A lot of people in Las Vegas and Reno today think my father must have been a genius. A lot of others in the undergrounds of New York, Philadelphia, Palm Beach and Miami during the '30s and '40s thought he was nuts.
My father was a professional gambler. No, not the kind who tries to beat the horses or hustle you at gin rummy. My father was a real pro. For almost 30 years he was the manager of the Maryland Athletic Club, which was one step across the District of Columbia line in Prince Georges County, where the law has always been winked at. It was the largest, most sophisticated casino between Saratoga and Havana. Nobody ever called it the Maryland Athletic Club. It was always known as Jimmy's Place—or simply Jimmy's—and if you used either of those names, any cabbie in Washington would know immediately where you wanted to be taken.
Once you got near Jimmy's, you couldn't miss it, even though there was no sign out front. It sat there mysteriously silent, surrounded by a 10-foot board fence on three sides and a spur of the Pennsylvania Railroad on the fourth. It had a well-used seven-acre parking lot, evidence enough that the casino was popular among Washington's gentry.
I say gentry because my father ran his club for the elite. He had three strict rules. It was these rules that made gamblers of his day think he was crazy and gamblers of today think he was a man alone when it came to running a gaming house. The rules were: no women, no booze, no guns. As far as I know, no other casino has operated under such stringent regulations. The result was that my father's place had an almost funereal silence about it, broken only by the dealers saying sotto voce, "The point is four, gentlemen," or some such thing. I have been in cathedrals that were noisier.
The casino was a big, ugly barn of a building three stories tall with hardly a window in it. There was only one door, and it was guarded by a platoon of heavies, the biggest of whom was a flush-faced Irishman who easily weighed 300 pounds. Everybody who entered was frisked. There were no exceptions to this rule, even if the visitor happened to be J. Edgar Hoover. This held true for Congressmen and such celebrities as comedian Joe E. Lewis. They even used to frisk me. While one man was doing this, another would scan a large picture frame filled with photographs of men who were persona non grata, perhaps because they once had been drunk or boisterous, or both, but more likely because they had lost more money than they could afford. It was not uncommon for a weeping woman to show up at the door and claim that her husband had blown their life savings the night before. To get a refund, the wife had to bring back a snapshot of her husband and agree to make sure that he would never return to the casino. This was a practice other casino operators considered laughable, but that made no difference to my father, not even after one of those wives turned out to be a prostitute who had rolled a customer after he had left the place.
When a patron had been frisked, he was allowed to pass through another, steel-plated, door. This led to an elevator that took him to the third floor, where all the action was. One wall was covered with the entries for every horse race at every track in the country outside the state of Maryland that was holding a meeting. The limit on bets was $50, but the house paid track odds, another unheard-of practice at casinos then. Out of deference to the state, my father closed down the casino whenever one of the major Maryland tracks was open. In those days their meetings lasted only a few weeks.
In the middle of the room were seven craps tables that always buzzed with business, and a gambler was expected to curb his enthusiasm even if he rolled 10 straight 7s. Behind them were three blackjack tables and a lone card table reserved for employees, who played a game of hearts from the minute the place opened until it closed. Dealers and ladder men worked an hour and a half, then took 30 minutes off. Hearts was their favorite game because a man could get in or out at any time. Another room was used for the customers' poker games, of which the house took a percentage of the pot. Next to the hearts table were three roulette tables, plus a smaller table for Bird Cage, a nickname for Chuck-A-Luck, which I never learned how to play. As a matter of fact, to this day I can't play gin rummy without dropping the cards on the floor. Cardplaying was not forbidden at our house; you just never play when your dad is a professional. And my father was a pro all right. Many gamblers have told me he was the best cardplayer they ever saw.
There was one exception to the no-cards-at-home rule. My mother once tried to start a bridge club among the neighborhood ladies. My father, who despised the game, nevertheless allowed himself to be talked into teaching them bridge one rainy afternoon when the casino was closed. After two hours of shaking his head in disbelief and tearing at what little hair he had left, he stalked out of the house, jumped into his black Cadillac and roared off to a saloon, where he spent the rest of the afternoon quaffing beer with his favorite drinking companions: racetrack touts, off-duty cops and free-lance bookmakers.
The second floor of my father's casino contained a lunch counter, presided over by a young black woman. To my knowledge, she is the only female who ever set foot in the place when it was open for business, and it was open all afternoon and all night long, except Sundays or when the Maryland tracks were running.
My father's office was also on the second floor. Next to it was a pied-√†-terre kept for my father's boss, James A. La Fontaine, after whom Jimmy's Place was named. La Fontaine was known as Mr. Jim, out of respect for his age, or as Unks to his close friends and employees.
Mr. Jim's apartment had a tiny bedroom that opened on a once sumptuous living room that fell into a comfortable state of decay during his last years. The walls were decorated with large, framed photographs of every heavyweight boxing champion from John L. Sullivan to Joe Louis, who retired the year Mr. Jim died at the age of 82. Mr. Jim knew them all. He loved every kind of fighting, even to the point of going clear to Havana to watch cockfights. But he never let on about his acquaintanceships. Like my father, he made it a rule not to consort with athletes or sportswriters for fear his presence might be misconstrued by the public.
My father was not a character, at least not in the flamboyant way the public expects gamblers to be. Indeed, his dress was so conservative, his manner so sedate, his air so lofty that many of my friends were under the impression that he was a lawyer or a doctor.
On the other hand, Mr. Jim, a millionaire, gave those who did not know him the impression that he was one step from being a bum. He invariably wore suits, but he always seemed to have on the coat from one with the trousers from another. This state of disarray was enhanced by the fact that his clothes always needed pressing. He did not have the patience to tie a necktie, so he seldom wore one. His short stature was accentuated by the natural stoop of age, and he had a handsome head of pure white hair and a pink complexion—pink, that is, on those rare occasions when he didn't need a shave. Altogether, he gave the impression of being a benign gnome looking for a handout.
Mr. Jim slept, ate and drank whenever he felt like it. He hardly ever went to bed before dawn, and he never awoke until noon. His breakfast was invariably the same: a bowl of Wheaties, three fingers of Scotch and a Havana cigar that would have made an ape sick.
Mr. Jim's home was even more disreputable than his apartment. It was a ramshackle row house on the fringe of Foggy Bottom with cheap lace curtains, tired, overstuffed furniture, bric-a-brac all over the place and the odor of dust and cigar smoke embedded in every nook and cranny. Here he lived on a come-and-go basis for more than half a century with his wife, Miss Annie. Incredibly, Mr. Jim did not even own the house. He paid rent, which in the '40s soared to a high of $42 a month. Sometime after the First World War he got into an argument with the landlord over who should pay to have the house electrified. It was nearly 1930 before the debate was settled, and that was one of the few arguments Mr. Jim ever lost.
A great movie fan, Mr. Jim thought nothing of seeing two or three films a day. Never one for carrying much—if any—money (which may account for the fact that he was never held up), he sometimes had to beg his way into the theater, which wasn't hard, because most of the cashiers knew him. He would pay them later. If that didn't work, it wasn't difficult for him to find a cabbie who knew him. Mr. Jim would borrow a buck from the driver and give him a marker for five, which the cabbie could turn in to the doorman at the casino.
Of the several cars owned by the club, Mr. Jim favored a four-door Cadillac over the limousines, which were used to drive big winners home at night if they felt they needed protection. He had a driver named Stodey, who could have been called a chauffeur in only the broadest definition of that term. Stodey usually was found taking a nap behind the wheel while he waited for Mr. Jim outside a movie, or while he spent half the night sipping Scotch and Mountain Valley Water at some obscure bar. Stodey, in fact, not only took naps behind the wheel of Mr. Jim's car while he was parked; sometimes he took them when the car was moving.
One night while driving Mr. Jim to Atlantic City, Stodey dozed off in suburban Baltimore. He was stopped by a cop, who was under the impression that the weaving of the car meant that Stodey was drunk. He was also speeding, at Mr. Jim's insistence; the old man wanted to catch a nightclub act that was to begin at midnight. Stodey pleaded innocent. He had been dozing because Mr. Jim had been running him ragged for two days and speeding because Mr. Jim was in a hurry. "Is that right, mister?" said the cop, shining his flashlight into the backseat at Mr. Jim.
"He's lying," Mr. Jim replied. "I'm just a hitchhiker he picked up three blocks ago." At that, Mr. Jim climbed out of the car and walked away. A block farther on he found a service station, where he called for a cab and hired the man to drive him to the nightclub, 150 miles away. It was two days before an exasperated Stodey caught up with him.
One morning my father told me that Mr. Jim wanted to see me, and he took me to the club. I had just graduated from college, so Mr. Jim felt congratulations were in order. We walked into his apartment and found him wearing a threadbare bathrobe and a pair of slippers so worn his toes poked through them. We chatted for a while with my father, who then excused himself to go to work.
"Do you like brook trout?" Mr. Jim asked me in a way I took to be an invitation to lunch. When I replied yes, he said, "Fine. I know a little place that serves the best in the East." We climbed into the Cadillac with Stodey behind the wheel.
That little place turned out to be an inn in Stroudsburg, Pa., 300 miles away. Mr. Jim was right, too. It served the best brook trout in the East or, at any rate, the best I had ever eaten. My taste buds may have been a little less critical than usual, because it was past 6 p.m. when we sat down to lunch.
After that, Mr. Jim decided we should go somewhere for a drink. Somewhere turned out to be a corner bar in Atlantic City, 150 miles away, where we spent the night exchanging inanities with three B-girls while Mr. Jim outdrank all of us. He gave the girls $50 each, which he borrowed from Stodey, for their company, then told Stodey to take us back to the casino in Maryland. I don't know who drove me home from there. I was too tired to care.
At the height of Prohibition, Mr. Jim had been kidnapped by some out-of-town racketeers for $40,000 ransom. Three men spirited him, blindfolded, to a backwoods cottage in Virginia. There they waited for three days, but nobody offered to pay Mr. Jim's ransom. That bothered Mr. Jim not at all. He whiled away the time napping, telling stories and puffing on his Havanas. To kill time, he suggested that they play some hearts. Mr. Jim beat them out of several thousand dollars for which he took a marker.
On the fifth day the kidnappers began getting nervous. Mr. Jim, on the other hand, was enjoying himself immensely. He was playing cards against three of the biggest patsies he had ever seen. Finally, one of the men blew his stack. "Why doesn't somebody pay your ransom?" he demanded. "That's easy," said Mr. Jim. "I'm the only guy I know who's got $40,000, and nobody knows where I keep my money. But I'll tell you what. You take me home, and I'll get your money for you."
The kidnappers looked at him in disbelief. Then they turned to each other and shrugged their shoulders, as if to ask what they had to lose. They drove Mr. Jim to his row house, the sight of which must have convinced them that he had pulled a fast one on them. But, true to his word, Mr. Jim strolled into the house, kissed Miss Annie on the cheek as though he had been away on a business trip, then walked back to the car with 40 thousand-dollar bills. He counted out 36 of them and tucked the other four back in his pocket. "These are what you owe me for the hearts game," he said and walked away.
Mr. Jim died late in November of 1949, about a month after my father. Jimmy's Place never opened again. Three days after Mr. Jim's death, his attorney took three members of the Internal Revenue Service to Mr. Jim's home. In the living room he pulled back a curtain that covered a shelf. On it sat a safe so small a 12-year-old could have walked off with it. Inside was $1,300,000 in cash, which was just part of Mr. Jim's total estate of $2,245,430.84, most of which, also in cash, was scattered all over town.
Months of haggling preceded the sale of the property on which Jimmy's Place stood. Finally it was sold to a company that wanted to turn it into a frozen-food storage center. It took the wreckers weeks to raze the old barn, which proved to be as strong as a medieval fortress. When the work was all done, Walter Haight, the racing writer for The Washington Post, reported, "Well, they finally closed down Jimmy's Place, but, by God, they had to do it the hard way."