By Sharon Geltner
Very few people have a movie made about their life, let alone one starring Bruce Willis, Vince Vaughn, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Rebecca Hall. Wellington High School grad Beth Raymer (played by Hall) had sold the book and film rights to Lay the Favorite: A Memoir of Gambling by the time she was in her late 20s.
Raymer, author of the new novel Fireworks Every Night (set in Loxahatchee in the 1990s) has had an adventurous life and career. Her background: social worker, $150-an-hour “in home” stripper, manager/model of adult websites and Fulbright scholar, as well as Golden Gloves boxing finalist and rookie bookie in the underworld of high-stakes gambling in Las Vegas and Curacao. Lay the Favorite described her Vegas stint.
All that by age 47.
While some novelists pretend their novels are autobiographies to score a publishing contract — similar to Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors and James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces — Raymer did the opposite. She based much of Fireworks on her own life. She called it fiction so she wouldn’t have to get written permission to use real people’s names.
Raymer may have become cautious after she was sued for using the name “Dink Heimowitz” (a real person who wasn’t a gambler) in Lay the Favorite. When asked if he got a settlement, Raymer paused and said, “I guess so. I don’t know.”
Since then, Raymer has pivoted from gleeful outlier to serious author. Today she is the mother of a son, living a respectable life near Washington Heights, N.Y., sometimes earning $47,000 a year. Once a competitive boxer, Raymer does yoga, ballet and plays soccer with her son.
Although she is fluent at promoting her work, she can be circumspect. Raymer has no photos posted on her Instagram account. Her LinkedIn profile doesn’t mention Lay the Favorite, for which she is best known. Her Wikipedia photo shows her in a black turtleneck.
Raymer chose to become a writer because she had a lot to say about addiction, class differences and how early childhood influences an entire life. She notes that writers have a lot in common with gamblers. They take risks and chances are they won’t win.
“In some ways [gamblers] were my demographic,” Raymer said. “Most gamblers are unconventional people. Like writers. They do not take a straight path in life. They are bright people who don’t follow a hard [conventional path] of getting married and having children. They don’t give a —-,” Raymer said. “My kind of people.”
While Raymer’s talent, drive and ambition are probably innate, her outsized success in the extremely competitive industries of New York journalism, publishing and Hollywood entertainment was not assured. As a high school senior, Raymer played varsity basketball but had an unpromising 2.0 GPA. She endured a tumultuous home life, with alcoholism, gambling, infidelity, a sister with repressed trauma and more.
Raymer, who was adopted as an infant and has never met her biological parents, was the first in her family to attend college.
She credits Palm Beach State College, formerly known as Palm Beach Community College, for putting her on the path to success. “If it hadn’t been for the community college system, I would not have gone forward with a college education,” she said.
“I attended Palm Beach Community College for two years, then Florida State University, then [years later] Columbia University in New York City,” Raymer said. “It’s an Ivy League school and it was a big deal to get accepted.”
After PBCC came FSU. Raymer majored in sociology. She was fired from a group home after she let three troubled teenage girls run away.
She then headed to Las Vegas with her boyfriend and waited tables at his parents’ Thai restaurant. They soon broke up, but while waitressing, Raymer met a professional bookmaker.
“It was a fluke that I broke into gambling.” Raymer then entered the murky underworld of collecting debts with very high-stakes bookmaking and gambling.
When asked what she would have done to collect $5,000, Raymer said, “Five thousand isn’t worth my time.”
She explained, “A $100,000 debt is dramatic, and it took a team effort to recover it.”
“What you read in the news is much more menacing than how it is in real life. It is a messed-up, dysfunctional chaotic industry. When I had issues with people who were not paying their debts, I had mentors in the gambling business showing me the ropes,” Raymer said.
“These are practical people. They don’t go to violence ever,” Raymer added. “It’s not just the amount of money, but the length of time and relationship [the bookie] has with the customer. These are … guys (who are really good at math) from Queens and Long Island, very rarely would they [let] a complete stranger bet a $2 million game. It doesn’t happen. Customers build up [reputations] over time and [demonstrate reliability] before they get high limits.”
Raymer left Vegas after two years. She had an operation in Curaçao, shifting millions in cash for All Serious Action Players (ASAP). She lived in a beachside villa with maid, cook and enjoyed going to parties. Raymer has said she had no idea what she made and didn’t save any of it. ASAP went bust in a year when a staffer cleaned out the accounts.
For her Fulbright scholarship, she studied the effects of offshore gambling in Central America.
“I was in my 20s in grad school [at Columbia], but I had already lived 10 lives by then,” Raymer explained. “I was young, but I had a lot of experience.”
She added, “I was not as good a writer as my peers, I did not have the technical skills. But I was ambitious and had lots of good stories. I got the professors excited about my stories. They were really solid mentors, and that’s how the Lay the Favorite memoir book deal and film rights came about,” she said.
She was determined to make it. “I put myself through graduate school at $45,000 a year,” partly by applying for a lot of grants. In 2007, she graduated with a master of fine arts in creative writing, according to her LinkedIn.
Raymer’s knack of being in the right place at the right time helped her budding journalism career. In February 2012, she was in Orlando writing a profile for The Atlantic on the company where George Zimmerman was working, at the time he killed Trayvon Martin.
As a stringer for the New York Times, Raymer’s insight was that Zimmerman’s work for Digital Risk, promoted as “the independent watchdog of the financial world” fed his delusion that he was a total watchdog, at work and home, including patrolling his neighborhood.
Raymer has also written for the New York Times Magazine and, last June, for the New York Times, on staying loyal to her father through his addictions and homelessness.
As Raymer matured, her interests expanded. She wrote Head of Household: A Journal for Single Moms, published by Princeton Architectural Press.
There are 15 million single moms in the country, Raymer explained, but “…there is a negative stereotype, ‘Oh my God, my life is over.’ We need a refreshed view in 2023 which is that more people are choosing and are eager to be single moms.”
Raymer continues to mine her past which fuels her current projects. And with one exception, Raymer finds great personal fulfillment (and source material) by revisiting her childhood.
She often visits her hometown in the Appalachian foothills of Ohio, where her life began. (In her novel Fireworks, she gives Adena, Ohio the motto for Tombstone, Arizona: “The Town Too Tough to Die.”)
“I have deep roots, there is a Raymer Street [there.] It is very much part of my psyche. All my extended family lives there.”
“My next book takes place in South Florida, so I’ve been spending a lot of time there, reporting and visiting friends. … I am still in touch with many of my friends from Wellington High and even Wellington Elementary.”
That one verboten subject? Her mother.
“I don’t discuss her.”
Jerry Raymer’s end was hastened when her father was laid off at age 69, from a Plattner Automotive dealership during the Great Recession. He had been a commission-based car salesman for 40 years. He died during the pandemic, but Raymer writes that his influence on her and her work is everlasting.
Though her dad abandoned the family, and the home was foreclosed, his daughter forgave him and never stopped respecting and loving him. Her last sentence in her Fireworks acknowledgements:
“And my father, who died while I was writing this book. I love you and thank you for your tolerance as I rummaged through the debris.”