Rudolf Wanderone, with his daughter Juanita.

Rudolf Wanderone — the many better known as Minnesota Fats — was the most famous pool hustler in American history. But how much do we really know about him?  Here’s a quick quiz.   But be advised:  some of these are trick questions.  

Which statements are true?

  1. The Minnesota Fats character in The Hustler, the novel by Walter Tevis, was based on Wanderone.
  2.  Rudolf Wanderone was born in 1913.
  3.  Rudolf Wanderone was married twice.
  4.  Rudolf Wanderone had no children.
  5. Rudolf Wanderone had only one child, the famous rhythm and blues singer Etta James.
  6. Rudolf Wanderone was a top-notch pool hustler.

This may come as a surprise, but all of these statements — with the exception of number 6 — are now in dispute.  This, despite what it says in Wikipedia and even what has been previously reported in my own books, like The Hustler and the Champ and Hustler Days.

Additional information has come to light in 2013, information that I’ve detailed in my Billiards Digest  column, Untold Stories. We now know that Wanderone may not have been born in 1913, that he may have been married three times (not just twice) and that he had at least one child other than Etta James (and whether Etta James was his daughter remains an open question.)

Here’s the Cliff Notes version of what we now know:

Wanderone had a long relationship during the 1930s with a woman named Lucy Blanche Maria Wood, who gave birth to a daughter named Neva Juanita. Lucy Blanche died in 1959. Neva Juanita died in 2010. Wanderone was almost certainly Neva Juanita’s father, and he also may have been married to Lucy Blanche. This is startling because Wanderone never publicly acknowledged any wife prior to Evalyn Grass, whom he married in 1941. His second wife (or third, depending on how you count) was Theresa Bell. Also, the timeline of his relationship with Lucy Blanche puts into doubt his supposed birth year of 1913.

This new information comes to us from Justin Verhovnik, a hithertofore unknown grandson of Wanderone. Speaking to me for a January 2014 edition of Billiards Digest, Verhovnik said that the last time he laid eyes on his grandfather might have been in 1980, at about the time that Fats was divorcing Evelyn Inez.

The story is long and drawn out, but I’ll try to relate more of it in a future blog post. You can also try to track down that January edition of Billiards Digest. The late Freddy Bentivegna likewise has included some detail in his new book,‘Encyclopedia’ of Pool Hustlers.

— R.A. Dyer