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The L.A. Times gets soused on its own margarita hoax

“The story makes better reading than science”

"Margarita was a frequent visitor at Hussong’s Cantina, and the story I always heard was that she was the Margarita, the one for whom the drink was named." - Image by Dave Allen
"Margarita was a frequent visitor at Hussong’s Cantina, and the story I always heard was that she was the Margarita, the one for whom the drink was named."

Danny Herrera liked to promote himself as the father of the margarita, and every once in a while he found a journalist happy to assist him. By the time the Mexican restaurateur died last week in Grossmont Hospital, there was just enough in the news databases to assure him a prominent obit. The Union-Tribune put his picture on page B-l (Tuesday, May 12) with the headline “Carlos ‘Danny’ Herrera dies; invented margarita in late ’40s.” Next day, the story found its way to the AP newswire and the L.A. Times (“Danny Herrera, Inventor of Margarita, Dies at Age 90”). By evening it had made radio and TV.

News staffers didn’t have to work too hard to flesh out their tribute to Danny—the L.A. Times had just run a profile of him a year before. That May 1991 feature, penned by a freelancer, was 23 inches long and chock-full of period detail. The business end of the story went something like this:

In the late 1940s there was a California showgirl named Marjorie King. Marjorie was trying to buy a hotel in Ensenada and traveled frequently between there and San Diego. She often stopped at Danny Herrera’s inn, Rancho La Gloria, near Tijuana. She complained to Danny that she was allergic to all alcoholic beverages except tequila, but she didn’t care to drink it straight. Accordingly, Danny experimented with various concoctions till he found one — tequila, lime juice, Cointreau — that Marjorie liked. In her honor, Danny named the cocktail the “Margarita — Spanish for Marjorie.”

As Danny Herrera recalled in that 1991 Times piece, this all took place in “October or November of 1947 or 1948.... Charles Collingwood of CBS News and his wife, [actress] Louise Allbritton, were staying here then, and they helped me with my experiments. This took several days.” Subsequently Danny passed the formula to a Mexican bartender friend in Los Angeles, and the drink caught on from there.

A darn good story, and it seems churlish to blow holes in it. But here we go.

First, the medical angle.

“The story makes better reading than science,” says allergist Stephen Wasserman, M.D., of the UCSD Medical Group.

“It’s pretty far-fetched; it’s conceivable but not at all likely that one could be allergic to every single form of alcohol except tequila.”

Then there’s the time frame. “Charlie Collingwood and Louise Allbritton were friends of mine,” recalls CBS News veteran John Beck of Encino, “and they weren’t anywhere in that area in the late ’40s. I knew Charlie because he did a stint for us in L.A. for five or six months, right after the war, when I was head of the L.A. bureau for CBS News. I knew Louise too; it was while Charlie was working for me that they got married. When I read in the L.A. Times last year that this Herrera was claiming that Charlie and Louise were at his place in late ’47 or ’48 — well, that’s what first told me Herrera was off the mark.

“But that’s minor. What’s more important is my own knowledge of having drunk lots of margaritas years before — around ’40 or ’41, just before we got into the war.”

A few months ago, Beck presented the same argument to the readers of Connoisseur magazine. An article had claimed that the margarita was invented at a now-defunct Sherman Oaks lounge during the ’50s. An astonished Beck wrote in:

"...Crediting the invention of the margarita to the Tail o’ the Cock restaurant in Sherman Oaks, California, in the 1950s has raised the eyebrows of those, including myself, who were enjoying the drink as far back as 1941 at Hussong’s Cantina in Ensenada, Baja California.

"It took about a decade for the drink’s popularity to cross the border into Alta California; subsequently, bartenders in such Mexican towns as La Gloria, outside Tijuana, and Mexicali also claimed authorship."

(Letters page. Connoisseur, February 1992)

As a sort of anti-climax, Connoisseur thereupon went out of business.

John Beck isn’t alone. A lot of people remember drinking margaritas before 1947. A call to Richard Hussong, third-generation Ensenada saloonkeeper, confirmed that his family’s cantina has served margaritas for “at least 45 or 50 years.” Further checking among bar-keeps and cocktail guides turned up at least a half-dozen different tales of the margarita’s origin (see below).

Beck has a creation story too, but his has a slightly better pedigree than most: “I believe I knew the lady for whom it was named. Her name was Margarita Cesena Henkel — she was Mexican-German. A lot of Germans settled in Baja in the 1880s — the original Hussong of Hussong’s Cantina, he was Austrian or German. Margarita was the last owner and operator of the Hamilton Ranch, a real old-time traditional ranch in Baja, near Ensenada.

“Margarita was born in San Jose del Cabo on the tip of Baja, but she’d traveled up and down the peninsula. Some other people told me she’d been schooled on both sides of the border — spent time at a boarding school in California — I could never get any information on this. But Margarita was a frequent visitor at Hussong’s Cantina, and the story I always heard was that she was the Margarita, the one for whom the drink was named.

“Now, I first visited Tijuana and Ensenada in 1937 and spent a lot of time there in the late ’30s and the ’40s, when I was working for CBS in Los Angeles. I first encountered the margarita cocktail around 1940, and I’ve watched its whole progress as it made its way up Baja and into California. It took a long time to cross the border. Back in the ’30s and ’40s, Americans did not drink cocktails — bourbon, scotch, rye whiskies were what Americans drank. Among serious drinkers, cocktails were ‘for ladies.’ And tequila was thought to be low-class; Americans thought of it as a drink palatable only to Mexicans.”

When asked whether he could recall the Collingwoods downing margaritas. Beck said no. “I don’t recall them ever drinking tequila. Charlie and Louise were both heavy scotch drinkers.”

In the course of two telephone interviews, Mr. Beck conceded that he may have originally been mistaken about the dates of Charles Collingwood’s West Coast stint. “I thought Charlie was out here in ’46, but now that I think back on it, he was called back east to be White House correspondent when Truman was re-elected. That would make it ’48, so he and Louise could have been at La Gloria around then. They used to slip down to Caliente a lot. I know they went to La Gloria sometimes. I think Herrera may have remembered mixing drinks with them — that much may be true; they were big drinkers, both of them. But I think Mr. Herrera’s memory of the time he spent with big gringo celebrities clouded his memory.”


How Charles Collingwood got sent out to Beck’s CBS bureau in the first place makes an interesting digression. As Beck recalls, “I came back [to the L.A. CBS bureau] after the war, in ’46. I was made head of the bureau by happy chance. In New York they had a problem after the war — they had all these big correspondents coming back after World War II, and they were rushing and shoving for bureau jobs now that they didn’t have a big war to cover anymore. Well, finally the manager at the New York bureau had the idea to send them to California — to lend-lease them to us out here over periods of six months or so. So we suddenly had all these big stars at our disposal. This really built up the L.A. bureau. After two years, New York finally got itself together. Charlie moved to the White House as correspondent. Dick Hottelet, who’d come out here around the same time, became UN correspondent.

“I was head of the bureau till 1960.1 got involved with Ed Murrow and Fred Friendly in ’49, producing a radio show about historical events, called Hear It Now. After the first year, Alcoa, the sponsor, asked if we could do a version for television. So we did, and we called it See It Now. I was asked by Ed and Fred Friendly to work on the television program, so I did that for the next few years. I also represented Ed in other programs, including one he had called Person to Person. In 1960, Ed had a falling-out; he left the network to go to USIA. Fred Friendly asked me to have a job with a new series, called CBS Reports, hour-long news stories. I was producer, one of five, for CBS Reports. I insisted on staying out here rather than going to New York. They humored me — it was nice of them to humor me — I only had to go to New York for a few weeks at a time when I was putting films together. I left CBS finally in 1967. Tried freelancing for about a year. Then a friend told me he was starting Time-Life Films and asked me to be executive producer. So we did move to New York anyway, as it turned out, for four years, beginning in 1970. I retired in 1974.”

Today John Beck is completing a book about the history of Baja California, the peninsula that’s been his avocation for 55 years. In return for the foregoing recollections about margaritas and the Collingwoods, he asked me to try to locate his old friend Bill Villarino, who lived in San Diego years ago and was — is? — the nephew of the cocktail lady herself, Margarita Cesena Henkel. Bill, I was told, could confirm that his aunt was the one and only Margarita. By press time, Bill had not turned up.


We return now to the matter of Danny Herrera. He did not invent the margarita, although he seems to have been a swell guy all the same. Even on his deathbed at age 90, he was putting up a fight.

“He was really something,” recalls his daughter Gloria Amezcua. “They had his hands tied down because he was pulling out all his IVs.” But that’s nothing compared to Danny’s posthumous triumph as media manipulator.

To understand how Danny got headlines crediting him with the margarita, we have to go to the Baja of 10 or 12 years ago. There we find a mild-mannered journalist, a San Diego native, name of Syd Love. Syd’s journal: the Baja Times, an English-language freebie that lives off the tourist trade. By and by, Syd happens upon the posh and legendary Rancho de Gloria, on the old road between downtown Tijuana and Rosarito Beach. Syd finds the innkeeper, Senor Herrera, to be a charming old raconteur, full of well-honed Baja stories from decades past. But there’s more: Sr. Herrera even claims to have invented the margarita. This is a nice bit of local color, and Syd does a story about it for the Baja Times.

Jump ahead ten years. Syd now lives in Pacific Beach and occasionally freelances for the L.A. Times. He reworks some of his old Baja Times subjects into Times features. A profile of Sr. Herrera and his ranch — “The Real Margaritaville” — appears in the May 2, 1991, issue of the San Diego County edition (May 30, other editions).

A year later Danny Herrera dies. His remains are moved from the hospital to Mayer Mortuary for eventual cremation. Daughter Gloria rings up the Union-Tribune and tells them that the inventor of the margarita has passed away. Staff writer Patricia Dibsie checks the database, finds Syd Love’s L.A. Times story, and rewrites it into an inside-front obit.

The Dibsie write-up appears on Wednesday, May 13, and is picked up immediately by the Associated Press. At KSDO radio, the newsroom reads the AP wire and broadcasts the news by afternoon. The same day, Gloria Amezcua’s restaurant, Senor Frog’s, commemorates Danny’s death with half-price margaritas.

On Thursday, May 14, the L.A. Times runs its own obit (front section, San Diego County edition; Metro section, L.A. Metro edition). Once again, the story is based on the fanciful interviews that Danny Herrera gave to freelancer Syd Love. The Times obit, like the piece in the U-T, leaves out the names of supposed co-inventors Charles Collingwood and Louise Allbritton. This is too bad, because it misses the opportunity to remind the reader of one of Miss Allbritton’s finest films: San Diego, I Love You.

Margarita Tales

Over the years, the following stories have been offered as explanations of the margarita’s origin and/or name.

  1. A Virginia City, NV, bartender named the drink for his girlfriend after she was killed in a barroom shootout. The story seems to be set before 1900, but is probably of more recent origin.
  2. The cocktail was developed by a bartender at Caliente, c. 1930.
  3. Dona Bertha, owner of Bertita’s bar in Taxco, Mexico, invented it in 1930.
  4. The drink was named c. 1940 for Margo, the Mexican dancer who later married Eddie Albert.
  5. There was a girl who shook the drinks in some Mexican bar in the 1930s, and her name was Margarita.
  6. Daniel Negrete, bartender, invented the margarita at the Garci Crespo Hotel in Puebla, Mexico, in 1936.
  7. A San Antonio woman named Margarita Sames used to order the drink at the Flamingo Hotel in Acapulco during the 1950s.
  8. It was invented at the Tail o’ the Cock restaurant in Los Angeles (Sherman Oaks) in the 1950s.
  9. There was a woman named Margarita King, who owned the Hamilton Ranch during the 1940s. (Note that this is almost identical to the story offered in the accompanying story by retired newsman John Beck; significantly, this is the version given by Richard Hussong of Hussong’s Cantina in Ensenada.)

In addition, it should be noted that there are several drinks with names similar to margarita. Vic Bergeron’s 1948 Bartenders Guide describes a Marguerite, involving Pernod and lime and grenadine, and there is quite another Marguerite drink listed in other books. Be on the lookout also for the margarato (spelling varies) and “celebrity” cocktails named Margaret Thus-and-Such.

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"Margarita was a frequent visitor at Hussong’s Cantina, and the story I always heard was that she was the Margarita, the one for whom the drink was named." - Image by Dave Allen
"Margarita was a frequent visitor at Hussong’s Cantina, and the story I always heard was that she was the Margarita, the one for whom the drink was named."

Danny Herrera liked to promote himself as the father of the margarita, and every once in a while he found a journalist happy to assist him. By the time the Mexican restaurateur died last week in Grossmont Hospital, there was just enough in the news databases to assure him a prominent obit. The Union-Tribune put his picture on page B-l (Tuesday, May 12) with the headline “Carlos ‘Danny’ Herrera dies; invented margarita in late ’40s.” Next day, the story found its way to the AP newswire and the L.A. Times (“Danny Herrera, Inventor of Margarita, Dies at Age 90”). By evening it had made radio and TV.

News staffers didn’t have to work too hard to flesh out their tribute to Danny—the L.A. Times had just run a profile of him a year before. That May 1991 feature, penned by a freelancer, was 23 inches long and chock-full of period detail. The business end of the story went something like this:

In the late 1940s there was a California showgirl named Marjorie King. Marjorie was trying to buy a hotel in Ensenada and traveled frequently between there and San Diego. She often stopped at Danny Herrera’s inn, Rancho La Gloria, near Tijuana. She complained to Danny that she was allergic to all alcoholic beverages except tequila, but she didn’t care to drink it straight. Accordingly, Danny experimented with various concoctions till he found one — tequila, lime juice, Cointreau — that Marjorie liked. In her honor, Danny named the cocktail the “Margarita — Spanish for Marjorie.”

As Danny Herrera recalled in that 1991 Times piece, this all took place in “October or November of 1947 or 1948.... Charles Collingwood of CBS News and his wife, [actress] Louise Allbritton, were staying here then, and they helped me with my experiments. This took several days.” Subsequently Danny passed the formula to a Mexican bartender friend in Los Angeles, and the drink caught on from there.

A darn good story, and it seems churlish to blow holes in it. But here we go.

First, the medical angle.

“The story makes better reading than science,” says allergist Stephen Wasserman, M.D., of the UCSD Medical Group.

“It’s pretty far-fetched; it’s conceivable but not at all likely that one could be allergic to every single form of alcohol except tequila.”

Then there’s the time frame. “Charlie Collingwood and Louise Allbritton were friends of mine,” recalls CBS News veteran John Beck of Encino, “and they weren’t anywhere in that area in the late ’40s. I knew Charlie because he did a stint for us in L.A. for five or six months, right after the war, when I was head of the L.A. bureau for CBS News. I knew Louise too; it was while Charlie was working for me that they got married. When I read in the L.A. Times last year that this Herrera was claiming that Charlie and Louise were at his place in late ’47 or ’48 — well, that’s what first told me Herrera was off the mark.

“But that’s minor. What’s more important is my own knowledge of having drunk lots of margaritas years before — around ’40 or ’41, just before we got into the war.”

A few months ago, Beck presented the same argument to the readers of Connoisseur magazine. An article had claimed that the margarita was invented at a now-defunct Sherman Oaks lounge during the ’50s. An astonished Beck wrote in:

"...Crediting the invention of the margarita to the Tail o’ the Cock restaurant in Sherman Oaks, California, in the 1950s has raised the eyebrows of those, including myself, who were enjoying the drink as far back as 1941 at Hussong’s Cantina in Ensenada, Baja California.

"It took about a decade for the drink’s popularity to cross the border into Alta California; subsequently, bartenders in such Mexican towns as La Gloria, outside Tijuana, and Mexicali also claimed authorship."

(Letters page. Connoisseur, February 1992)

As a sort of anti-climax, Connoisseur thereupon went out of business.

John Beck isn’t alone. A lot of people remember drinking margaritas before 1947. A call to Richard Hussong, third-generation Ensenada saloonkeeper, confirmed that his family’s cantina has served margaritas for “at least 45 or 50 years.” Further checking among bar-keeps and cocktail guides turned up at least a half-dozen different tales of the margarita’s origin (see below).

Beck has a creation story too, but his has a slightly better pedigree than most: “I believe I knew the lady for whom it was named. Her name was Margarita Cesena Henkel — she was Mexican-German. A lot of Germans settled in Baja in the 1880s — the original Hussong of Hussong’s Cantina, he was Austrian or German. Margarita was the last owner and operator of the Hamilton Ranch, a real old-time traditional ranch in Baja, near Ensenada.

“Margarita was born in San Jose del Cabo on the tip of Baja, but she’d traveled up and down the peninsula. Some other people told me she’d been schooled on both sides of the border — spent time at a boarding school in California — I could never get any information on this. But Margarita was a frequent visitor at Hussong’s Cantina, and the story I always heard was that she was the Margarita, the one for whom the drink was named.

“Now, I first visited Tijuana and Ensenada in 1937 and spent a lot of time there in the late ’30s and the ’40s, when I was working for CBS in Los Angeles. I first encountered the margarita cocktail around 1940, and I’ve watched its whole progress as it made its way up Baja and into California. It took a long time to cross the border. Back in the ’30s and ’40s, Americans did not drink cocktails — bourbon, scotch, rye whiskies were what Americans drank. Among serious drinkers, cocktails were ‘for ladies.’ And tequila was thought to be low-class; Americans thought of it as a drink palatable only to Mexicans.”

When asked whether he could recall the Collingwoods downing margaritas. Beck said no. “I don’t recall them ever drinking tequila. Charlie and Louise were both heavy scotch drinkers.”

In the course of two telephone interviews, Mr. Beck conceded that he may have originally been mistaken about the dates of Charles Collingwood’s West Coast stint. “I thought Charlie was out here in ’46, but now that I think back on it, he was called back east to be White House correspondent when Truman was re-elected. That would make it ’48, so he and Louise could have been at La Gloria around then. They used to slip down to Caliente a lot. I know they went to La Gloria sometimes. I think Herrera may have remembered mixing drinks with them — that much may be true; they were big drinkers, both of them. But I think Mr. Herrera’s memory of the time he spent with big gringo celebrities clouded his memory.”


How Charles Collingwood got sent out to Beck’s CBS bureau in the first place makes an interesting digression. As Beck recalls, “I came back [to the L.A. CBS bureau] after the war, in ’46. I was made head of the bureau by happy chance. In New York they had a problem after the war — they had all these big correspondents coming back after World War II, and they were rushing and shoving for bureau jobs now that they didn’t have a big war to cover anymore. Well, finally the manager at the New York bureau had the idea to send them to California — to lend-lease them to us out here over periods of six months or so. So we suddenly had all these big stars at our disposal. This really built up the L.A. bureau. After two years, New York finally got itself together. Charlie moved to the White House as correspondent. Dick Hottelet, who’d come out here around the same time, became UN correspondent.

“I was head of the bureau till 1960.1 got involved with Ed Murrow and Fred Friendly in ’49, producing a radio show about historical events, called Hear It Now. After the first year, Alcoa, the sponsor, asked if we could do a version for television. So we did, and we called it See It Now. I was asked by Ed and Fred Friendly to work on the television program, so I did that for the next few years. I also represented Ed in other programs, including one he had called Person to Person. In 1960, Ed had a falling-out; he left the network to go to USIA. Fred Friendly asked me to have a job with a new series, called CBS Reports, hour-long news stories. I was producer, one of five, for CBS Reports. I insisted on staying out here rather than going to New York. They humored me — it was nice of them to humor me — I only had to go to New York for a few weeks at a time when I was putting films together. I left CBS finally in 1967. Tried freelancing for about a year. Then a friend told me he was starting Time-Life Films and asked me to be executive producer. So we did move to New York anyway, as it turned out, for four years, beginning in 1970. I retired in 1974.”

Today John Beck is completing a book about the history of Baja California, the peninsula that’s been his avocation for 55 years. In return for the foregoing recollections about margaritas and the Collingwoods, he asked me to try to locate his old friend Bill Villarino, who lived in San Diego years ago and was — is? — the nephew of the cocktail lady herself, Margarita Cesena Henkel. Bill, I was told, could confirm that his aunt was the one and only Margarita. By press time, Bill had not turned up.


We return now to the matter of Danny Herrera. He did not invent the margarita, although he seems to have been a swell guy all the same. Even on his deathbed at age 90, he was putting up a fight.

“He was really something,” recalls his daughter Gloria Amezcua. “They had his hands tied down because he was pulling out all his IVs.” But that’s nothing compared to Danny’s posthumous triumph as media manipulator.

To understand how Danny got headlines crediting him with the margarita, we have to go to the Baja of 10 or 12 years ago. There we find a mild-mannered journalist, a San Diego native, name of Syd Love. Syd’s journal: the Baja Times, an English-language freebie that lives off the tourist trade. By and by, Syd happens upon the posh and legendary Rancho de Gloria, on the old road between downtown Tijuana and Rosarito Beach. Syd finds the innkeeper, Senor Herrera, to be a charming old raconteur, full of well-honed Baja stories from decades past. But there’s more: Sr. Herrera even claims to have invented the margarita. This is a nice bit of local color, and Syd does a story about it for the Baja Times.

Jump ahead ten years. Syd now lives in Pacific Beach and occasionally freelances for the L.A. Times. He reworks some of his old Baja Times subjects into Times features. A profile of Sr. Herrera and his ranch — “The Real Margaritaville” — appears in the May 2, 1991, issue of the San Diego County edition (May 30, other editions).

A year later Danny Herrera dies. His remains are moved from the hospital to Mayer Mortuary for eventual cremation. Daughter Gloria rings up the Union-Tribune and tells them that the inventor of the margarita has passed away. Staff writer Patricia Dibsie checks the database, finds Syd Love’s L.A. Times story, and rewrites it into an inside-front obit.

The Dibsie write-up appears on Wednesday, May 13, and is picked up immediately by the Associated Press. At KSDO radio, the newsroom reads the AP wire and broadcasts the news by afternoon. The same day, Gloria Amezcua’s restaurant, Senor Frog’s, commemorates Danny’s death with half-price margaritas.

On Thursday, May 14, the L.A. Times runs its own obit (front section, San Diego County edition; Metro section, L.A. Metro edition). Once again, the story is based on the fanciful interviews that Danny Herrera gave to freelancer Syd Love. The Times obit, like the piece in the U-T, leaves out the names of supposed co-inventors Charles Collingwood and Louise Allbritton. This is too bad, because it misses the opportunity to remind the reader of one of Miss Allbritton’s finest films: San Diego, I Love You.

Margarita Tales

Over the years, the following stories have been offered as explanations of the margarita’s origin and/or name.

  1. A Virginia City, NV, bartender named the drink for his girlfriend after she was killed in a barroom shootout. The story seems to be set before 1900, but is probably of more recent origin.
  2. The cocktail was developed by a bartender at Caliente, c. 1930.
  3. Dona Bertha, owner of Bertita’s bar in Taxco, Mexico, invented it in 1930.
  4. The drink was named c. 1940 for Margo, the Mexican dancer who later married Eddie Albert.
  5. There was a girl who shook the drinks in some Mexican bar in the 1930s, and her name was Margarita.
  6. Daniel Negrete, bartender, invented the margarita at the Garci Crespo Hotel in Puebla, Mexico, in 1936.
  7. A San Antonio woman named Margarita Sames used to order the drink at the Flamingo Hotel in Acapulco during the 1950s.
  8. It was invented at the Tail o’ the Cock restaurant in Los Angeles (Sherman Oaks) in the 1950s.
  9. There was a woman named Margarita King, who owned the Hamilton Ranch during the 1940s. (Note that this is almost identical to the story offered in the accompanying story by retired newsman John Beck; significantly, this is the version given by Richard Hussong of Hussong’s Cantina in Ensenada.)

In addition, it should be noted that there are several drinks with names similar to margarita. Vic Bergeron’s 1948 Bartenders Guide describes a Marguerite, involving Pernod and lime and grenadine, and there is quite another Marguerite drink listed in other books. Be on the lookout also for the margarato (spelling varies) and “celebrity” cocktails named Margaret Thus-and-Such.

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