The late Nathan Detroit wasn't easy to please, but he would have approved of the gathering Wednesday that honored his memory. There was no mawkish sentimentality. There was plenty of booze and talk about gambling. But what he would have liked best was the fact that his self-created identity had endured even after his death.
Old friends from as far away as Florida and California assembled at the Palm restaurant for the occasion. So many gamblers were present that one wary guest took a look at the crowd and asked, "This isn't an FBI sting, is it?" Yet even this hard-core bunch remembered the deceased with affection and respect. "We all thought we knew Nathan," said Tommy Jacomo, the Palm's general manager. "But, really, nobody knew him. He was a mystery man."
Insofar as any Washingtonian could tell, Nathan had emerged from the womb at the age of 40, with long, wavy hair, a mustache, a cocksure demeanor and an air of authority that was never shaken by the circumstances of his life. Surely, those circumstances were dire when he arrived, flat broke, in D.C. in 1963, to start a new life. He never talked about his old one, though he did tell people he had lost his last dollar at the racetrack. He showed up at Clyde's, the Georgetown saloon, and got a job as a busboy. This might have been a humbling experience for a man old enough to address his supervisors as "Sonny," but the word "humble" was not in his vocabulary.
"Even as a busboy he was always giving people advice," recalled Bill O'Brien, a bartender at Clyde's. "He was telling customers what to do about their family life, how to run their business. Pretty soon the customers were coming in and asking for him. He was like a low-priced psychiatrist, and so we knew he'd be perfect as a bartender.
"When he got behind the bar he was always talking horses. He always had all the odds figured out." One of the regular Clyde's customers, Bob Dahlgren, perceived the similarity to the famous Damon Runyron character in "Guys and Dolls," put his arm around the bartender and uttered the words, "Nathan Detroit."
"Up until that moment," O'Brien said, "he'd been known as Alexander Kaplan or Al Kamerchgian or something different every day. But from that moment on, nobody ever called him anything but Nathan Detroit." (In the mid-'60s, he legally changed his name and took out a Social Security card in the name of Nathan Detroit.)
Even in the colorful gambling world and the Georgetown bar circuit where he spent his life, Nathan Detroit had a forceful personality than made him stand out from the crowd. Paul Goulding, his longtime friend and customer, recalled a Christmas eve in the 1960s when the priest at St. Patrick's Cathedral, near Chinatown, invited Nathan and other friends to join him for drinks after the midnight service. (This was in the benighted era when Washington's bars closed at midnight, and so Nathan readily accepted.) When he and his friends arrived early, the priest fretted that collections at the church had been declining; his superior, the bishop, was complaining. "Don't worry," Nathan said. "We'll handle the collections tonight."
Nathan gave his pals the instructions: Stand directly in front of the parishioners and stare at them. Don't accept any change--only folding money. Nathan recognized one of the worshipers and took the collection plate to him first. He reluctantly put a $1 bill on the plate. "What's this, pally?" Nathan demanded. "I saw you cashing at the $50 window today." The shamed gambler put a $50 bill on the plate. "That set the tone," Goulding said. "It was a record collection for the church."
Nathan was such a well-known Georgetown personality that a group of investors thought he would be the perfect front man for a new saloon on M Street. He bought a piece of the action, too, in the successful Georgetown establishment, Nathan's, that still bears his name. Six years after his arrival in Washington, he was living the good life, wearing expensive clothes and driving a Mercedes 280SL. But perhaps it was not in his nature to enjoy a successful status quo for long.
He loved to gamble--and, for the most part he was not a self-destructive gambler. Nathan preferred the racetrack, and his friends describe him as a fairly rational and conservative player. He bet sports, but picked his spots judiciously. In a casino, however, he was unrestrained. "When he went to Las Vegas," recalled Harry Soghigian, "he would never unpack. He went straight to the tables and stayed there. I asked him, 'Why do you do this?' " and he answered, 'Harry, what's better than action?' "
When Nathan got into deep water he always had confidence that he could bail himself out. Once he and some friends took a trip to a casino in Nassau and all went broke; they didn't even have cab fare to get to the airport. Unfazed, Nathan approached the pit boss at a blackjack table and said, in a conspiratorial tone, "Pally, I want to cash a check. This check may or may not be good. And, pally, let me tell you, if we win, you win." The cards started coming Nathan's way and he left the Bahamas with a roll of bills in his pocket.
But on a junket to Las Vegas in 1970, Nathan got in so deep that couldn't bail out. He never told any of his friends the details, but he lost everything--including his piece of Nathan's. It was a humiliation he couldn't endure. He left Washington for New York and worked there through much of the 1970s until he returned--as a bartender at Clyde's, once again. He retired in the late '80s and since then, friends say, he was living by his wits. They say this with a wink, because Nathan always had a hustle or two going to maintain himself in style. "In the last years of his life," said his friend Michael Kelly, "he was wearing beautiful clothes and drinking the best wine. He had Persian rugs on the floor."
He was found dead in his Georgetown apartment on Oct. 6, and in death he remained as much of a mystery as he was in his life. The pictures on the wall of his apartment reveal no clues as to his past identity or existence, though some evidence indicates that his name may have been Alexander Kaplan, that his origins were in Philadelphia, that he once had a wife and a son.
The D.C. Medical Examiner's office wasn't quite sure how to handle the case because it wasn't positive who the deceased was. Eventually, that office called Nathan's friend and pro-bono lawyer, Jim Hagerty, and declared, "We'll identify him officially as Nathan Detroit."
Hagerty had researched his client's background, and said, "There was no conclusive evidence of his identity, anyway, and I was happy with that result. He was the crotchety, mysterious gambler who was full of attitude. He was the guy who lost his restaurant in Las Vegas. He was Nathan Detroit incarnate."
CAPTION: "A rich man is nothing but a poor man with money," said W.C. Fields. Local legend Nathan Detroit started poor, but gambling brought him riches, in money and friends.