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.”
Five days later Pearson added a new entry: “Al Friendly, of the Washington Post, was not so friendly this morning when I called him up regarding the column on Colonel Moore and the Irish stallion he received from Clint Murchison, Texas oil man.
“The Post killed the column, despite the fact that I had sent Larry Berlin all the way to the Moore farm in Virginia, had spent a couple of days of careful checking, and talked to the Murchison people. Friendly claimed it was lack of space, but I’m sure there was a lot more to it than that. Some of the Texas oil men must have put in an emphatic word with the Post.”
Murchison and Richardson were also chummy with Joe McCarthy, the anti-communist Republican Senator from Wisconsin, who arrived for his first visit at Del Charro in August 1953. McCarthy, like the Texans, was a drinker and gambler and spent hours at Del Mar. “I tell you, I think he’s done the greatest possible service to his country,” Murchison told the New York Post in July 1953. “He fears nobody and he’s certainly got those communists feared to death of him.”
“When Joe McCarthy hauled a bookie before his Senate investigating committee and claimed that bets were being taken in the Government Printing Office, Joe must have been very hard up for headlines,” wrote columnist Pearson, a longtime McCarthy foe, in September 1953.
“Just a couple of days before Joe posed as the righteous cleaner-up of gambling, in the government printing office, he himself was playing the ponies at the Del Mar race track near San Diego along with J. Edgar Hoover, Clint Murchison the Texas oil king, and Sid Richardson, also of the Texas oil aristocracy.”
In August 1954, the GOP senator returned for another stay at the hotel. “McCarthy said on his arrival that he was making his second ‘working vacation’ visit,” the Associated Press reported. “He will address a Republican fundraising dinner at San Diego this weekend. He and Mrs. McCarthy are accompanied by Mrs. Robert A. Vogeler, wife of the American held prisoner by Hungary’s Communist government two years ago.”
The senator cut a colorful swath. “McCarthy was virtually on Murchison’s payroll,” Allan Witwer told Athan G. Theoharis and John Stuart Cox, coauthors of The Boss, in 1988. “He’d get drunk and jump in the pool, sometimes naked. He urinated outside his cabana, flew everywhere in Murchison’s plane.”
Though he was a good-time party boy and voted consistently for bills deregulating natural gas and other legislation favored by Sid and Clint, McCarthy ultimately made an implacable foe of Eisenhower, the ex-general, when he broadened his anti-communist crusade to the Army.
As a result, in Murchison’s view, McCarthy was attracting too much negative press and not spending enough time on the oil industry’s agenda. In the middle of McCarthy’s 1954 Del Charro stay, Clint by one account bided his time, then picked the moment to cut him loose.
“After many drinks too many, McCarthy began insulting his wife, Jean, and then stood up and madly flung her, fully dressed, into the swimming pool,” writes Jane Wolfe in The Murchisons in 1989. “Clint shot up from his chair and made his way to his cottage. Early the next morning he sent an associate to McCarthy’s room. The messenger had only a few short words for McCarthy: ‘Pack your bags and get out.’”
Another guest who became persona non grata was movie queen Joan Crawford. “Everyone around the country knew that Sid was a billionaire and there had been a lot of press about him right at that time when we introduced Joan to him,” Murchison’s widow Virginia told biographer Wolfe.
“She followed him around so much that he finally came and sat on the couch between me and Effie Cain, so that Joan couldn’t get near him. He was very shy around women, and he didn’t like it at all when they flirted with him.”
Richardson — known as “Uncle Sid” to the wives and girlfriends of his cronies, according to Wolfe — never married, purportedly because he feared golddiggers, though questions about his sexuality were also inevitably raised. Of women in general, he once said, “They’re all wantin’ a landin’ field, but mine’s fogged in.”
When Richard Nixon, then vice president, and his wife Pat came to La Jolla for their customary Del Charro stay, he stopped off at the Naval Training Center to review the troops and visit his recently enlisted brother Edward. As for his evening with Hoover, he said it was “a personal, social visit, no official business,” according to a report in the Los Angeles Times.
Years later, Neil Morgan, who had been a young columnist for the Copley-owned Evening Tribune during the Murchison era, checked in with a distant recollection. “Waiters told me that Clint and Richardson had their breakfast beside the pool of their hotel each morning at three o’clock, between long conversations on phones with long cords,” he recalled in a 1986 Tribune piece.
“I promised to stay quiet if they’d let me have breakfast with them one morning and eavesdrop. So I woke up at two and was there in a deck chair waiting when the waiter started setting their breakfast table.
“Richardson nodded as he took his seat. Clint didn’t appear to notice me at all. They kept open lines to secretaries in Dallas who patched in calls to New York and Europe.
“I didn’t understand a lot, which is why they didn’t mind my being there. They were buying and selling bulk oil and oil futures and a few oil fields too. They were dabbling in silver futures and even pork bellies. In London, Clint was buying an office building; in Frankfurt, negotiating for a hotel.
“Mostly I just heard grunts: yeses and noes and damns. Both men did a lot of listening.”
Did the two oilmen really allow Morgan to sit in on their morning routine, listening to their oil and real estate trades? Did they trade pork bellies? Perhaps, though, they were notoriously secretive when it came to their business.
Though they grew up in the rural Texas town of Athens, 65 miles southeast of Dallas, Sid Richardson and Clint Murchison hardwired themselves into the heart of the American establishment. Born April 11, 1895, Clint was the third child of eight fathered by John Weldon Murchison, who had inherited the First National Bank of Athens from his father, T.F. Murchison, an unreconstructed backer of the Confederate cause.
Sid was four years older than Clint. His father, John Isadore Richardson, ran a saloon on the town square and owned one of the largest peach orchards in Henderson County. Clint and Sid packed peaches for old man Richardson. As teenagers they traded cattle they bought on speculation during trips to Louisiana. Richardson later claimed he’d made $3500 in profits during his senior year of high school, 1909.
Richardson enrolled in Baylor University in Waco but left after two semesters and went to Simmons College in Abilene. A hard drinker, he did more brawling than studying. Four months later his father died, and Richardson, on family advice, dropped out to work in the oil fields outside Fort Worth.
Murchison went to Trinity University, a Presbyterian school in Waxahatchie. Three weeks later, he was back in Athens, expelled for shooting craps, and went to work in the family bank. In April 1917, he enlisted in the motor-transport division of the army’s Quartermaster Corps but never saw the front and spent most of World War I in Texas.
After the Armistice was signed in November 1918, according to a biography by Murchison’s private secretary, Ernestine Orrick Van Buren, Clint began getting letters from his old pal Sid Richardson, saying there was big money to be made trading leases in the oil fields around the wild boomtown of Burkburnett on the Oklahoma border.
With Murchison’s father’s cash, the pair hustled the less sophisticated out of valuable leaseholds using inside information from drillers about where gushers were expected. In 1920, oil prices collapsed, wiping out most of their quick profits, and the boys parted ways. Murchison remained in north Texas. Using the family money, he became a wildcatter himself, hitting strike after strike. He was well on his way to becoming one of America’s richest men.
It took Richardson a little longer. In 1935, thanks to some surreptitious intelligence, he struck it big in the legendary Keystone Field on the border with New Mexico. Within a few years his fortune was nearly as big as Murchison’s.
Murchison bought Matagorda Island, southwest of Houston in the Gulf of Mexico, and built a hideaway for hunting and fishing; Richardson acquired St. Joseph’s Island across the channel from Matagorda and assigned his nephew Perry Bass, a Yale-educated engineer and son of E.P. “Doc” Bass, to build a modernistic concrete house. Doc had died, and Richardson took Perry under his wing.
“He staffed the island with Negro servants and a wrangler for his cattle and, along with the pilots and chauffeurs he accumulated in later years, this group became what amounted to his immediate family,” writes Bryan Burrough in The Big Rich.
But Del Charro would become the most cherished jewel in Murchison’s and Richardson’s hospitality empire, and its most legendary guest was J. Edgar Hoover, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Politicians, movie stars, and mobsters might come and go at Del Charro, but Hoover, along with his second-in-command Clyde Tolson, was a permanent fixture.
“You had to be there to feel the power of this man,” Witwer once said. “Hoover had more power at that time than the President of the United States. But one man he didn’t faze at all was [Sid Richardson]. Richardson would say, and did so at a particular party with Senator Goldwater, ‘Edgar, get your ass over here and get me some more chili.’ And Hoover did.”
Some accounts say Hoover met Murchison and Richardson at a political fund-raiser in 1951. Others have it that they first crossed paths at a racetrack in the late 1940s. But given the closeness of Sid and Clint to Lyndon Baines Johnson, and the fact that Hoover lived across the street from LBJ in Washington, DC, and had long cultivated Hoover, it seems probable that the Democratic senator from Texas was the matchmaker.
Ed Crowley, a fellow Texan and friend of Murchison and Richardson, who ran the Town House hotel in Los Angeles and was on the board of the Del Mar Turf Club, described Hoover’s special accommodations to author Ovid Demaris in 1972. “We built four bungalows there in the back of the hotel. Mr. Richardson had one, the Murchisons had one, Mr. Hoover had one, and we moved from the Casa Mañana to our little hotel.
“The Texans would come out in the summer and we’d gather around the pool for breakfast and talk over old times and the races and then we’d go to Del Mar. Mr. Hoover and Clyde Tolson would go a couple of times a week and sit up there in their own little booth. And this went on summer after summer after summer.”
Van Buren, Murchison’s secretary, remembers things a bit differently in a 1986 biography, at least as to the number of bungalows: “To the existing hotel facilities, Clint added eight two-bedroom cottages scattered beyond the pool area, each a miniature home with its own intimate garden of luscious and colorful begonias and geraniums.
“One morning during the first summer of their stay at Hotel del Charro, Clint asked J. Edgar if he was enjoying the cottage. ‘It’s fine…but when I was in Florida I could pick fruit for my breakfast right from the trees at my door.’ Clint made no comment and nothing further was said, but the next morning when Hoover stepped into the private patio of his cottage he discovered two orange trees, two peach trees, two plum trees, and a grape arbor. Clint’s wonderful sense of humor was given full reign in expressing his regard for a friend.”
Hoover hosted guests of his own at the resort, according to an account of George Allen, a Washington insider, as told to Ovid Demaris. “I was at La Jolla with Hoover one day when Howard Hughes came to the Del Charro and tried to hire him…. I talked to him right after his meeting with Hughes, and he told me everything they talked about. Hughes wanted him [Hoover] to represent him in Washington. To be his contact man, lobbyist, so to speak…He said, ‘You name the price and I’ll pay you anything you like, give you a lifetime contract — any amount of money.’
“Hoover said, ‘I appreciate your offer, but I’m not interested in any job.’ But the thing that tickled Hoover was that when Hughes first came in, he looked all around and said, ‘Is this place bugged?’ And Hoover said, ‘Oh, no, there’s no bugs.’”
Hoover and Tolson weren’t the only G-men to partake of Del Charro hospitality. Another was Special Agent Curtis Lynum, chief of the manhunt for 19-year-old Frank Sinatra Jr., who had been kidnapped from his hotel room at Harrah’s Lodge in South Lake Tahoe on the night of December 8, 1963. The senior Sinatra tapped his friend Al Hart, president of Citizens National Bank of Beverly Hills and a former owner of the Del Mar track, for a $240,000 ransom in unmarked bills.
On December 11, after the FBI left the cash between two school buses in West L.A., Sinatra was freed; less than a week later, Hoover announced the arrest of three suspects. Lynum writes in his 2005 autobiography, The FBI and I: “About that time I received a call from Clint Murchison Jr. of Dallas, who said he had been following the Sinatra case, and he wanted to congratulate me and more importantly he wanted ‘Curt, Mac, and the children’ to use the Murchison cottage over the Christmas holidays coming up. I accepted, and we took off almost immediately for a relaxing week in La Jolla, California.”
In 1971, columnist Jack Anderson broke the story that Hoover and Tolson themselves had been regularly comped by the hotel. “They stayed in $100-a-day suites at the Hotel Del Charro near the Del Mar track,” he wrote. “The FBI pair never paid their bills, which were picked up by Texas oil millionaire Clint Murchison, the hotel owner.” According to Anderson, Witwer told him that over the years Hoover ran up a total tab of $15,000.
Some mystery remains about exactly what J. Edgar Hoover did in return for that Texas hospitality. In The Man and His Secrets, writer Curt Gentry says he gave Murchison’s lobbyist Tom Webb advance word on forthcoming actions by federal agencies. Anthony Summers, author of Official and Confidential, the Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover, quotes Allan Witwer as saying Hoover cleared the way for Murchison to buy the Del Mar track, which sat on leased property owned by the State of California.
“Murchison and Richardson were not only turned down by Al Hart [an ex-bootlegger and powerful mob-linked Hollywood figure] and his directors, they were practically thrown out of the office,” Witwer told Summers. “And Murchison said, ‘If those fellas won’t deal with me, we’ll sic old J. Edgar on them.’ And Hoover sent two FBI agents to call on Hart. I heard this from the agents themselves afterwards. And then Hart sold.”
Summers also quotes Witwer regarding other mobsters Hoover associated with during racing season at Del Charro. They included Art Samish, a notorious Sacramento lobbyist who worked for California’s mobbed-up liquor industry. One racketeer left Hoover a bottle of pre-Prohibition whiskey as a present, according to Summers.
Another guest with mob ties was a wildcatter and fellow gambler from Houston. “My office faced the swimming pool, and one of the agents was in there with me one evening,” Witwer told Summers. “He looked out the window — we had torches by the pool at night — and he saw the wildcatter, and he said, ‘Allan, what’s he doing here? D’you know who he is?’ And I said, ‘Sure.’ And he said, ‘I bet you don’t know. He’s a partner of New Orleans Mafia boss Carlos Marcello. And I said, ‘Well, tell Hoover that! He has breakfast with him every morning.’ I got a kind of shock that Hoover would allow [the wildcatter] to be with him at all.”
Some said they had even seen Marcello himself, whose various enterprises included a West Coast racing wire and California call-girl operations, hanging around the pool at Del Charro.
Another witness to Hoover’s mob associations was Del Charro regular John Connally, Richardson’s top aide, who was later to become governor of Texas. “I spent nine extraordinary years working for Sid Richardson and Perry Bass, and through them had frequent, if casual, contact with the dominant figure of American intrigue: J. Edgar Hoover,” Connally recounted in a 1993 autobiography. During summers at Del Charro, Connally said, Hoover “tried to avoid the mobsters who also enjoyed their afternoons of horse racing, but a few of them he got along with quite well.”
Continue to Part II