• The Vapors

  • A Southern Family, the New York Mob, and the Rise and Fall of Hot Springs, America's Forgotten Capital of Vice
  • By: David Hill
  • Narrated by: George Newbern
  • Length: 9 hrs and 31 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook
  • Categories: Biographies & Memoirs, True Crime
  • 4.3 out of 5 stars (152 ratings)
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Publisher's Summary

One of "21 books we can't wait to read in 2020" --Thrillist

A New York Times Book Review summer reading pick

A Kirkus Reviews hottest summer read

A Publishers Weekly summer reads staff pick

The incredible true story of America's original - and forgotten - capital of vice

Back in the days before Vegas was big, when the Mob was at its peak and neon lights were but a glimmer on the horizon, a little Southern town styled itself as a premier destination for the American leisure class. Hot Springs, Arkansas was home to healing waters, Art Deco splendor, and America's original national park - as well as horse racing, nearly a dozen illegal casinos, countless backrooms and brothels, and some of the country’s most bald-faced criminals.

Gangsters, gamblers, and gamines: all once flocked to America's forgotten capital of vice, a place where small-town hustlers and bigtime high-rollers could make their fortunes, and hide from the law. The Vapors is the extraordinary story of three individuals - spanning the golden decades of Hot Springs, from the 1930s through the 1960s - and the lavish casino whose spectacular rise and fall would bring them together before blowing them apart.

Hazel Hill was still a young girl when legendary mobster Owney Madden rolled into town in his convertible, fresh off a crime spree in New York. He quickly established himself as the gentleman Godfather of Hot Springs, cutting barroom deals and buying stakes in the clubs at which Hazel made her living - and drank away her sorrows. Owney's protégé was Dane Harris, the son of a Cherokee bootlegger who rose through the town's ranks to become Boss Gambler. It was his idea to build The Vapors, a pleasure palace more spectacular than any the town had ever seen, and an establishment to rival anything on the Vegas Strip or Broadway in sophistication and supercharged glamour.

In this riveting work of forgotten history, native Arkansan David Hill plots the trajectory of everything from organized crime to America's fraught racial past, examining how a town synonymous with white gangsters supported a burgeoning black middle class. He reveals how the louche underbelly of the South was also home to veterans hospitals and baseball's spring training grounds, giving rise to everyone from Babe Ruth to President Bill Clinton. Infused with the sights and sounds of America's entertainment heyday - jazz orchestras and auctioneers, slot machines and suited comedians - The Vapors is an arresting glimpse into a bygone era of American vice.

©2020 David Hill (P)2020 Brilliance Publishing, Inc., all rights reserved.

Critic Reviews

"With comfortable Southern charm, narrator George Newbern, a Little Rock native, delivers this decades-spanning account of Hot Springs, Arkansas, when it was the uncontested gambling and sin capital of North America.... Newbern reflects the author's easy humor when mentioning the likes of Babe Ruth, mobster Frank Costello, the Andrews Sisters, and even a young Bill Clinton as occasional visitors and performers. A wonderful slice of Americana." (AudioFile Magazine)

“[David Hill’s] fantastic debut blends true crime and Southern history to chronicle the transformation of Hot Springs, Arkansas, from a spa town into a hotbed of horse racing, prostitution, and illegal gambling.... Hill tracks this history through the lives of three central figures: Owney Madden, Dane Harris, and Hazel Hill (the author’s grandmother).... Expertly interweaving family memoir, Arkansas politics, and Mafia lore, Hill packs the story full of colorful characters and hair-raising events. This novelistic history hits the jackpot.” (Publishers Weekly, starred review) 

“A juicy tale...[David Hill] offers up a huge cast of colorful, mostly sleazy characters, but he focuses on three key players.... Weaving their stories in and out.... Hill unfolds an engrossing history of corruption at the highest levels.... Captivating.” (Kirkus Reviews)

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What listeners say about The Vapors

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If you don’t live in Arkansas…

It is one of the most inconsequential, mundane and babbling books I’ve read or listened to. Thank you to Audible for the exchange program.

4 people found this helpful

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Loved it

As an Arkansan, it was pure delight to learn more about Hots Springs’ colorful past. Boy, we got some crooked folks down here. I enthusiastically recommend.

3 people found this helpful

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No story...just names and dates

I understand that this was supposed to be a historically accurate telling of the vapors during the early to mid 1900s but read like a history book with just a little more pep and way less organization.
the book hopped from one undeveloped character to another along the timeline. The author just tried to do much with the story.

1 person found this helpful

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Quite dull

Hot Springs, Arkansas has an amazing history. From the phenomenon of its geological formation, to the singular history of illegal gambling practiced openly in the town.

Unfortunately, the somewhat dry reading of the facts takes this exciting story and presents it as a dull recitation. There are several vividly colorful characters but, again, painted in all one hue. The changes in the town and the development of its residents was told in the past tense, both literally and figuratively.

This could have been a fascinating tale, but the style of the writing and its reading, were disappointing.

1 person found this helpful

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Great book for Mafia Buffs

This book is a very informative expose on the history of Hot Springs and the decades long connection to the NY and Chicago mobs. Not being aware of what Hot Springs was like back in the day I was surprised to learn that it was essentially the Las Vegas of the time as illegal casinos operated in the open with of course the help of law enforcement and politicians.

I recommend this book to you mafia aficionados I'm sure there is some new info here that you might not know about.

1 person found this helpful

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Rambling and boring

I've tried listening to the book for a few hours now and have given up. It rambles all over the place, lots of names to keep track of, and too much detail spent on inconsequential and boring details. I think the author got caught up researching his family's history and lost the big picture. It was interesting (to me anyways) how the mob made its money in Hot Springs (hint: it wasn't really from the gambling itself surprisingly but rather, ancillary activities to it).

I'm hoping Amazon will allow me to return or exchange the book.

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Excellent Book

The author tells a most interesting story of how Hot Springs Arkansas once rivaled Las Vegas as the Nation’s gambling capital. The politicians looked away as long as they received their cash payoffs.
I recommend the book for those that like gambling and gambling stories.
Exceptionally well written and narrated.

Mark Paul

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Just Boring

I tried to get into it, but I kept listening and listening and in the end it was "so what?". It's a lot of detail about a piece of history that has no importance.