Titanic Thompson: The Man Who Bet on Everything
Picador, 256pp, £12.99
I think it would not be inaccurate to say, these days, the measure of a book’s success is how quickly its contents are appropriated and adapted by another medium. This decade has been filled with film franchises, television series and theatrical productions that sprang from print. Kevin Cook’s Titanic Thompson: The Man Who Bet on Everything is plainly a ripe candidate for such treatment. Except that, as the author notes several times over its course, the titular figure has already inspired the character of Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls, which premiered as a musical in 1950, before getting a film adaptation in 1955 where Marlon Brando plays Masterson.
Born Alvin Clarence Thomas in 1892, he would grow up to become one of America’s greatest hustlers. Having earned the moniker Titanic during a 1912 trip to Joplin, Missouri, for being ‘the pool-table jumper who sank everybody’, he would become Titanic Thompson in 1929 when the newspapers got his surname wrong while covering the murder trial of infamous New York crime boss, Arnold ‘The Brain’ Rothstein. Other (in)famous characters Titanic crossed paths with throughout his life included Al Capone, Harry Houdini and Damon Runyon. Cook’s ‘rollicking biography’ recounts these anecdotes and more, building up a colourful portrait of this charming man whom the front cover (fetchingly designed in American red, white and blue) dubs an ‘American Legend’. Inside, the cover notes that ‘hardly anyone knows Titanic’s name today’, and Cook’s book makes you feel this is a great shame indeed.
The select bibliography appended at the end shows Cook has clearly done his research on the man. He does a very good job of constructing a narrative that shows you how someone ‘who came out of Arkansas with nothing but the spirit in him…rose up and made more money than most people ever see’, as Jeannette, Titanic’s fifth (and final) wife, put it. To be fair, such a rags-to-riches arc would generally be considered compelling stuff, even if Titanic’s story were not peppered with accounts of impressive feats and tricks. There is also a series of postscripts for the major characters that appear in the book, bringing you up-to-date on their lives (and deaths).
Oddly enough, what I most enjoy about the book is not any of Titanic’s many exploits/cons, entertainingly described as they are. Rather, it is the final chapter ‘Living Legend’, which contains a moment of canny structuring on Cook’s part. Titanic’s fear of thunderstorms is mentioned early on, but the fact is never mentioned again until this point, with the understated ‘Thunderstorms still scared him.’ It leads to a heartbreaking moment when Titanic, having paid a nurse to drive him back from the nursing home, says to Jeanette, ‘I want to come back…I want to come home.’ Her ‘Honey, it’s impossible’ seems somehow grossly unfair to the hustler who has already lost pretty much everything else by this point in his story. Yet ultimately, it also picks up wonderfully on something Cook writes in the prologue: ‘He spent fifty years roaming America’s back roads, living by his wits and reflexes, until America changed and there was no more room for such a man.’