Dad shared with Pops the same neighborhood, New Orleans’ South Rampart Street.

“It is three years since the end of the Second World War in which Rodney Fertel (ne Weinberg) did not serve (4-F for reasons that have always been obscure). It’s two years since Ruth Fertel (nee Udstad) graduated from Louisiana State University with honors in physics and chemistry. She is 21, he is 27. In less than a year, their firstborn son, Jerry, will enter the world. In two years, I will arrive.

“They come from a watery world and they’ve found another here. In the hills to their left and right are Hot Springs Mountain and West Mountain where 47 underground springs spew a million gallons of water a day, no matter the weather. Carbon dating shows that 4,000 years ago the water fell as rain upon the Ouachita forest of central Arkansas. Since then it has seeped slowly down through the earth’s crust until, superheated by the earth’s core, it gushes rapidly to the surface, a constant 143 degrees Fahrenheit. Mountain Valley Water, Rodney’s lifelong favorite brand, was founded nearby. Since the dawn of time, spring floods have coursed south, building with alluvial ooze the deep Mississippi Delta where Ruth was born.”

There’s something about Hot Springs that inspires good writing like this.

In the spring of 1962, Robert H. Boyle would write in Sports Illustrated: “Everything considered, there isn’t anything in the world like Hot Springs — or the people in it. This is not to say the town couldn’t be improved. Part of it could use a couple of coats of paint; there are junky signs and assorted clutter disfiguring some of the land around Lake Hamilton; and a local restaurant may mar a good meal by serving the Chianti ice cold. But perhaps it would be better not to tamper with Hot Springs.”

It once was common for photographers to take photos of those walking up and down Central Avenue and then sell the photos. You’ve probably seen those black-and-white shots of people strolling the avenue. In the background of many of the photographs is the neon sign for a restaurant named Hammons.

Randy Fertel writes: “Hammons, no apostrophe. Sea Food, two words. Inside a sign promises ‘One Day Out of the Ocean,’ meaning one day up from the Louisiana bayous where Ruth was born. Rodney prefers Hammons to the Arlington’s grand dining room with its organ and white-gloved black waiters and where, at age 13, I develop a taste for watercress salad and cornbread sticks slathered in butter and honey.

“Rodney has not yet developed his taste for political clowning. His Gorilla Man campaign for New Orleans mayor, with its catchy slogan — ‘Don’t vote for a monkey. Elect Fertel and get a Gorilla’ — lies 20 years in the future.

“Ruth has not yet read the classified ad that will, in 1965, lead her to borrow $22,000 to purchase a little steakhouse with 17 tables near the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. My parents were married just a few years, from 1947 to 1958. They each had a certain glamour.”

They were in the right place in 1948 for people with glamour. As they like to say in Hot Springs, it was Vegas before there was a Vegas.

When the photo was taken, the 20-year reign of Leo Patrick McLaughlin as Hot Springs’ mayor had just come to an end. Sid McMath was leading the GI revolt against the McLaughlin machine. McMath had been elected prosecuting attorney (and would be elected governor in 1948), and a grand jury began an investigation into the McLaughlin administration in March 1947. McLaughlin announced he would not run again. He was indicted on numerous charges but never convicted.

Wendy Richter, the archivist at Ouachita Baptist University, writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “McLaughlin ran for mayor in 1926 on a platform that promised Hot Springs would be an open town. He also pledged to improve city streets. McLaughlin delivered on his campaign promises. He directed work that paved miles of streets and, most notably, he allowed illegal gambling. McLaughlin also orchestrated the Arkansas Legislature’s approval of the reopening of Oaklawn Park in 1934 after a 15-year hiatus.

“During McLaughlin’s two decades as mayor from 1927-47, only one person ran against him. Prior to each election during his administration, city employees would be given a ‘pink slip’ to share with friends and family, naming the candidates favored by the McLaughlin machine. Therefore, candidates appearing on the slip were assured support even though the names of many of the people who voted for them could be found only in cemeteries. McLaughlin’s ability to deliver votes made him a powerhouse in state politics. All he asked was that Hot Springs be left alone to operate as an open town.

“McLaughlin was a showman. He drew attention from tourists and locals alike when he rode daily down Central Avenue in a sulky pulled by his horses, Scotch and Soda, while wearing a riding costume with a red carnation in his lapel. This showmanship surfaced in his political speeches as well; he often shed his coat and rolled up his sleeves as a speech intensified.

“Underworld characters frequented Hot Springs during the McLaughlin administration. Men such as Al Capone, Charles “Lucky” Luciano and Frank Costello visited the spa town with the understanding that they would exhibit only their best behavior. The nation’s gangsters utilized Hot Springs as a sanctuary or retreat; McLaughlin and his associates welcomed them as long as they did not bother the locals and left their criminal activities behind.

“Local businessmen managed the town’s gambling operations under the watchful eyes of McLaughlin and his associates. The owners and managers appeared regularly in municipal court and helped finance city government by paying fines considered to be license fees for their operations. This income spurred the development of Hot Springs, which reached its peak as a health resort during his tenure as mayor. The spa’s bathing industry hit its zenith in the mid-1940s when visitors enjoyed more than a million baths annually.”

Randy Fertel describes the Spa City this way in his book: “In this year, 1948, Hot Springs is a wide-open town, dominated by the Southern Club, a gambling house in operation since 1893. In Las Vegas, Bugsy Siegel’s Flamingo Hotel is only two years old and the Strip still but a dream. The mineral baths and the gambling tables draw Rodney and Ruth here from their home in New Orleans for long stays. Rodney enjoys independent means inherited from his pawnbroker grandparents; no job pulls him home.

“The horses bring them, too. In 1948, the Fair Grounds in New Orleans celebrates its Diamond Jubilee, 75 years of continuous thoroughbred racing. Hot Springs’ Oaklawn Park is almost as old. This very summer, Louisiana Gov. Earl Long, Huey’s brother and an inveterate gambler, comes to Hot Springs ‘for his arthritis.’ Gov. Long begins his day with the Daily Racing Form and the tout sheets. He helped the mob install slots throughout Louisiana; they let him know when the fix is in. Ruth and Rodney Fertel share Gov. Long’s taste for racehorses. In a few years, Ruth will earn her thoroughbred trainer’s license.”

Randy Fertel writes about Owney Madden, a man he describes as “a gangster from Liverpool by way of Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen. Owney Madden, or ‘Owney the Killer’ as he was called, had turned the Cotton Club in Harlem into a success before going upriver to spend seven years in Sing Sing — which didn’t prevent owning a casino in unregulated Hot Springs. To Mae West, fellow denizen of Hell’s Kitchen whose career he bankrolled and whom he dated, Madden was ‘sweet but oh so vicious.'”

Fertel writes that Hot Springs was “favored by gangsters both Jewish and Italian: Louis Lepke, Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Joy Adonis, Frank Costello. Luciano fled the Waldorf-Astoria for Hot Springs in 1936 when Tom Dewey, district attorney of New York City and future governor of New York, indicted him for prostitution. It took 20 Arkansas Rangers to surround and take Luciano. … Still in the honeymoon glow, Rodney this time splurges on a room at the Arlington Hotel, looming beyond the camera’s sight at the head of Central Avenue. Al Capone at one time kept a fourth-floor corner suite overlooking the Southern Club, his favorite, just across the street. He played at a raised poker table in order to command a clear view of the entire room. When Capone strode down Bathhouse Row, his goons surrounded him, two in front, two behind, and one on either side.”

Rodney’s grandparents in New Orleans purchased a vacation home at 359 Whittington Avenue in Hot Springs, and Rodney later would live here. Old-timers at the Hot Springs Country Club still tell stories about the Gorilla Man.

Randy Fertel writes of that house on Whittington: “There, I will first hear a woodpecker and there, 30 years later, Telemachus-like but only half-wanting reconciliation, I will seek my father and find the door ajar, the house empty, filled only with the rainwater that falls through the hole in the roof and the floor beneath it.”

Casino gambling was still going strong in Hot Springs in March 1964 when The New York Times published a story by Wallace Turner headlined “Hot Springs: Gamblers’ Haven.”

Turner wrote: “The gamblers of Hot Springs are locked in a struggle with the federal government to maintain their control of the biggest illegal gambling operation in the United States. The enterprises flourish with the support of the 30,000 residents of Hot Springs. Gambling has been a major feature of life here since Civil War times. The gambling places are wide open. They are on the pattern developed in the legal casinos operated in Nevada. The conduct of gambling is defined by Arkansas statute as a felony, punishable by up to three years in the state penitentiary. But no gambling.

“The state liquor laws also are ignored in Hot Springs. Last month the investigations by federal agents were stepped up, and top officials of the Department of Justice have announced that they intend to push still harder. … Local officials and the gamblers themselves in Hot Springs insist that there is no connection with national underworld syndicates.”

John Ermey, the Hot Springs police chief, told the newspaper: “The day anybody brings me any reliable information that the Mafia or any out-of-state people are involved in Hot Springs is the day I’ll get on the radio and television and in the press and take the battle to the public to attempt to bring about a complete reform. If there ever was any, I don’t know of it. The fellows who run the two big clubs were born and raised here.”

The Times reported: “There are two main gambling combines. The names of members of each group are well known to the officials who have control of law enforcement here. By Nevada standards, the operation is small. One Las Vegas Strip casino will win several times as much in a year as the total winnings of the three major casinos operated here. Estimates of winnings here are difficult to get. But they must be sizable. One place pays up to $10,000 a week for the supper club entertainment that it furnishes in a frank imitation of the Nevada casinos. Last week, Mickey Rooney was a main attraction. Gambling provides about 500 jobs in Hot Springs.”

It was noted in the story that Ermey, a Hot Springs native, lived next to Madden for years. Madden was 72 at the time the story was published.

“Madden for many years provided an argument for observers that gambling activities here had roots in other states,” Turner wrote. “Madden came here on his release from Sing Sing in 1933, married an Arkansas girl, had an interest in all bookmaking carried on here, then control of a race-wire service, visited with his friends when they came through either for the baths or to hide out and owned part of one of the casinos. Now he lives more or less in retirement, visiting almost daily with friends in the Southern Club.”

Turner reported that federal agents had tried 18 months earlier to shut down the Southern Club, but a federal grand jury refused to indict the owners.

“Since then the gambling operators have tried to stay out of interstate commerce,” Turner wrote. “They are at ease with local and state law enforcement. But they are frightened of the federal authorities. Their advertising never mentions gambling, although they buy radio spots to promote their supper club shows. The greater part of their business comes from outside Arkansas. The business people here are convinced that if the gamblers were put out of business, the community would suffer. They believe that Hot Springs’ economic health is dependent on the continuance of gambling. … The bathhouse business has declined because of changes in medical practice. This slack has been taken up by persons who come here to gamble. They also come here to drink for Arkansas has a liquor law that forbids the sale of mixed drinks. No one pays any attention to it in Hot Springs.”

The story pointed out that the city had a tax on gambling and liquor operations even though they were technically illegal.

“Places that serve mixed drinks pay $100 a month license fees to the city,” Turner wrote. “This goes up to $150 next year. Some other current fees include slot machines, $10 a month each; bingo, $100 a month; bookmakers, $200 a month; businesses that specialize in distributing results of races and sports events, $50 a month. The ordinance describes ‘places where craps, blackjack, roulette, chuck-a-luck, poker, rummy or other games of chance’ are played. This year places with more than five tables are taxed $500 a month and smaller places $300.”

The Times described downtown this way: “The venerable Arlington Hotel, an underworld meeting spot for many years, sits at the end of Bathhouse Row. Across the street is the Southern Club. A great building activity goes on here. About 1,000 new motel and hotel rooms are just finished, under construction or planned. Up the street, The Vapors draws the nightly gambling crowd, and first-class rooms are hard to get now that the racing season is open. Many of the 2 million visitors attracted to Hot Springs each year come during the seven weeks of racing. … The leading gambler in Hot Springs is Dane Harris, a tall and husky man of 46 years who exudes confidence and competence.”

Harris told the newspaper: “Public opinion in Hot Springs is for this. This business of gambling in Hot Springs is so old and so ingrained in the public’s mind that it isn’t looked on as a degrading business. … As far as the local people are concerned, someone is going to run the gambling, and it can be us as long as we run it right. If we don’t, we’re going out.”

Turner concluded his story this way: “So the gamblers have the public officials at bay, except those from the federal government. The gamblers calculate that they can beat federal intervention by staying out of interstate commerce.”

That all changed in November 1966 when Arkansas voters made Winthrop Rockefeller the state’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction. Already one of the country’s richest men, Rockefeller didn’t need payoffs from the gambling interests in Hot Springs. He began shutting down gambling soon after taking office in 1967. It was the end of an era for Hot Springs.

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