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Betting on the Gulf Coast

What I'd always liked about Biloxi was the decay, the things falling apart, the crap along the beach, the skeletons of abandoned hotels, the trashy warehouses and rundown piers jutting out into the dirty water, so I wasn't thrilled that in the last five years our dinky coast town had been turned into an outlet-mall version of Las Vegas. . . .

Those are the opening lines of Frederick Barthelme's 1997 novel Bob the Gambler, the story of a man who loses it all on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and at the same time finds a kind of raw and wondrous redemption, much as the Gulf Coast itself has found through its full-throttle acceptance of the "gaming industry"—that politely tidied-up term used by corporate honchos and friendly politicians for "the throwing of lots," a thou-shalt-not phrase preferred by their Baptist brethren. Indeed, as one reaches the southern tip of I-110, where the end of the road really does abut Biloxi (that o pronounced as if it were the lone vowel in yuck), the most prominent sights offered are of the blond-bricked First Baptist Church and, looming right behind it, the blonder Beau Rivage, gaming impresario Steve Wynn's new $650 million hotel and casino.

An argument—a devout one ably stated—has often been made by the large population of religious stalwarts on the coast that, Wynn aside, it is, alas, the devil who has become the biggest developer in their midst. But legalized gambling has actually cleaned up the place a bit, given it a measure of respectability. I grew up in Mississippi, and the Gulf Coast was always where the honkies tonked and the markets were cruder and blacker than the oil running through all those awful refineries upriver. It was, like New Orleans, its port-city sister to the west, a destination for those who desired to be wicked for a weekend. It was the home of "the Dixie Mafia." A drug-running sheriff. The mayor who ended up in the slammer on charges of murder conspiracy. In his heyday, radio evangelist J. Charles "the Great Gaspy" Jessup set up his headquarters, as he did the last two of his four wives, in a mansion next door to Beauvoir, the estate owned by Confederate president Jefferson Davis, before Jessup ended up in jail for mail fraud. Elvis Presley and Oscar Wilde made their respective pilgrimages—Elvis to fish in '56; Oscar, in 1882, to stay with Davis, a hero of his, at Beauvoir. Even Jayne Mansfield lost her head in these environs. Literally. The movie star was decapitated in an automobile accident out along Highway 90. Before her "Death Car" was transported to the Imperial Palace in Las Vegas, one could see it displayed at the Palace's southern outpost here in Biloxi.

Wynn's Beau Rivage doesn't rely on anything as divinely tacky as Mansfield's fin-tailed vehicle to lure its visitors. In addition to the requisite lucre, its drawing cards are its pristine gardens, which slope upward in a horticultural frenzy toward its porte cochère; a 20,000-square-foot health spa; a $10 million marina; a new Cirque du Soleil extravaganza called Alegría, ensconced in its own 1,550-seat theater; and the magnificent magnolia trees lining the atrium of its marbled lobby. Upon my arrival, the perfumy top notes of Andrea Bocelli and of thousands of hyacinths waft through the lobby, the former on an endless tape loop, the latter strategically planted beneath those stately magnolias. A David Hockney landscape, Hotel Acatlan, Second Day, 1985, hangs behind the concierge desk and competes with the eruption of color waiting, unlike the Hockney, to wilt and be replaced.

I've reserved a Jasmine suite on one of the three VIP floors—and strongly suggest staying there instead of the standard rooms that are rather too cramped for the crazy quilt of colors with which they've been decorated. The plush Jasmine suites are better able to handle the "Matisse-inspired" palette of "buttercup," "wisteria," and "cornflower," as Beau Rivage brochures describe it.

Wisteria and buttercups aside, I head back downstairs to change to a suite overlooking the Gulf instead of the bay. The murky, lukewarm water here along the Mississippi coastline is that morning-after color of cognac left in a lipsticked snifter, but it's still a sight more pleasing than what the hotel has labeled "bayside," which turned out to be a view of a Waffle House, a spanking-new pawnshop, one brightly lit gas station, and the back of the Baptist church. From my new room—much better—I can spy shrimp boats in the distance and, though high above the pool, can still tell that there are women down there who are not shy. Another man can tell the same thing and struggles to sit up in his lounge chair, finally allowing a lackey to light his absurdly long cigar. Are those shadows across his back, or tufts of hair?

My bearings set—yes, I am on the shady turf of latissimus dorsi tufts—it is time to unpack, pocket a hundred, and head for the blackjack tables.

Beau Rivage's presence has singularly put the Mississippi Gulf Coast on the map for a manner of tourist who wouldn't have deigned to discover it before. Congruent with their consideration is the recent inordinate attention being paid to the place by the literary salons that still linger in certain Manhattan zip codes. The reason being: Barthelme and his brother, short-story writer Steven, both professors at the University of Southern Mississippi, are inveterate gamblers who were arrested for cheating at blackjack at the Grand Casino over in Gulfport—or, as the felony indictment reads, for participating in egregious acts "against the peace and dignity of Mississippi." As if this damned state has ever been peaceful.

The cautionary tale of the brothers Barthelme is on my mind as I make my way through the crowd at Beau Rivage—Central Americans, Vietnamese shrimpers, a diamond-pinkied pettifogger here and there, the rest an assortment of the undereducated and overfed indigenous to any gambling parlor—and try to divine just which blackjack table will hold some luck for me. The bicoastal Steve Wynn groupies haven't yet alighted in their sequined Gucci denim to join this local roux of lovable rednecks jabbering away in a patois in which g's are dropped with the alacrity of a pair of dice. "Gaming," in their Tabascoed mouths, comes out like a description of a little Cajun gal with a summer haircut. The clinking of hundreds of slot machines all around—an incessant sound—is eerily close to the rat-tat-tat of the cloud-splitting rain that can sweep this part of the country in advance of a hurricane, forming just such a cacophony of fear and anticipation atop the tin roofs that cover so many of the cottages along Biloxi's beachfront and bayous.

In a town now ruled by numbers, here are a few more for consideration. Plants inside the atrium at Beau Rivage: 10,000. Plants outside: 40,000. Magnolia trees inside: 13. Live oaks lining the drive: 24. Rooms: 1,780. Suites: 66. Square feet: 3 million. Employees: 4,500. Slips in the hotel marina: 31. Square feet of convention space: 50,000. Colors in casino carpet: 42. Chairs by the pool: 280. New pawnshops along the beach: 56. Coastal golf courses: 20. Urinals on circumference of casino: 37. ATM's on circumference: 4. Gambler's Anonymous meetings per week: 12. Churches in the vicinity: 554. Synagogues: 1.

Later, to escape the frenzy of wall-to-wall gamblers—the inappropriate shouts of "Hallelujah!" at hitting a jackpot, the shrieking complaints of the boozy woman who wishes that her embarrassed husband, and not her luck, had been the one to run out on her—I take a walk to view the old houses along Beach Boulevard. The most significant Gulf Coast mansions, however, are 20 miles due west in Pass Christian, a town described quite seriously by some as the Southern Newport. It was there, back in the days when people arrived by steamer, that Zachary Taylor heard about the Whigs drafting him to run for president as he was honored at a ball. During World War I, the French trained their aviators in Pass Christian, an arrangement rumored to cause problems in the marriages of the wealthy New Orleans women who summered there. Pass Christian is still a haven of tranquillity along the Gulf Coast—it has decided not to allow gambling inside the city limits—and many of the wealthy from New Orleans continue to use the antebellum houses on Scenic Drive as their summer getaways. So, too, do several Chicago families, continuing a tradition that began in the 1880's when the Illinois Central Railroad reached these beaches.

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