In last week’s cover story, we described how two of America’s richest and most powerful oil barons took a small La Jolla hotel called Del Charro and turned it into an unlikely base for their political and financial schemes. In the second installment, we trace how the pair used their political influence and financial connections to seize control of the Del Mar racetrack.
Even before Clint Murchison and Sid Richardson acquired control, the Del Mar racetrack had long been associated with mobsters and various other unsavory personalities whose ownership interests were obscured behind famous names.
Bing Crosby, Pat O’Brien, and their pals from L.A. had been the founding operators in 1937. “Bing was president, Pat the vice-president, with the board including the late William A. Quigley, the late Charles (Seabiscuit) Howard and Kent Allen,” wrote L.A. Times columnist Ned Cronin in 1955.
That group sold out in 1946 to a Chicago syndicate headed by Arnold Grant. “Crosby got out and put a chunk of his money in the Pittsburgh Pirates, which is roughly the equivalent of parlaying a gold mine into a gopher hole,” Cronin noted.
“Grant and drawling Charlie Carr ran the Del Mar affairs for two years, unloading in 1948 just before the summer meeting got underway.”
This time the buyers were Joseph M. Schenck and Jay Paley.
Six years earlier, on September 7, 1942, Schenck had been released from a federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut, after serving four months for income-tax evasion in a sensational 1941 case involving, among other things, fraudulent deductions taken in conjunction with the sale of stock in Tijuana’s Agua Caliente racetrack.
To lighten his sentence, Schenck agreed to testify against Willie Bioff and George E. Browne, two members of the Chicago mob who used the corrupt International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees union to extort over a million dollars in protection money from the big Hollywood studios. Schenck, who was chairman of the board at Twentieth Century Fox, worked hand in glove with the mobsters throughout the mid-1930s extortion scheme. (On October 26, 1945, Schenck was granted a full pardon by president Harry Truman on the recommendation of “prominent people,” the New York Times revealed more than a year later, in January 1947.)
Convicted in November 1941, Bioff and Brown were both sentenced to hard time but soon started talking to federal investigators and were released in 1944. Using their testimony, the Feds busted Johnny Rosselli, the Chicago mob’s top Hollywood operator, and six other hoods, who all ended up behind bars. Rosselli would later become a Del Charro regular and a figure of interest in the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
By 1955, Bioff was living under an assumed name in Phoenix, Arizona, where he was friendly with Republican Senator Barry Goldwater and working as an entertainment consultant for the new Riviera Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, backed by the Chicago mob. That November he was killed by a bomb rigged to the ignition of his pickup truck, according to the New York Times.
The Schenck and Paley group ran the track for four seasons “and did a great job of hanging up a new longevity record,” Cronin said. “Then came Al Hart and a new slate of directors.” The year was 1952, and it was announced that Hart was buying his interest in the track for the Alfred and Viola Hart Foundation.
Hart, a longtime associate of the Chicago mob, had been a beer runner for Al Capone, writes Gus Russo in his book Supermob. In the 1930s, Hart owned Central Liquor Distributors, the San Angelo Wine and Spirit Corporation, and Alfred Hart Distilleries.
“In 1949, a San Bernardino grand jury was convened to investigate two of Hart’s partners in Alfred Hart Distilleries, Edward Seeman, the slot machine king of San Bernardino, and State Senator Ralph E. Swing, for soliciting a bribe from a citizen who wanted to obtain an auto-racing concession. However, the grand jury returned no indictment,” according to Russo.
While an owner at Del Mar, Russo says, Hart “struck up a lifelong friendship” with J. Edgar Hoover, “despite the fact that Hart’s FBI file notes, ‘Hart has a reputation of associating with known hoodlums.’” In 1948, Hart had invested $75,000 in Bugsy Siegel’s Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas. At the time of the partnership, says Russo, Siegel had a box at Del Mar, which he shared with his girlfriend Virginia Hill.
In November 1959, Hart crossed paths with Judith Campbell — later to become one of John F. Kennedy’s mistresses — in a penthouse hotel suite in Hawaii rented by Frank Sinatra. The singer had invited Campbell along for a week in Hawaii with Peter Lawford and his wife Patricia Kennedy, the sister of the president-to-be. Hart, like many of Sinatra’s mobbed-up friends, dropped by for a visit.
“He was in and out, and I seem to remember him being there that first day, but it could have been the next day,” Campbell, then known as Judith Exner, recalled in a 1977 autobiography, My Story, as told to Ovid Demaris. “He sticks in my mind because of the comical image he presented when he walked out in swim trunks.
“They were of a jersey material, jockey style, very tight, and his paunch and saddlebags hung over his waistline like an inner tube. None of the parts — legs, arms, torso, head — seemed to go together. He reminded me of a koala bear.”
Despite his appearance, Hart had a reputation for big-time womanizing. One of his many conquests was Anna Maria Pierangeli, a statuesque Italian actress married to singer Vic Damone, who went ballistic when he discovered the affair. Damone related the story in his 2009 biography Singing Was the Easy Part, written with David Chanoff.
“Al Hart, that weasily little son of a bitch! That weasily little soon-to-be-dead son of a bitch! I kept a gun in the glove compartment of my car. We lived up on Moraga Drive in an out-of-the-way area, which is why I had it. Well, now I was going to use it. I’m going to drive over to that son of a bitch’s office and shoot him right between the eyes — that was the one thought I had in my head. I was going to kill the lying little prick. I was so enraged I could hardly see.