In 1936, Governor James Alfred banned horseracing in Texas. As a result, for the next 40 years some of the richest, most powerful men in the world flew to San Diego in their private planes. Many “racing refugees” stayed at the Casa de Mañana hotel in La Jolla, and all went to the Del Mar Racetrack as to a shrine. Jane Wolfe: “No one from Texas, young or old, pretended they had come to La Jolla to rest and recuperate. They we nt to indulge in a sport famous for its element of risk...and no one enjoyed a day at the track more than Clint.”
Clint was Clinton Williams Murchison Sr., a Texas-oil multimillionaire who, with his two sons, John and Clint Jr., became the prototypes for the TV series Dallas. Two stories circulate about Murchison and the Casa de Mañana. In one, he stopped going there when the hotel couldn’t give his entourage enough rooms. In the other, he tried to buy it, but the owners refused to sell. In either case, Murchison built his own hotel, the Del Charro, on Torrey Pines near Ardath Road. In Spanish, charro is a “gentleman horseman.”
Today it’s the site of Del Charro Woods, a 70-townhouse condominium complex. Originally the area was a riding school for girls, the La Jolla Stables, on the outskirts of town. Murchison converted stables into bungalows in 1951 and built a Spanish-style, tile-roofed luxury hotel with a kidney-shaped swimming pool. In the words of Allan Witwer, who managed the Del Charro from 1953 to 1959, each accommodation provided guests with “private lanais, patios, or sundecks for secluded lazing.” Colorful silks from America’s racing stables draped the walls of the Paddock bar. Eucalyptus, pepper, olive, and fig trees and six landscaped acres concealed patrons from passersby. The promise of privacy, along with a daily tab that excluded all but the super rich — a bungalow cost $100 a night in 1960 — became attractive lures for the famous and infamous.
Guest lists were hush-hush. But word circulated around town that John Wayne, Zsa Zsa Gabor, or Elizabeth Taylor had been spotted — or Betty Grable, Jimmy Durante, or Joan Crawford. Wolfe: “Crawford always carried her own flask of vodka, and while she was usually reserved at the start, as the contents began to disappear, she became increasingly extroverted.”
The hotel also attracted what became known as the “Del Charro Set”: national politicians — Richard Nixon, among others — Texas oilmen, and organized crime. About the only mob figure not invited was Roy Cohn. Anthony Summers: “He was turned away at the door because he was a Jew.” Murchison, who contributed to George Lincoln Rockwell’s American Nazi Party, “had a ‘No Jews’ policy at the Del Charro. No blacks were admitted, either, except servants.”
In the summer of 1953, Joseph McCarthy vacationed at the Del Charro. Murchison, an ardent anticommunist, supported the Wisconsin senator for a while. At night, guests sipped cocktails by the torch-lit pool. Wolfe: McCarthy, his glass always full of bourbon, “was a terrible bore, telling lengthy off-color jokes, often in the presence of ladies. Clint disapproved strongly, and more than once left the party disgusted.”
McCarthy also liked to relieve himself from a lanai.
One night, he regaled everyone with his exploits in the Army-McCarthy Hearings. After “many drinks too many,” he began insulting his wife, Jean, then threw her, clothes and all, into the pool. The next morning, a Murchison aide told the senator to ‘pack your bags and get out.’"
The bungalows stood at the base of a hill, behind the hotel. Murchison took bungalow D. His lifelong friend, Sid Richardson (a Texas oil wildcatter/entrepreneur worth, like Murchison, over $500 million), took C. Every summer, from 1953 until his death in 1972, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and his “companion,” FBI deputy Clyde Tolson, stayed in bungalow A. For free.
Columnist Jack Anderson: “Murchison picked up Hoover’s tab year after year at the Del Charro near their favorite race track...at the same time some of the nation’s most notorious gamblers and racketeers have been registered there.”
Murchison and Hoover became friends at the Casa de Mañana. And although Murchison received large loans from Jimmy Hoffa’s Teamsters Union and was often linked with underworld figures Vito Genovese and Carlos Marcello, Hoover considered Murchison “one of my closest friends.”
Summers: “The oilmen started cultivating [Hoover] in the late ’40s, inviting him to Texas as a household guest, taking him on hunting expeditions. Edgar’s relations with them were to go far beyond what was proper for a director of the FBI.”
Hoover’s bungalow had three bedrooms, two baths, a living room, fire- place, kitchen, and two patios. Hoover told Murchison he loved the place, with one reservation: “I’d have to rate it second to my favorite hotel in Florida [the Gulfstream, where Hoover “wintered”], only because there, when you walk out of your room in the morning, you can pluck an orange right off a fruit tree.”
Murchison ordered manager Allan Witwer to plant plum, peach, and orange trees at the hotel — that night. Wolfe: “When [Hoover] stepped out of his door the next morning, he found the garden full of trees thick with luscious fruit.”
According to the New York Times (12/31/63), in 1954 Hoover told Murchison, “If I had the money that’s spent at race tracks, I could do a wonderful job of building character among the nation’s young people.” Not long after, Murchison and Sid Richardson offered to buy Del Mar Racetrack’s seasonal lease from Al Hart, head of a group that owned the license to the track, and (quoted in Summers) “a liquor distributor with links to the Chicago mob.”
Witwer (quoted in Summers): “At first Hart practically threw them out of his office. So Clint said, ‘If those fellas won’t deal with me, we’ll sic old J. Edgar on ’em’ — and sent two FBI agents to call on Hart. I heard this from the agents themselves afterwards. Then Hart sold.”