An Ex-Hoodlum with the Key to the City

THE LAST GOOD TIME

Skinny D'Amato, the Notorious 500 Club,

and the Rise and Fall of Atlantic City

By Jonathan Van Meter

Crown -- 296 pp -- $25

Imagine an astrophysicist who must explain the solar system to his students. He decides to do so not by examining grand theories involving planet formation or general relativity. Instead, he proposes a close examination of Mercury. Find out about this tiny, hot planet, and you will understand everything that matters, he tells his students. And rows of budding science wonks scratch their heads, look at each other, and wonder: Is that possible?

Well, this is the approach Jonathan Van Meter has taken in The Last Good Time: Skinny D'Amato, the Notorious 500 Club, and the Rise and Fall of Atlantic City. The author tells us everything we could want to know about a low-level hoodlum who, in the 1950s, rose to own the most glamorous nightclub in the most glamorous resort in America. And he uses that as a hook to examine Atlantic City's big issues: politics, crime, urban decline, and, of course, the impact of gambling. That's a large job to hang on the son of a Neapolitan barber -- even if he did own the joint where Martin & Lewis got their act together and was the guy who told Joe DiMaggio that Marilyn was dead.

Van Meter, who has written for Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, doesn't quite pull it off, but he comes close. There are too many sections in this book that have to be plowed through rather than enjoyed -- interviews that should have been summarized rather than quoted verbatim, long excerpts from official transcripts, and minor characters whose cameo appearances add little to the story. Even so, the myriad tales of mobsters, murders, dames, celebrities, and crooked pols provide persuasive evidence not only that you can learn a lot by studying the small, bright things in the universe but also that it can sometimes be fun.

Atlantic City's two big claims to fame right now are the delightfully anachronistic Miss America pageant, which began in 1921, and the legal casinos, the first of which arrived in 1978. Van Meter, however, deftly describes an earlier incarnation -- a beach town whose fame rested on its status as Sodom and Gomorrah on the Atlantic. At the turn of the last century, soon after the railroads began bringing battalions of vacationing Philadelphia workers there, Atlantic City was chock-full of sleaze. Its panoply of bars, bordellos, and gambling dens made the resort both popular and prosperous. To many outsiders, the public face of Atlantic City may still be Miss America. But behind closed doors, Atlantic City was always a whore.

Prohibition only strengthened the grip of vice on the city's throat. Gangsters found the Jersey Shore an ideal place to unload bootleg liquor -- so much so that between 1926 and 1933, an astounding 40% of all booze that entered the U.S. illegally came in via Atlantic City or its environs. This was possible, of course, only because organized crime was in bed with Atlantic City's notorious political machine and its boss, the all-powerful Enoch L. "Nucky" Johnson. He controlled the cops, helped elect senators, and didn't mind violating the 18th Amendment as long as he got his cut. Mob boss Lucky Luciano was happy to oblige.

In the midst of all this, Paul D'Amato, nicknamed Skinny, began his rise. Van Meter, whose interest in his story was sparked by an early job at Atlantic City magazine, seems to have interviewed virtually every surviving relative and friend of D'Amato to tell the tale of this avowed gambler who started running craps games as a kid. By 1946, D'Amato was on to bigger things. He and some pals had bought a struggling restaurant with a backroom gambling operation -- the 500 Club.

In time, D'Amato learned from New York saloonkeeper Toots Shor that by coddling celebrities, he could attract customers who would pay to feel as worldly as those they ogled at nearby tables. "The 500 Club was ground zero for the supercool lifestyle," Van Meter writes. At the height of the club's fame in the 1950s, Frank Sinatra played a regular gig there, and DiMaggio had his own booth. On any given night, you might see Elizabeth Taylor, Eartha Kitt, Liberace, or Milton Berle. And in summer, when Skinny was in residence, there was always a discreet card game in a back room for the select few.

Even as the 500 Club was ascending to national prominence through the gossip columns, the seeds of its downfall were being sown. Senator Estes Kefauver's 1951 televised hearings on organized crime called attention to D'Amato, who had always cavorted with gangsters. He had long dreamed of having his own legal casino. But in the early 1960s, when he and Sinatra tried to run a small one in Nevada, his short fuse and mob connections led to their hasty exit. And as Atlantic City slowly declined, D'Amato's life took a sharp turn for the worse: His wife died, and his son pleaded guilty to a grisly murder. To top it off, the 500 Club burned to the ground in 1973.

Today, away from its casinos, Atlantic City is still poor, perhaps even poorer than when D'Amato was born there in 1908. There are now 12 casinos, all owned by corporations. The demimonde that spawned D'Amato is no more. "The lifestyle that Skinny seemed so effortlessly to embody is gone forever because the apparatus that was necessary to provide illegal gambling is no longer needed," writes Van Meter. D'Amato died in 1984, and the site of his club is now a parking garage for a Trump casino. Odds are, D'Amato would enjoy knowing that, in a small way, he finally got a piece of the action.

By Robert McNatt

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