Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Three Bennies and the Dallas Crowd

I've long had an interest in the nightclub scene of Dallas between 1930 and 1960. Every colorful figure of that era seems to turn up in the biographical details of each other. In many ways, it was a very small world and everyone knew each other. My primary interest is not the assassination of JFK, but rather in the biographical stories of the ambitious people who ran the Dallas underworld for several decades. Most of their stories have not been told--at least not in a straightforward, factual way. Some facts can be difficult to discern, though. It is impossible to write about these folks without dealing with the Kennedy assassination, though. For many, it was the defining moment of their lives, and in many ways, that fateful day transformed the history and trajectory of Dallas forever.

Through the details of these few lives, we can see so many strands of an emerging 21st Century popular culture: JFK, the formation of the NFL, the rise of Las Vegas, baseball, the decline of the mafia, the mainstream acceptance of poker, Watergate, the NCAA, Six Flags, horse-racing, boxing, etc.

I realize that some of these people (or their spouses or children) are still living and I am sensitive to that, but it makes me feel an urgency that these stories need to be collected and told before they are lost forever. They are integral part of Dallas history.

Below are some of my notes on the people of this crowd. The "three Bennies" are Bennie Bickers, Benny Binion, and Ben Whitaker. I am working on a longer, more integrated piece, but I think it helps to see some of the character sketches in this format.

Bennie Bickers
- Born December 12, 1906, died February 14, 1967
- Played baseball and boxed as a youth. (See obituary here). 
- In Dallas, in the 1930s, Bickers was a lieutenant, bodyguard, and driver for Ben F. Whitaker
- Was a boxing referee, skeet shooting champion and coach, bookie, gambler, nightclub owner
- He owned the University Club on Commerce Street from 1953 to 1962. I believe that he received or purchased the business from Whitaker in 1953 and sold it to George Owen in 1962.
- I believe he had an ownership interest in the Top O' Hill Terrace in the 1940s.
- The Golden Restaurant was directly below the University Club. I believe Whitaker might have owned it as well. 

- His deposition to the FBI, about his knowledge of Jack Ruby, collected as part of the Warren Report exhibits, says that the statement was dictated to FBI agents on 11/23/63 and filed 11/24/63. Ruby didn't shoot Oswald until 11:21 a.m. on 11/24. Is that 11/23 date on the report accurate? Did the FBI talk to Binion about Ruby before Ruby shot Oswald? Did the FBI manage to round up and interview all of Ruby's known associates between noon and midnight on the 24th? Did Bickers immediately approach the FBI upon hearing of Ruby's deed?
- He had two sons, Bennie F. Bickers, Jr., and Mickey Bickers.
- He lived for many years at 1031 Kessler Parkway, but his address at the time of his death was 5928 Dublin Street, Apartment 2110. This is a small apartment on the SMU campus.

- His pallbearers were:
Phil Harris, Jack Benny's band leader, actor (voice of Balloo the Bear, etc.), hunting partner of Bickers', friends from many shows at the University Club.
Al Meadows, oilman and philanthropist
W.O. Bankston, car dealer, sports enthusiast, entrepreneur (see below)
John (Preacher) Hays - newspaper man, labor leader
Henry Klepak, attorney
Cecil Simmons, casino manager at the Desert Inn, key figure in the transformation of Las Vegas
Mickey Mantle, MLB Hall-of-Famer, Yankees Center-fielder, Dallas resident, gambling & nightclub enthusiast
Jack Less, no info
Honorary pallbearers:  Dave Lutzer, Major A. Riddle (mobster, owner of the Dunes Hotel & casino, played a huge part in the rise of Vegas), Joe E. Lewis, Bob Hayes (Cowboys wide receiver, I think? Maybe this was a different Bob Hayes?), Tony Zoppi (Dallas Morning News, see below), Blackie Sherrod (famed sports reporter), Dudley Ramsden (head of the jewelry department for Nieman Marcus), Roland Pell, Harry Rosenthal, Ted Hinton (deputy sheriff, part of the posse that killed Bonnie & Clyde),  and Bob Thompson.

Benny Binion
- born November 20, 1904, died December 25, 1989 (Lester Ben Binion)
- nicknamed "the Cowboy"
- born and raised in Grayson County, Texas; suffered from poor health as a child, received no formal education
- his father was a horse trader; Benny loved & sponsored cutting horses
- moved to El Paso in 1922
- killed fellow bootlegger Frank Bolding in 1931 "cowboy style" - hence the nickname
- allegedly involved in the murders of Ben Frieden (9-12-36) and Sam Murray (1938).
- had part ownership of Top O' Hill Terrace casino with Bickers; after he left for Vegas, the casino was run by Earl Dalton and Ivy Miller. Miller later went on to buy the Cipango Club
- main casino was the Southland Hotel, though he also worked the Blue Bonnet & Cipango Club
- Lewis McWillie worked as casino manager for him in Dallas (at Top O' Hill) and later at Binion's Horseshoe in Vegas.
- moved to Las Vegas in 1947; received Nevada gaming license in 1951
- Long feud with Herbert Noble, sparked by the fact Noble refused to pay protection money to Binion; after almost a dozen attempts, Noble was eventually killed August 7, 1951, by a land mine near his mailbox.
- see "Benny and the Boys" by Gary Cartwright in Texas Monthly, 1991.
- see I'll Do My Own Damn Killin': Benny Binion, Herbert Noble, and the Texas Gambling War by Gary W. Sleeper. - a really fantastic book that is the source of much of the information I have found.

Ben Whitaker
- Born 1893, died April 20, 1954
- Lieutenant under mob boss Warren Diamond; becomes Boss of Dallas in the 1930s
- Whitaker's two main lieutenants at that time were Bennie Bickers and Benny Binion
- Thoroughbred horse owner and avid racer at Fair Park and Arlington Downs
- Owned the Whitmore Hotel, including it's gambling suite

George Owen
- George Washington Owen Jr., born 1925
- played high school football at Crozier Tech, coached by Doc Hayes.
- athlete at SMU in the 1940s, his mentor during that time was W.O. Bankston
- a right-hand man of Cowboys' owner Clint Murchison.
- Was with Candy Barr in 1957, just before she was arrested.
- bought the University Club from Bennie Bickers in 1962.
- He and Bedford Wynne helped John Mecom get the New Orleans Saints franchise in 1966.
- Was married to Maureen "Mo" Kane Biner, who later married John Dean of Watergate fame.
- Mo roomed with Paul Hornug's fiancee Pat Roeder. Hornug and Owen became friends and, when Owen worked for the Saints' franchise, helped convince Hornug to finish out his career in New Orleans. Owen and Hornug roomed together in New Orleans.
- Fired by the Saints in 1969.
- Involved in the 1986 SMU football scandal. SMU's entire 1987 football schedule was cancelled due to NCAA violations. 

Bedford Wynne
- Co-founded the Dallas Cowboys with Clint Murchison in 1959-1961. Murchison owned 95% of the team.
- Along with Murchison, cofounded the Miss Teenage America beauty pageant
- Co-founded the New Orleans Saints franchise with John Mecom
- Friends/associates with George Owen
- Licensed attorney
- His brother, Angus Wynne, was a major property developer, including Six Flags Over Texas and Wynnewood.
- Also ran a PR agency in 1963.
- Peter Dale Scott claims, in Deep Politics and the Death of JFK, that Wynne would entertain his friend George Owen at his place in the Maple Terrace Apartments--the same building where George de Mohrenschildt and Lewis McWillie once lived.
- His second wife and son currently run a limo service in Dallas.

W.O. Bankston
- Born 1913, died December 16, 1993
- Moved to Dallas January 1, 1932
- Considered himself an amateur detective, very friendly with the Dallas Police Department and Sherriff. Personally hunted down and apprehended a suspect in July 1941.
Good friends with the burlesque dancer Candy Barr.
- Friends with Bennie Bickers (pallbearer), friends with George Owen (mentored him while Owen was at SMU).
- Was at the Trade Mart on 11/22/63, waiting to hear Kennedy's speech. 
- Tried to buy the Dallas Cowboys in 1984, but failed.
- Here is a personal remembrance of Bankston by Sonny Sessions.

Tony Zoppi
- Born November 8, 1919
- Worked for LBJ on the 1948 senate campaign
- Nightclub reporter for the Dallas Morning News, 1952-1965. This is how he came to know everyone and anyone in Dallas.
- saw Nixon at the Pepsi Bottlers convention in Dallas as late as 10:45 p.m. on November 21, 1963. He filed his story about Nixon and the convention by 11:00 p.m. that evening.
- The next day, when Ruby came to the newspaper offices looking for him, Ruby was told Zoppi had gone to New Orleans. In fact, Zoppi had gone to Parkland Hospital, and at one point, carried JFK's coffin. 
- Left Dallas to work for the Riviera Casino in Vegas; returned to Dallas to book acts for the Fairmount, started his own agency (Chelsea Consultants), and retired in 1990. See this 1994 Dallas Observer profile of him
- Still alive

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