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  • robertfarago1

Hot Time in Hot Springs, Arkansas

"Why'd you buy me a drink?"

I was sitting at the bar in the Ohio Club on the strip in Hot Springs, Arkansas. A small establishment famous for entertaining mobsters, back when the town was a safe haven for Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Sam Giancana, Bonnie and Clyde and more. The who's who of pre-60's wise guys.

The man one barstool away was hitting on the woman I'd brought with me, and not in a good way. So I bought the pest a Tito's and soda to calm him down.

"Because I'm a friendly man," I answered, offering my hand in friendship. Detente? Disarmament? Something.

It took a few seconds, but "Jason" shook my hand, toasted me with his fresh drink and stopped treating Susan like a soft target.

The end of potential hostilities didn't stop Susan from her endless profession of unrequited love for Helen, the married woman who'd captured her heart.

Susan was my type: small, fit, smart, crazy as fuck and lonely as a unicorn without rainbows. A condition she made clear when I met her outside The Humidor cigar lounge, after the Pride Parade passed.

"There wasn't one of them I'd fuck," she announced sadly, over the roar of custom Harleys and modified pickup trucks cruising the once-again navigable strip.

"It only takes one," the twice divorced Wandering Jew told his new companion.

Roger that. Over at the Ohio, Susan was fixated on Helen. As she regaled me with tales of unrealized seduction and wasted woe, my mind drifted to the astounding edifice across the street.

The Fordyce Bathhouse

Opened in 1915, adorned with acres of bone white Italian Carara marble, the Fordyce Bathhouse is a 28,000 square foot palace cum museum.

Uncle Sam owns all the bathhouses on Bathhouse Row. It spent two years and millions of your hard-earned dollars restoring the Fordyce's three main floors and two courtyards to their former glory, exactly how it ustabe, complete with lockers, massage and therapy rooms and original equipment (e.g., BDSM vapor cabinets).

Touring the temple of health, I could easily imagine the Fordyce in full swing: a humming hive of high-end clients making their way through a sanatorium fit for a Roman Emperor – and the entire Senatus Populusque Romanus.

Considering Susan's dirty-martini-fueled lament, I suddenly understood that one of the explanatory signs educating tourists at the Fordyce nailed it.

The Hot Springs' Victorian Era heyday was about more than seeking relief from the maladies for which medicine had no cure. It was about kvetching.

Imagine the conversations that took place in these rooms and hallways. Together, men and women shared stories of their ailments – and probably talked about a lot of other things, too...
Bathhouse owners soon created formal gathering spaces. In the Fordyce, patrons would meet in a grand assembly room or in two parlors, one for women, one for men. Visitors played cards, listened to music, and talked while gathered around warm fires, taking comfort in one another's company.

Nice vision of whites-only bathhouse bonhomie, but incomplete.

Bathhouse patrons mingled with visitors of similar status from all corners of America. Strangers or colleagues they would never otherwise meet; certainly not in such a relaxed and informal setting.

Sure, Hot Springs' tourists bitched and moaned about their illnesses and discomfort. But they also put into practice President Calvin Coolidge's famous pronouncement: the business of America is business.

If aspiring actors and producers fake alcoholism in Hollywood AA meetings, what are the odds social climbers and schemers faked illness to make bathhouse connections?

In fact, Hot Springs was always a hotbed of shady characters and less health-related activities.

Mobsters' Switzerland

Beginning in the mid- to late-1800s, Hot Springs offered visitors gambling, drinking and paid carousing. In 1904, horse racing reared its sportsman-attracting head.

The city’s massive Army/Navy hospital became a busy destination for veterans seeking "physical and mental rejuvenation" after the hardships of World War I and II. Thousands of soldiers who weren't averse to a stiff drink, an occasional wager or a roll in the hay.

As the spring waters' curative powers fell from favor (mooted by the miracle of antibiotics), the bathhouses went into terminal decline. Hot Springs staked more and more of its fortunes on its anything goes rep.

Prohibition did nothing to limit the city's illicit activities and a great deal to add to its appeal. In fact, gangsters Al Capone and Joe Kennedy used the area as a major manufacturing and national distribution hub for moonshine made from the local water.

Owney "The Killer" Madden (above) was Hot Springs post-Prohibition founding father, gangster-wise. When Italian gangs and police made New York a less-than-friendly place for his criminal activities, the British-born thug "retired" to Hot Springs in 1935.

Madden bought off the local and state politicians and law enforcers, turning Hot Springs into his personal protection racket. He also helped establish Hot Springs as the neutral meeting ground for, the Switzerland of, American mobsters.

After all, mobsters are people too. At home, they were isolated by their power and the constant danger of assassination. In Hot Springs, they could relax in relative safety (e.g., bowl in a secret underground alley) and enjoy schmoozing, drinking, gambling and prostitution to their heart's content.

In the early 60's, spurred-on by Arkansas Governor Winthrop Rockefeller, the FBI cleaned-up the town's illegal gambling, destroying gambling equipment, jailing its corrupt politicians (ratted-out by Hot Springs' preeminent madame). Leaving Hot Springs a former spa town up a 143-degree creek without a financial paddle.

Current Day Hot Springs

Like Eureka Springs, today's Hot Springs has a distinct air of faded glory. Boarded-up hotels, vacant storefronts and a lot of tourist crap for sale. Unlike its more isolated rival, Hot Springs has returned to its core appeal. And how.

In November 2018, Arkansas voters gave the Arkansas Racing Commission the authority to license and regulate casino gambling.

Hot Springs is now home to the Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort (alongside one of America's premiere thoroughbred horse racetracks), the Hot Springs Resort & Casino and the Lucky Turtle Casino. It has a bright future building on its dubious past.

Speaking of Gambling...

Last night, I left Susan by her motorcycle on Central Avenue, hoping obsession would lose its grip on her tender heart. Doubting it would.

Like Hot Springs, sometimes we can't let go of those things that lead to our downfall. Because deep down they define us. And because hope springs eternal.

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