Excerpt from Pool Hustler's Daughter Memoir
Minnesota Fats is one of the most recognizable and beloved celebrities of the second half of the twentieth century. My Dad, Freddy ‘the Beard’ Bentivegna, a close second. Whether the admirers are highbrow (Paris Review Founder, George Plimpton and GQ writer/publisher Michael Korda ) or low brow(fellow pool hall denizens) people were attracted to Fats by his confidence, colorful and absorbing storytelling, his silly yet wise, no-nonsense personality. He was an authentic human being, an individual. A lack of graduating elementary school did not dissuade his fans from hanging onto his every whimsical word. Globally, he is the number one person, that you associate with the game of pool and billiards. Quite a legacy, no?
Fats saw an opportunity and took it. He literally hustled his way into enormous fame.When Walter Tevis named a character Minnesota Fats in his book, “The Hustler,” which was later turned into an Oscar nominated film starring Paul Newman, George C. Scott and Jackie Gleason. Rudolph Wanderone took it upon himself to commandeer that moniker and make ithis own. Stole the name! I’ve had a love affair with reinvention and role play, and this sharp move by the ultimate operator, Minnesota Fats, hammers the benefit of playing with identity.
Fats was a real pool hustler. I use the word real because the Fats you see on television like the old Tonight show, some B-rated films and commercials never demonstrated just how great of an athlete he was. He could win money on a pool table. He could beat world champions. It wasn’t an act. It wasn’t bullshit. My Dad always reminded me, Fats could play.
After launching himself as Minnesota Fats via the film The Hustler, Fats was well compensated by exhibition games that sold out across the country. He filled football stadiums as well as popular pool halls that were shown on ABC’s “Wild World of Sports.” His rival pool personality at the time was the great Willie Mosconi who was a reserved gentleman and provided none of the pleasure of his company that Fats gave in spades. During these exhibition matches – like one at the Dragon Cue in Chicago’s Chinatown neighborhood, Mosconi was able to hit in every ball. He was a technical expert of the game, not a hustler for money, and someone who did not dole out warm and fuzzies. He did not attract a love and devotion befitting his unquestionably rare, primordial talent. One ball after the other, that guy my Dad would say.
Fats, on the other hand, sold out the Dragon Cue and had a line out the door. Fans wanted to look at him, just hear his voice, he was so exciting and enrapturing a character- a Svengali who missed shot after shot, unlike Mosconi. Fats was the law of attraction in action – he knew that feeling good and having a good time attracted people and money and even beauty queens, or so my Dad told me. In a failed attempt at making me feel better about being single in my teens and twenties, my Dad would remind me that Fats got gorgeous broads, even with his ugly mug. Then I would ask, wait, am I Fats or the gorgeous broad in this equation???
The problem for Fats, a stone-cold hustler from New York, and these exhibition games, was that with no risk of not getting paid, he had little chance to show off his considerable goods,and therefore showed no enthusiasm. The games were all hangers. A hanger is an easy shot – the ball is literally hanging in the pocket begging for you to shoot it in. You’d think a hustler would love a hanger – love easy money, an easy win. But that’s not the case at all. Hustlers want to enjoy the suffering before overcoming the odds and becoming a superhero who gets all of the difficult shots and then wins the game. Hustlers rarely brag about beating eggs – guys who are just easy targets, amateurs, lay downs. There’s no showmanship in winning from hangers. There’s no sense of pride. There’s no feeling like you really won something. There’s no feeling like you outsmarted death and now feel excruciatingly alive.
You got a hanger in the pocket, what are you going to do?
When a hanger appears, on the one hand you feel like maybe you don’t deserve it, and view it suspiciously; and, on the other hand, you’re not motivated if the hanger doesn’t propel you high enough into the sky to where you see stars, to where you’ve proven that you’ve connected to some electric current of good magic, that makes you feel like, for the rest of your life, that you’re an exceptional, extraordinary, superstar. In my late father’s case, a superhero like in the comics he loved as a child. Overcoming the bleakest of circumstances and the worst of odds is your super power – and if you’re a pool hustler, or a pool hustler’s daughter, this rush can be addicting.
It’s exhausting- always fighting and fleeing -and turning down hangers that could quite possibly change your life for the better, rejecting something or someone that you might evenlove, because you don’t think you’ve suffered or performed brilliantly enough to deserve that thing, or that person. Your smarts and talent is your currency in the world. It’s how you valueyourself. Do you even exist in the world without it? You need to prove your exceptionalism andhave people to prove it to. Hustlers have decided to be outsiders, existing on the outskirts of society and within the subterranean. They aren’t vying to be CEOs of companies, or Neil Armstrong, or Bill Gates, but yet want to prove that they are as smart as or as brave as, or smarter or braver than all of those people combined. Hustlers have a hard time embracing hangers. The adrenaline rush of getting out of bed to earn ten thousand dollars is much different than that for ten dollars. When you accomplish something very few people can, almost always at the last minute, with little to no resources, it’s a magnificent celebration! In a way, this is the story of my entire life.
My Dad used to have a good time being poor. He beat me up with the idea that he was never as happy as when he was starving, or doing without, and never as miserable as when he had too much. This definitely influenced our cycles of great wealth and then great disparity. I learned to never get used to the flush for long; that eventually someone, in most cases mymother, would be crying about the rent or the tuition. I learned to both live in the moment and also to not trust the moment as I was on pins and needles awaiting the ensuing great crash. To this day, I hate roller coasters. I had enough of my stomach rising up and down at home. I never attached myself to material things which were ephemeral to me. Instead, I fed my soul with the adventures and great experiences taking place before me. I lived off of great stories. My Dad was the greatest story teller; before him, Fats. I wanted to be one also. I discovered early on that this was my currency. I’d never be a pool hustler.
My Dad spoke glowingly about eating rice and beans with my mother in their tiny apartment and drinking out of cheap, rope covered Carlo Rossi red wine jugs like it was Chateau Margaux. Even as an old man, he took great pleasure in freezing an eighth of a doughnut, a quarter of a bagel, an ounce of sugo. You just never knew when you’d be starving again. He made sure, like an American Indian, to use every part of the animal, and to never let anything go to waste. A popular line from his short lived time as “Hippie Freddie” in Hollywood in the 1960s, was, “sometimes you just gotta get down with it” and this advice could be applied toanything from temporary bouts of poverty to sleeping in a forest covered in bugs to torching over sad jukebox songs after a breakup. You just gotta get down with it. I think his point was to show you how to turn every bad situation into something temporary yet still pleasurable and fantastic that you could laugh about later -which he did. He’d have you rolling on the floor over his out maneuvering a contract killing on his life, avoiding indictment, sneaking out of a pool hall with all of his money intact, receiving last rights five times.
Hilarious! He would scream, laughing right along with you.
I had a friend who was fortunate enough to go to Columbia University for law school. Academically, it was as hard as you can imagine an Ivy League grad school-the late nightsstudying-the tough exams. I don’t think she ever felt ungrateful for this opportunity – her parents did not even go to college - yet she found herself complaining to her mother – who would have killed to be in her daughter’s place. Instead of cajoling her daughter, her mother’s wise advice was, “enjoy your suffering.” This line has stayed with me over the years – enjoy your suffering. It’s something my father would most certainly agree with – sometimes you just gotta get down with it. Instead of resisting the bad, the difficult, the painful, you’re supposed to experience it to the fullest extent and let it pass. There aren’t any short cuts, he would tell me, and believe me, he was not someone who ever wasted time, and certainly didn’t want me to waste mine. He said it was his job in life that I had it better than he had. It was every parent’s job, he said. He thought people who tried to avoid growth were stuck, and the only way to get unstuck was to process the uncomfortable and embarrassing and sad and difficult and humiliating situation that you were avoiding.