Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Virtual Trip to Atlantic City in its Glory.

c. David Grim (taken 6/16/07)

After a spat of science-related reads, I recently picked up "The Last Good Time" by Jonathan Van Meter. It tells the story of the first century of Atlantic City, New Jersey. Like several other Northeastern corridor urban centers, I remember AC as a place for my parents to bemoan and avoid in the 1970's. It was clearly a scary place to drive through for a family with young kids. Later on I remember going to the 9th National Sports Card Convention on the Jersey Shore in 1988. My dad and I stopped by at a McDonald's on the way and I had an egg McMuffin and some orange juice. Unfortunately I got food poisoning and spent the day puking up orange material. I didn't even get to check out the displays I had anticipated with so much pleasure.

The last time I was in Atlantic City was a few years ago when my father rented a beach house in Ocean City so my brother and his family could come north on a visit from Florida. When a father-son night trip to the casinos was planned, I tagged along to take photos on the boardwalk. It was surreal wandering around by myself close to midnight on a week night. As I explored the scene I wondered what the resort town must have looked like when it was one of the premiere beach destinations in the nation. To discover that i would have had to go back in time four or five decades.

Jonathan Van Meter has documented one aspect of Atlantic City in his book. He concentrated on the shady dealings of the informal political hierarchy of the town throughout the bulk of the 1900's. The story of "Nucky" Johnson (an increasingly legendary figure what with the success of the HBO series "Boardwalk Empire") is Van Meter's prelude to his examination of Paul "Skinny" D'Amato, the locally famous owner of the 500 Club where Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin became nationally famous as a comedic duo. D'Amato's connections to entertainers, politicians and mobsters interweave the tale of Atlantic City's rise-and-fall.

If you like hearing trashy stories of famous figures like Joe DiMaggio, Frank Sinatra, Toots Shorr, Sam Giancana, Marilyn Monroe, Judith Campbell Exner, and the Kennedy Clan, you will find much to enjoy in Van Meter's account. And there is no shortage of personal drama around "Skinny" D'Amato either. Speculation about his purported mob ties is just the beginning of this ripping yarn. The tragic events surrounding the lives of his family are equally as absorbing. For instance D'Aamato's only son Angelo was not just charged, but actually convicted of TWO murders. If the reader feels like Van Meter is getting off-track with his detailed descriptions of AC politics, (s)he mustn't worry- there are no doubt more salacious details about its inhabitants' vices on the forthcoming pages.

For as unwholesome a read as "The Last Good Time" was, I did feel surprisingly edified. Perhaps it just provided the diversion my life has necessitated as of late. I got through it quick and had fun the whole way through. And now I want to make a return to that glittering stink hole on the Atlantic. Even if I choose never to lay a dollar on a gaming table, I am sure that I can find plenty of entertainment to distract me now that I have some historical context to bring along with me.

1 comment:

  1. That's when I sold a bunch of Mattinglys at a good price. Looking back, I wish I had taken a lot of card to sell at that show.

    ..and, that was a good week at the shore, when you got to bond with your nephews.