02/05/1996 at 01:00 AM EST
HE CLAIMED HE HAD BEEN AROUND THE world six times, could whistle in five languages and had beaten Adolf Hitler at pool. But in a lifetime of hustling, his greatest trick had been a personal one: the transformation of Rudolf Wanderone Jr., a New York City boy, into pool shark and legend spinner Minnesota Fats.
In and out of the halls where he plied his trade, Fats, who died of congestive heart failure on Jan. 18 in Nashville, was the master of applied psychology. "To the day the Lord took him," says Teresa Bell Wanderone, 40, Fats's second wife and widow, "he would hustle. He'd hustle you out of a cookie, if he thought you wanted it."
Born in either 1900 or 1913 (his age was a matter of dispute) to poor Swiss immigrant parents in Manhattan, Wanderone often accompanied his father, a merchant marine, to the local saloon. "The pool table was my crib," he once said. He learned the game by age 5 and dropped out of school at 13 to pursue higher education in the pool parlors of Times Square. Soon he was traveling the country in search of competition and "tomatoes," as he called women—a journeyman pool shark with a patter he learned from gamblers including Arnold Rothstein, who was suspected of fixing the 1919 World Series.
He and his first wife, Evelyn, a Du Quoin, Ill., waitress he married in 1941, traveled the country by Cadillac in pursuit of high-stakes action. "When he got in a game," says Evelyn, 78, who was divorced from Fats in 1985, "I just sat with my hands folded and knew it was money in the bank." Known by the nom de pool New York Fats during the first half of his career, he asserted that a central character in the 1961 movie The Hustler was based on him. Sensing the self-promotional possibilities, he usurped the name and became Minnesota Fats.
After his divorce, Wanderone moved to Nashville where, after a heart attack in 1992, he married Bell. She took care of him, and surrounded him with women in local nightclubs as a form of therapy. "That kept him alive," she says. "It made him feel so good to wear three or four different shades of lipstick home."