Monday, August 18, 2014

Wordcraft -- The town that loved the crime boss

At first blush, it seemed like a strange topic to draw a crowd at a church hall¾ crime wars in the heart of the city. The listeners packing Highland Park United Methodist Church in Dallas last Wednesday weren’t there to exclaim in horror about journalist/novelist Doug J. Swanson’s biography of homegrown racketeer Benny Binion. They were there to show their love for the late crime boss.

The supply of Swanson’s biography, Blood Aces: The Wild Ride of Benny Binion, trucked over by local Barnes & Noble, sold out before Swanson could take the last question from an audience that had already spent an hour with the author reminiscing about the good old, bad old days of Texas-born Binion’s Dallas career.

"I want to talk about Benny Binion,” Swanson said, “but I also want to talk about Dallas. Many people don’t think it’s a very exciting place, but I do. And it’s mainly because of Benny Binion.”

To someone not brought up in Dallas, the excitement would have seemed surreal. Binion admitted to two cold-blooded murders (and was accused of many more), his career beginning in the 1920’s spanned the gamut from bootlegging, to numbers running to gambling, to prostitution.

And that other event Dallas is infamous for¾ the assassination of President John F. Kennedy? At the very least, there would have been no small-time hood named Jack Ruby to kill Kennedy’s alleged killer without Binion’s legacy of freewheeling goons with guns.

Nobody’s going to name a Dallas city park for Binion. But his heyday in Dallas from the 1920’s to ’40’s was an era of haves versus have-nots, when even less-canny outlaws like Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were cheered as representatives of the people. It was an era when families like the Youngs of Corsicana (who were in the audience) were proud of their reputation for making really good bootleg liquor. Or when mom and pop stores (whose owners and their families were also present to reminisce) were glad to have a customer as good as Binion, a customer who paid promptly and in cash. Let somebody else worry about where the cash came from.

Binion started his criminal career as a bootlegger, but he was a man with a dream, the dream of running his own gambling organization.

In 1936, he got his big break with the opening of the Texas Centennial exhibition at what is now Fair Park. It was the depths of the Depression, and Dallas was hoping to lure tourist money, but the Centennial “wasn’t drawing the crowds it needed,” Swanson said. “People were going to Fort Worth, because it had topless cowgirls. Dallas city fathers decided to deregulate prostitution and gambling to draw more attendance. And that’s when Benny got into the dice business.”

In later years, Dallas got too staid for Binion. He moved to Las Vegas, opened the Horseshoe Club with its million dollar display whose picture illustrates this post, founded the World Series of Poker, and appeared on TV’s The Merv Griffin Show. Thousands attended his funeral, and not only, Swanson said, because the family provided free beer at the event.

“A lot of people here knew Benny, and you know he did some bad things,” Swanson said, “but we loved him. He could be so generous. Benny was always passing out money, he would give hamburgers to poor kids, he gave money to the local PBS station so his daughter could watch Sesame Street. He was the greatest friend you could have and the worst enemy.”

For more about the book¾ and Swanson¾ see If you missed hearing about Benny Binion or just want to hear more, Swanson will speak again at a meeting of the Dallas Historical Society, September 4 at 7 p.m. in the Hall of State at Fair Park.

(Next Monday -- a preview of fall literary events in Texas, beginning with the Tulisoma South Dallas Book Fair.)

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