The King of the Glittering 'Jungles' : People, Power in Gambling Cities Are Author's Big Game

Times Staff Writer

From his den in a Spanish-style home on the heights of this placid community, Ovid Demaris writes about some of the toughest and nastiest people in the country.

With his mountainous research spread around a pool table for easy access, Demaris taps out on his word processor the manuscripts that infuriate so many powerful people.

In the early 1960s, Demaris did much to inform the general citizenry about the sordid underpinnings of the Las Vegas gambling palaces. That was "The Green Felt Jungle," wherein he and co-author Ed Reid laid out a concatenation of greedy Mafia mobsters, politicians and business moguls behind the glittering facades of casinos playing host to millions of visitors and their money.

Now the feisty free-lance journalist has done the same thing for (or to) the latest haven for legalized casino-style gambling, Atlantic City, N.J. In "The Boardwalk Jungle," the home of the Boardwalk and saltwater taffy comes out looking as scuzzy, physically and ethically, as its spiritual cousin in the desert, Las Vegas.

Relaxing over a health-oriented lunch at his home, a trim-at-66 Demaris grinned through his gray beard. He has just published his 13th hardcover book, beginning with "The Green Felt Jungle" in 1962.

"By golly, (the first book) hit the best-seller list and was on the list for 26 weeks. It sold in maybe 25 countries. I'm still getting royalties from Japan."

Written without any patina of gee-wizardry, "The Green Felt Jungle" helped put Las Vegas on the map. Its title entered the common vocabulary.

A Lifetime's Work

Demaris likes to think of the 24-year-old book and his new one on Atlantic City as bookends for his life's output, although he is still writing. His work includes several novels, but most of it is hard-hitting nonfiction, largely dealing with the business of organized crime and its sordid but commonplace alliances with business and public officialdom.

Among the major works between them was a sort of Who's Who of Chicago-based power called "Captive City," as well as a 1981 national best seller "The Last Mafioso," his biography of organized crime hit man Aladena (Jimmy the Weasel) Fratianno. The latter book, which also had a whole lot about Las Vegas in it, probably made more people aware of Demaris than anything else he has written. National television and press interviews played a big part in this personal recognition, especially in light of various controversies whipped up by that book's revelations about notables who try to maintain a respectable image.

While much of Demaris' subject matter in "The Boardwalk Jungle" has been written about episodically in newspapers, he has shown the detailed patterns of the casinoization of Atlantic City as a mosaic of corruption.

As in the case of some of his other books, and notably "Captive City," the new Atlantic City work could well be taken up by law enforcement as a reference book.

One of the chief reasons he is able to do this kind of job, as Demaris explained, is the huge archives of police intelligence agencies that he squirreled away when he had access to them over the years of writing about crime for national magazines and researching his earliest books.

Rare Resources

The original files have since been destroyed by the agencies concerned, making Demaris' files ever rarer resources.

The privately backed Chicago Crime Commission had "great files in the mid-'60s," Demaris said. While working on his new book, he said, he asked the commission for background on some influential Chicagoans but was told the commission "said they didn't have anything."

Similarly, he said, the Internal Revenue Service has cleaned out its files and "There's no background any more."

And he described the same experience with the FBI: ". . . if you get something from the FBI through Freedom of Information (Act), all you get is stuff that's been cut out--it has those little holes all over the place, and you see two or three words, so you never can put it together."

"It's worthless to file for Freedom of Information stuff, I've found. Your're never going to get anything valuable. My stuff is stuff that I've had for years, and I was able to resurrect it and to use it."

He chuckled about that happy circumstance.

Few of Demaris' contemporaries are still in law enforcement, so little institutional memory is left to be tapped, he said.

"So," Demaris said, "I have shared my files with other people," adding that some of his material also has been the subject more than once of a subpoena for civil and criminal law proceedings.

New Jersey lawmen are learning a lot from the book, he said, adding that one of its agents recently said: "We have just bought a whole bunch of the books."

"The Boardwalk Jungle" traces in detail the personal histories and misadventures of many of executives of the big-time casino operating corporations that have built multimillion-dollar gambling palaces in Atlantic City.

He gives special attention to the background of some people connected with the city's first licensed casino operator, Resorts International. The company enriched a lot of political lawyers in New Jersey 10 years ago in the process of obtaining state legislation authorizing casinos and later in its licensing fight despite opposition by staff watchdogs. They were overruled by Gov. Brendan Byrne's appointees at the Casino Control Commission under Chairman Joseph Lordi, himself forced out of office later during the Abscam scandal.

Organized Crime Families

While the origins of Resorts International were in the Bahamas, most of the other big Atlantic City operators already had kingdoms in Las Vegas, where the Chicago, Cleveland and Milwaukee organized crime families have had a long and profitable run.

One by one, Demaris lays out the histories of Caesars World, the Golden Nugget, Bally, Harrah's, Ramada Inns and Hilton Hotels and reads their pedigrees, including details about backgrounds and questionable associations of a number of their key people. As in a number of Demaris' books, he makes room in this one for further adventures of Frank Sinatra, the entertainer with perhaps the longest and most controversial connections with the gambling halls of Las Vegas and later of Atlantic City.

Still another major area of "The Boardwalk Jungle," and one Demaris invests with strong dramatic flavor, is of the history of the Mafia bosses who have long made Atlantic City their private turf.

Referring to the private histories he painstakingly assembles on his cast of real-life characters, Demaris said, "I love to put that stuff together."

He spent eight months in Chicago researching his "Captive City," and said each day he would dump his accumulation of files into suitcases, which were dispatched to California.

How does he go through the immense volumes of interviews, government wiretaps, trial transcripts and reports?

"It requires an incredible amount of reading," said the author.

Wanting to do a dramatic treatment on a particular mobster for the book, he had to gone through an entire transcript of a criminal trail, statements the gangster gave to various law agencies and what he said before a Senate committee.

"I put all that stuff together and try to weed it out and get a little bit of gold here and a little bit of gold there," he said. "I was able to construct it, people walking and talking and moving and doing things. That way requires a lot of work."

To this research, Demaris adds interviews and then draws his own conclusions. His work, he said, is "not written as a platform for all sides to get on and talk. It's my viewpoint of what (Atlantic City) is like."

'The Ego Factor'

Demaris used to write a lot of major pieces for Esquire magazine and long ago learned about "the ego factor" that often brings people in official positions to talk to a writer even when they might be vulnerable to facts he might learn. Being known for his books makes it even better, he said.

"They want to talk to me to tell me what a great job they're doing. They want to be immortalized. They want to be in the book. They can hold the book out and say, 'Look at the index; I'm in there.'

"And people who resist the longest, you can't shut them up once you get them started."

Demaris tells an anecdote about being given a 15-minute appointment with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark when the author was researching "The Director," a book he did on J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI. After two hours the justice seemed to be just warming to the subject, and Demaris had to tactfully interrupt him to get to another appointment.

The writer grew up in a Maine mill town ("I was one of the few people who had to work his way through high school."). He said he came to writing after starting out in law school following World War II, after finishing five years in the Air Force. Of law school, he said: "I hated it." He switched to journalism, getting a master's degree from Boston University. He worked on a local paper, then for United Press while in school and immediately afterward.

He started doing free-lance writing to escape United Press ("What a sweatshop."). He sold short stories and articles to Popular Mechanics and other magazines, but he didn't sell enough to support his wife and two children, so he worked on a newspaper while he taught high school for six months "and hated that, too."

In 1952 he pulled up stakes in New England, bought a car and headed for Los Angeles. He started calling advertising agencies out of the phone book, and landed a copy-writing job. Later he went to work writing ads at The Times, working on a book in his spare time. In 1956 he started full time as a free-lance writer, though he conceded it was "not an easy life." By 1960 he had sold 16 paperback original suspense novels, he said.

That year he went to Las Vegas to research a book on mobster Bugsy Siegel. He was put in touch with reporter Ed Reid of the Sun, who proposed getting together to do a book on the town's casinos.

" 'The Green Felt Jungle' was a smash success," Demaris said. "Some newspapers gave it a whole page. One even used green ink for it."

Other Books

Along the way he did a book, with Garry Wills, about Jack Ruby, the man who killed Lee Harvey Oswald, as well as the personal story of Judith Exner, one of President Kennedy's former girlfriends.

Only a couple of Demaris' hardcover books have been novels, including the second-most recent, which has a Las Vegas setting. But he's now at work on another novel and said he loves the form:

"Fiction is so much nicer. When you write the other stuff, every time you write a line you've got to go and check five sources. Then I spent nine weeks with a (publisher's) lawyer, every day, going through the book. . . . It's like doing the book all over again. I had to go and find the stuff in my files.

"When you're writing fiction, it's just you and the typewriter, and your notes, you know. . . . You write dialogue, you write situations and you get people into and out of situations. They become your friends. They become people you know. . . .

"I read it at nighttime and I don't remember writing it. It's like you're almost unconscious when you're doing this sort of thing. Now the person that's going to die doesn't die, and somebody else dies. They're taking over, you know? If they become real to you, they sort of take over their own lives. . . . I've sat at the typewriter and cried when somebody dies that I really liked. It's living in a fantasy world, right? That's what creativity is, isn't it?"

And all of that is the antithesis of "The Boardwalk Jungle," which is straight-ahead narrative exposition. It didn't make him cry.

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