HOT SPRINGS — Hot Springs native David Hill spoke to the Hot Springs National Park Rotary Club via Zoom on Wednesday about his new book, which he describes as a “braided work” of family memoir and Hot Springs history.
“The Vapors: A Southern Family, the New York Mob, and the Rise and Fall of Hot Springs, America’s Forgotten Capital of Vice,” was released Tuesday.
Hill said it took him about five years to complete the book, some of which he spent going “crazy” as he dove into research and ended up trying to solve some of the city’s historical mysteries like who bombed The Vapors.
“I’m not a historian, but I do love history, and I do like doing research,” he said. “There’s this thing that writers say about research; that research is just procrastination, and there’s definitely some truth to that. … I spent a long time doing research, and I’m not sure if that was to avoid writing the book or because there was really that much to do, but I feel like I did an exhaustive amount of research.”
For the book, Hill said a lot of what he read in research is likely what most locals have read in the past, but he also thinks he added a lot to this “historical canon” with his book.
“I’m a journalist,” he said, “so I have some experience in research, but mainly I’m a storyteller and so I thought that the easiest way for me to get into telling people about Hot Springs would be to do it from a personal perspective and to talk about my own family.”
Hill said he ended up writing what he calls a “braided work” of family memoir and history. It includes three main characters: His grandmother, Hazel; Owney Madden, a notorious New York mobster who went to Hot Springs; and Dane Harris, a “founding father” of Hot Springs.
“It tells these three people’s stories over the span of about 40 years, and at times their stories intersect, and by the end of the book they all kind of come together in this one club called The Vapors, that Dane built in 1959,” he said.
Hill said he used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain research records from the Department of Justice and the FBI that pertained to Hot Springs.
“A lot of files had never been seen before. I do think that there are some things in the book that might be new to folks who may feel like they already know everything about Hot Springs.”
In the midst of his research, Hill said he did try to solve some of Hot Springs’ past mysteries.
“And there’s quite a few … because a lot of what went on in Hot Springs in the middle of the last century was illegal,” he said.
“People went to great lengths to hide it,” he said, “or to sort of disguise their own involvement in it, so that left very little in the way of what we’d call primary source documents or evidence, essentially, so it was really hard for me sometimes to get to the root of what really happened.”
Hill said people would give him different historical accounts, making it hard to find the truth, especially in cases where there were no documents.
“I just went crazy for a long time trying to piece these things together … and my editor had to kind of shake me out of this.”
Hill’s book can be purchased at Google Play Books, Apple Books, Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble, or borrowed from the Garland County Library and the Central Arkansas Library System.