Last Friday we joined our friends in the Baker Street Breakfast Club in Williamstown, MA, for the Williamstown Theater Festival’s Free Theatre production of The Valley of Fear. (I highly recommend it.)
In our group was our friend, playwright Bob Sugarman, a very tall and elegant man, whose aquiline features remind me of those of an eagle on a WW II propaganda poster, the “Do Your Duty! Join Now!” variety, where the eagle’s eyes look piercingly into yours. Bob looked at me with those same eyes and said I should come clean about The Burning of the Piping Rock—is it or isn’t it fiction?
Bob said that I was dancing back and forth between calling it fiction and fact and, in essence, was deceiving the reader. Tell people, Bob demanded: is it fiction or isn’t it?
The answer is “It’s complicated.” But, to try to be honest with Bob—and all my readers—I’ve tried my best to “come clean” here with an explanation of the book, its story, and its characters.
WARNING: This blog post is long. So get something to drink. Be prepared to take a lot bathroom breaks. For people on life support machinery, you are asked to advise your caregivers about this, so they will not accidentally evoke your “do not resuscitate clause” in case they find you passed out.
The Burning of the Piping Rock is fiction. It’s technically a “historical mystery,” but . . . . First, for those who haven’t read the novel, the premise is that in July 1987, a small town pharmacist named George A. King is dying. In his last weeks he tapes a confession of his being blackmailed by arsonist “Harry the Torch” into helping Harry burn Piping Rock Casino in Saratoga Springs on August 16, 1954. The tapes are later discovered by his son, who hears his own father describing the events of that night in a horrifying story of blackmail, deception and death. The son transcribes the tapes and publishes them as The Burning of the Piping Rock.
Again, The Burning of the Piping Rock is fiction. I had previously complicated matters in this blog by writing that the narrator, George A. King, was my father, who was a pharmacist who did die in 1987. Well, that’s true. I used my father as one of the two lead characters. Further muddying the waters is that the arson of Piping Rock Casino in 1954 was real—and it’s still unsolved. And causing even more confusion is that a lot of what’s in the book is true. It comes with the territory of being a “historical mystery.”
For the record, let me tell you how the book began and maybe that will help. Somewhere around 1959, when I was 12 years old, I was working one evening with my father in King’s Pharmacy, my father’s store in Fort Edward, NY. He was holding some scotch tape and cellophane wrapping paper that we used to wrap special things we sold—perfumes, travel alarm clocks, etc. He was talking intensely about the time when he had run MacFinn’s Drugstore in Saratoga Springs, NY, and how he had become deeply involved in what can only charitably described as “a bad situation.” I’ll explain in a minute.
Dad made a rather off handed comment that stuck with me forever. He said, “I sold Harry the Torch the scotch tape and cellophane wrapping paper he used to burn Piping Rock.” You should understand that our family went through a very difficult time in the late 1950s/early 1960s. Our pharmacy was near insolvency, Dad was drinking heavily, and life was crazy. This is not an indictment of him, just the truth as it was at that time. Looking back now as an adult, I understand how his alcoholism and rage were byproducts of his service in WW II, which byproducts I attribute to our government’s never giving adequate help to those veterans. The war was still as alive and real for him as when he was in the South Pacific. Our time in Saratoga was acutely vivid to him. Now add his failing business and he had a lot on his mind. When he was drinking, the easiest way for us to defuse his rage was by getting him to reminisce.
Not all of his conversations about the war or Saratoga came from when he drank. He was stone sober when he mentioned Harry the Torch. I didn’t understand about the scotch tape and cellophane wrapping paper and he explained to me that Harry would tape twisted bunches of cellophane wrapping paper over certain areas to accelerate the fire. The scotch tape and cellophane would never be detected, as they had the same basic composition as wood, cellulose fiber.
That was all he said. I seem to recall that he also said he sold Harry the Torch those products for other jobs, but my memory is absolutely clear about Piping Rock Casino. With that brief comment, he “closed that window” and never spoke about it again. That memory lived in me.
Now fast forward to 2005. I was working as the grant writer for SUNY Orange. For three and a half years I lived in Orange County during the week and commuted home to my wife on the weekends. I thought I’d use my nights alone to try to write something about the family’s years in Saratoga Springs from 1946 to 1952, when Dad had managed MacFinn’s Drugstore. The store was owned by attorney James A. Leary, head of the Republican machine Saratoga.
As I said, Dad talked a lot about our relatively short time there and now I understood fully as an adult what I only partially understood as a child—that my father had gone to work for the mob’s best friend in Saratoga, James A. Leary (pronounced “Larry”), and had become deeply involved in Leary’s criminal world. Leary’s Republican machine serviced all the mob’s illegal gambling casinos (fronted by nightclubs). Leary and crew helped the mob by buying off the local and state police and by laundering money, plus providing other side services that might be helpful, such as protecting the houses of prostitution on Congress Street, or selling drugs for doping horses to fix the races—or helping people with the “right amount of social status” to get a bit of gambling credit or to dope themselves or to get an abortion, etc., etc., etc. Use your imagination.
Piping Rock Casino was on Leary’s “service list.” It was owned by mafia members Meyer Lansky, Joe Adonis and Frank Costello, who fronted for socialites from Long Island’s Gold Coast, where the name “Piping Rock” originates. Leary was good friends with Lansky.
All of Saratoga’s illegal gaming industry collapsed between 1949 and 1952. From 1949 to 1950, the US Senate’s Kefauver committee on organized crime moved against major crime hubs nationwide. Saratoga was identified as a major crime hub. Kefauver shut down the mob and with it Saratoga’s illegal gambling casinos. Piping Rock Casino’s final summer was in 1951 and it subsequently sat unused and was then seized by the feds for nearly a million dollars in unpaid taxes. Leary had escaped a Kefauver indictment, but in mid-1952 New York State indicted him and also subpoenaed everyone connected with him. That included my father, who picked up our family and fled. Leary sent goons after him. That’s another story.
My mystery novel The Burning of the Piping Rock happened because I tried to write a factual history about my family in those times and failed. I had written local history for decades—newspaper columns, a radio program, and a few published history books. So I tried writing my memories and what information had later been a little more openly discussed in the family. The result was incomplete, flat, and dull. I couldn’t make it live on the page.
Meanwhile the memory about Dad’s selling Harry the Torch scotch tape and cellophane wrapping paper kept hovering over me. So, I researched when the Piping Rock burned, assuming it was before we “abruptly” moved from Saratoga Springs in 1952—that is, during the time when Dad still ran MacFinn’s.
Hardly! It burned in 1954. Suddenly, so many questions burst in my mind! Why would an arsonist have come all that way to buy scotch tape and cellophane wrapping paper from my father? Why was the arsonist burning a defunct nightclub/casino that hadn’t been open since 1951? On top of that, in 1954 Piping Rock was purchased by a new owner for $19,000 in a back tax sale, but he never insured it. After the fire, the owner offered a $1,000 reward for information. My mind raced. What was in that defunct nightclub/casino that would make someone want to destroy it?
And here’s a final tidbit. The building was always said by “those in the know” to have been empty at the time of its arson, with its contents stored around town. But a friend of mine had a cousin connected with Meyer Lansky and Piping Rock Casino. My friend related his cousin’s saying that Piping Rock Casino had been broken into a week before it burned. Furniture and gaming equipment were stolen. The cousin, incidentally, fled to Cuba—where Meyer Lansky went.
So, there it was! I had a mystery on my hands: why was Piping Rock Casino burned in 1954? I began to write and thousands of words later, I had solved it. It’s fiction. My father did not ride to Saratoga with Harry to burn Piping Rock. Harry was, I still believe, a real person, but his character and personal history in the book are totally my invention.
Because the character, the protagonist, George A. King was “telling” his story” in the novel, I wanted it to include other things to make the novel more real. So, I added the real George A. King’s personal history—references to his upbringing, his education, religion, family, and service in PT Boats in WW II. That history was real, as real were as many references the protagonist George A. King makes to what was being done in Saratoga.
Some things in the story sound fictional. A friend asked if it were true that, on the night of the birth of King’s daughter, humorist Frank Sullivan and actor Monty Woolley took the real George King out and got him stinking drunk. Absolutely true.
Because the character George A. King spends most of the novel with Harry the Torch, I created Harry’s character and personal history to make him a more interesting antagonist to George’s protagonist. The contrasts between George’s and Harry’s histories are intentional and essential. George was raised in a middle-to-lower-middle class Irish Catholic home in an upstate NY mill town. He started work at 12 during the Great Depression, which was a major force in shaping his life. Extremely bright, he put himself through Union College with honors and science prizes, and had a very distinguished career in WW II as a PT Boat commander, the second major force that shaped his life. (I also wanted those things in the book so the real man could be seen for the complicated person he was, both good and bad, as we all can be.) Without giving away too much of the plot, Harry contrasts greatly with George. Harry comes from an upper class Protestant family that loses its fortune in the Great Depression and his life’s path is forever altered. The Depression and WW II are major life forces shaping Harry, too, and the subplot explores the two men’s similarities and differences.
In the book, the third major life-shaping force for both characters is Saratoga Springs.
I did a lot of research in addition to using family memories and documents. I read biographies of mafia members Meyer Lansky, Joe Adonis and Frank Costello, who owned the casino as a front for prominent socialites of Manhattan and Long Island’s Gold Coast who wanted their hands dirty, but not their names. The published report of US Senator Kefauver’s committee on organized crime (1949-1950) was a goldmine. Saratoga had its own chapter. Beyond secondary sources, primary sources were crucial. I researched in the collections of the Saratoga Room of the Saratoga Springs Public Library and am so grateful to Teri Blasko, Librarian, and Victoria Garlanda. The Saratoga Room’s business directories, maps, and wonderful files on people’s memories of Saratoga Springs helped me add tiny tidbits for flavor.
I read newspapers by the ream—the Saratogian and other regional newspapers; the NY Times, the Brooklyn Eagle, and Variety. (Piping Rock featured name acts booked by Monte Proser, who ran La Vie en Rose, Copacabana, etc.) The newspapers were exquisite sources for so many things, especially just filling myself with 1954: music (the 1954 hit song “Heart of My Heart” is a constant thread through the book); race track news (Native Dancer ran the day the Piping Rock was torched); what was on the radio (which plays through the novel and is vital to the plot). Society news was very essential, as part of the novel is deeply linked to the Oyster Bay/Locust Valley Long Island area of the “Gold Coast” of Long Island’s North Shore. I read everything I could about the Social Register families who lived in Manhattan and summered in Saratoga Springs. At different times, I’d lived on parts of Long Island—the North Shore and Shelter Island. That helped.
What I wanted to achieve was being as comfortable in the knowledge of living in 1954 as I was living in the present, so I could do my characters’ “thinking” and not be anachronistic. I was alive in 1954, but not as an adult. I inhaled history as I wrote the novel, and then I cut a lot out. After that, I had two editors read it, then I put the manuscript away for nine months, and when I returned to it, took the editors’ advice and cut it ruthlessly. It went from around 77,000 words to 52,000 words.
In writing a historical novel, the last thing an author wants to do is to write a history book. In many cases, I purposely didn’t give explanatory background on true events/people/places. For example, in the novel when George King is driving down Broadway, recalling and mentioning true events/people/places, I tried not to give him some contrived dialog that would explain what or who they were. If the reader didn’t know about it, it didn’t matter, as long as it didn’t hinder the story and even pushed the story forward. I’m not sure I always succeeded.
So, there you have it—a lengthy diatribe on how I wrote The Burning of the Piping Rock. Thanks to Bob Sugarman for his comment, and thank you for sticking through this to the end. If you haven’t read the novel, please do. Just click on the “Where to buy the book?” tab on my blog. If you have read the novel, please leave a comment here on my blog and please be honest. Also, for those who read it and have an Amazon.com account, the book is available for Kindle. Please go on Amazon.com and review it.