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Satan's Playground: Mobsters and Movie Stars at America's Greatest Gaming Resort

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Overview

Satan’s Playground chronicles the rise and fall of the tumultuous and lucrative gambling industry that developed just south of the U.S.-Mexico border in the early twentieth century. As prohibitions against liquor, horse racing, gambling, and prostitution swept the United States, the vice industry flourished in and around Tijuana, to the extent that reformers came to call the town “Satan’s Playground,” unintentionally increasing its licentious allure. The area was dominated by Agua Caliente, a large, elegant gaming resort opened by four entrepreneurial Border Barons (three Americans and one Mexican) in 1928. Diplomats, royalty, film stars, sports celebrities, politicians, patricians, and nouveau-riche capitalists flocked to Agua Caliente’s luxurious complex of casinos, hotels, cabarets, and sports extravaganzas, and to its world-renowned thoroughbred racetrack. Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Louis B. Mayer, the Marx Brothers, Bing Crosby, Charlie Chaplin, Gloria Swanson, and the boxer Jack Dempsey were among the regular visitors. So were mobsters such as Bugsy Siegel, who later cited Agua Caliente as his inspiration for building the first such resort on what became the Las Vegas Strip.

Less than a year after Agua Caliente opened, gangsters held up its money-car in transit to a bank in San Diego, killing the courier and a guard and stealing the company money pouch. Paul J. Vanderwood weaves the story of this heist gone wrong, the search for the killers, and their sensational trial into the overall history of the often-chaotic development of Agua Caliente, Tijuana, and Southern California. Drawing on newspaper accounts, police files, court records, personal memoirs, oral histories, and “true detective” magazines, he presents a fascinating portrait of vice and society in the Jazz Age, and he makes a significant contribution to the history of the U.S.-Mexico border.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Vanderwood is a clean stylist as well as a history wonk, and the thorough portrait Satan’s Playground paints of its area and era works as both history and crime narrative.” - Michaelangelo Matos, The Onion AV Club

“From beginning to end of Satan’s Playground, Vanderwood follows a gangland-style heist and its repercussions, especially for the thugs who pulled it off. . . . The heist, the capture of the hijackers, their trial, and their ultimate fate are skillfully narrated.” - Joe Deegan, San Diego Reader

“Drawing on newspaper accounts, police files, court records, personal memoirs, oral histories, and ‘true detective’ magazines, [Vanderwood] presents a fascinating portrait of vice and society in the Jazz Age, and he makes a significant contribution to the history of the U.S.-Mexico Border. . . . Satan's Playground is a truly fascinating book of historic importance that I highly recommend.” - Dennis Moore, East County Magazine

“Vanderwood has filled a gaping hole in the professional borderlands literature, not only setting the record straight about Agua Caliente itself, but also capturing in the process much of the fascinating (anti)social history and character of the greater region during this transformative period. . . . Satan’s Playground is a first-class piece of research and an absolute must-read for readers with interests in the borderlands, Tijuana and San Diego, and the Prohibition era.” - James R. Curtis, Southwestern Historical Quarterly

“This book is an excellent example of how local history can illuminate transnational history and culture. . . . [An] insightful and well-illustrated study of how cross-border tourism at Tijuana and Agua Caliente promoted the growing symbiotic relationship between Southern California and Baja and how Agua Caliente served as an inspiration for later American gambling resorts in Las Vegas and elsewhere.” - Eugene P. Moehring, Pacific Historical Review

“In Satan’s Playground, Paul J. Vanderwood tells several stories at once, lovingly, in splendid detail, and with a wonderful sense of pacing. He combines biography, urban history, and crime narrative in a unique blend of elements to produce a robust and fascinating social history of gambling and other sorts of vice (bootlegging, prostitution, political corruption) in a particularly volatile and colorful area of the world, the U.S.-Mexico border around Tijuana, during the Jazz Age.”—Eric Van Young, author of The Other Rebellion: Popular Violence, Ideology, and the Mexican Struggle for Independence, 1810-1821

"Paul J. Vanderwood is the master. I have come to him for guidance both as a scholar and as a writer/historian more than once. I think, if the truth be told, we all steal from him. This is a fascinating book with Dr. Vanderwood’s usual insight and brio. I found it delightful."—Luis Alberto Urrea, author of The Hummingbird’s Daughter

Dennis Moore
“Drawing on newspaper accounts, police files, court records, personal memoirs, oral histories, and ‘true detective’ magazines, [Vanderwood] presents a fascinating portrait of vice and society in the Jazz Age, and he makes a significant contribution to the history of the U.S.-Mexico Border. . . . Satan's Playground is a truly fascinating book of historic importance that I highly recommend.”
Joe Deegan
“From beginning to end of Satan’s Playground, Vanderwood follows a gangland-style heist and its repercussions, especially for the thugs who pulled it off. . . . The heist, the capture of the hijackers, their trial, and their ultimate fate are skillfully narrated.”
Eugene P. Moehring
“This book is an excellent example of how local history can illuminate transnational history and culture. . . . [An] insightful and well-illustrated study of how cross-border tourism at Tijuana and Agua Caliente promoted the growing symbiotic relationship between Southern California and Baja and how Agua Caliente served as an inspiration for later American gambling resorts in Las Vegas and elsewhere.”
James R. Curtis
“Vanderwood has filled a gaping hole in the professional borderlands literature, not only setting the record straight about Agua Caliente itself, but also capturing in the process much of the fascinating (anti)social history and character of the greater region during this transformative period. . . . Satan’s Playground is a first-class piece of research and an absolute must-read for readers with interests in the borderlands, Tijuana and San Diego, and the Prohibition era.”
Michaelangelo Matos
“Vanderwood is a clean stylist as well as a history wonk, and the thorough portrait Satan’s Playground paints of its area and era works as both history and crime narrative.”
Publishers Weekly
The allure of booze and betting south of the border is the focus of San Diego State professor Vanderwood's (Juan Soldado) muddled history of a famed Tijuana gaming resort that flourished during Prohibition. Conceived and launched by three American “Border Barons”—Wirt Bowman, James Crofton, and Baron Long—Agua Caliente became the premiere destination of Hollywood royalty, foreign dignitaries, and regular citizens who wanted to drink, gamble, and visit the myriad brothels. The bootleggers and mobsters who sprang up in neighboring San Diego after the 18th Amendment outlawed liquor in the U.S. were also drawn to the oasis of sin, and Vanderwood spends considerable time detailing the botched 1929 robbery of a car delivering the resort's cash haul to the States, ending in a double murder. The hunt for the killers and their sensational trial drags on with little suspense, and readers soon long for more stories involving Agua Caliente's glitzy clientele, like the young Rita Hayworth. Meandering from topic to topic, often with long excursions into the personal histories of even minor players, this reads like a patched-together outline for a potentially fascinating book. 82 b&w illus. (May)
Kirkus Reviews
Hot-blooded history of a hedonistic Jazz Age resort where celebrity and mob culture mingled within gawking distance of the sensation-seeking masses. Historian Vanderwood (Juan Soldado: Rapist, Murderer, Martyr, Saint, 2004, etc.) seems to have enjoyed himself writing this account of Agua Caliente, a gambler's and drinker's paradise that rose in response to Prohibition America-and which was conveniently located just over the border in Tijuana, Mexico. With its high-class pretensions and low-brow diversions, Agua Caliente became a primary model for Las Vegas, a place where ordinarily "good" Americans could play hard at being bad. Its life was brief-less than ten years passed between its opening in mid 1928 and its unceremonious closing under orders of Mexican President Lazaro Cardenas in 1937-but what it lacked in duration, it made up for in color and influence. Vanderwood weaves into the resort's history one of its most notorious moments, a botched robbery of an Agua Caliente money car as it made its way from Tijuana to a bank in San Diego. The incident left two dead and one of the mobsters wounded. Using as primary sources detective magazines, newspaper articles and trial transcripts, the author discourses on the rise of Eastern-style organized crime in Southern California. The tales of the hoodlums, molls, tax cheats, bribers, corrupt officials, would-be ambassadors, harlots, starlets and free-spending movie moguls whose lives intersected around this moment in history-little operas that Vanderwood relates, often in whimsical, hard-boiled prose-vividly conjure the pre-technicolor world of 1930s Hollywood melodramas. This is a book about much more than one place and time-race, fortune, lawand (dis)order, border politics and economics all figure in the story of Agua Caliente. Charmingly full of life, if not always coherent.
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Product Details

Meet the Author

Paul J. Vanderwood is Professor Emeritus of Mexican History at San Diego State University. He is the author of several books including Juan Soldado: Rapist, Murderer, Martyr, Saint, also published by Duke University Press; The Power of God against the Guns of Government: Religious Upheaval in Mexico at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century; Disorder and Progress: Bandits, Police, and Mexican Development; and Border Fury: A Picture Postcard Record of Mexico’s Revolution and U.S. War Preparedness, 1910–1917.

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Read an Excerpt

Satan's Playground

Mobsters and Movie Stars at America's Greatest Gaming Resort
By PAUL J. VANDERWOOD

DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS

Copyright © 2010 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4702-6


Chapter One

The Mob Strikes the Border Barons

These Sons of Satan-vice lords or princes of pleasure, depending on one's inclinations-were on the run and headed for the border. California's ardent redeemers dogged their heels, playing out their role in a zealous reform movement sweeping early-twentieth-century America. The dogooders hounded their prey across the international line into Mexico but hardly into perdition. Instead, these clever and experienced sportsmen, who became known as the Border Barons, soon turned tiny, dusty Tijuana from a mere tourist curiosity into their kind of town.

The Barons-Wirt Bowman, James Crofton, and Baron (his given name) Long-all of them risk-taking, well-heeled, charming sons-of-bitches, worked the vulnerable underbelly of the law to get rich. They did not manage all gaming and adult entertainment in Tijuana, but monopolized the most profitable ventures, including their crown jewel, a sprawling, luxurious gaming resort named Agua Caliente three miles south of the city center. For glamour and panache, Tijuana's Agua Caliente outdid even the celebrated Monte Carlo and France's aristocratic Deauville. Boosters dubbed it the "Playground of the Hemisphere," and it overflowed with celebrated habitués.

Diplomats, royalty, egoistic movie moguls and preening film stars, sports celebrities, moneyed bluebloods, and nouveau riche capitalists patronized the elegant spa, along with more ordinary folks out to mingle with the famous and daydream (quite hopelessly) of transcending their class. Mobsters like Al Capone also visited, as did Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, who borrowed his idea for a resort-style casino in Las Vegas from the Tijuana marvel.

Lesser gangsters attracted by the quick fortunes and flamboyant excesses of Prohibition also eyed the resort, but more for its riches than its cachet. Some hoodlums reckoned, if the Barons could plunder patrons in their casino, they could, tit for tat, loot the vice lords. Other criminals reasoned it unfair that flush people had so much and they so little, and aimed to adjust the flow. Most crooks, however, were moved by pure greed, a sign of the times for many people, nearly everywhere.

* * *

One ambitious knot of Southern California bootleggers figured it would be a cinch to rob Agua Caliente's loaded money-car as it carried the weekend's receipts from Tijuana to a bank in San Diego. Typically for the Roaring Twenties, the caper was carefully arranged. The driver and guard of the transport were alleged to be part of the scheme, and local police had been paid off. Bribes assured political protection. Even several executives, including owners, of the famed gambling casino itself were later said to have been in on the robbery, which was alleged to be only the first facet of a much more grandiose and bizarre scheme to blow up the famed resort, collect insurance money on it, and set up shop elsewhere.

The two young hoodlums chosen to pull off the initial escapade knew when the money-car would leave the casino that Monday morning, May 20, 1929, carrying the weekend's receipts, anticipated at nearly $100,000 (over $1 million in today's money). They would briefly follow the vehicle in their own specially altered automobile and, at an appointed spot, would shoot out the rear tires of the money-car, bringing it to a halt, then pull alongside, shout "Stick 'em up!" and spray around a few shots from their automatic weapons to make the holdup look real. Then they'd toss some hot chili pepper in the eyes of the driver and guard to blind and confuse them temporarily, adding further authenticity to the venture, steal the money pouch, and head for their hide-out. It would be a bold daylight escapade to be sure, but not out of keeping for the Jazz Age, which found Americans reveling in and reeling from a frothy exuberance of technological and cultural novelty marked by lawlessness.

* * *

The Barons were well aware that the mob had its eye on their money-car. Three weeks earlier they had received a tip that it would be robbed en route to San Diego, which sits eighteen miles north of the border. As precautions, they informed police of the threat, regularly switched vehicles and routes, and put on extra guards. When no assault occurred, however, they dropped the additional security, although they still regularly changed cars and altered directions to the bank.

Thus the Barons anticipated no difficulties with this Monday's shipment. In his office, the resort's head cashier, Olallo Rubio, carefully counted out the proceeds to be transferred: a relatively modest $600 in cash, mostly in large bills ($50s and $100s) and $70,000 in personal, traveler's, and cashier's checks-certainly not the $100,000 in currency that the robbers expected. The courier for Agua Caliente, José Pérez Borrego, a former Tijuana police chief now working for the casino company, put the cash and checks into a leather pouch, and drove to Bowman's nearby Foreign Club, a glamorous gambling cabaret on the town's main tourist street, where he collected an additional $10,000 in cash and checks. He then wedged the money bag behind the driver's seat in the tan 1929 Cadillac coupe and headed for the Bank of Italy (later the Bank of America) in San Diego. Beside him sat the guard, Nemisio Rudolfo Monroy; both carried .45 caliber automatic pistols. It looked like a routine delivery all the way around.

THE ATTACK

As they headed north, at the agricultural hamlet of Nestor a brand-new, black Model-A Ford touring car with its front windshield removed began to tail them. It was nearing noon on a sunny day along the busy main road between San Diego and the towns stretching south to the border. Traffic was steady but had slowed to pass through a four-lane bottleneck popularly known as The Old Dike (also spelled Dyke), a two-mile causeway that passed through wetlands before connecting to higher ground in San Diego proper.

Suddenly, rat-a-tat-tat, rat-a-tat-tat!

Automatic gunfire from the Ford punctured the rear tires of the Cadillac and brought it to a halt. The Ford swerved left and stopped beside the immobilized Cadillac. A man brandishing a weapon in each hand leaped from the Ford (he may have been riding the right running board) and shouted, "Stick 'em up!"

But the plan quickly went awry. Instead of surrendering, as expected, the guard, Monroy, fired a flurry of shots at the approaching gangster through the closed side window of the money-car, but he missed the assailant. Shattered glass sprayed the road. In return, the surprised bandit raked the Cadillac with automatic gunfire. Pérez Borrego slumped over toward his guard, mortally wounded or already dead.

By this time-only seconds had passed-the gunman's accomplice, the driver, had raced to the right side of the money-car. When met there by more gunfire from the gravely wounded Monroy, he poured his own torrent of bullets into the occupants. During the melee, a slug burrowed into his left shoulder, but with the custodians of the financial deposit finally silenced, he plucked the money pouch from inside the Cadillac, scurried back to the touring car, hurled himself into the back seat, and ordered his buddy to get going. The "fix" had gone haywire.

* * *

Many eyewitnesses and near victims-passing drivers and their passengers -saw the mayhem on The Old Dike. Bullets winged through several autos. Some drivers and passengers fled their vehicles and ducked for cover, but others were too stunned to move. All eventually told their stories to authorities. Several spectators surmised that police were shooting it out with bootleggers. Others thought that a hijacking had taken place with one gang of criminals bent on confiscating the illegal goods of another.

In an incredible act of bravado, Sally Stanley, who was driving her Buick sedan with a woman companion just a car or so behind the holdup vehicle, saw the shootout and, as the bandits sped away, decided to give chase. The race was on, but not for long. Northward, up the remaining stretch of The Old Dike they sped into San Diego proper, then right at the first possible turn, Thirty-Second Street, screaming through stop signs at busy intersections, with dust billowing up from the dry dirt road and nearly obscuring the getaway vehicle from its pursuers. A dozen blocks up Thirty-Second Street, approaching an open stretch of road, the women realized they had had enough. Fear overcame rash bravado. They found a telephone in a grocery store, called police, and reported the license plate number of the fleeing car. "I could have overhauled them, but I was afraid," Ms. Stanley subsequently explained. It is a good thing that she did not try to do so. "Two women gave us chase as far as Thirty-Second and K Streets," one of the gangsters later recalled, "and it's a damn good thing they stopped, or we would have stopped them."

Thirty-Second Street dead-ended at a deep canyon. After a short left, the Ford turned right on Edgemont Street and slammed to a halt. Frank D. Hartell, a retired railroad conductor who was mowing his front lawn across the street, wondered at the sudden hubbub in his quiet suburban neighborhood. He saw a young man jump out of the Ford, slip out of his dark blue overalls, and head for a car parked up the street. The second man, lugging one or two medium-sized pouches, closely followed. Then they sped off up Edgemont. Hartell could not identify the make of the getaway car, a light-colored touring vehicle, he thought-but he had gotten a good look at the two occupants who had deserted the Ford. One of them had noticed him staring at them, he said, and smiled.

POLICE RESPONSE

The San Diego Police Department clanked into gear. Sally Stanley, who had first given chase, had telephoned the alarm to headquarters, but it took twenty (unexplained) minutes for the message to reach either the new chief, Arthur Hill, on the job for only three months, or Captain Paul Hayes, head of detectives. A swirl of uncoordinated activity ensued. All available detectives rushed to the crime scene, which left no one at headquarters to sift through the citizens' reports that began to filter in, and many tips furnished to the police went unanswered. Emergency lights on neighborhood police call boxes blinked on, motorcycle patrols answered, but operators ordered them to report to central headquarters rather than telling them what had occurred, describing the black Ford and its occupants, or ordering units to patrol getaway routes. More than an hour elapsed before headquarters informed the county sheriff 's office of the attack and motorcycle police began to search and block off escape roads. Superiors told vice squad officers to hold off interrogation of their underworld contacts (crucial informants), fearing the snitches would only assist the fugitives. Police response was, in other words, slow and uneven.

Because the police ambulance was in the shop for repairs, a slow-moving patrol wagon had to be dispatched to the crime scene. The department's emergency car was in use (detectives were investigating some bad check charges), so private cars and antiquated city vehicles had to be pressed into service. When authorities finally did converge on The Old Dike, they encountered a grisly scene.

* * *

The money-car from Agua Caliente had been punctured at least seventeen times; some bullets went in one side and out the other. The driver and the guard lay sprawled on top of one another, Borrego shot nine times, and Monroy, five. Borrego's .45 caliber pistol was out of its holster but had not been fired. Monroy's gun rested on his lap and had been fired five times. Although police questioned at least six eyewitnesses to the shootout, none could give more than a fleeting description of the robbers. Pieced together, however, they composed a tentative portrait. One killer was twenty-five years old, short, about 5%5& tall, and wearing a cap. The other felon was only a little older, maybe thirty, about 5%8& tall, wearing mechanic's overalls and a bandana over the lower part of his face. It was not much to go on.

When motorcycle police investigated Frank Hartell's report of the automobile hurriedly abandoned across the street from his home, they found it was the brand-new car used in the robbery. It had been amateurishly repainted black to camouflage its original color of "Bonnie [slate] grey," and the windshield had been removed. A quick check of the engine number showed that it had been stolen eleven days earlier from the showroom of a local Ford dealer and had been driven only twenty-eight miles, eleven of them before the vehicle had been stolen from the dealership. The license plates were registered to a San Francisco plumber who said they had been stolen from his shop in January that year. Inside the vehicle investigators found a pair of overalls, gloves, a cap that carried a red hair, two pairs of sunglasses, an unexploded .45 caliber bullet that a ballistics expert soon declared fit a machine gun, and a small bag of ground red pepper.

Tire tracks left by a car off to a hurried start had stirred the dirt just up Edgemont Street. Motorcycle cops followed the marks as far as they could, but within a short distance they faded into dusty nothingness.

MACHINE GUN FEVER

Double banner headlines in San Diego newspapers screamed: "Thugs Riddle Car with Machine Gun," "Machine Gunmen Shoot Down Two in Auto Holdup," "Machine Gun Bandits Kill Two in Hold Up of Tijuana Money Car." Always a city that lamented its second-class billing to Los Angeles and perennially felt marginalized from national affairs, San Diego abruptly emerged into a larger world via the rat-a-tat-tat of a machine gun. The San Diego Union began its coverage, "Employing tactics of Chicago's gangland ...," and breathlessly set the new city scene in an editorial headed "Professional Murder":

THE BIG-TIME THUG as he is, and not as moviedom's lurid romances depict him, was exhibited yesterday by the machine-gunning on the National City Dyke. The killers murdered two men in cold blood for something like $6,000 in ready money [cash]. They gave their victims not the slightest chance in the world. They did the ugly job swiftly, coldly-and safely. They were as "daring" as a man who gets his fish by dynamiting a lake. The whole thing was as cruel and contemptible and sordid a crime as our criminal records reveal. Yet it was absolutely typical of modern gangster methods as practiced in our big cities. It was "big-time stuff."

* * *

The handheld machine gun had become an object of both fascination and fear. The gun was invented by a Kentucky-born army general, John Taliaferro Thompson, toward the end of the First World War, as a portable weapon with high firepower literally meant to sweep the trenches clean of the enemy, yet short enough to run with and fire from the hip, even if it did require carrying a large supply of ammunition. After the war, however, the military labeled the gun "impractical," too big for a pistol, too small for a rifle, and therefore tactically useless. While civilian police liked its potency, they feared that spraying with it from curb-to-curb would mow down too many innocents along with criminals. This largely limited early sales to factory owners and their hired agents who aimed to intimidate striking workers. It was not until well into the 1920s that the "submachine" gun (also called the Tommy gun, after its inventor) gained its notoriety in the hands of rival big-city mobs anxious to protect and expand their bootlegging and other criminal activities.

The gun was an ideal gangland murder weapon-light in weight, easily concealed, and possessed of enormous fire power. A pistol required an assassin to be near his (or her) target, and if the bullet missed, the target might fire back. If the intended victim had a bodyguard, the use of a pistol was out of the question. The Tommy gun could kill from a distance or from the safety and anonymity of a speeding car. So the gun made its first violent appearance in Chicago in 1925, where it was quickly nicknamed the "Chicago typewriter." Two years later, as the "piano," it took hold in Philadelphia, and a year after that in the Big Apple, New York City.

At first, law enforcement and the general public took a rather indifferent view of the Thompson submachine gun. If the mobs wanted to use them on one another, so much the better. Let them eliminate each other. But in Chicago, the bootlegging turf war between George (Bugs) Moran and Al Capone boiled over. Moran had been picking off members of Capone's gang one by one, so "Scarface" decided to retaliate and eliminate his tormentor's entire band all at once. His strategy set the stage for the infamous St. Valentine's Day Massacre on February 14, 1929.

The country's reaction to the slaughter was not what the mob expected. It was not one of good riddance to a fearful gang. Instead the press, radio, and public at large screamed "Foul!" The massacre was too blatant, too craven, and had gone much too far. As a result, the submachine gun became a symbol of excess. It should be banned, the public felt, taken from the hands of criminals. Memory of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre was certainly fresh in people's minds when, four months later, mobsters riddled the Agua Caliente money-car with automatic fire on the San Diego Dike.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Satan's Playground by PAUL J. VANDERWOOD Copyright © 2010 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

1 The Mob Strikes the Border Barons 1

2 Mobs 12

3 Playground of the Hemisphere 37

4 Fortuitous Breaks 51

5 Border Babylon 71

6 King of Border Vice 80

7 "They're Off!" 90

8 Prohibition's Bounty 103

9 The New Wave 119

10 Agua Caliente in Gestation 134

11 Building Camelot 140

12 Captain Jerry's Day 172

13 "Silent" Marty's Oration 179

14 Veracity 190

15 Fixes 199

16 Sentencing and Censuring 212

17 Hollywood's Playground 222

18 "Place Your Bets!" 238

19 Get the Barons! 272

20 Fools and Thieves 291

21 A Dead Cock in the Pit 304

22 What Ever Happened To? 320

23 Ghosts 336

Notes 341

Sources 373

Index 385

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