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The King of the Glittering 'Jungles' : People, Power in Gambling Cities Are Author's Big Game

May 22, 1986|AL DELUGACH | Times Staff Writer

SANTA BARBARA — From his den in a Spanish-style home on the heights of this placid community, Ovid Demaris writes about some of the toughest and nastiest people in the country.

With his mountainous research spread around a pool table for easy access, Demaris taps out on his word processor the manuscripts that infuriate so many powerful people.

In the early 1960s, Demaris did much to inform the general citizenry about the sordid underpinnings of the Las Vegas gambling palaces. That was "The Green Felt Jungle," wherein he and co-author Ed Reid laid out a concatenation of greedy Mafia mobsters, politicians and business moguls behind the glittering facades of casinos playing host to millions of visitors and their money.

Now the feisty free-lance journalist has done the same thing for (or to) the latest haven for legalized casino-style gambling, Atlantic City, N.J. In "The Boardwalk Jungle," the home of the Boardwalk and saltwater taffy comes out looking as scuzzy, physically and ethically, as its spiritual cousin in the desert, Las Vegas.

Relaxing over a health-oriented lunch at his home, a trim-at-66 Demaris grinned through his gray beard. He has just published his 13th hardcover book, beginning with "The Green Felt Jungle" in 1962.

"By golly, (the first book) hit the best-seller list and was on the list for 26 weeks. It sold in maybe 25 countries. I'm still getting royalties from Japan."

Written without any patina of gee-wizardry, "The Green Felt Jungle" helped put Las Vegas on the map. Its title entered the common vocabulary.

A Lifetime's Work

Demaris likes to think of the 24-year-old book and his new one on Atlantic City as bookends for his life's output, although he is still writing. His work includes several novels, but most of it is hard-hitting nonfiction, largely dealing with the business of organized crime and its sordid but commonplace alliances with business and public officialdom.

Among the major works between them was a sort of Who's Who of Chicago-based power called "Captive City," as well as a 1981 national best seller "The Last Mafioso," his biography of organized crime hit man Aladena (Jimmy the Weasel) Fratianno. The latter book, which also had a whole lot about Las Vegas in it, probably made more people aware of Demaris than anything else he has written. National television and press interviews played a big part in this personal recognition, especially in light of various controversies whipped up by that book's revelations about notables who try to maintain a respectable image.

While much of Demaris' subject matter in "The Boardwalk Jungle" has been written about episodically in newspapers, he has shown the detailed patterns of the casinoization of Atlantic City as a mosaic of corruption.

As in the case of some of his other books, and notably "Captive City," the new Atlantic City work could well be taken up by law enforcement as a reference book.

One of the chief reasons he is able to do this kind of job, as Demaris explained, is the huge archives of police intelligence agencies that he squirreled away when he had access to them over the years of writing about crime for national magazines and researching his earliest books.

Rare Resources

The original files have since been destroyed by the agencies concerned, making Demaris' files ever rarer resources.

The privately backed Chicago Crime Commission had "great files in the mid-'60s," Demaris said. While working on his new book, he said, he asked the commission for background on some influential Chicagoans but was told the commission "said they didn't have anything."

Similarly, he said, the Internal Revenue Service has cleaned out its files and "There's no background any more."

And he described the same experience with the FBI: ". . . if you get something from the FBI through Freedom of Information (Act), all you get is stuff that's been cut out--it has those little holes all over the place, and you see two or three words, so you never can put it together."

"It's worthless to file for Freedom of Information stuff, I've found. Your're never going to get anything valuable. My stuff is stuff that I've had for years, and I was able to resurrect it and to use it."

He chuckled about that happy circumstance.

Few of Demaris' contemporaries are still in law enforcement, so little institutional memory is left to be tapped, he said.

"So," Demaris said, "I have shared my files with other people," adding that some of his material also has been the subject more than once of a subpoena for civil and criminal law proceedings.

New Jersey lawmen are learning a lot from the book, he said, adding that one of its agents recently said: "We have just bought a whole bunch of the books."

"The Boardwalk Jungle" traces in detail the personal histories and misadventures of many of executives of the big-time casino operating corporations that have built multimillion-dollar gambling palaces in Atlantic City.

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