The Del Charro Set

John Wayne, Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Crawford, Richard Nixon, Joseph McCarthy, J.Edgar Hoover

Hotel del Charro
  • Hotel del Charro
  • San Diego Historical Society photo

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.”

Murchison and Richardson ran Del Mar behind a front organization, Boys Incorporated of America, whose board of directors included Texas governor John Connally. Funds from the track went, allegedly, to underprivileged boys. George E. Allen (quoted in Demaris): “Sure, the Boys’ Clubs would get something, but it was a tax racket. One time they wanted to buy all the tracks in the United States. George Humphrey, Secretary of the Treasury, wouldn’t let them do it.”

Murchison named Marine general Howland “Howling Mad” Smith, hero at Guadalcanal, as president of Boys Inc. They paid him $200 a month for his name. The general resigned when he learned that, although the track cleared $640,000 at one meeting, Boys Inc. didn’t make a dime. When the general blasted Murchison in a news story, Hoover told the Morning Telegraph: “I know Clint quite well, and I think he would be the last person in the country to use such a plan as a clever tax or business subterfuge. In fact, I spoke to Clint about devoting some time to youth work, and the charitable corporation of Del Mar is one of his answers.

“Actually,” Hoover continued,“from a law-enforcement standpoint, a well-conducted racetrack is a help to a community, if only for the reason that the people at the track are finding an outlet for their emotions, which, if they weren’t at the track, they might use for less laudable escapades.”

Hoover claimed to make only $2 bets at the track. He even had himself photographed at the $2 window, advocating “temperance and moderation in all things.”

Witwer (quoted in Summers): “We all used to laugh about that. At Del Mar, when he’d been authoritatively tipped, Hoover would place two-hundred–dollar bets (over $1000 at today’s rates). To avoid being observed making large bets...he would send companions — often FBI agents — to place the bets for him.”

Many insiders confirm that, under Murchison and Richardson’s control, certain races had guaranteed results. And when the fix was in, a select few, like Hoover, would be “authoritatively tipped.”

Peter Dale Scott: “All of these anticommunist politicians, but J. Edgar Hoover above all, exposed themselves to political blackmail by visiting the Del Charro in the company of mobsters. Hoover even had a special detail of FBI agents to ensure that mobsters would not come up to him in public at the racetrack.”

Noel Twyman: “Based on investigations by the Justice Department after Hoover’s death, Hoover had received financial favors from organized crime in the form of racetrack tips, information on fixed races, and hundreds of thousands of dollars of free rent for his annual vacations in La Jolla, through Clint Murchison, partner of organized crime in business ventures. Hoover also received ‘safe’ oil deals through Murchison.”

Clint Murchison Sr. died in 1969. The Hotel Del Charro closed in 1974. J. Edgar Hoover died in 1972 and went to his grave claiming there was no such thing as organized crime.

SOURCES:

Anderson, Jack, San Francisco Chronicle, December 31, 1970, p. 25

Demaris, Ovid, The Director: An Oral Biography of J. Edgar Hoover, Harper & Row, 1975

Scott, Peter Dale, Deep Politics and the Death of JFK, University of California Press, 1993

Summers, Anthony, Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover, GP Putnam’s Sons, 1994

Twyman, Noel, Bloody Treason, Laurel Publishing, 1997

Van Buren, Ernestine, Clint: Clinton Williams Murchison — A Biography, Eakin Press, 1986

Wolfe, Jane, The Murchisons: Rise and Fall of a Texas Dynasty, St. Martin’s Press, 1989

Selected Quotations

  1. Summers. “Edgar had been a regular visitor to [La Jolla] since the ’30s and told the press it was a place where he felt ‘God was near.’ ”
  2. Summers. “Racing got [Hoover] overexcited... An in-house joke had it that the FBI agent whose hair grayed fastest was the man who had to get the Director to the track in rush-hour traffic.”
  3. Clint Murchison Sr. “Money makes strange bedfellows. People should spread it like manure. This would make everyone happy.”
  4. Hotel Del Charro staff: “Our father, who art in Dallas, Murchison be thy name."

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