Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from the new book, “My Friend Nick the Greek – Life in Las Vegas in the ’50s,” about legendary gambler and high roller Nick Dandolos. He was the highest of the high rollers and an internationally known figure until his death in 1966 at age 83.
The Real Nick The Greek
The author, Elaine Campbell, was raised in the thick of Hollywood as a “movie kid.” At age 16, she accepted a dancing assignment in Vegas with the Tony Bennett Show to earn tuition money for acting school, and a chance meeting with Nick the Greek, then 55, developed into a flourishing friendship. She quickly discovered that underneath the myth was a man educated in philosophy who had the heart of a poet.
By Elaine Campbell
When Nick “The Greek” Dandolos periodically disappeared, I always knew he was out gambling. My way of knowing that the game had come to its conclusion contained the element of surprise. When I went onstage to do my second routine, there Nick would be sitting, smiling up at me from his table ringside, in friendliness and true admiration for my dancing. I always felt happy upon these returns, and in the subsequent backstage phone call, arrangements were made to meet for an after-show dinner and “catch up” on things. He never discussed the games with me in detail. I had no knowledge of his methods or parlays; the identities of his fellow players were not known to me either. I did not even know what game it was he played, except that it was a game of cards and that he played for money.
It was at one of these reunions, late in my stay in Las Vegas, that I encountered a different Nick than I’d ever met before. Visibly shaken, and full of a piercing sorrow, we met to dine and see a show. So much for legends I now know, for Nick related to me that he had suffered great losses in the game that had just concluded. There was almost a sense of panic beneath his cracked veneer. I never saw him more vulnerable. Was it worth it, Nick? I would ask him now if I but could. But then I wouldn’t, anymore than I would have then. We never invaded (or made demands upon) each other’s privacy. It is merely a question I might have asked, but kept to myself.
It was on this night, and this night only, that I saw him have more than his customary single drink. Three orange blossoms followed in succession as a prelude to dinner, while I sipped my single one. He showed no effects from the drinks, and as the evening progressed he grew less agitated and more calm. The following night my late-night dinner companion was back to his old self: Did he recite “Out of the night…” then? Memory will not let me know.
The title of Nick’s favorite poem, Invictus, is Latin for unconquered. It was written by William Ernest Henley, who himself suffered an excruciating fate. Yet his spirit prevailed. As it must for those who lead uncertain lives, but remain undefeated or at least remain at all.
Nick recounted another way that fame had an effect upon his life. He was the frequent recipient of worldwide mail posted by individuals who prevailed upon him to share a part of his winnings with them for various and sundry urgent reasons. These behests for vital aid were never responded to by Nick. He did not believe in handouts, and never accepted any for himself.
On a more gleeful note, talks were underway at Paramount Studios for the production of a movie about Nick’s life. He had been contacted by studio officials and had agreed to cooperate. Paramount had in mind Alan Alda for the star of the film. It would have been near-perfect casting, as Mr. Alda has some of the same outward personality traits as did Nick: an unabrasive manner, a natural affability, a quickened mind and a candid, innocent quality in relating to others. Physically he was of the same complexion and even had some similar facial traits. He could have played the role most easily and charmingly. Since plans were in the works at the time of my departure from California, I do not know why they were ultimately tabled.
Our mutual interest in poetry still played a large part in our lives. Nick’s recitative skills had improved considerably with practice, and I was as much agog at his poetic memory, as I had been the first time we met.
At the Dunes
What was to be his last recounting to me of one of his poker games occurred one night when I met him at the Dunes. Both of us had eaten earlier and we met for our customary orange blossoms prior to the last late, late show. Nick was noticeably pallid; he appeared haggard and drawn, shaken and enervated. I had never seen him like that before. The story he related in the darkened corner of the hotel lounge was revealing of an element in Nick’s life which I found disturbing and perplexing for such a gentle man, a lover of poetry and fine food, kind to everyone he met, a most loyal friend and companion.
Nick had been four or five days into a poker game when he experienced a severe heart attack. Although in excruciating pain, Nick knew it would prove to be most deadly if he showed it. He had no choice but to remain seated and continue playing, as if nothing extraordinary was going on. I cannot imagine the fortitude it took to do this; but I can imagine the fear in being found out. As Nick explained, had his fellow players known of his condition, as he was reaping large winnings, they would have grabbed them and taken them back. Consequently, they would have left Nick there for dead. The unanswered question, because Nick did not address it, was whether they would have caused Nick any further physical harm. And who were these fellow players? What assortments of life were they from? Although not intimate companions, Nick had enough knowledge of their natures to have no doubt what, in given situations, their actions would have been.
I received some clarification the following year when I was indeed a theater student in New York. One of my classmates was from Miami and his family was Greek. He explained to me that when his father was young, and a budding restaurateur, he liked to play in local high-stakes poker games. One of his fellow players was Al Capone (who had moved his family close to Miami in 1928).
My friend further related that when he asked his father what Al Capone was like, his father replied: “Just like an ordinary businessman.”
Now, Al Capone died in 1947. But his underworld successors in trade continue to this day, and it seems they will always be with us. As they were with Nick on that dangerous night. Exclusively? Or did other wealthy players with more legitimate backgrounds join in? The answer to this question is unknown.
But it does explain Nick. The underworld figures with whom he met and played revealed the “businessman” side of their natures. Figuratively, he did not sit down to wager with the ruthless planner of such gruesome events as the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. I am certain he knew their histories, of course. But that was not the side of their natures that he familiarly, game-wise that is, dealt with. The relentless and indisputable fact is that Nick was in grave danger from both within and without:
“Black as the pit from pole to pole…”
Customarily, the following day Nick was much improved. He had the resilience to be able to bounce back seemingly from the edge of the scaffold more than any person I have ever known. Perhaps that too was part of the gamble.
My days in Las Vegas were drawing to a close. I had more lofty sights and was determined to pursue them. The Neighborhood Playhouse had accepted my application, and I was to depart for New York in the fall.
The book “My Friend Nick the Greek” can be purchased at myfriendnickthegreek.com, barnesandnoble.com and at amazon.com.