Betting on the Gulf Coast
Published: June 2009
By Kevin Sessums
Las Vegas tycoon Steve Wynn has just opened a $650 million gambling resort in Biloxi, the honky-tonk capital of the South
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.
"Gambling is a part of the heritage of this area that goes wa-a-a-ay back," insists Cynthia Kennedy, whose husband's blue-blood roots span several Gulf Coast generations. During my walk along Beach Boulevard, I spy her and her teenage daughter feeding their pet cockatiel, Samantha, housed in a wicker cage out on their beautifully columned portico. I hazard a guess that they, as seed-weary as Sam, might want to take a break and welcome a stranger, that most Southern of avocations. "During the fifties and back in Prohibition," Kennedy continues, hushing Samantha, "black-market gambling and alcohol were taxed by the state, even though it was a-a-a-a-l-ll illegal. There's a myth that these casinos are taking away our beach, but before the casinos there were a bunch of old shut-down seafood factories. They were just hu-u-u-u-lks. . . . I've always worried about industries that pollute. If you go over to Pascagoula," she says, naming Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's stomping ground, which is downright greasy with all the bacon he's brought home, "they've got the shipyard, the paper mill, the refinery. There are just terrible environmental costs over there. At least gaming is a clean industry. Well, nonpollutin'. But a lot of people, bless their hearts, still lament, 'O-o-o-o-o-h, Biloxi was a sleepy little town. It was so-o-o-o-o-o sweet.'"
Biloxi was founded in 1699, and it wasn't until just before the Civil War, when the threat of yellow fever was at its greatest, that this sweet, sleepy place became a coastal mecca. By 1852, more than 20,000 summer guests had visited its hotels, of which the Magnolia, now the Mardis Gras Museum, is still standing on Biloxi's original square. A few blocks away is the George E. Ohr Arts & Cultural Center, housing a vast array of works by Ohr, the turn-of-the-century "mad potter of Biloxi" whose sinuous ceramic vessels, discovered in an old garage, can also be seen at New York's Metropolitan Museum and Museum of Modern Art. Indeed, Ohr's stature in the art world is increasing by the minute: Ohr admirer Frank Gehry, as a follow-up to the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, is designing a new Ohr Center for Biloxi, scheduled to have its groundbreaking in the new year.
The Mississippi coast has a history of attracting experimental architects. In 1890, Frank Lloyd Wright, a hero of Gehry's, helped his employer and mentor, Louis Sullivan, construct an octagonal guesthouse over in neighboring Ocean Springs for a successful Chicago lumberman, James Charnley. In the same little town, there is a residence full of phallic imagery designed by another of Gehry's heroes, Bruce Goff, a Wright protégé who had the celebrated gall usually reserved for, yes, the gamblers among us, to place his talent, his faith, in intuition over logic.
"We see a trend in our business to two- or three-day getaways," says Barry Shier, Beau Rivage's chairman and CEO, his own faith embedded in a businessman's logic: "This part of the country lends itself to that kind of vacation. From our perspective, visitors can be broken down into two categories—day-trippers and overnighters. When I started in the business seventeen years ago, the average overnight stay in Las Vegas was 1.9 days. Now it's 4.2. For us at Beau Rivage, for the very short time we've been open, it's hovering at about 1.8."
"The First Baptist Church right up the street is in a prime location for you to expand," I point out. "I've heard that many of your employees' cars have been towed from the church lot because people were parking without permission. And there's one thing about Baptists: they like to give permission. How have you dealt with such a big population of churchgoers around you?"
"We took a lot of the church leaders on a tour of the property," says Shier, "and explained to them that there would be opportunities for their members to work in hotel jobs that were not gaming-related. We've talked to First Baptist about their property. I told them the last thing I want to do is to buy the church and have it appear that we're making the congregation move, but, yes, we'd be a logical purchaser of the property," he flatly states, adding the latest bit of incongruity to a place fairly teeming with it.
The next morning, a Sunday, I'm up $500 at blackjack and, deciding I'd better tithe my 10 percent before my luck evaporates, I head up the hill to the First Baptist Church. Trust me on this: When a gay Christian—the only incongruity not readily accepted down here—drops a $50 bill into a Southern Baptist collection plate, it takes a greater leap of faith than doubling down on a six.
By the most unlikely of coincidences, the Baptist preacher, who has served this church for 27 years and fervently participated in the local opposition to gambling, is the same Dr. Frank Gunn who was once the pastor of the Forest Baptist Church in Forest, Mississippi, the small town in the middle of the state where I grew up. After his sermon, the two of us have a backslapping visit and catch up on news about our families before the conversation turns, as it always does in these parts, to the effects of gambling on the Gulf.
"The unemployment rate was so high before gambling was legalized," I say. "Now almost everyone has a job. What's it like for you when sin turns out to be such a blessing?"
Dr. Gunn, whose own faith is of the kind that bridges the gap between logic and intuition, takes a deep breath. "From the perspective of the church, once gambling was approved, that was it. It was legal. We took the attitude that we needed to do everything to reach these people and have a good relationship. We're in this together."
"Would you sell your property to a gambling concern?"
"My guess is," he says, "that if they were to make an offer to us, it would come through investors."
"So the Lord works not only in mysterious ways, but also through back channels?"
"Yes," Dr. Gunn agrees, grinning at the concept.
"I've never gambled before this trip," I confess. "And I've won five hundred dollars. But I was a good boy: I gave you fifty of them."
"Oh, my goodness," Dr. Gunn whispers, a look of concern fleeting across his face. "The big joke is at the Catholic church down the block; they always talk about getting slot tokens in their collection plates. The priest goes down to the casino and trades 'em in—whatever the term is."
"Mmmmm . . . yes . . . re-demp-tion . . ." he says. "One of the priests asked me what I would do if I started gettin' those tokens. Would I go down and cash 'em in?I told him, no, I'd send one of my deacons."
Laughing at his display of self-deprecation—not the usual self-righteousness encountered in the too often, too easily caricatured Southern Baptist—Dr. Gunn offers me a lift back to Beau Rivage. As we reach the entrance, he decides he'd better let me out at the curb instead of driving up under the porte cochère. "With my luck, that fella in the purple jacket would stop me and somebody'd take my picture," he says, pointing to one of the bellhops.
"Yeah, we don't want them to see this preacher driving up there to gamble," I say, playing along.
"Not that," he says, startled that I'd even entertain such a thought. "They'll think I've been in there to eat," he says, signaling his desire not to partake of the most basic forbidden fruits inside the place. "But Kevin, really, look a-yonder," he marvels, motioning toward the hotel and its lavish gardens. "Can you believe how beautiful that is?" His voice is soft with appreciation, the Beau Rivage inspiring in him not thoughts of gambling and its inherent sins, but something even more dangerous to a man of God: the ardor that comes from disbelief.
The Mississippi Gulf Coast, and its 26-mile cusp of man-made beach, includes, from east to west, the towns of Pascagoula, Ocean Springs, Biloxi, Gulfport, Long Beach, Pass Christian, and Bay St. Louis. To get there, fly to New Orleans or Mobile, and drive into Mississippi (75 miles from New Orleans, 60 from Mobile), or fly into Gulfport, which is serviced by several airlines, including Air Tran Airways, an upstart in which Beau Rivage has invested heavily.
Beau Rivage 875 Beach Blvd., Biloxi; 888/567-6667 or 228/386-7111, fax 228/386-7632; doubles from $89, Jasmine suites from $199. Of the resort's 12 restaurants, Coral is billed as the finest, but I vote for La Cucina—and it'll save you at least $20 extra for the slots. Ta.ke Ma.ku has more than 4,000 stalks of Malaysian bamboo lining its walls, and crawfish sushi on the menu.
Also Worth Knowing About
Father Ryan House 1196 Beach Blvd., Biloxi; 800/295-1189 or 228/435-1189, fax 228/436-3063; doubles $100. A 15-room Victorian inn overlooking the gulf, named for a chaplain known as the poet laureate of the Confederacy. Proceeds go to a hospital project in Honduras.
Green Oaks 580 Beach Blvd., Biloxi; 888/436-6257 or 228/436-6257, fax 228/436-6225; doubles $125. An eight-room B&B in a Greek Revival cottage—Biloxi's oldest beachfront house—and its former slave quarters.
Jocelyn's Restaurant Hwy. 90 E., Ocean Springs; 228/875-1925; dinner for two $40. Chef-owner Jocelyn Seymour Mayfield whips up local delicacies, such as crab au gratin, in a hot-pink Creole cottage. A local favorite.
Blow Fly Inn 1281 Washington Ave., Gulfport; 228/896-9812; dinner for two $30. A charming dive serving ribs and seafood.
George E. Ohr Arts & Cultural Center 136 G. E. Ohr St., Biloxi; 228/374-5547; www.georgeohr.org.
Walter Anderson Museum of Art 510 Washington Ave., Ocean Springs; 228/872-3164. Look for the painter's masterpiece, a 3,000-square-foot mural painted on the walls of the adjoining Ocean Springs Community Center.