Saratoga Springs: Close to 1,000 people crammed the Canfield Casino in Saratoga Springs in upstate New York on Tuesday night to absorb a talk by William Kennedy, Pulitzer Prize winning author of the great Albany novels such as “Ironweed’ “Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game”, and “Legs”.
Kennedy is the greatest Irish American writer of his generation and at age 84 looks and acts as spry as a man 30 years younger. Impeccably turned out in a white suit, Kennedy held the audience enthralled for almost two hours with tales of derring-do, gangsters, crooked pols, and influential Irishmen of the era.
Kennedy explained how Saratoga became the gambling Mecca, how they managed to fix the card games, who got paid off, what gangsters were behind the scenes, and how Saratoga eventually had to shut down its lucrative casino haunts because of political pressure.
In his long life Kennedy met many who had taken part in that golden era. His tales of those times were incredible, from the man who could control the dice when he rolled them, to how playing card manufacturers printed up entire packs of crooked cards with secret identifying signs so that the house could always win.
While nearby Albany was the font of corruption and home of political fixers, Saratoga Springs was home to the most colorful characters in America.
Mafioso legends Legs Diamond, Lucky Luciano, Frank Costello, and Meyer Lansky were among the hoodlums who roamed around in Saratoga at the time, as did the smooth-as-silk gangster Arnold Rothstein who allegedly fixed the 1919 World Series.
Damon Runyon was the chronicler of Saratoga, his essays today about the place as fresh as when they were written generations ago.
The creation of Saratoga gambling and racing was thanks to an Irishman, John Morrissey, a native of Tipperary, whose family brought him to America at a young age.
The town was already famous for its springs and for the high society types who made it their summer home before airplanes and Florida retreats.
Kennedy memorably described how mothers would parade their daughters up to six times a day along Broadway, looking for suitable men to marry.
Morrissey, as Kennedy outlined, grew up in poverty in nearby Troy where his family settled and he soon made his money using his fists. He parlayed his fistic prowess into becoming an enforcer for Tammany Hall, but took time off to stowaway to California when the Gold Rush hit.
There, instead of digging for gold he discovered a popular card game called Faro, found out all the tricks, and made a fortune.
Back home in New York he decided he wanted to expand gambling and horse racing in Saratoga Springs.
He achieved it in incredible fashion and it became the Mecca of the underworld and the fashionable center for summers away from New York City.
After Morrissey passed at the untimely age of 57, in 1878, Saratoga continued on its merry way until the casinos were eventually closed in the 1940s
These days the casino gambling is back legally in Saratoga Springs and the horses are running as they have almost every year since 1863 with a few pauses during the World Wars.
Bill Kennedy evoked the era, the backroom deals, the card sharps, the gangsters, their molls, the incredible atmosphere of the era, with such richness that the old Canfield Casino site where his talk took place, seemed to resonate with all the history and you could almost sense the ghosts of Morrissey and Canfield nodding approval.
Truly a night to remember with one of the greatest American writers of all.