Busting out all over, blooming like redbuds and dogwood and mountain laurel. This time of year, Texas almost seems habitable.
My new book, “1960s Austin Gangsters: Organized Crime that Rocked the Capital,” has been getting good press. We just returned from the Wildcatter Exchange Festival in Fort Worth, where our presentation went over well and we sold books. Also met the great talent Josh Alan Friedman, who mad a dynamite presentation of his supercool book, “Tell the Truth Until they Bleed.” We missed our friends’s gigs, though – Tom Zigal, John Burnett and Turk Pipkin. We were waiting for Tammy True who, sadly, was a no-sho.
Lots and lots going on this season. Gigs – musical and literary- and new projects.
Monday, March 31, 8-9:30 I’m joining my pals at the Monkeynest on Burnet Rd. for a show curated by the unthinkably cool photographer groove-master Todd V. Wolfson. See the poster for all the info. You can get great coffee or beer or wine there and it’s free. I’ll be performing “The Headless Supermodel,” “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead (You Rascal You,” and “St. James Infirmary Blues,” for sure, plus others. Info here.
Tuesday I’m looking forward to Michael Ondaatje at the HRC. I almost didn’t write that sentence because I don’t want to hype his appearance so much that a mob appears and fills the room and Lois and I get locked out in the cold outside. A number of my favorite books — in fact, a number of my favorite paragraphs and sentences and poems — were produced by Michael Ondaatje. Running in the Family, In the Skin of Lion, and Coming Through Slaughter are among the best novels ever published. His The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and Handwriting are among the best poetry books ever published. Don’t even try to argue with me about it.
Wednesday, 6-7 PM I’ll be talking with Francois on his program Writing On the Air, broadcast on KOOP-FM about “1960s Austin Gangsters.”
Saturday, April 18, 2-3 PM, I’ll be presenting “1960s Austin Gangsters” at Barnes & Noble Aboretum. Info here.
NOTICE: The Half Price Books Austin event was posted in error. That event is not happening, at least not in April.
More events in April and May TBA. Keep rocking, keep reading, be cool, and support social justice and equality for all.
By John Kelso
We think of Austin as a hearts and flowers kind of place.
We’re an artsy offshoot of the flower child generation, right? We’d rather love than mix it up. A major tiff around here? How about two geeks arguing over who has the snappier phone.
Hattie Valdes, a friend and business associate of the Overton Gang, ran a well-known brothel on South Congress Avenue at a roadside motel called M&M Courts. Tim Overton’s favorite gal was the place’s star attraction.
But we weren’t always this civilized, which you’ll discover when you read Jesse Sublett’s new book: “1960s Austin Gangsters: Organized Crime That Rocked the Capital.”
Sublett tells us the harrowing story of the Overton Gang, a ragtag band of poor misfits who robbed small town banks, ran prostitution rings, hired crooked lawyers, were in cahoots with disreputable used car dealers, would knock your lights out and were tough to catch.
They led the Austin Police Department on a merry chase.
You won’t find Hattie Valdes’s house of ill repute near the south end of South Congress Avenue anymore. It’s been replaced by Penske Truck Rental. That’s author Jesse Sublett hanging out by the front door.
“A few of them were knuckleheads, but some of them were really smart,” Sublett said. He thinks these hooligans enjoyed their work so much that they would have preferred stealing to a real job, even if the real job paid better.
The Overton Gang hit banks in small towns that weren’t county seats, knowing those towns wouldn’t have cops. Tim Overton, the gang’s namesake, bought a used cannonball vault, a type used by banks back in the 1960s that was tough to break into. So Overton had one of them set up in his father’s transmission shop on the East Side so the boys could figure it out. And just in case the guys got busted, they’d bring their prostitutes with them on road trips so the hookers could do some street work and raise the bail money.
The bank heists were a traveling act. Interstate 35 was their route of choice. In 1965 alone, they knocked off 13 small-town banks in Texas, Kansas and Missouri.
Tim Overton grew up in East Austin, roughly where East Cesar Chavez is today, a part of town where poor whites and Hispanics lived. Overton started out well enough. He was a football star for Austin High School, and Coach Darrell Royal gave him a shot with the University of Texas Longhorns. Although he didn’t play, Tim was on the team that went to the Cotton Bowl game against Syracuse in 1960.
When football didn’t work out, he decided to rob the jewelry out of your grandmother’s safe deposit box instead.
“About the Overton gang?” said Eddie Wilson, the Armadillo World Headquarters founder who grew up in Hyde Park, which had its rough elements back then. “I knew when not to go out after dark, and that was when they were anywhere in the neighborhood. Timmy was a bad dude. … I thought for sure Darrell Royal was going to save his life, but he didn’t get along very well over there either.”
Yet, Tim Overton was said to be good at math, and funny, too. A photo in the book shows him laughing and joking, while being escorted out of a federal courthouse by Texas Rangers. Who gets a chuckle while being led out of the courthouse by a couple of cops?
“I don’t know if he was ever on the straight and narrow,” said Sublett, who spent 10 years putting the book together. “He was a fistfighter and kind of a ruffian, but he was also smart, charismatic, very popular in school. I talked to his classmates. They liked him a lot. He was kind of a hero to them.”
Sublett mentions a blurb that appeared in the Jan. 17, 1964, edition of Time, an issue devoted to the Texas mystique. Remember that this was just a couple of months after President Kennedy was assassinated, a time when many on the East Coast were pretty sure Texas served as a perfect stand-in for the pits of hell.
In a one-paragraph description of Austin, Time mentioned our moonlight towers, our broad, clean streets — and a well-known South Austin brothel where “the star attraction has a skunk tattooed on each buttock.”
The whorehouse in question was M&M Courts, a motel near the south end of South Congress Avenue, run by notorious madam Hattie Valdes, a generous woman who left large amounts of money to charities when she died in 1976.
The skunk art was to be found decorating the hind end of Judy Cathey, one of Valdes’ workers and Tim Overton’s favorites.
You wonder how the writer from Time discovered the skunk tattoos in the first place. Was the expense account item filed under “entertainment”?
Sublett, a talented Austin musician as well as a gifted writer, decided to take on the Overton Gang project in 2002 while he was researching the serial killer who had murdered his girlfriend, Dianne Roberts, in 1976. Sublett seems emotionally over the tragedy, although he says that every couple of years he goes before the parole board to convince the board to keep the killer locked up.
Sublett found an article in the American-Statesman under the headline “Austin Underworld of the ’60s. Overton Gang Capers recalled.’’ He writes that the discovery “made me feel that I had stumbled onto the secret history of Austin.”
Collectively, the gang members ended up doing enough time to have a geological era named after them. Among other stints in the lockup, Overton spent five years and four months at Leavenworth, the federal pen in Kansas.
So you want to find out how Overton’s life turned out? As the saying goes, what goes around comes around. But if you want the details, check out the book.