I often accompanied Nick in the casinos, but a gambler as famous as Nick the Greek was bound to attract too much attention during the peak hours when the amateurs were crowding the tables. Nick preferred the quiet of early mornings for his serious gambling when few people were in the casino.
Vegas was then, as it is now, a 24-hour town and I would find Nick at five a.m., alone at the end of a crap table, shrouded in cigar smoke, deep in concentration on the dice. I would get his attention by gently touching his arm. When he turned to me, his eyes would light up and a smile would frame the omnipresent cigar. I learned to be a pretty good crap shooter thanks to Nick, though he always tried to convince me to bet with the House the way he did. I could never do it because it seemed counterintuitive to bet against myself.
I had quit the Ted Fio Rito band and had begun singing with J.C. Heard’s combo at the Jungle Club across the street from the El Rancho. The Jungle Club was owned by Jack Dennison, who would later become Dorothy Dandridge’s husband, and featured black entertainment—hot jazz and a cool atmosphere designed to provide what Dennison hoped would be a Harlem-like experience for white patrons. In a reverse of the racism typical in Las Vegas then, my job lasted until some of the white customers complained about a white girl singing with a black group.
Nick always encouraged me to be more than just a hanger-on in Las Vegas, to make something of myself as a singer or actress. The end of my job at the Jungle Club brought that into sharper focus for me.
I have written extensively in Playing the Field about how I got acquainted with the handsome and debonaire gangster Charlie Fischetti at the Flamingo Hotel’s pool, and how I fell for him in a big way. I had not told Nick I was having a romantic affair with Charlie, but when Charlie and I attended a prize fight, we were seen by someone Nick knew. After dinner one night Nick confronted me in his soft-spoken way.
“Joan, it makes me very unhappy that you’re seeing Charlie Fischetti,” he began, choosing his words carefully to make his point. “The Fischettis are very dangerous people and you do yourself a disservice by being seen with him.”
I looked at him sheepishly.
“Fischetti’s a member of a powerful crime family,” Nick went on. “Getting associated with someone like that can have permanent consequences.”
“What do you mean?”
“Fishchetti is under investigation by the Kefauver Congressional Committee looking into organized crime. That could get very messy. You’re a talented girl, Joan. You’ve got a fine singing voice and you’re very beautiful. You can be somebody on the stage or in movies. You don’t want to just be the girlfriend of some mob boss. An association with someone like Fischetti can turn out to be a serious liability when you become famous someday.”
Nick sipped his wine thoughtfully and lit a fresh cigar. “I’ve seen them come and go in this town. Pretty girls get trapped by the bright lights and the smell of money—and tangled up with gangsters—” he paused a moment and examined his cigar, “—and gamblers. You have too much going for you to let that happen, Joan.” He smiled and put his hand over mine. “Think about it. I’m only telling you this because I care about you very much.”
I took his hand in mine. “I know, Nick.”
I thought about what Nick said, even while I secretly visited Charlie Fischetti in Chicago. Charlie had also encouraged me find a good acting coach and make my way in Hollywood, and had promised to help me with money to pay for it. When I returned to Vegas from my visit with Charlie, I knew it was time to go back to L.A. and Hollywood where my real dreams were.
After I settled back in L.A., Nick often visited me at my parent’s flat on Harvard Boulevard. We would go to dinner at his favorite Greek restaurant, a romantic little cafe in Santa Monica. Nick never drove, but always showed up at our doorstep with a car and driver. As always, there were the expensive suits, the cloud of pungent cigar smoke, and there was always that courtly air about him, treating me with avuncular kindness. If there was no romance between us by then, Nick seemed not to mind. We thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company.
When I got a job in New York in Jackie Gleason’s “Billion Dollar Baby” on broadway, Nick and I stayed in touch by telephone. During the months I spent in New York working in Babies and living at the Barbizon women’s hotel, I drank in the exciting nightlife, much as I had in Las Vegas. I became engaged to former Heavyweight Champion Jack Dempsey and made the rounds of the hot night spots in New York City. Once again, Playing the Field documents how my relationship with Dempsey eroded over time and how Hollywood continued pulling me back.
After Babies closed and I made my way home from New York, I began in earnest to search out my place in the Hollywood movie landscape. I had met the composer Sammy Cahn in New York, and on his recommendation I sought out his friend and fellow songwriter Jimmy McHugh to be my manager. In spite of the sabotage by McHugh’s girlfriend, Louella Parsons, the all-time bitch goddess of Hollywood columnists, Jimmy positioned me perfectly to get the role of a nightclub singer in “Forbidden” starring Tony Curtis and Joann Dru—the role which served as my screen test for Universal and made it possible to get my contract there.
My first starring role as a contract player—introducing “Mamie Van Doren”—was in the “The All American,” opposite Tony Curtis. The first day on the set an enormous bouquet of flowers and a small package were delivered to my dressing room. First day jitters had me ready to jump out of my skin, and the bright colors and soft scent of the flowers was strangely calming. I opened the package to find a beautiful pearl bracelet, encrusted with emeralds and diamonds. The small card inside had this simple message: “I’m betting that you are going to have huge success. With love, Nick.”
Though I was in Las Vegas many times after becoming Mamie Van Doren, both as a performer and for fun, I never saw Nick the Greek again. Nick understood better than I that the new world I had entered would have no room for mobsters and high rolling professional gamblers. Nick died in 1966 at age 84, penniless.