Cross Section: Sin Town
Newport, Kentucky: Solid Cincinnati's Playground
Home of Bordellos, Bust-out Joints, Plush Night
Life, and a Mayor Without a Place to Sit.
Kentucky, as everyone knows, is famous for good whiskey, good looking women, fast horses and hospitality, and no one is more hospitable than a Newport, Kentucky taxi cab driver. Every cab driver I met was most happy to take me on a guided tour of what is now reputed to be America's most wicked city, directly across the river from Cincinnati, Ohio.
When I told the cab driver in front of my Cincinnati hotel that I had heard I could “have some fun” on the Kentucky side, he said in a matter-of-fact tone:
“I'll take you to an on-the-level gambling house run by the Cleveland syndicates, but if it's women you want, you'd better get a Newport taxi to take you to a house. I don't want to get mixed up in interstate stuff.”
He shot a quick look at me as we drive across the bridge. “You ain't been here before, have you? Just don't let'em steer you into a bust-out joint. Brother, if you get into one of them places they'll turn you upside down and shake you good to be sure you got nothin' left before they let you out.”
Bust-out joints, of which there are some two dozen in Newport alone, get their name from the recognized practice of not letting a customer out until he's “bust,” one way or another. Probably the most notorious bust-out in northern Kentucky was run by a marshal, the sole law in this community until recently. He offered wickedness on a department store level. Downstairs was the bar and crooked gambling. Upstairs was the whore-house section, with every bed wired to a recording machine. Gentlemen of means on a tear were steered by taxi drivers to the law's [unintell]. Guests, after they were sheared, clipped, plucked and cleaned, suspected that perhaps things were not just right and complained to the marshal. He was very sympathetic.
Those who really got it were the amorous ones. By the time they finished answering the girl's shrewd questions, the recording machine had his name and address, his business, his wife's name, the children's names and other vital statistics. When the celebrant returned to the bosom of his family and his place as a respected pillar of his community, the marshal telephoned and let him hear the recording of passion talk against a background of creaking bed springs. It must be said that the marshal had his own high code of ethics; so far as is known he never made a victim pay twice for the same recording. As of this writing the marshal is doing time for pandering, on which he was finally hooked by some very indignant citizens.
Newport is in Campbell County and the whole area is generally referred to as northern Kentucky, and northern Kentucky serves as the playground not only for bustling Cincinnati, with its more than half a million population, but for a vast area within a hundred mile radius. This radius includes the cities of Louisville, and Lexington, Kentucky; Huntington and Charleston, West Virginia; and Indianapolis, Indiana. Dayton, Ohio is practically next door. From these seven cities and Covington, Kentucky, also directly across the Ohio from Cincinnati, annually come an estimated 1,000,000 Americans with money in their pockets for gambling and/or pretty girls - late models from the Kentucky mountains. Visitors spend an estimated $30,000,000 a year on gambling and women. Pay-offs, so northern Kentucky may function without interruption, are said to be $1,000,000 annually.
The Convention Bureau of Cincinnati has a map showing the scope of its drawing power. A hundred-mile jaunt, or less, on excellent highways is nothing to a party of boys anxious to whoop and whoopee it up. At the million dollar Beverly Hills Country Club, as fine an establishment as can be found east of the Mississippi, patrons can get excellent food practically at cost, and see a $5,000 floor show which features nationally known stars of stage, screen and dice tables before they settle down to a little gambling, if they feel like it.
The sale of sin in northern Kentucky is a major factor in its economy. The millions poured into the area by visitors is not confined to the half-dozen honest gambling places, the madams, girls, bust-outs, and property owners who collect enormous rents for houses of ill-fame. It also seeps into almost everything in the area, and not excluding some churches and charitable organizations which do not inquire too deeply into the identities of their generous contributors.
One Newport businessman voiced an opinion I heard from others: “Clean up this place and what have we got? A big plenty o' nothin'. Just plain nothin'.”
In appearance this river town of some 33,000 population looks down-at-the-heels except in its limited good residential area “on the hill.” Its second biggest industry is a steel company which employs some thousand persons. Other industries and businesses are small. The town itself is squeezed into one square mile and cannot expand much within its political limits. More than half of Newport's workers are employed in Cincinnati.
Businessmen in Cincinnati and Covington, separated from Newport by the Ohio and Licking Rivers, also felt that their economy would be affect if northern Kentucky were cleaned up, for Cincinnati's hotels, restaurants, bars, gas stations and stores get considerable business from the 365-day flow of visitors on luck or pleasure bent, for Newport has no hotels for them.
Immediately after crossing the bride over the Ohio River, I came upon Newport's City Hall, in back of which is Police Headquarters. In the shadow of both buildings begins The Bottoms, a section of cheap houses of prostitution and raw bust-out joints. Better (and higher priced) houses and more skillfully operated bust-out joints are scattered throughout the city. On York Street, the main drag for gambling houses, the casinos advertise their presence with flamboyant neon-lighted signs, but without specifying just what one can find in them.
I asked different Newport taxi drivers to take me on a guided tour and point out houses of assignation and bust-outs. Not one driver assumed an I-don't-know-what-you're-talking-about air, nor hesitated because it might be illegal. Vice has been in northern Kentucky for so long that its presence is accepted as perfectly natural. One housewife told me: “It's been here ever since I can remember; we don't know of anything else.”
“Now, that one there is Vivian's,” said one driver with the ease of an official guide. He pointed to a clapboard house within spitting distance of Police Headquarters. “She's only got four girls now because the heat's on. One of the broadies [as the driver referred to the madams and girls] had a couple of sixteen year olds in her place and the cops had to knock her off. She shoulda knowed better; she's been here a long time. She shoulda knowed that some of them church people go there sometimes and they think broadies should be at least eighteen, ha, ha, ha! Anyway, they pressured the cops and the cops had to knock her off; and the broadie said if they figured on giving her time she'd take half the city officials with her because they were her customers; so, when they brought her to trial, the jury got hung. That's all I know. And now the heat's on.”
“Has it interfered with business?”
“Not too much. The heat goes on every once in a while; maybe once or twice a year somebody gets knocked off to keep the goody-goodies in town satisfied, but it don't mean a thing. Only thing that happens is that prices go up. Used to be a minimum price of $15 for a girl; now it's $20. I know some broadies you can't help but go for - ”
“What does a cab driver get for bringing a customer to the house?”
“Forty per cent,” he said, “Some places tried to give us only twenty-five per cent, but they lost out. We wouldn't take nobody there.”
“And what do the bust-out joints give you?”
“Same thing. Forty per cent.”
“How do you know you get the right percentage? Suppose they take a guy for $500 and tell you it's only $100?”
“Oh, they wouldn't do that. That wouldn't be honest.”
Cab drivers estimate the number of girls in Newport houses at between two hundred and three hundred. When there is a big convention in Cincinnati, the number often jumps to five hundred.
One afternoon, while wandering around in The Bottoms, I heard a high, feminine laugh come from a café and I went in. A few men were drinking beer at the bar. Two girls, who could not have been more than eighteen or nineteen, were draped over the bar at the entrance. One of them was obviously high. It is against the law to sell drinks to a woman at a bar, but no place I was in paid any attention to this law - or a number of others. There was one dice table, one for black jack, and a big round table for poker, but it was too early for the sucker crowd.
I introduced myself to the bartender so the girls could overhear me and explained that I was in town collecting material for an article. The bartender said, simply, “You'll find plenty to write about, you can bet on that,” and continued polishing glasses.
The girl who had started drinking early turned to me.
“What are they picking on us for?” she demanded, taking it for granted that I knew her profession. “What do they think we are, thieves? I never rolled anybody in my life - the jerks.”
“And that ain't the half of it,” her older friend assured me. “They get the heat on because a couple of kids breaking into the business. What's that got to do with us? We mind our own business.”
“How did you happen to get into this business?” I asked.
“Because I like it and I get paid for it,” the early drinker proclaimed, “and you can't beat that parlay.”
One of the men took time out to say, “You sure can't.”
“What happens when you get older?” I asked.
“What a jerk!” She turned to her friend with a mimicking, “What's gonna happen when you get older? Does your mother know where you are? Every jerk worries about you then says, 'Well, do you want to go upstairs.' You want to go upstairs now?”
“No, thanks. I just want to ask some questions.”
“Every jerk wants to ask questions and always ends up with, 'So let's go upstairs.' Do you want to go upstairs now?”
“Pipe down, Janie,” the bartender advised. “You're making too much noise.”
It took a fresh drink and her friend's pleas to quiet her.
“He didn't ask you to go upstairs,” her friend kept reassuring her. “What are you getting all stewed up for? You're getting drunk.”
“No, he didn't ask me, but he will. They always do. And for you,” she turned to me, “it’s $20 and I don’t care what magazine you're from.”
“I promise I won't ask.”
“Janie,” her friend pleaded, “cut it out.”
“I got $20 says he's a jerk,” Janie announced. “And another twenty says he'll ask me.”
“I like it,” she announce defiantly, apparently still on her unbeatable parlay. “Huh! I should just hand it out for free.”
Like many a river town when America was spreading westward, Newport has a long and somewhat violent history of sin and vice. In its day staid Cincinnati was the gay and colorful “Queen City” with a national reputation as “The Paris of America.” When Cincinnati, as a shipbuilding port, went in more for trade and commerce, Newport and Covington took over the Parisian aspects.
The steel bridge across the Ohio from Cincinnati gave Newport its first big population jump. The second jump came during prohibition. When the Capone boys and others had to leave their habitats they found sanctuary in Kentucky. During prohibition, U. S. officials once arrested the mayor, chief of police, county attorney, city detective and other law-enforcement officials of a northern Kentucky town for violating the prohibition laws. Even a generation ago there was one special area in Newport which had as choice a collection of whore houses, gambling dives and assorted joints as ever existed on the old Barbary Coast.
Newport was a rough and tough town and did not really become ostensibly well behaved until the big gambling syndicates established themselves there. “Syndicate” is a word vaguely connoting a combine of gamblers who put up cash to run on-the-level casinos as a business, because the percentage in favor of the house, even in honest gambling, is sufficient for enormous profits. The half-dozen syndicate-run casinos in Campbell County employ “boxmen” who sit behind raised rails and watch every move made by dealers as well as players to be sure neither customer nor syndicate is cheated out of even one dollar.
You need no whispered “Joe sent me” to get into a gambling place. You just walk into a large, very brightly lit room with dice tables, black-jack tables and roulette wheels in the bigger ones. There is little talk; pallid-faced men drone the plays on the dice tables and equally pallid-faced men and women bet their money with a grim intentness.
The syndicates disapprove of bust-out joints and prostitution not for moral reasons but because a customer who is taken or rolled can give a town a bad name. Syndicate casinos, everyone agrees, are meticulously honest, which is more than can be said for an occasional guest who tries to ring in a pair of loaded dice or pulls a fast routine to get hush money, like one Southern gal who figured a joint operating illegally would make some sort of settlement rather than attract attention.
One evening at a crowded dice table she slumped to the floor in a faint. When she came into the manager's office and opened her purse she cried that someone had cleaned it of $8,600 in cash and two diamond rings valued at $5,000. After a scene the lady indicated a willingness to compromise for $3,500 rather than go to the police.
“Lady,” said the manager, “we got kind hearts here, and if you're clean we'll pay your hotel bill and buy you a ticket to Miami - one way. Maybe you'll have better luck there. But that's as far as we go.”
I heard numerous tales of out-of-town visitors and even of Cincinnati residents who went awooing Lady Luck with a couple of hundred dollars and found her smile worth $20,000 or more before the evening was over; and also of men who went awooing with $20,000 and were lucky to have gas to get home. I asked the manager of one casino what the house reaction was when somebody made a killing.
“They're healthy, aren't they?” he said. “So they'll come back. In the long run the percentage favors the house.”
The most colorful character in Newport is known as the Lloyd's of northern Kentucky because he insures big stud-poker pots. He sits around in big games and if he thinks a hand is good but the man holding it does not, he offers money to insure the pot for ten per cent of its total. Suppose one man has a pair of 9's showing. Another player has an ace and a king showing, which he plays so strongly that the 9's are ready to be thrown in. The insurance broker makes up his mind if the ace-king hand really has a pair or is just hoping to connect. If he feels the 9's is the winning the hand, he insures the pot. If the 9's win, he gets ten percent of the pot; if the 9's lose he pays all that the 9's invested. They say he wins much more than the players.
After I had wandered in and out of the honestly run gambling houses and some bust out joints, I talked with the managers of two big casinos. They answered all my questions for hours and did not say a thing. Other managers played their cards [!] close to the chest. In one place, when I asked the bartender to call the manager, a genial, friendly man came over. I introduced myself, told him I had done all the observing I needed for my article and would now like his views on why gambling had so strong a hold on this particular community. When I finished he said warmly, “I like you.”
“I like you, too,” I said, since it was clearly love at first sight.
“Let me buy you a drink,” he said affably.
“I have one,” I said, looking at the glass before me.
“So you have,” he said. He eyed me for a moment, and said confidentially, “I have a good education and I don't know nothin'.”
“I get it,” I said.
“I was sure you would,”
“If you know nothin' perhaps I can find the manager of the casino. Perhaps he knows somethin.”
“Is there a casino here?” he said, his eyes opening wide. “What do you know! Strangers come in here and tell me things I never would have believed. I take car of the bar and the restaurant and that's all I know. I can tell you about the bar and restaurant.”
“Then tell me where all the men and women go when they go to the back of your bar and restaurant.”
“Now, how would I know?” he grinned. “Maybe they go to the john.”
I tried to see the Chief of Police, but he was terribly busy so I called Mayor Alfred G. Maybury at his home. The mayor, an elderly gentleman who was a judge for twenty-six years before being elected mayor of the city run by a city manager, commissioners, and himself, agree to meet me at City Hall. In the seat of local government His Honor led me to a small office. He ushered me in, closed and carefully locked the door. Then we hung up our hats and coats.
“Mr. Mayor,” I began, after he courteously motioned for me to a seat, “Newport has the reputation of being America's most wicked city - a modern Sodom and Gomorrah.”
“I can't talk about that,” the mayor said. “I have to talk legal talk - things I can prove. So far as I know there is no gambling or prostitution in this city.”
I had not mentioned that there was.
“Why don't you ask me about the character of our people?” he said, his eyes looking anxiously into mine. “I can tell you all about that.”
“All right. I'm asking.”
He took a deep breath, as if to make an address before a church body, which he does frequently, and said:
“We have the finest people in the country and I've been all over. I've even been to Brooklyn. I tell you we have the finest people anywhere. Their character is beyond reproach.”
He waited until I finished making notes on the finest characters in the country, and said, “Now, why don't you ask me about our businessmen and the civic pride of our town.?”
“Most of our businessmen don’t live in Newport,” he said with a real regret. “At the close of the day's business they go home to some other part of the county or to Cincinnati, and that is not conducive to pride in the community. Don't misunderstand me. We have the finest businessmen in the county, but no pride in the community. I've been trying to arouse civic interest so we can elevate our community.”
There was a terrific banging on the locked door.
“Hey, Mayor,” a voice bellowed, “could we use the office?”
With a sigh the Mayor reached for his hat and coat. I followed his lead and took mine, too. After a little search we found an unused secretary's office. This time the Mayor bolted the door behind us.
“You have a lot of good people in this town and a lot of churches. How come vice is tolerated?”
“I wouldn't want to answer questions about vice,” he said apologetically. “Legally, I don't know if it exists.”
“Then you're the only person in town over three years old who doesn't,” I said with a laugh.
There was another banging on the door.
“Hey, Mayor,” called a woman's voice, “I have some work to get out.”
The Mayor again picked up his hat and coat. So did I. We walked out into the corridor of the City Hall.
“I guess,” the Mayor said sadly, “I'm probably the only Mayor of a city this size in the United States who hasn't got an office.”
Residents I talked to were indifferent about vice in the city. I asked a brewery worker how he felt about it.
“I don't see nobody with a shotgun makin'em come here,” he said.
Newport businessmen said frankly that if vice were cleaned up it would be a serious blow to northern Kentucky's economy. Mayor Maybury did not exaggerate the Newport businessman's attitude. Those with whom I talked were not interested in the city as a residential community, for few of them live in the city. Most residents with whom I talked did not give a damn about the place, because, as one said, “What is there to care about?”
Lest it be thought that the city fathers and the police are totally inefficient, it should be recorded that periodically the police do knock off a place or two, after which some city official issues a comforting assurance that they, the officials, personally made the rounds of reported whore houses and found no one in bed; ergo, the town has no prostitution..
Newport will not tolerate pickups on the street. I could not establish whether this rule is designed to keep the city looking respectable or to support a policy that business supporting vice must be transacted in houses for whose use madams pay rent and owners pay taxes.
Some cops have even been known to take seriously the official pronouncements that all known prostitutes seen on the street are either to be picked up or chased into dark alleys where visitors can not see them. Recently a police prowl car saw two men and a woman staggering along a street on their way to someplace where they could sin in piece. One of the cops got out and suggested to the trio that they get off the streets, especially the lady. Since Kentuckians are basically gentlemen the two men resented the policeman's suggestion as an affront to the lady and one broke a beer bottle over the cop's head, knocking him unconscious to the sidewalk. The other stomped on the prostrate officer while the lady danced a jig in sheer delight. The Covington hospital recorded that the officer's nose was broken in four places, he had multiple cuts on the head and face and a fractured left hand.
The second cop called for the police and, with the aid of reinforcements, finally subdued the gentlemen and their lady fair.
One thoughtful resident said, “The civic fabric of Newport is rotten, but that is what the majority of its voters want. The real question here is not vice but democracy, for at what unit of government does democracy begin? Kentucky has one hundred twenty counties and something like eighty per cent of more of them voted to go dry. Campbell County voted to stay wet. The voters in the city and the county have defeated reform candidates. If the voters here wanted to clean up the city they would do it, as the voters did in Covington, which was almost as bad as Newport until a few years ago.”
“Don't the women of this community do anything?”
“The better class will not get themselves involved. They are active in the P.T.A. and charitable organizations, but they will not buck the vice overlords. Perhaps they are afraid their families will be hurt.”
He smiled wryly and added:
“Or maybe they realize that some of their husband's business prosperity comes indirectly from the money spent on vice. The fact is that much of our economy is dependent on vice and the majority of our people would rather have the money than get rid of this reputation as America's most wicked city.”
By Monroe Fry, Escquire, May, 1957