The best piece of political fiction in modern America is still Bill Clinton. Much of the narrative he wrote himself, but a deeply embedded national media distributed it widely and made sure that reality didn’t intrude too much.
The tale began in Hope, Arkansas. As Clinton said when first nominated, “I still believe in a place called Hope.” The National Park Service would eventually give his birthplace official landmark status. And everyone knows about Hope.
What they don’t know is that when he was seven, Bill and his mother moved to Hot Springs.
Hot Springs would become the first of innumerable deletions or brush overs from the official Clinton story, but it came back to mind the other day when a memoir by Dora Maxine Temple Jones arrived on my desk.
It was a 2008 edition of a book originally published in 1983, when Clinton was still a young politician. Dora Maxine Temple Jones was already ill and past her prime as Clinton got started.
Nonetheless, the book will tell you more about the real Bill Clinton and where he came from then most of the hundreds of thousands of words that have been devoted to the topic. Further, it’s the sort of book that should be required reading in every American political science course. And isn’t.
Maxine, you see, was the top madam of Hot Springs, in the heart of one of most corrupt states in the union. It was, to be sure, a simpler period, with gambling and prostitution the lead enablers. By the time Clinton became chief executive, these sins had been replaced by drugs, with the state becoming of the leading importers and with the governor’s prime assignment – as in earlier times – to look the other way. A pilot would tell a reporter that he loved bringing drugs into Arkansas and gave as an example the time he landed in a pasture with his pickup being a state trooper in a marked car.
There is no way to understand the Clinton story without the Hot Springs context, and Maxine tells it in an amazing fashion. Her clients included a federal judge, senators and representatives. Writing in 1983, she said, “Some of them have been in Washington for years, and some are still there.”
Hot Springs was the southern recreation center for America’s underworld and for those wishing to escape more visible and moral climes.
“My guests included local businessman, doctors, and many top officials form the state.
“One such official was the attorney general, Beauregard Clochard (his name changed by the author). We did each other a lot of favors during his term in office and he did a lot of special favors for Garland County officials while he Attorney General.
“Prominent underworld figures from the East and the West coasts were also among my clientele. . .They’d fly into Hot Springs, go to their hotels, and then hire a limousine to drive them to the Mansion. They always respected me and liked me. They were the best customers I had; they were generous with their money and conducted themselves in a gentlemanly and respectful fashion towards my girls.
“They were polite and even kind. I admired them; they were my kind of people. You would never had guessed that they were underworld figures or hired killers.”
The book is riddled with examples of trade-offs, pay-offs and favors:
“When election day came I loaned by Cadillac to a cab driver. He hauled people all over town to the polls to put in the people I wanted. Back in those days you could do a little stealing in the voting situation, so they would take my girls to one poll to cast their vote, and then across town to another polling place, and they’d vote for them again.”
Maxine was tough and did things her own way, symbolized by the fact that when she was just a prostitute, she steadfastly refused to remove her bra. Most anything else was permitted.
It all fit in with the Hot Springs I had described back when Clinton was in office:
|||| In the 1930s, Hot Springs represented the western border of organized crime in the U.S with the local syndicate headed by Owney Madden, a New York killer who had taken over the mob’s resort in Arkansas. Owney Madden was an English born gang member who had been arrested more than 40 times in New York by the time he was 21. Madden got the assignment from his boss, Myer Lansky. The plan for Arkansas was modeled on an earlier one in which Governor Huey Long opened a Swiss bank account into which the mob would put $3 to $4 million annually for the right to run casinos in the state. Lansky then moved to Hot Springs where he hired Madden, former operator of Harlem’s Cotton Club. According to one account, “The Hot Springs set up was so luxurious and safe that it became known as a place for gangsters on the lam to hole up until the heat blew over.”
Hot Springs was also where Lucky Luciano was arrested and brought back for trial prosecuted by Thomas E. Dewey. According to one account, “Dewey proclaimed Luciano Public Enemy No 1, and a grand jury returned a criminal indictment against him that carried a maximum penalty of 1,950 years. . . He was arrested in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and extradited back to New York. There, in the New York State Supreme Court, he was tried, and on June 7, the verdict of guilty was returned. ||||
Another description added:
|||| There is evidence that many syndicate groups became involved in Hot Springs. Owney Madden was the overseer of everything and watched out for the New York mob’s interests. Morris Kleinman, who was one of the founding gangsters of the Cleveland syndicate spent much time in Hot Springs. It is rumored that the Cleveland boys had pieces of the profits from Hot Springs gambling. Johnny Roselli, an “upper level” member of the Chicago mob was a silent partner in many Hot Springs casinos in the 1940’s and 1950’s, as was Frank Costello. All of these groups used local operators as “fronts”, a system perfected by the Cleveland syndicate in Ohio, Florida, and Kentucky. Since Hot Springs was a very popular tourist spot, the command went out from the different syndicates that there should be no murders carried out in Hot Springs. This would be the rule in Las Vegas too. If bodies littered the streets like in Chicago, it would only hurt business. Also “petty” crimes like burglary and armed robbery were not to be tolerated. If the suckers weren’t comfortable, they wouldn’t come to Hot Springs.
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. |||
|Hot Springs Business Men’s Social Club, aka Maxine’s|
Maxine’s troubles – including ending up in prison at one point – were basically those of a local small business operator up against the mob – compromising, paying off, trying to hold her own. And Owney Madden (Oney, she calls him) is mentioned numerous times in her tale.
A Clinton is only mentioned once in the book.
Her first attorney – she calls him Uriah Toper – didn’t look respectable enough for her tastes. So she bought a new set of clothes for him at Dan’s Men’s Store and then told him:
“Mr Toper, you need a new car. I’m supposed to be the high classed madam of this town and if you’re going to represent me I want you to look like a high classed lawyer. . . Let’s go down to Raymond Clinton’s Buick place and get you one.” And they did, paid for in cash.
Raymond was Bill’s uncle. Clinton’s stepfather had been a gun-brandishing alcoholic who lost his own Buick franchise through mismanagement and pilfering. He physically abused his family, including the young Bill. His mother was a heavy gambler with mob ties. According to FBI and local police officials, Uncle Raymond — to whom young Bill turned for wisdom and support — was a colorful car dealer, slot machine owner and gambling operator, who thrived (except when his house was firebombed) on the fault line of criminality.
Among other things he ran the Belvedere Club. Gail Sheehy would politely describe it this way: “The club offered the full menu of wink-wink ‘illegal’ pleasures, liquor, crap tables, waitresses who could be persuaded to get familiar with the customers.”
Raymond also helped Clinton’s mother get started in nursing by providing her with prostitute clients. Virginia especially liked Maxine’s crowd, explaining once that “Mister president of the bank might not pay me on time, but Maxine’s girls would.”
Bill Clinton’s mother loved Hot Springs because, “I’m not one for rules, and the only rule in Hot Springs was to enjoy yourself – a rule I could handle.” On another occasion, she remarked, “Hot Springs was so different. We had wide-open gambling, for one thing, and it was so wide open that it never occurred to me that it was illegal – it really didn’t – until it came to a vote about whether we were going to legalize gambling or not. I never was so shocked.”
And when Governor Winthrop Rockefeller took over and shut down the illegal gambling (with help from Maxine whom he had pardoned) one of Virginia’s friends complained, “the Puritans ruined this town.”
Only months out of Yale Law School, Bill Clinton returned to Arkansas to run for Congress. Author and investigative journalist Roger Morris described what happened next:
||||| A relative unknown, he faces an imposing field of rivals in the Democratic primary, and beyond, in the general election, a powerful Republican incumbent. Yet as soon as he enters the race, Mr. Clinton enjoys a decisive seven-to-one advantage in campaign funds over the nearest Democratic competitor, and will spend twice as much as his well-supported GOP opponent. It begins with a quiet meeting at his mother’s house in Hot Springs. Around the kitchen table, as Virginia Clinton will describe the scene, avid young Billy meets with two of his most crucial early backers — uncle Raymond G. Clinton, a prosperous local Buick dealer, and family friend and wealthy businessman Gabe Crawford. As they talk, Mr. Crawford offers the candidate unlimited use of his private plane, and Uncle Raymond not only provides several houses around the district to serve as campaign headquarters, but will secure a $10,000 loan to Bill from the First National Bank of Hot Springs – an amount then equal to the yearly income of many Arkansas families. Together, the money and aircraft and other gifts, including thousands more in secret donations, will launch Mr. Clinton in the most richly financed race in the annals of Arkansas — and ultimately onto the most richly financed political career in American history.
Though he loses narrowly, his showing is so impressive, especially in his capacity to attract such money and favors, that he rises rapidly to become state attorney-general, then governor, and eventually, with much the same backing and advantage, president of the United States . . . No mere businessman with a spare plane, Gabe Crawford presided over a backroom bookie operation that was one of Hot Springs’ most lucrative criminal enterprises. [And the] inimitable Uncle Raymond – who had also played a pivotal behind-the-scenes role in keeping young Bill out of the Vietnam draft – was far more than an auto dealer. In the nationally prominent fount of vice and corruption that was Hot Springs from the 1920s to the 1980s (its barely concealed casinos generated more income than Las Vegas well into the 1960s), the uncle’s Buick agency and other businesses and real estate were widely thought to be facades for illegal gambling, drug money laundering and other ventures, in which Raymond was a partner. He was a minion of the organized crime overlord who controlled the American Middle South for decades, New Orleans boss Carlos Marcello or “Mafia Kingfish” as his biographer John Davis called him.|||||
As Paul Bosson, a Hot Springs prosecutor, would put it, “In Hot Springs, growing up here, you were living a lie. You lived a lie because you knew that all of these activities were illegal. I mean, as soon as you got old enough to be able to read a newspaper, you knew that gambling in Arkansas was illegal, prostitution was illegal. And so you lived this lie, so you have to find some way to justify that to yourself and, you now, you justify it by saying, “Well,” you know, “it’s okay here.”
Some of the operations were quite complex. Say the syndicate had a rich guy from Dallas who had just lost $10,000. He offered to write a check, but the syndicate would instead fly him back to Dallas accompanied by one of its girls to pick up the money in cash. Liquor would flow as well and, often as not, the gambler would come back with the $10,000 plus more to lose.
Maxine survived on a strong but attractive personality, bribery, proto-feminism, and blackmail. The fact the Hot Springs was a no-kill zone for the mob probably didn’t hurt, either.
I first heard about this distinction from investigative reporter Dan Moldea who had once gotten word in Michigan that, because of his aggressive reporting, there was a hit out on him. He went to the FBI whose agents told him there wasn’t much they could do until he got hit, but that he might think about moving to one of the neutral cities – places that were off limits for mob murders. Hot Springs had fallen off the protected list by then, but Las Vegas, Miami, and Washington were the three mentioned. Moldea moved to DC.
In any case, Maxine stood up for herself. When her lawyer became a judge who tried to get her to close her place, she told him, “You’re not going to make me a scapegoat just because I wouldn’t pay off the syndicate.”
Later she confronted Judge Toper, then accompanied by the sheriff: “I’m going to tell you something, Mister Bigshit. You may be a judge now, but you represented me for twelve long years. You took my money that came out of the whorehouses.. . .Has the syndicate got you under their thumb?”
She gave the judge and the sheriff until six o’clock that evening to close every other whorehouse in town or “I’m going to Little Rock to the newspaper and tell them what’s going on.”
They agreed and she shut her place as well: “At six pm, you never saw so many whores going out of town on buses and planes in your life.”
Some time late a grand jury was called, but her testimony nowhere as secret as she thought. A microphone had been hidden so that Owney and other mobsters awaiting their turn could hear what she had to say.
On another occasion, facing trial after a raid on her place, Maxine’s lawyer confronted the prosecutor, “Dennis, if you don’t lay off Maxine. . . I’ll have her tell how many times you’ve been in her whorehouse and gone to bed with her girls.”
Then he added, “You didn’t have natural relations with hose girls, either. There was a picture made of you with your head down between their legs.”
Maxine even took on the FBI, obtaining Attorney General Bobby Kennedy’s private phone number to ask that he send some clean agents down to deal with syndicate. Kennedy sent a squad to the scene, but the syndicate had already pulled back.
Maxine had some friends among the cops – such as sheriff’s deputy Kyle Mason who drove her to start a prison term. He remarked, “You know, Maxine, if it wasn’t for losing my job, I’d let you get out of this car and catch the next plane to Mexico.”
When she came up for parole, however, the situation was a bit different. Every member of the parole board had been at her whorehouse and one of them said, “Maxine, we can’t let you got right now. The governor’s coming up for reelection. We’ll just keep you a few more months and til the next heard, and then we’ll let you go.”
Out of prison, she confronted the mayor in his office: “Remember this. If you bother me again, I’ll have that goddamned house of your blown up and your family along with you. Put that in your little hat and think about it. . . By the way, if you ever repeat this to anyone, it’ll get back to me, and I’ll have it done anyway.” The mayor and the cops left her alone.
And to an FBI agent: “Listen, honey. You can forget the instruction course on federal law you’re at such pains to give me. I know how to read, too, you know. I’m a professional racket woman, and I make a point of keeping up with all the new laws passed on prostitution.”
In the end, Maxine summed it up this way
“Most people think prostitution is a dirty business but I can tell you a profession that makes a prostitute look like a Little Miss Muffett in a child’s nursery rhyme book. That profession is none other than politics. . . .
“The best thing that could happen would be to put all the freeloading politicians behind bars and let the whores out so they could do an honest night’s work”
Little did she know that instead, and only a few years later, one of the former, raised and well trained in Hot Springs, would be elected president of the United States.