Gamblers and other liars have told stories about Titanic Thompson for decades. As a sportswriter spending some late nights with pro golfers and poker players, I heard them all — how the legendary hustler escaped the sinking Titanic
by sneaking onto a lifeboat dressed as a woman. How he threw a peanut over a three-story building, pulled Al Capone's pants down, conned Houdini, beat Ben Hogan playing golf right-handed and then turned around and beat Byron Nelson left-handed.
I kept waiting for the movie. It seemed there had to be a movie — maybe with Clint Eastwood as the tall, flinty-eyed Titanic, a shadowy figure who crossed paths with some of the most famous men of the 20th century.
By 2008 there was still no movie, and I was between books, so I decided to see if I could separate the legends from the truth. In a year of following his tracks, from his birth in a log cabin in Arkansas in 1892 to his death in Texas 82 years later, I turned up the facts behind the tallest Titanic tales. It turns that he really did hurl a peanut over a building — at least it looked like a peanut. It was really a peanut shell he'd loaded with buckshot, and it flew like a bullet. Titanic never pulled Capone's pants down, but he once tricked Scarface Al out of $500. He traded card tricks with Houdini. He hustled country-club golfers for $20,000 a hole while Hogan and Nelson were earning $10,000 a year, and once drove a golf ball more than 500 yards. In 1928 he double-crossed Arnold Rothstein, the crime boss who'd fixed the 1919 "Black Sox" World Series, in a high-stakes card game that led to murder.
There's a true story to his name, too.
In 1912, soon after the unsinkable Titanic sank, a rangy teenager stepped into a pool hall in Joplin, Missouri. The kid proceeded to beat the proprietor, Snow Clark, in a game of eight-ball for $500. Then he noticed a sign in the window: $200 to Any Man Who Jumps Over My New Pool Table. The table was nine feet long and four and a half feet wide. To clear it, a jumper would have to hurdle a 54-inch surface 30 inches off the floor — an Olympic-caliber jump — before crashing down on the far side.
"I can do it," the kid said. "I can out-jump a herd of bullfrogs."
Clark laughed. Even if he somehow cleared the table, he'd break his leg or arm or skull on the landing.
The boy walked out, leaving them wondering if they'd offended him by laughing. He returned dragging a mattress he'd bought at a fleabag hotel. He plopped the mattress beside the pool table, walked around to the other side, took a running start, and sprang into the air. According to an eyewitness, "He leaped headfirst across the table, did a flip, and landed on his back on that mattress."
Someone asked Clark the kid's name. "I don't rightly know," he said, "but it ought to be Titanic. He sinks everybody."
After his christening in Clark's poolroom, young Titanic hit the road. Ahead lay more than half a century of high-risk games, romance, and violence. Along the way he invented a vocation. He was America's original proposition gambler, thinking up bets to suit every occasion, staying one step ahead of his victims and the law.
I found Titanic irresistible. Maybe that's because I remembered taking $100 bets over the phone when I was still in grade school.
My father was a pro athlete, a gambler, and an occasional bookie. Like many ex-jocks he never really understood fandom — people yelling and screaming for their favorite teams. What was the point? To him, sports were meaningless unless he had some stake in the result. Some skin in the game. That meant betting, and not just a dollar or two. To get your juices flowing, a bet has to fill your pocket if you win and hurt if you lose. It has to matter. For him, that meant bets of $50 and $100 and up, sometimes a dozen or more in a day, on ballgames and horse races. I grew up cheering for our hometown Indiana Pacers not to win or lose, but to cover the point spread. When Dad began booking bets, I fielded phone calls from men who sounded cheap at first. They'd put a nickel on the Celtics or the Bears. Later, I learned that a nickel was $50, a dime $100.
My dad would have loved Titanic, who thought nothing of betting $10,000 on a golf shot or the turn of a card almost a century ago.
What I loved was tracking Titanic through a long-lost America. Born poor, he came out of the Ozarks with 50 cents in his pocket. He went on to win and lose millions. Titanic killed five men — all in self-defense, he said, and the police in five towns agreed. He also married five women, each one a teenager on her wedding day. He and his second wife, Alice, a gorgeous brunette, met cute: She tried to pick his pocket.
In 1928 Titanic rolled into New York in a Pierce-Arrow roadster with the tools of his trade in the trunk: cards, dice, left- and right-handed golf clubs, horseshoes, and a suitcase full of $100 bills. He proceeded to dominate the underground dice games that newsman Damon Runyon made famous in Guys and Dolls. I discovered that Runyon based his famous character Sky Masterson, the gambler-hero Marlon Brando played in the film of Guys and Dolls, on Titanic. The hustler hated publicity — "Mine ain't the kind of business it helps," he said — but he left traces I followed through newspaper archives and decades-old address books. I pieced together the first full account of a deadly poker game that triggered what reporters called the "Crime of the Century," a game in which Titanic double-crossed the notorious crime boss Arnold Rothstein, who had fixed the 1919 "Black Sox" World Series. That double-cross led to a headline-making murder that is still officially unsolved. With help from Titanic's last wife, I identified the shooter.
My year of researching Titanic Thompson took me to Times Square, Las Vegas, Hollywood, and a dozen of his other haunts including Dallas, where I went to church with Titanic's son Tommy, a Stetson-wearing born-again preacher who rails against the evils of gambling. A day's drive south of there I found Titanic's last teen bride, Jeannette, now 72, scraping to pay her rent in a lonesome corner of the Rio Grande Valley.
"I'm not regretful," she said. "I mean, I wish he'd left me one of his suitcases full of money, but you won't hear me complain. There's precious few geniuses in the world, and I got 20 years with one of them."