ATLANTIC CITY - The billionaire was likened to Dracula and the casino union president compared to Joseph Stalin.

But with Atlantic City hanging in the balance, the multi-chaptered saga of Carl Icahn and the bankrupt Trump Taj Mahal has played out more like an 18th-century epistolary novel, letter by letter.

"Dear Bob," Icahn wrote in a 534-word letter Nov. 25 to Unite Here Local 54 president Bob McDevitt. "In a recent interview, you stated that I should start thinking about my legacy. My answer to you is that I have thought about my legacy for many years."

As much as McDevitt, 53, president of Unite Here Local 54, loves to express himself through the Boardwalk protest march, Icahn, 78, loves the letter.

Icahn really loves the letter.

Even in the heat of the battle last week, with officials in Atlantic City and Trenton seething, legislation yanked, casino-union deals up in flames, city balance sheets being torn up, Icahn took the time to sit back and put his thoughts - and life history - into elaborate prose.

And then linked to it on Twitter.

"Dear Bob," Icahn wrote Thursday, an hour or so after blowing up the deal he had made with Local 54 to save the Taj and restore all benefits to workers.

That midday "Dear Bob" letter was not to McDevitt, but to Bob Griffin, chief entertainment officer of Trump Entertainment, a man desperate to hand over the company to Icahn, presumably so he can get the heck out of there and resume his life.

"I grew up in one of the roughest neighborhoods in Queens, and I've worked hard every day of my life to get to where I am," Icahn wrote, holding forth about his humble roots, not for the first time.

In the harsh light of day, Icahn had rethought the deal lawyers had struck the night before, while he, according to the New York Post, was at his company's holiday party. But he also agreed to float the Taj $20 million to avoid a looming Saturday closing date.

There's a lot riding on the outcome of this drama, even beyond 3,000 jobs at the Taj. Icahn, who owns the Tropicana, holds $282 million in Trump Entertainment debt and is poised to take over the bankrupt company and invest $100 million. He wants tax relief from the state, which says it won't pass legislation to make that happen until Icahn settles with the union.

For its part, the city desperately needs those bills passed to stabilize its finances. The casino tax formula outlined in the legislation would require the Taj in the mix.

By week's end, with yet another casino company - a unit of Caesars Entertainment - headed for bankruptcy, nerves were shot, and worry settled in like a fog.

Icahn did not mince words: "a once-vibrant Atlantic City institution, your Taj Mahal, loses almost $10 million every month," he wrote to Griffin, personalizing it for the embattled CEO.

That letter brought the news Griffin had been seeking: promise of another letter - with money attached.

"Even though I have no assurance that the State will provide aid or that the Union will drop its appeal," Icahn wrote, "I will send you a commitment letter to provide you with up to $20 million."

The $20 million would keep the Taj open, avoiding the fate of four other Boardwalk casinos this year, though workers would lose benefits in the new year without a contract. A vote in Trenton on the rescue bills the city needs was delayed until January.

There has been some speculation that Icahn himself pens all the letters, even the ones from Bob Griffin, the CEO, addressed to Icahn. ("Dear Carl C. Icahn: Please accept this letter as another humble request for further aid and assistance . . . The State, the City and the Union have all abandoned us.")

It was a letter from Griffin that evoked "a totalitarian state, such as Joseph Stalin's Russia," in accusing McDevitt of spreading "false propaganda." (The Icahn Dracula comparison was on a union protest poster, complete with cape and fangs: "Icahn sucking the life out of workers.")

Letters from Griffin and Icahn do have stylistic similarities and lean toward the expansive and dramatic, even for this ever-convulsing town. Both unfailingly capitalize the words state, city, and union.

"Please, Bob," Griffin wrote to McDevitt on Dec. 11. "You have put us in a terrible position."

Atlantic City is far from Icahn's only pen pal. He loves to write to Apple ("Dear Tim") and to eBay shareholders.

Icahn's letters to McDevitt tend to go unanswered - at least on stationery. And if the salty Jersey local McDevitt put his deepest thoughts about Icahn to paper, there would likely be a lot unfit to print.

Inside Local 54, union members take the reams of Icahn correspondence in stride, calling them "love letters."

They are prepared to wait for a true "commitment letter" that, unlike the one last week, does not evaporate in the morning.

Icahn is not, after all, their first billionaire.

Jon Hanson, the governor's key adviser on Atlantic City who brokered the aborted deal, said Friday afternoon he did not read Icahn's letters - "I really don't have that many hours of the day to do that" - though Icahn once asked him, "Did you see my letter?"

"I said no, and he had it sent to me," Hanson said.

Hanson said he expected this saga to play out in typical A.C. fashion.

"Atlantic City is three steps forward and one step back," Hanson said. "That's the way it's going to be. You don't get discouraged. Just keep on moving the ball downstream. One letter from Carl at a time."

arosenberg@phillynews.com

609-823-0453

@amysrosenberg