Sometimes fiction becomes realer than real life, casting a spotlight into a grubby corner. Thus it was with the movie The Hustler. The stars – Paul Newman, George C. Scott, and most especially the inimitable Jackie Gleason as Minnesota Fats – glorified forever in the American mind a segment of our culture that had up to that point a deservedly seamy reputation.
There was no Minnesota Fats in real life, so he had to be invented. An overweight sharpie by the name of New York Fats, born Rudolf Wanderone, a man who “kind of invented the wide-open game,” took on the job. He had the heft and the gab, though he sometimes regretted his fame. Riding the movie’s prestige, Fats found that traveling around promoting pool was a lot more like work than hustling and gambling and playing the game. Before he became a living legend “Fats lived a vampiric life, a life without clocks, but one interrupted by sudden acts of larceny…to mix the straight life with the gambling life invariably leads to failure at both.”
Fats was something of a philosopher. R.A.Dyer, a columnist for Billiards Digest, tells us that fear “invites disaster and self-loathing. Any micro-deviation in aim, any micro-foot pound deviation in force, and a shot goes horribly, embarrassingly awry…and it makes of a man, as Minnestoa Fats would say, a human cash register.”
Minnesota/New York Fats/R. Wanderone is one of three greats of what Dyer dubs “the culture of the permanent bachelor” (though some were sometimes married) whose lives and misfortunes are followed in rich, sometimes purple, minutiae in Hustler Days.
Jersey Red turned down an offer to play ball for the New York Yankees because “I’m making so much money shooting pool I figured if I went to Florida with the Yankees I might blow a fortune.” A notorious self-hustler, Red tried in vain to find “that island of security – that steady action” for the sake of his beloved wife, Dottie. Red died of lung cancer, never having hit the jackpot but affirmed by the many friends who organized a benefit tournament for him; “much of the roughly $8,000 raised that day paid for his burial.”
Wimpy Lassiter, Jersey Red’s perennial rival, could have been the model for Newman’s Fast Eddie Felson. Wimpy’s youth consisted of hustling for various backers, always on the move, donning a cheap suit or filling station coveralls. “Thievery. Pure and simple.” He won plenty, won big, and died alone in his room with little more than twelve dollars in his pocket.
Dyer uses the argot of the underworld to lend these dudes grandeur. They were crooks but they were doing what they knew best. And they were the best. Playing pool is an art form that few ever master. In recent times, thanks in some measure to the efforts of guys like Fats, it has gained a certain garish Vegas-backed cable-TVquasi-respectability. But it was exactly that respectability that the hustlers feared or couldn’t handle, and sought to avoid.