During the 1950's, Hot Springs was unlike any other town in the South, and certainly unlike any other town in Arkansas. There was open gambling and prostitution, both illegal, which continued until the late 1960's. A federal investigation circa 1960 concluded that Hot Springs had the largest illegal gambling operations in the United States.There was the race track. There was a system of bribery. There were payoffs. There were people who were above the law. Al Capone is said to have had permanent rights to suite 443 of the Arlington Hotel. From the 1920s, with its barely concealed casinos, Hot Springs generated more income than Las Vegas well into the 1960s. In 1964, the New York Times called Hot Springs the largest illegal casino operation in the United States. Most of the casinos were located on Central Avenue, the main drag through Hot Springs, starting just after "Bath House Row". Keep in mind that Louis was employed at an auction house on Central Ave directly across from "Bath House Row". The Vapors, one of the most famous of all the Hot Springs casinos, while being classy and elegant like the others is famous for another reason. The Vapors, although built in 1959, didn't open until 1960! The Vapors catered to the monied crowd and was a one story structure that housed the Vapors coffee shop, the Monte Carlo Room, which was the dining and showroom area (Liberace performed there, Mickey Rooney, Rosemary Clooney, Dinah Shore, Phyllis Diller, and Tony Bennett who sang his signature song "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" publicly the first time at a rehearsal at The Vapors in 1961. The only audience was a bartender who said, "I'd buy that record." Bennett, in his autobiography published in 1998, credits that remark with inspiring him to record the tune at the next opportunity.), and a casino (biggest in the city at the time) off to the side. When I was a young boy, I actually attended a performance at the Vapors by Edgar Bergen (father of actress Candice Bergen) and Charlie McCarthy with my family in June of 1963 celebrating my 6th birthday.
In the late 1950's, Louis "Chicky" Morse was enjoying the Hot Springs "Casino Night Life", spending both time and money at the track playing the ponies, and rubbing elbows with one Owney Victor Madden. Owen "Owney The Killer" Madden was an English-born New York bootlegger, gangster & murderer. Madden, one time leader of the murderous Gopher Gang on NYC's west side, was involved in hundreds of gang fights from 1903 to 1914. He was an expert user of the blackjack, brass knuckles, & his favorite weapon, a lead pipe wrapped in newspaper. By the time he was 21 he had been arrested more than 40 times, charged with robbery, assault & murder. Hells Kitchen and the surrounding areas including Manhattan were his stomping grounds. In 1914, he was convicted of killing "Little Patty" Doyle, a rival gang leader & sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison. Released on parole in 1923, Madden became an important bootlegger & speakeasy owner in NY and worked with such criminals as Dutch Schultz, "Lucky" Luciano, Meyer Lansky & Abner "Longy" Zwillman. Owney was ambitious and was steadily working his way up in the echelon of the mob. He was very respected by Mafia bosses and other organized crime figures. Owney had made the "Big Time".
By 1933, Owney was getting a lot of heat in New York. Madden was imprisoned on a parole violation for 12 months. Following his release, it was decided by Lucky Luciano that Owney would go into "retirement", which in the mob usually means no one will ever see him again, but in Owney's case, he was allowed to go to Hot Springs to set up and "oversee" the operations there. Between 1935 and 1937 Owney moved to Hot Springs and bought a house next to St. Johns Catholic church, covered with roses. He would often be seen around town with the Mayor, Sheriff, and assorted Judges. He married a Hot Springs woman. [Note: Prior to his marriage to the "Hot Springs woman", Owney was married to Mae West. They divorced in 1943]. He was often seen out on the streets tipping his hat to all the women. He gave impressive donations to the Boys Club. He could always be counted on to come across with a little money for any good cause. He joined the chamber of commerce, contributed to all church fund drives and even gave the city 2 swimming pools - one for the whites and one for the blacks. He was quoted as saying, "Never underestimate the effectiveness of a straight cash bribe." And everybody said, "Oh Owney is just here. He's just retired in Hot Springs. He's just down here for the climate. He really likes it here." But that wasn't the case at all. He probably owned (there is no concrete proof of this, they didn't write these things down) controlling interests in almost all the gambling. He certainly brought the wire service in that brought racing results in every day so the horse books could operate. But to all intents and purposes he was just a nice old gentleman, walking around the streets. Owney was appreciated in Hot Springs, but from a distance. When Wes Pruden was assigned by his newspaper in Little Rock to cover the winter dinner of the Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce circa 1955, he recalls "they put Owney and his missus at the out-of-the-way table in the corner set aside for the reporters. Owney didn't seem to mind, but he noticed. "I know most of the guys in the room," Owney said, looking up from the hickory-smoked ham and raisin sauce a la Arlington Hotel, "but they don't want to say hello tonight. That's all right. They put me in good company." Owney was amused to settle for a place next to the son of a locally famous Baptist preacher".
Once firmly established, Owney Madden laid the groundwork for gangsters "on the lam" to hide out in Hot Springs. The city had a resort-like atmosphere and elegant nightlife, with people coming and going all the time. This was the perfect situation to "hide" mobsters who couldn't be seen in their hometowns. Al Capone would stay at the Arlington Hotel when things got too hot in Chicago, and Lucky Luciano hid in Hot Springs when a nation-wide search for him was ordered by Thomas Dewey. Luciano is ultimately arrested in a Hot Springs gambling club. Many small time gangsters sought and found refuge in Hot Springs. These gangsters were seen around town, and the authorities knew who they were, but they made no moves to arrest them or alert other agencies to their presence. During this time, Owney was still an influential mobster and was skimming off profits from the illegal activities in Hot Springs and these profits were going to the Mafia. Owney Madden was the overseer of everything and watched out for the New York mob's interests.
Owney had become the most famous resident of Hot Springs, Arkansas, the South’s Saratoga Springs. Whenever he would return to New York the police would escort him out of the City. The charge: vagrancy. Southern politicians were more flexible and Owney was a fixture at society parties for many years.
The Arkansas House of Representatives passed a resolution on Thursday March 26, 1964, calling on Hot Springs officials to close down all illegal gambling. Dick Van Dyke was the entertainer who closed the Vapors that fateful night.
Owney Madden passed away, shortly after the shut down, in 1964. Louis Morse died four years later in 1968. The Vapors was closed after a raid in 1967. The building that was the Vapors still stands today, inhabited by Pastor Jim Frazier of the Tower of Strength Ministries, and is part of the Vapors Shopping Center, complete with a sign out front bearing the original Vapors logo.
In 1984, Owney Madden was portrayed by actor Bob Hoskins in Francis Ford Coppola's The Cotton Club. In real life, Owney was the button man behind the Cotton Club when it was the place where all the Manhattan swells went to slum, to watch long-legged chocolate bunnies dance to the cool jazz of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. It was Owney who opened the famous Cotton Club in Harlem, although it still operated a color bar - Ellington could sit behind his piano but not behind a table.
I find it interesting that we first find Louis Morse and Owney Madden both growing up in the same neighborhood, the "Hells Kitchen" area of New York during the 1900's. Add the fact that Louis Morse and Owney Madden both relocate to Hot Springs, Arkansas within a very close time frame. Combine this with the fact that during their lives in Hot Springs they were friends. One can't but wonder if Louis and Owney weren't associates rather than friends. Possibly in New York and in Hot Springs. We know why Owney moved to Hot Springs. The question that remains is "What drew Louis to the "Saratoga Springs of the South". Definitely food for thought.