The Vapors [Book]

Written by Hot Springs (Garland County) native David Hill, The Vapors: A Southern Family, the New York Mob, and the Rise and Fall of Hot Springs, America’s Forgotten Capital of Vice is a nonfiction work released to great acclaim in July 2020. The word “vapors” in the title represents the nightclub of the same name and the steam emitted from the area’s warm underground springs, but also perhaps the illusory wisps of a vanished world.

Hill captures the notorious heyday of Hot Springs as a center of open gambling, presenting the story not only using historical documentation but also through the experiences of the author’s own family members who were part of the town’s casino culture. Some historians have cited Hot Springs as being America’s gambling capital from the 1920s to the mid-1960s, the time period spotlighted by the book, when there was open gambling there, even in the state of Arkansas where gambling was illegal.

Infamous gangsters of the Roaring ’20s such as Al Capone and Charles “Lucky” Luciano regularly joined transplanted mobster Owney Madden, who became a longtime resident of the Spa City. Hill’s book contains cameo appearances by those underworld figures as well as individuals such as Virginia Clinton Kelly, mother of future U.S. president Bill Clinton. Local politicians, judges, and law enforcement officials are also featured for their role in the gambling culture, which many considered to be a criminal enterprise even as a significant part of the city depended on it for their livelihood. One of the major players in the book is casino boss Dane Harris, who ran the Vapors nightclub; the book offers a poignant look at Harris’s desire to attain respectability. Another significant figure is Hill’s own grandmother, Hazel Hill, whose gambling pursuits resonated through successive generations of her family.

Reviews of The Vapors were positive. BookPage stated, “The history is fascinating, but what makes The Vapors a compelling—and ultimately heart-wrenching—book is the author’s account of his own family who lived in Hot Springs during the casino heyday.” Named an Editors’ Choice in the New York Times Book Review, which is often cited as the gold standard of book reviews, The Vapors was described as “complex, turbulent, [and] as haunting as a pedal steel solo.” The book was also listed as a New York Times Book Review summer reading pick. In 2020, Thrillist named Hill’s book “one of 21 books we can’t wait to read,” and it was listed as a GQ favorite book of 2020. Other kudos for David Hill and The Vapors include being named one of the Ten Best July Books by both the Washington Post and Christian Science Monitor, a Kirkus Reviews Hottest Summer Read, and a Publishers Weekly Summer Reads staff pick. In early 2021, the book was optioned for development into a television series.

The book’s cover has an unusual style, in that it is set up in the horizontal “landscape” orientation, in the manner of a picture postcard such as those that were mailed from Hot Springs in its heyday.

For additional information:
Clancy, Sean. “‘The Vapors’ Tells Hot Springs’ Sordid Stories.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, July 5, 2020, pp. 1E, 2E.

David Hill. https://www.davidhillonline.com/ (accessed July 14, 2021).

Hill, David. The Vapors: A Southern Family, the New York Mob, and the Rise and Fall of Hot Springs, America’s Forgotten Capital of Vice. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020.

Rowe, Matthew. “A Q&A with David Hill on his new book ‘The Vapors: A Southern Family, the New York Mob, and the Rise and Fall of Hot Springs, America’s Forgotten Capital of Vice.’” Arkansas Times, July 6, 2020. https://arktimes.com/rock-candy/2020/07/06/a-qa-with-david-hill-on-his-new-book-the-vapors-a-southern-family-the-new-york-mob-and-the-rise-and-fall-of-hot-springs-americas-forgotten-capital-of-vice (accessed July 14, 2021).

Nancy Hendricks
Garland County Historical Society

Last Updated: 07/14/2021