Hotel del Charro:
It was the vortex of a dark universe, hiding in plain sight.
“At La Jolla (pronounced La Hoya), San Diego’s northern suburb,” the New York Times reported on January 17, 1954, “a syndicate of well-heeled Texans has spent a reported $1 million on a fabulous hostelry dubbed the Hotel del Charro.” The place had opened for business less than a year before, on May 29, 1953, and word was spreading fast.
No outsider ever actually knew who owned the hotel, for it was held by a Nevada corporation, Rancho del Charro, Inc. (the name was later changed to Hotel del Charro, Inc.). But the real owners were widely understood to be Clint Murchison and Sid Richardson, two Texas oilmen with an interest in everything from racetracks to uranium for use in the atomic bomb.
County records show that on June 10, 1953, the corporation borrowed $500,000 from the Atlantic Life Insurance Company of Richmond, Virginia, owned by Murchison. The month before, the corporation had purchased a liquor license that formerly belonged to Roy H. Pickford of the Rose Bowl Cocktail Lounge in Coronado.
“Its restaurant,” said the Times, “built around a huge jacaranda tree, has not one chef, but two, one imported from Scotland, the other from Palm Springs. Facilities also include a Texas-sized swimming pool, crescent shaped, and pool-side cabanas.” Mollie Porter Cullum, society columnist for the Miami Daily News, wrote in July 1955 that it had “the most divine racing bar you have ever seen. A mural of Hialeah [Florida] and its pink flamingos adorns one wall!!”
There were famous guests, ostentatious arrivals, drunks, bookies, movie stars, mobsters, atomic scientists, gamblers, Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover, and an excess of all things Texas, presided over by two of the richest men on earth.
Clint Murchison and Sid Richardson, who made their fortunes in Texas oil, were spending it on politicians, horses, and making more money. They were partial to Jim Beam, big cigars, hunting, homemade chili, and poker. Some of their friends were Mafiosi and the two oilmen didn’t cotton to liberals or snooty California society matrons, and they didn’t give a damn who cared.
“Serious citizens in La Jolla tend to feel that Hotel del Charro is a Texas enclave, not too much concerned with the town’s welfare,” observed James Britton in an August 1954 San Diego Magazine piece. “Manager Allan Witwer argues on the contrary that his hotel is a very sound economic asset to the community, that it operates in the black, hires its employees locally and buys supplies here whenever possible.”
Witwer, a onetime picture editor for Liberty Magazine and former screenwriter for Warner Brothers, wrote a column about a typical morning at Del Charro during racing season. It appeared in the Daily Racing Form on July 26, 1956:
“The bellman starts his rounds with the Form, scratch sheets and newspapers. First stop, the Murchison cottage. Clint W. Murchison has been up probably since 5:00 a.m. and, just as probably, has transacted more business by the dawn’s early light than most men do in a lifetime. He’s made his coffee and the PBX operator has talked to Denver, Chicago, New York, Bermuda, Dallas.
“The chauffeurs arrive from town with the longest and blackest of the General Motors products. All are air-conditioned, about the same length as a Pullman car, and a trifle less expensive. One of these belongs to oil tycoon Roy Woods, who has a dollar for every drop of water in Niagara Falls. Bob Bowden, the 6'6" maître d’hôtel, is discussing J. Edgar Hoover’s dinner for Vice President Nixon with the chef.”
Britton described a cluster of freestanding units added to the back of the hotel by Murchison and Richardson, where their old friend and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover spent two weeks each summer. “Hoover, who formally patronized Casa Mañana (now exclusively for the old and retired, hence no place for Mr. G-man in full flush), occupied one of the ingenious ‘bungalows,’ which are the best architectural feature of Del Charro.”
The place was a safe distance out of town, on the road to Del Mar and points north, near the intersection of today’s La Jolla Parkway and Torrey Pines Road, a convenient drive to the Del Mar track, control of which they would soon acquire through some questionable dealings.
They’d been paying off politicians since the 1930s.
On March 11, 1933, at the Fort Worth Stock Show, Richardson was introduced to Elliott Roosevelt, the 23-year-old son of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Four months later, Elliott divorced his wife and moved to Fort Worth. In 1937, when FDR stopped by for a visit, the presidential yacht Potomac anchored off the Gulf Coast island of Matagorda, where the president dined and fished for tarpon with Clint and Sid.
Later, it came to light that Richardson had set up Elliott Roosevelt with some Texas radio stations. Coincidentally or not, one of Clint’s oil subsidiaries was allowed to plead no contest and pay a modest fine instead of facing tougher federal charges regarding illegal oil selling, relates author Bryan Burrough in The Big Rich.
In 1941, Richardson was on a train to Washington to take part in a meeting of Roosevelt’s petroleum commission when he happened to share a car with a general named Dwight D. Eisenhower. After the war, Richardson flew to Paris and offered millions of dollars of Texas money to back Ike’s White House bid. Later, Richardson secretly funneled even more cash into Eisenhower’s beloved farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Murchison long knew the value of gifts to high officials and their relatives. “Money is like manure,” he repeatedly said. “If you spread it around, it does a lot of good.”
A March 13, 1958, diary entry by nationally syndicated columnist Drew Pearson described one such gift. “Discovered that Colonel Gordon Moore, Ike’s brother-in-law, has a prize stallion and racing horses on his farm in Virginia. Also discovered that the stallion is a gift of the Clint Murchison family, one of the biggest oil operators in Texas. The gifts to the Eisenhower family are unbounded.”
Continue to Part II