On the Track of the Elusive Baron Long

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June 1, 2012 · Posted in Commentary 

Leslie Evans

Baron Long

I first heard of Baron Long twenty years ago. My wife Jennifer and I had bought a 1910 Craftsman house near USC in the West Adams section of Los Angeles and we were researching its history. We had discovered that from 1921 to 1958 it had been owned by a branch of the Furlong family, founders and effective co-owners of the small industrial city of Vernon five miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles, incorporated in 1905. I had worked in Vernon for a year in an electric motor repair shop in the early 1980s and knew it to live up to its motto, “Exclusively Industrial.” Our research at the Los Angeles main library turned up a small out-of-print book, Leonis of Vernon by James Kilty, that revealed an extraordinary story of the little town’s early days, when it was the hard-drinking center of Los Angeles night life, boxing capital of the nation, and the bane of the Los Angeles Times and at least some of polite society.

 

Our Furlongs, Thomas, city treasurer, who lived in our house, and his brother James, the mayor, who did not, played only walk-on parts in Kilty’s book. Even Leonis, despite Kilty’s sycophantic and repetitive praise, was little more than a shadowy land owner and idea man. The stars were Jack Doyle and Baron Long. Doyle owned Doyle’s Central Saloon at Santa Fe and Joy Streets, where the hundred foot bar was claimed to be the longest in the world, and there were thirty-seven bartenders, each with his own cash register. Doyle also owned the Vernon Arena, where championship bouts were fought to huge crowds. Baron Long was the proprietor of the Vernon Country Club, later recognized nationally as the prototype of the modern night club, haunt of the Hollywood stars, such as Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, Norma Talmadge, and Eddie Cantor. Jimmy Durante played piano there. This improbable juxtaposition of factories, meat-packing plants, and warehouses with a center of regional night life mostly ended with Prohibition in 1920 and has been long forgotten.

Last year in writing a critique of the LA Times coverage of the recent corruption scandals in Vernon I read most of their early articles on the town. Despite the paper’s current assertions that Vernon had from the beginning been a hotbed of civic malfeasance, for a decade there seemed to be only a single villain: Baron Long and his notorious Vernon Country Club. At the heart of the paper’s disapproval was the fact that Los Angeles back then was a dry town, and liquor was available in night spots only in two cities in Los Angeles County: Vernon and Venice. Baron Long owned restaurant-night clubs in both.

As I scanned the years of listings I discovered that Long rose from a small-time bad boy to a major player in night clubs, hotels, and horse racing. He bought the U.S. Grant Hotel in San Diego in 1919, was a partner in the $10 million Agua Caliente hotel, casino, and racetrack resort in Tijuana from 1928, the Monte Carlo of the Western Hemisphere, and capped his career in 1933 taking over the Los Angeles Biltmore Hotel, the largest hotel west of Chicago.

Long was a major influence in hotel and night club design, an impresario who discovered and promoted a number of major show business figures, including Rita Hayworth, and a close friend of film studio heads.

I looked for a biography and there was none. The closest for the Vernon days was a chapter in James Kilty’s forgotten and poorly written paean to John Leonis. For the Agua Caliente period there is a good treatment in Paul J. Vanderwood’s Satan’s Playground: Mobsters and Movie Stars at America’s Greatest Gaming Resort. For the rest, Baron Long is mentioned, sometimes only in a paragraph or a sentence, in a score of books, often presenting contradictory claims about him. I will try to reconstruct the Baron’s colorful life, so intimately linked to the nightlife, entertainment, and leisure pursuits of Southern California and Tijuana. It puts me in mind of Tom T. Hall’s country and western song where the old cowboy tells the poet who asks him about the meaning of life: “It’s faster horses, younger women, older whiskey, and more money.” All this applies double to Baron Long except the search for younger women. He remained loyal to his one wife for fifty years.

Baron Long – “Baron” was his given name – was born on August 8, 1883, in Fort Wayne, Indiana. His father was Mason Long, a Civil War veteran on the Union side and in his time a noted card sharp, gambler, and “a patron of the turf,” who got religion a few years before Baron’s birth and published a repentant memoir in 1878 consecrating his life to Christ.

According to James Kilty, the Baron graduated from DePauw University in 1905, worked as a newspaperman in New York, then migrated to San Francisco, where “he met a rich Chinese herb merchant and went to work for him as a herb salesman. He was very successful.” Typically, Paul J. Vanderwood in his Satan’s Playground has a different version of all this: Long went to Franklin College, did not go to New York, and in San Francisco, “became the pitchman for a traveling patent medicine company. Ogling sightseers remember the hefty, 6’4″ ‘Chinese coolie’ who sold ‘tiger fat,’ good for whatever ailed one.” His obituary in the Los Angeles Times has this episode taking place in New York, where it was a mail order business. Still another variant, certainly apocryphal, has him hitting New York when he left Indiana, becoming a song writer, and making $200,000 at it before heading to San Francisco.

An unsigned column in the December 11, 1920, San Jose Evening News, interviewed Henry Hirsch,  a former roommate of the Baron from his San Francisco days:

“I knew Baron Long when he had millions less than he has now,” Hirsch told the reporter. “About six years ago I was living at the Elks’ club in San Francisco. . . .  A young fellow blew in one night. He said he wanted a room. As I happened to be the house man he looked me up. I told him we were full up. He said he would give $150 for a room. I all but fainted. I knew there were fellows who would sell their rooms for $5 or maybe $10. I happened to have a very large room, and I suggested we might move in another bed. He was agreeable, and we did. An hour later I happened to go down stairs into the card room, and this young man had got into a dice game and the sky was the limit. This young man was Baron Long. He told me he won a couple thousand that night, and he also told me afterwards that he was broke when he arrived, but he was a sport. . . . Long is of the kind that can be broke one day and millionaire the next. He is a plunger for fair.”

Long moved on to Los Angeles. There he became friends with race car driver Barney Oldfield (and is said to have raced him in an old jalopy), baseball great Frank Chance, and James J. Jeffries, a former boilermaker who rose to become world heavyweight boxing champion, 1899-1905. Long visited Vernon, where he met Jack Doyle and was impressed with the possibilities in a mostly alcohol-free county. He partnered with  Jeffries to open the James J. Jeffries Athletic Club in Vernon. Long managed one fighter himself, later lightweight champion Freddy Welsh. A famous bout was held at the club on Labor Day 1908, when Billy Papke, the Illinois Thunderbolt, took the middleweight title from Stanley Ketchel, the Michigan Assassin,  in a brutal eleven-round match, Jeffries refereeing. Jeffries and Long then built the first Vernon Arena, an open-air bleachers at 27th Street and Santa Fe Avenue that could seat 15,000. Jack London and Damon Runyon were both said to be regulars at Jack Doyle’s saloon and the Long-Jeffries arena.

The Baron was becoming a real life Damon Runyon character. Inevitably the two became friends. Runyon, the chronicler of gamblers, betters on horses, and minor mobsters, best remembered for the musical Guys and Dolls, based on his short stories, devoted several of his columns to Baron Long. To mix up the story a bit more, Runyon has the Chinese medicine episode take place in Los Angeles, not San Francisco, and after the Jeffries Athletic Club, not before. He claims the boxing venue went broke, and Long, happening on a Chinese drug store in LA, going into the Chinese herb business, telling Runyon, “I knew that the tribe of hypocondriacs never decreases. The herbs wouldn’t hurt anybody, and might do them some good.” Runyon added:

“He accumulated another couple of hundred thousand dollars, and one day started what later, became famous as the Vernon Country Club. . . . Baron Long was moving up into the hated rich class, marveling somewhat as he went.” (Milwaukee Sentinel, April 24, 1926)

It is easier to follow his public career than his personal life, about which there seem to be few stories. Runyon describes him as “a big, bluff, sleek looking, well tailored chap, with a large, bland, good natured face, and a considerable worldly knowledge and gift of gab.” He was married, her name was Martha. I found an internet offer of the menu from their 33rd wedding anniversary, dated September 22, 1945, placing their marriage in the late summer of 1912. They were married until his death did them part in 1962, but except for that I found little about her. By 1926 when Runyon made his comments the Baron was already a part owner of the U.S. Grant Hotel in San Diego and of a racetrack in Tijuana. He had become a prominent breeder of thoroughbred race horses, but he was also keenly interested in historic architecture. Runyon recounts:

“If Baron Long has any hobby other than breeding and racing horses, it is San Diego. He will walk the innocent wayfarer quite bowlegged about the streets of the city, showing him the visible marks of the city’s growth, and he likes to direct the walking along about 3 o’clock in the morning, so that traffic will not impede his progress.

“He has a mania for old types of architecture. I suppose I gazed upon fifty ancient structures in the old part of the beautiful town one early morning while Baron Long expatiated on their unique attractions, and sleepy cops viewed us with some suspicion.”

 

The Vernon Country Club

 

The Vernon Country Club

 

Long built the Vernon Country Club in 1911 on Santa Fe Avenue at 49th Street, opening in May 1912 as the first all-night club (the others closed at 1 am). Paul Vanderwood describes it as “not much more than a roadhouse set in a beet field with parking in front.” Kilty says that more people came by horse and buggy than by car, and there was a steam-powered street car that ran down Santa Fe Avenue.  As a sign of the times, in 1914 Jack Doyle’s saloon was robbed by two cowboys who rode through the swinging doors on horseback.

The Vernon Country Club cost $20,000 to build. It took in $1,000 the first night, and the receipts the month before Prohibition were $105,000 ($1.2 million in 2012 dollars). What was new about the club was the entertainment. This would become a standard later but the Vernon Country Club was one of the first to be more than a restaurant with drinks. Jim Heimann in Out with the Stars: Hollywood Nightlife in the Golden Era calls the Vernon Country Club “the birthplace for Hollywood nightlife, and the spawning ground for countless entertainers and restaurant men. . . . It was said that the Vernon introduced jazz to Southern California.” And: “The integration of floor show, dancing, chorus girls, and orchestra – another Baron Long innovation – became standard for nightclubs in years to come.”

All of Baron Long’s establishments one way or another served alcohol, even during Prohibition, and generally promoted some form of gambling. He was only arrested once, on February 16, 1916, on a charge of illegal gambling. No doubt the Baron was shocked, shocked, to hear that gambling was going on in his establishment. The episode proved to be part of a bitter fight between Los Angeles County District Attorney Thomas Lee Woolwine and his one-time supporter, Edwin T. Earl, owner and publisher of the Los Angeles Evening Express. The Earl faction was also backed by then-L.A. County Supervisor Richard Norton. The story was recounted in 2007 by Roger M. Grace in the L.A.’s daily law newspaper, the Metropolitan News-Enterprise.

Supervisor Norton was said to have suborned the support of several of Woolwine’s deputies, who began working against their boss. Woolwine fired them, including Chief Deputy District Attorney Harry Ellis Dean. Dean then went to a justice of the peace who, believing Dean still spoke for the District Attorney’s office, was persuaded to issue an arrest warrant for Baron Long for alleged gambling at the Vernon Country Club. Woolwine was outraged. He appeared personally in the courtroom to demand that the charges be dismissed, saying these were harmless games of chance that had been licensed by local municipalities, and while they had very recently been prohibited, the citizens of Vernon had a right to get a warning to desist.

Woolwine then added, “I do not propose to surrender the jurisdiction of this office to a discharged mischief-maker masquerading under the high sounding title of ‘Law Enforcement League,’ who will stoop to anything for political purposes, and who is backed by a man in this city who would do anything to cast discredit upon my administration, for the simple reason that I will not go to his newspaper office and take orders from him.” Woolwine said flatly that he meant Evening Express publisher E. T. Earl.

Earl retaliated by circulating a petition to have Woolwine removed from office for dropping the charges against Baron Long. He got an attorney to file charges. This ended in a courtroom in June 1916, where the judge upheld Woolwine in his decision to let the Baron off. Tempers were so high that Woolwine’s lawyer, according to the June 10, 1916, Los Angeles Examiner, “landed two swift blows on the mouth” of the opposing counsel. The judge claimed he didn’t see a thing.

Vernon Country Club orchestra

Some 2,000 people mobbed the Vernon Country Club on June 30, 1919, when at midnight the Wartime Prohibition Act went into force. The Eighteenth Amendment, the real Prohibition, had passed on January 16, of that year but had no enforcement provisions until passage of the Volstead Act on October 28, which went into effect on January 19, 1920. The Vernon Country Club closed for six months after the June 30 event, but then reopened with a BYOB policy. The Baron found ways to serve his own beer and liquor throughout Prohibition, as the Volstead Act was barely enforced and there were as many as 100,000 speakeasies in the United States where alcohol was readily obtainable up to the repeal of Prohibition in 1933.

The Baron had a knack for attracting talent. Paul Whiteman, who led one of the most popular dance bands in the country in the 1920s, played the violin there. Other famous bandleaders of the following decade who played at Long’s club included Gus Arnheim and Abe Lyman. Sophie Tucker sang and danced, while Mike Lyman, Abe’s brother, later a prominent restaurateur, was a singing waiter.

Long expanded the club, adding the Hawaiian Village next door. Thinking he needed to find musicians to staff it, the Baron was strolling on the Venice boardwalk one day when he heard a fellow strumming on a ukulele. The musician was a young man named Buddy De Sylva. Life magazine tells the story:

“De Sylva  looks like a Hawaiian. Long, a shrewd judge of talent, was impressed by his obvious talent for crowd-pleasing and offered him a job at $60 a week. Buddy was then faced with a weighty decision for the first time in his life. In trying to make up his mind whether to go on working his way through college so as to become a writer like Lord Dunsany or whether to sing and play in Hawaiian costume for tips in a night club so as to become a great singer like Al Jolson, he reacted characteristically. First he procrastinated. Then he chose the night club.” (December 30, 1940)

Six months later Al Jolson, a frequent diner at the Vernon club, hired De Sylva, took him to New York, and arranged to have one of his songs published. De Sylva’s first royalty check was for $16,000. De Sylva collaborated on songs with George Gershwin and was a major Tin Pan Alley composer in the 1920s. He co-wrote, usually the lyrics, such standards as Stairway to Paradise, Button Up Your Overcoat, California Here I Come, Somebody Loves Me, April Showers, Best Things in Life Are Free, and If You Knew Suzie  He moved on to become a producer for Paramount Pictures.

The Baron’s clientele on the other side of the musicians’ stage was a Who’s Who of Hollywood. Regulars included Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Cecil B. De Mille, D. W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, Mack Sennett, Mary Miles Minter, Theda Bara, Lon Chaney, and Blossom Seeley. Kilty recalls, “Tom Mix was an expert at throwing dishes at some of the singing waiters, but one night Jim Lyman retaliated by throwing beer bottles back at him.” Mix also once drove his car through the front door and onto the dance floor, where he bought everyone present a drink.

Charlie Chaplin, “when he was in the mood, would perform some of the antics he was made famous for at his table.” One website devoted to Mabel Normand, Charlie Chaplin’s co-star, recounts that in the summer of 1916 Eddie Cantor was “sitting in a cafe with his back to the door when suddenly someone threw a coat over his head, lifted him from his seat and took him to a car outside. Eddie found himself in a speeding car with a coat over his head and was not able to see who was with him; he was convinced he was being taken for a ‘ride.’ When the car stopped and they arrived at the destination, he was relieved to find that his kidnappers were [silent film star] Thomas Meighan and Mabel Normand.” They had taken him to Baron Long’s Hawaiian Village to hear Buddy De Sylva.

One much-told story was how Baron Long hired Rudolph Valentino as an exhibition Tango dancer – and then fired him! The firing may really have happened but there are a few variants in the telling. Kilty has it that Valentino was also supposed to sing and had no voice. Paul Vanderwood says it was for stealing a sandwich in the kitchen. Jim Heimann says the Baron said he fired Valentino but Valentino claimed to have quit. This would have happened in late 1917 or 1918.

A few years after it opened a slightly later generation of Hollywood stars joined the Vernon Country Club regulars, including Gloria Swanson, Clark Gable, and the Marx Brothers.

The Vernon Country Club was also often used as a film location when a restaurant or nightclub was needed. Anna May Wong was said to have had her first film role shot there.

 

South of the Border, Down Mexico Way

The period leading up to World War I was the heyday of the California Progressive Movement. If today it is mostly the Religious Right that seeks to legislate morality, then it was the Progressive left, which led successful campaigns against alcohol, gambling, boxing, and horse racing, not to mention prostitution. As these pursuits were successively outlawed in most Southern California towns, promoters turned their eyes southward. In Tijuana just over the border, horse races were legal. They began in the late 1880s when the town did not really yet exist – the population reached 242 only in 1900 – and without a proper track. In 1907 a Mexican government decree legalized gambling in the border town, with some idiosyncratic restrictions – games of pure chance such as roulette or slot machines were prohibited but card and dice games where some level of skill was presumed were allowed. The final impulse came when the California Progressives succeeded in passing the Walker-Otis Anti-Race Track Gambling Act in 1909, which closed the state’s race tracks. Prostitution was forced outdoors by the Red Light Abatement law of 1912, which allowed buildings used as brothels to be seized by the government. That hastened the flight south.

Best known was the ABW Corporation, a partnership of Marvin Allen, Frank “Booze” Beyer, and Carl Withington, who had run bars and whorehouses in Bakersfield. They set up a big operation in Mexicali, centered on their Owl Cafe, with an outpost in Tijuana that would expand in future years (see Vanderwood’s Satan’s Playground, and Taylor).

In the spring of 1915 a group of promoters organized the Lower California Jockey Club and began construction of a race track in Tijuana, which then had a population of 1,000. Baron Long joined San Francisco boxing promoter “Sunny” Jim Coffroth in buying them out, with backing from San Diego sugar magnate John Spreckels. The Jockey Club quickly became a popular stopping place for visitors from across the border.

John Gilbert and Leatrice Joy were married there. Jim  Heimann writes:

“The addition of Baron Long to the investment group cemented the Hollywood connection, and those celebrities who patronized the Ship, Vernon Country Club, and other Long hotspots knew they could count on the Baron to show them a good time.”

The track opened on New Year’s Day 1916. Ten thousand Americans showed up for the occasion, a San Diego railroad building a special line to get them there. Many Hollywood stars attended the opening, along with Los Angeles County Sheriff J. C. Cline and the governor of Baja California, Esteban Cantu.

Some on the American side of the border took a dimmer view. Lawrence Taylor in his “Wild Frontier” article writes:

“San Diego city authorities banned attempts to advertise Tijuana races in the downtown area. Some newspapers, particularly the Los Angeles Morning Tribune, believed that the crowds were drawn away from the San Diego Panama-California Exposition of 1915-1916 by the ‘racetrack gambling hell at Tijuana.'” The mayor of Los Angeles sent a telegram to President Woodrow Wilson calling on him to close the border with Mexico.

In January 1917 in heavy flooding the entire track and its flimsy bleachers were washed down the Tijuana River. Paul Vanderwood in his Juan Soldado writes that this prompted “San Diego preachers to praise The Lord for purging the region of horse-race gambling, but the promoters, encouraged both by their profits and by Governor Cantu, quickly reconstructed the complex, which reopened in mid-April and just three months later had to be remodeled and expanded to accommodate a rush of betting spectators.”

By the Sea, By the Sea, By the Beautiful Sea!

 

The Baron owned two seaside nightclub-restaurants, the Ship Cafe in Venice and the Sunset Inn in Santa Monica. Venice, California, was Abbot Kinney’s fantasy imitation of the Italian original, complete with canals. Kinney built the unique Cabrillo, the Ship Cafe, modeled on a Spanish galleon, in 1905. It was first run by Carlo Marchetti. The building was designed by architects Norman Marsh and Clarence Russell to replicate the San Salvador, the ship Portuguese explorer Juan Cabrillo captained on behalf of Spain when he discovered Santa Monica bay in October 1542. Baron Long bought it in 1917, in partnership with Julius Rosenfield.

 

The Ship Cafe, Venice, California

Paul Tanck, online columnist for the Venice Vanguard, tells more. The waiters were dressed as sixteenth-century naval officers. “It was at the Ship that Valentino had his heels cooled by movie queen Nazimova, who called him a ‘pimp’ and a ‘gigolo’ at a private party she was throwing for coworkers at Metro. And it was Buster Keaton who, pestered by autograph hounds, jumped out of one of the restaurant’s portholes in a faked escape attempt, only to find twice as many fans when he returned.” Spanish dancers Addison Fowler and Ethyle Stewart, dubbed the “Castles of the Coast” in comparison with ballroom dancers Vernon and Irene Castle, had a fifty week run at the Ship Cafe in 1918. On Sunday, January 11, 1920, the week before Prohibition went into effect, 100,000 people jammed the restaurant and pier.

The Ship Cafe was destroyed in a fire in December 1920. It was rebuilt, this time with two masts instead of three, and lying parallel to the shore instead of pointing out to sea. Baron Long abandoned his interests in the place after the fire. It lasted until 1946.

 

The Sunset Inn, Santa Monica

The Sunset Inn was on Colorado Avenue in next-door Santa Monica. It had been built in 1911 by prominent Los Angeles architect Alfred Faist Rosenheim, who had designed the landmark Christian Science church in West Adams at Hoover and Adams Blvd., as well as oil magnate Edward Doheny’s Beverly Hills mansion. At least two websites mistakenly conflate Baron Long’s Sunset Inn with the nearby Cafe Nat Goodwin on Santa Monica’s Bristol Pier, claiming that the Goodwin place was renamed as the Sunset Inn.  Jim Heimann’s Out with the Stars has photographs of both buildings, which should settle the matter. Heimann says that while Baron Long owned it the Sunset Inn “eclipsed the Ship Cafe and the Vernon Country Club in popularity.”  Harold Lloyd and Bebe Daniels won many dancing contests there. Baron Long bought it in 1916 but sold out a year or two later when Santa Monica went dry.

 

Baron Long’s Tavern

Around the time he bought the Ship Cafe the Baron opened a straight nightclub in Watts, already a predominately black community. Steven Isoardi writes:

“Watts’s musical legacy predates the arrival of the Collette-Mingus generation. By the end of World War I, just a few years after the city’s inception, it was an important outlet for late-night, after-hours entertainment with many small clubs and one somewhat extravagant venue in Baron Long’s Tavern, populated by the wealthy and Hollywood elite.”

The Tavern featured many of the same performers as the Vernon Country Club, including the Fowler-Stewart Spanish dance duo and Rudolph Valentino; in fact he seems to have been hired mainly for the Watts club. In a 1926 interview in Photoplay, shortly before his death, Valentino recalled:

About that time Baron Long opened the Watts Tavern, a road house near Los Angeles. He offered me thirty-five dollars a week to dance there. As my apartment cost only eight dollars a week, I figured that I could pay my rent and board and wear a clean collar now and then. So I took it. I also thought that I might attract the attention of some director, for the film people were the chief patrons of the place. My partner was Marjorie Tain, who is now working in Christie comedies, I believe.

“Nothing came of the engagement except that I met some very fine people from Pasadena  who suggested that I try for an engagement  dancing at the Hotel Maryland, one of the  most exclusive hotels in Pasadena. By that  time the Watts Tavern had begun to attract  an undesirable crowd, and I was disgusted with  the place. The Maryland engaged me to dance  with Katherine Phelps. Our first exhibition  was on Thanksgiving day, when we were received very nicely. A few days later the proprietor, Mr. Leonard, returned from the East  and offered me a permanent engagement. But  the terms were such that I couldn’t accept, and  I walked out. That very day, as I was walking down to the  Alexandria, I met Emmet Flynn. He grabbed me by the arm. ‘My God, I’ve  been trying to get hold of you for a week,’ he  said.  ‘Do you remember that story Hayden Talbot said he was going to write?’   I said, ‘Yes.’   ‘Well, he has done it, and he is going to pro-  duce it. Go over and see Mr. Maxwell, the  supervisor of production.’ The part proved to be that of a ‘heavy’ –  an Italian count, and I suited the type in appearance.”

But Baron Long’s Tavern is best remembered for the African American musicians who played there. One group was Benjamin “Reb” Spikes’ So Different Band. They played San Francisco during World War I, where Spikes was billed as “The World’s Greatest Saxophonist.” A 1951 interview with Spikes in the Jazz Journal recounts:

“‘The So Different Band was the finest of its time – remember, this is back in 1915.’ Reb proudly displayed a huge photo of the orchestra; and continued, ‘Art Hickman would come over from the St. Francis Hotel to hear us play. We had the best clarinetist in the country – fellow called “Slocum” . . . came from Martinique . . . could hardly speak English, but he did a lot of talking through his horn. Our drummer, “Pete” (can’t-think-of-his-last-name) had played with The Georgia Minstrels. The flutist, Gerald Wells, doubled on piccolo and clarinet . . . he’s now president of the musician’s union in Seattle, Washington. Yes, that certainly was a fine band.’

“After gazing at the blown-up photo, he added, ‘Baron Long, who now owns the Biltmore Hotel here, was running a cabaret in Watts at the time. After hearing us, he cancelled an engagement with The Original Dixieland Band and hired the So Different Orchestra to play at his club.'”

The most famous musician on the Baron’s program was Jelly Roll Morton, ragtime and jazz pianist and composer. His Jelly Roll Blues (1915) is thought to be the first published jazz composition. His runaway hit The Crave premiered at Baron Long’s Tavern. For a while he was joined by three of his compatriots from his native New Orleans, trombonist Frankie Dusen, cornetist Buddy Petit, and clarinetist Wade Whaley.

Trombonist Jasper Van Pelt in an entry on his website on New Orleans trombonist Frankie Dusen writes, “In 1917 Dusen, Buddy Petit, and Wade Whaley went to Los Angeles to join Jelly Roll Morton at Baron Long’s night club in Watts. When they arrived Morton ridiculed them so much for their down home clothes and ways, that Dusen and Petit soon returned to New Orleans, angry, and swearing to kill Morton if he ever returned to the city. Whaley stayed on and went on to play with Kid Ory.”

Folklorist Alan Lomax adds:

“In 1917, Frank Duson, [Buddy] Petit, and Wade Whaley went to Los Angeles to play in an orchestra led by Jelly Roll Morton mainly at Baron Long’s place in Watts, on the eastern outskirts of Los Angeles. Disputes arose over dress standards, eating meals on the bandstand, and sharing tips with the result that Duson and Petit departed for New Orleans. Jelly Roll explained his side of the story in this manner:

“‘But, man, those guys could really play. Petit was second only to Keppard on the cornet, had tremendous power in all registers and great ideas. He was a slow reader, but if the tune was played off first, he would pick up his part so fast no one knew he couldn’t read. And, as for Dusen, he was the best there was at that time on trombone. So we had a very hot five-piece band and made plenty money – $75 a night and tips doubled the salaries.

“‘But those guys couldn’t get used to all that money. They used to bring their food on the job, just like they was used to doing in the lowdown honky-tonks along Perdido Street. Here they’d come every night to this Wayside Park with a bucket of red beans and rice and cook it on the job. (Man, I wish I had some of that stuff right now. The best food in the world!)

“‘So anyhow, Dink and me got to kidding the boys about this, because, as a matter of fact, this cooking on the job made us look kind of foolish. And Buddie, and Frankie blew up, threatened to kill us. Next day, they left town, without notice, and went back to New Orleans. Which shows you never fool with a New Orleans musician, as he is noted for his hot temper.'” (Mister Jelly Roll, pp. 163-164)

Joseph Crawford was the real name of Buddie Petit, the renowned second generation New Orleans cornet player. His playing name is given by various sources as both Buddy and Buddie.

 His First Hotels

In 1917 Baron Long bought his first hotel, the Van Nuys, which he held briefly, then sold it as a stepping stone to a major acquisition in 1919, a part ownership in the U.S. Grant Hotel in San Diego. The Grant had been begun in 1905 by Ulysses S. Grant, Jr., second son of the Civil War general and U.S. President. A few years into construction he went broke. The half-finished shell sat for a few years, then he found some backers and it opened in 1910, then the most elegant hotel on the West Coast, with a portrait of his father in the lobby and a military theme in the artwork. Baron Long expanded his share to full ownership in 1927, adding a suite of rooms on the bottom floor that served as speakeasies during Prohibition. He had an antenna erected on the roof for San Diego’s first radio station. They used the hotel staff, including the bellboys, as announcers, and got high school kids who could play an instrument to perform for free to fill in the air time, eventually adding live orchestra performances. Franklin Roosevelt gave a radio address from there in the late twenties, before he was President. Every U.S. President from Woodrow Wilson in 1919 to Ronald Reagan, except for Jimmy Carter, stayed there, including John Kennedy.

 

The U.S. Grant Hotel, San Diego

U. S. Grant, Jr., died in 1929. His widow, America Workman Will Grant, lived on at the hotel until her death in 1942. Francis Merriam, a retired waitress whose time at the Grant began in 1939, remembered America Grant well:

“She went with the hotel like chattel, you know, and they used to feed her all the martinis and meals she wanted until she began thinking they were trying to poison her or something. Then she got the measles, I remember that, and she died.”

The Los Angeles Times ran a retrospective on the Grant in 1978. The hotel in its heyday was highly formal. No sailors allowed, and everyone dressed for dinner, into the 1930s. But prices were low. Coffee was 5 cents and it came with free biscuits or cornbread.

The reporter interviewed Carleton Lichty, in 1978 the president and general manager of San Diego’s prestigious Hotel Del Coronado, who had gotten his start at fourteen in 1929 as a bellboy at the U.S. Grant Hotel. Lichty got the job because his brother Eddie was an assistant manager. He recalled that Baron Long had paid for his brother’s wedding reception.

“In those days,” he said, “The Baron had firm rules. We bellboys had to stand at attention, with hands behind our backs, right in the middle of the lobby so we could see all the doors. No guest was supposed to carry their own bags. We’d get a running start, and slide across the tile right to their sides. And another thing – we all had to carry a pack of matches in our hand. When someone lifted a cigarette to their mouth, we had to slide over and light it before they could reach for their own match. It would always be men, of course. Ladies didn’t smoke in public.”

Lichty described the night in December 1933 when Prohibition ended:

“The Baron must have gotten his hands on more beer than anyone else in town. The fire chief put the firemen’s band on a wagon and they came down the street – oompa-pa, oompa-pa – and everyone was singing ‘Happy Days Are Here Again.’ We just kept hauling barrels up from the basement into the Rendezvous Club. What a Night.”

 

 Agua Caliente – The Monte Carlo of the Americas

Baron Long had been involved in Tijuana since 1915 when he and Jim Coffroth took over the Tijuana Jockey Club and built their racetrack. With the passage of Prohibition in 1920 Americans became much more interested in Tijuana night life; 64,000 crossed the border over that Fourth of July weekend. Carl Withington’s ABW Corporation had built a luxury casino they pretentiously named the Monte Carlo next to Long and Coffroth’s track, and invited the Baron to build an adjacent first-class restaurant and nightclub. He did so, naming it the Sunset Inn, after the place he had owned on the Santa Monica Pier. Jim Heimann writes:

“To get to the border track, merrymakers had to pass the Inn, and the gambling hall made a fortune. The Gold Room, built to accommodate high rollers, specifically Universal Studio president Carl Laemmle, was also a favorite of studio head Joseph Schenck, who would motor south in his chauffeur-driven limousine . . . to drop $100,000 on a single race.”

Old standbys like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd showed up, now joined by next-generation Hollywood stars such as Mary Astor, Norma Shearer, and Gloria Swanson. Helena Rubenstein held an event at the Sunset Inn in 1923 where her guests included the president of the University of California and Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr. Still, ABW was a shady operation that ran brothels as well as upscale resorts (although the most famous whorehouse in town, the Moulin Rouge, was owned by Soo Yasuhara, a Japanese immigrant). Carl Withington’s death in 1925 set off a chain of events that brought the Baron into a more direct interest in ABW, but with a less disreputable set of partners.

 

The Border Barons, from left: James Crofton, John Mills (their general manager), Wirt G. Bowman, and Baron Long

The catalyst was Wirt Bowman, a wealthy rancher and Democratic Party activist from Nogales, Arizona, where he also owned a bank. Bowman assumed Withington’s place in the ABW Corporation, then brought in Baron Long. These two allied with one of ABW’s employees, James Crofton, a one-time drifter, machinist, circus performer, and blackjack dealer. Within two years Withington’s remaining partners, “Booze” Beyer and Marvin Allen, had been forced out. Bowman, Long, and Crofton then allied with Baja California Governor Abelardo Rodriguez and emerged as the Border Barons, looking to build the largest and most extravagant spa, casino, and hotel in the Western Hemisphere. The location they chose was a run-down hot springs three miles south of Tijuana called Agua Caliente. They kept the name for their resort.

In their division of labor among the Border Barons, Bowman was to run the casino, Baron Long the hotel, and Crofton the racetrack after it was added. They put Baron Long in charge of hiring an architect and designing the whole conglomerate. He had five prominent Southern California architects submit designs. The styles of the day were unrelievedly modern: high-rise steel and glass. Long rejected them all. He had a lifelong fascination and love of old architecture and ornate decoration. Agua Caliente would be shaped by that ethos. Lawrence Herzog in his book on U.S.-Mexican border architecture writes:

“But, of course, the Agua Caliente complex really dominated the city after 1927. It was the vision of Baron Long, a horse-racing promoter from Los Angeles who also owned the elegant U.S. Grant Hotel in San Diego. Long was among the many investors and builders who in 1920 fell in love with the myth of old Spain and old Mexico and wanted to ‘revive’ their memories in the architecture of the 1920s on both sides of the border. Long . . . ordered his workers to tear down the old wooden hotel, which had been built on the site of a natural hot springs, called the Tijuana Hot Springs Hotel, where Americans suffering from tuberculosis at the end of the nineteenth century had come to seek the curative powers of the earth’s mineral-filled waters. When they were through yanking out the original buildings, all that was left were two sycamore trees standing at the main entrance. Now would come the palatial casino with its Arabian-like baths and swimming pool, a touch of paradise just south of the border. One of the impressive things about Agua Caliente was the natural landscaping, the rows of palm trees and other exotic tropical plants and the bright green lawns, all the work of a Mexican landscape expert, originally from Scotland, who had previously worked on one of the great urban parks in the West: Balboa Park, across the border in San Diego. This was truly a bicultural architectural achievement.”

With his gambler’s sensibility Long finally engaged a self-taught nineteen-year-old high-school dropout, Wayne McAllister. McAllister at seventeen or eighteen had gone to work as a draftsman for a one-man architectural firm, San Diego Architectural Service Bureau. His boss, P. Brainerd Hale, McAllister later told Chris Nichols, was a dedicated womanizer, despite the fact that he “had eleven children and a wooden leg.” Hale soon skipped town for Mexico with a strip tease artist, leaving McAllister as head of the near nonexistent business. Baron Long took a liking to the young man. He drove McAllister to Tijuana to the site of the hot springs, a remote spot covered with scrub brush, where the old wood-frame hotel stood, ready for demolition. Satan’s Playground quotes him as telling McAllister he wanted the resort to appear “so a weary traveler coming across [the border] turns down this little ravine and sees a beautiful old mission, and I want you to create this mission.”

McAllister and his soon-to-be-wife Corinne Fuller spent a year creating plans for a monumental Mission Revival extravaganza. With an unlimited budget, they planned a hotel, spa, and casino, with the conventional Mission Revival white stucco walls and overhanging red tile roofs, plus eclectic additions of Art Deco elements, Mediterranean gardens, Louis XV furniture, and elaborate tile and gold filigree work throughout. In Mexico in those days there were no prolonged approval processes. Wayne and Corinne would get something down on paper at night and the next morning a crew would start to build it. Vanderwood writes:

“The McAllisters somehow pulled the components together into a celebrated, world-class jewel that architectural digests singled out as unique and praised as a marvel.

Agua Caliente, Tijuana

“At the roadway entranceway to the complex stood the resort’s trademark, a massive 80-foot tower of Moorish inspiration resting on an arched base through which motor vehicles passed to and from the hotel and casino.” Construction began in mid-1927. The hotel had space for 500 guests, while nearby they built fifty bungalows arranged to look like an Old World village. The site included a professional golf course, an Olympic swimming pool, a greyhound racetrack, gardens, and its own airfield to fly in guests. At the edge of the property they built a free swimming pool for Tijuana’s local residents. Agua Caliente, opened on June 23, 1928. Construction costs were $10 million ($134 million in 2012 dollars). A top-of-the-line racetrack would be added in December 1929 for another $2 million.

Inside, the resort was opulent. Satan’s Playground again:

“A diversity of decorators and expert craftsmen were given an open checkbook to add their specialties to the interior. Close inspection revealed a hodgepodge of style and designs, but the overall impression was of Moorish royal wealth and splendor. Floors in the gaming hall were of domestic marble, as were the columns that rose to an intricate, delicate filigree ceiling. . . . Imbedded in the filigree was a large, oval painting by the Dutch muralist Anthony Hinsburgen, which added a classical touch, as did the cast bronze statuary on pillars and in niches in the main gaming room, lit by ornate fixtures finely crafted especially for the club and an immense chandelier from Milan, said to be the most exquisite and expensive in the hemisphere.”

Bruce Henstell in Sunshine and Wealth writes;

“The facilities were first class all the way. Long personally traveled to Europe to select the finest vintages for the wine cellar. Every room in the hotel had pink bathrooms and featured tortoiseshell toilet seats. The service in the hotel restaurant was gold. The track offered a total of $1,000,000 each year in purses which no track in North American could match. A 6,902-yard, par 72, championship golf course was created out of adobe. The highpoint of its year was the Agua Caliente Open with a first prize of $15,000, the largest single golf prize in the world.”

The roaring twenties were still going strong, but Prohibition and a host of Progressive-inspired blue laws against drinking, gambling, and racetracks, had cast a Puritan pall over Southern California and much of the nation. Los Angeles had even passed a law making “dancing with the cheek or head touching one’s partner” illegal as well as any music “suggestive of bodily contortions.” Even the fox trot and tango were banned, much less the Charleston. No wonder people flocked to the new pleasure palace, led by the rich and famous but sweeping up anyone who could get across the border for a fancy dinner and a few dollars spent at the gaming tables or slot machines. Agua Caliente was promoted as the Western Hemisphere’s answer to the famous European casino spas, Monte Carlo in Monaco and Deauville in France.

 

Interior of the Agua Caliente casino Gold Room

Agua Caliente would later be compared to Las Vegas, but those who remember it seem to feel that it was somehow different. Vanderwood in Satan’s Playground writes:

“Today’s Las Vegas palaces may exhibit their frenetic ostentations, but they lack the warmth and hospitality of an Agua Caliente. . . . Hal Rothman, who patronized both venues, compared them for the San Diego Historical Society in 1972. ‘In Caliente you could not go into the casino without a coat and tie,’ he said. ‘You could not go into the Gold Room unless you were in a tuxedo and evening dress. Now, in Vegas they don’t care if you go in there in the nude, if you have someone to carry your money. Down there [in Agua Caliente] it was class, strictly class.'”

The American press had mixed responses. For years, well before the new resort, a regular refrain had been laments at the drinking, gambling, and horse racing of Tijuana. Humorist Will Rogers in a 1926 column responded:

“Americans don’t want to drink and gamble. They just go over there to see the mountains, and these scheming Mexicans grab ’em and make ’em drink, and make ’em make bets, and make ’em watch those horses run for money. It seems that Americans don’t know these places are over there at all, and when they get there these Mexicans spring on ’em and they have to drink or the Mexicans will kill ’em.” (Andrew Grant Wood, On the Border)

The L.A. Times chose to praise Agua Caliente as a rival to Europe’s great spas, saying “The loveliness and completeness of the place is beyond compare. Everything is ultramodern. Monte Carlo, Nice, Deauville have moved to the doorstep of Uncle Sam.”

The Agua Caliente hotel promised a world class chef, orchestra, and floor show. One performer was a teenage dancer, Margarita Carmen Cansino. Her father, Eduardo Cansino, was a Spanish dancer from a little town near Seville. Her mother had been in the Ziegfeld Follies. Fox film corporation executive Winfield Sheehan saw Margarita dance at Baron Long’s Caliente Club and gave her a film contract under her nickname, Rita Cansino. Later the studio dyed her hair red and changed her name to Rita Hayworth.

The big money rolling in at Agua Caliente became a tempting target for criminals. Satan’s Playground gives an account of the worst of it. On Monday, May 20, 1929, a Cadillac money car left Agua Caliente headed for a bank in San Diego, carrying the casino’s weekend receipts. The casino regularly switched cars and routes to forestall a holdup, but this time an insider at Agua Caliente, never identified, tipped off a small-time crook in San Diego. He engaged two thugs, Lee Cochran and Marty Colson, to ambush the Cadillac on the Old Dike road between National City and San Diego. They were told the driver and guard were in on it and would hand over the money – they were expecting $100,000, worth more than $1.3 million today. The robbers were supposed to follow the money car, shoot out the tires, then throw red pepper in the driver’s and guard’s eyes to give them an alibi.

 

Detectives with guns made in the Folsom Prison shop by killer Marty Colson

It all went wrong. The two in the money car, driver Jose Perez Borrego, a former Tijuana police chief, and guard Nemisio Rudolfo Monroy, were not in on it. When their car was forced to stop, Monroy started firing his pistol at the robbers. Cochran and Colson, armed with classic gangster Thompson submachine guns, ineptly ran up on the money car, one on each side, and sprayed it with bullets, killing both occupants. In the process Cochran shot Colson in the shoulder. The two grabbed the money pouch, which had only $6,000 in cash, the rest in nonnegotiable checks and travelers checks, and fled to the home of bootlegger Jerry Kearney, who was not in on the robbery. Kearney got a shady doctor to treat Colson’s wound, then took Cochran out on a boat to dump the guns and checks at sea. Everyone was ultimately caught. Cochran and Colson were convicted of murder and received long prison sentences. In 1932 Colson staged a daring and ingenious attempted escape from Folsom State Prison. He and another convict spent months in the prison workshop and succeeded in making, by hand, two fully functional semiautomatic pistols. They even made fifteen bullets, using the sulphur from match heads and saltpeter for gunpowder. The pair took five guards hostage, but were locked down and couldn’t get to the main gate. Colson proved the high quality of his metal work by committing suicide with his homemade gun.

 

The next year, Ralph Sheldon, a Chicago mobster and associate of Al Capone who had moved to Lancaster, California, hatched a plan to kidnap the four Border Barons and hold them for ransom. He and his gang staged a trial run on December 20, 1930, with an armed invasion of the Hollywood home of Agua Caliente betting commissioner Zeke Caress. They forced Caress to write four checks totaling $50,000. They planned to cash them on one of the gambling ships moored off the coast in Long Beach. Leaving two gang members to guard Caress and his wife until the checks cleared, four of the gang, including Sheldon, drove to Long Beach. They evidently looked suspicious, as their car was stopped by police on the docks, and when the police asked to search it for weapons the gangsters opened fire. One cop and one mobster received near mortal wounds. Two of the gang were captured, including Sheldon. Four were tried the next spring for the shootout, the jury in April incredibly finding them not guilty, on their claim that the police fired first. Three of them were tried again, in January 1932, this time on kidnapping charges, and were convicted. Sheldon got ten years to life.

The Agua Caliente racetrack opened two months after the 1929 stock market crash. The resort’s hotel and bungalows were full to capacity, with fifteen Pullman sleeper cars added on a rail siding to provide additional beds. Twenty-thousand people filled the grandstands, almost four times the rated capacity. Al Jolson was master of ceremonies. Soon, however, the Depression began to be felt, patronage fell off and investors became uneasy. In March 1932 track manager James Crofton arranged to import Phar Lap, a world famous race horse, from Australia. The superb animal won by almost three lengths, setting a track record. King George V of England sent a telegram, “Heartiest congratulations on great victory of Phar Lap.” One well-known racing judge declared Phar Lap better than Man O’War. After the race the horse’s owner had Phar Lap shipped to a ranch in Menlo Park near San Francisco. Phar Lap died there a few days later of arsenic poisoning.

 

Agua Caliente racetrack

In 1933 the Caliente track received another blow when California did an about-face and legalized racetrack betting. Over the next few years new and old tracks opened – Santa Anita, heavily backed by millionaire Bing Crosby, Del Mar, and Hollywood Park in Inglewood with Jack Warner of Warner Brothers on the governing board.

From the outset the Agua Caliente resort had close relations with the Baja California and federal Mexican governments. By agreement, 80 percent of its employees were Mexican; it paid high local and federal taxes; two national presidents were highly remunerated and the Baja governors were actually partners. Agua Caliente was the largest employer in Tijuana, and paid wages of $25 to $30 a day, while the average in the city was only $1.50. The 1934 federal elections spelled the beginning of the end. The new president, Lazaro Cardenas, was a radical nationalist reformer who had little patience for foreign-owned businesses, particularly morally questionable ones, no matter how much money they produced. In 1935 he ordered the casino closed.

While the Mexican government now saw Agua Caliente as an infringement on their country’s sovereignty for the profit of foreigners, the San Diego press viewed it as drain on their city’s wealth for the benefit of rich Mexicans. The California-Pacific International Exposition was held in San Diego’s Balboa Park from the summer of 1935 to September 1936. Baron Long, who by then lived in San Diego, was among the Exposition’s prominent backers. The San Diego Herald flayed him in a rather tendentious editorial:

“Tijuana is reaping millions from the Exposition while San Diego business men and taxpayers are starving! Now we are finding out that [the Exposition] has been opened for the benefit of Mexico and Baron Long. His holdings at Agua Caliente, and the holdings of all Americans in Tijuana gambling are insignificant in comparison with the holdings of Mexicans – some of whom are bitter haters of everything American. When, therefore, American money goes to Baron Long he only gets part of it. He is only a front for rich and arrogant Mexicans who are taking the cream.”

There were bitter and prolonged protests by Tijuana workers against the Agua Caliente closure. Hundreds were faced with losing their jobs and taking huge pay cuts elsewhere in the city, but Cardenas held firm even in the face of threats of local military-scale violence. Civil war in Mexico was far from a distant memory and Tijuana had changed hands by armed clashes more than once. The closure dragged, was partial, then there was a brief three month reopening in the spring of  1937, but without the casino. This made it a losing proposition. Cardenas expropriated Agua Caliente on December 18, 1937, and turned it into a technical school.

The Tijuana unions then opened a fierce campaign to get the federal government to pay the fired workers compensation. There were militant demonstrations and near riots. The unrest was already at a high pitch when, on February 14, 1938, eight-year-old Olga Camacho was raped and murdered. A twenty-four-year-old soldier, Juan Castillo Morales, was arrested and confessed to the horrific crime. An outraged mob burned city hall and demanded Morales’ blood. The government did not hand him over, but made an exception to the national abolition of the death penalty.  Employing an obsolete military custom, Morales was released in a cemetery and told to run while his barracks mates shot at him until he fell.

In a strange turnabout, visitors to Morales’ grave claimed to see blood, arbitrarily interpreting such visions as a sign, with no other evidence, that Morales was innocent. Many became convinced, despite his confession, that he was some kind of holy martyr. Within months he came to be known as Juan Soldado, John the Soldier, an uncanonized saint and object of a religious folk cult. His grave became a place of pilgrimage for thousands of believers. This incredible story is told in full by Paul Vanderwood in his Juan Soldado.

 

All the Pretty Little Horses

 

In 1924, nine years into his part ownership of the Jockey Club in Tijuana, Baron Long decided to go into racehorse breeding on his own. He bought the Rancho el Valle de las Viejas, a spread of 1609 acres northeast of San Diego. The place was named by the first Spaniards who explored the land. Dorothy McDonald in The Southern California Rancher explains the odd name:

“When the winter snows lay heavy in the mountains and the hunt sometimes took them far afield, it is said to have been the Indians’ custom to make an encampment for the old people and the children beside a big spring in a sheltered draw near the south end of Viejas valley. There in the big boulders by the spring are innumerable little depressions where the squaws ground their acorn meal. Such a sight, perhaps, met the eyes of the first Spaniards who entered the valley and accounted for their naming it ‘El Valle de las Viejas’ – the Valley of the Old Women.”

She adds that “Baron Long was the last white man to own Viejas Rancho; for about nine years between 1924 and 1933 his white-painted paddocks enclosed some of the finest race horses ever bred in the west. Cherry Tree, Blind Baggage, Hand Grenade, Sir Lanny, Run Star, Runnymede and Iron Crown – the list of famous stallions that stood at his ranch included all these grand horses. Here, too, was raised Ervast – the horse for which Jack Dempsey is said to have offered $100,000.”

 

The Baron Long Ranch, 1930

 

Naturally this was a topic Damon Runyon couldn’t resist. He devoted a column to the Valle de las Viejas.

“Little did the good Baron dream,” he opened, “as he spread the effulgence of the old castor oil smile over the inmates of the Vernon Country Club that he would one day be monarch of vast acres o’er which he would be galloping, clickety-click, scores of royally bred hay burners, or horses. That he – Baron Long – would be Hidalgo of Rancho de las Viejas, and valiantly carrying on the hoss breeding glory of California.” (Chester Times, December 15, 1931)

After California’s racetracks were closed by law in 1909, breeding became unprofitable. Adolph Spreckels, owner of the giant sugar company, was one of the few rich enough to continue the avocation, and that at a loss. Baron Long entered the field the year of Spreckels’ death, and became a major figure nationally. Runyon continues:

“I doubt that the good Baron Long had any thought of ever profiting from breeding when he bought Rancho Valle de las Viejas and his haras [a stud farm] there. It was simply a bug with the Baron. Yet in 1930 he was fourth among the breeders of America for total thoroughbred winners during that year, and he is largely responsible for the return of California to the important breeding centers of the country. . . . His stallions are the old timer Runnymede, now about twenty-four years old, Hand Grenade, the good Baron’s favorite, Sir Lanny, Iron Crown and Cherry Tree. Runnymede is the sire of Morvich, a Kentucky Derby winner.” The Border Barons had a custom of naming horses for each other. Long had a horse named Wirt G. Bowman, his partners had one named Crofton, and one named Norab, after the Baron’s yacht.

Baron Long’s horses came in first in 251 races in 1931, second 199 times, and third 201 times, winning a total of $200,000.

The Baron’s career as a horse breeder came to a flaming end in 1932 in the Linden Tree scandal. Long was angry at East Coast bookmakers who regularly cheated their customers by “plugging.” To cut their payouts the practice was to throw in a wad of their own money at the last minute on the horses their customers had put the most money on, thereby lowering the odds. Baron Long decided to give them a payback in kind. He had two of his own horses, a lackluster pair who finished last and next to last, entered in a race at Agua Caliente on January 6, 1932, but staged his manipulation to change the odds on the favorite, the two-year-old star gelding Linden Tree. The story is famous enough to appear in several books, including Jim Gentile’s By a Nose: Gambling Tales from a Horseracing Insider.

The odds on Linden Tree were 1/3, meaning one extra dollar would be paid on every $3 bet, the payoff being $4. Long placed a $1,000 bet on Linden Tree with an East Coast bookie too late in the day for the bookie to respond to any last minute change in the odds. Then moments before the last window closed at Agua Caliente he bet $3,500 split among every other horse in the race. This boosted the odds on Linden Tree to 9.7 to 1, or $21.40 for every $2 bet. Long won $9,700 on his $1,000 bet, losing the $3,500 he had used to change the odds., for a $6,200 profit. He called a press conference the next day to tell the world how he had put one over on the crooked bookies. The world was not amused. The Agua Caliente stewards banned him from racing on his own track. They were concerned that betting against one’s own horses looked in some way unethical. The next month the Baron announced that he would quit racing, sell his breeding ranch, and devote himself to his hotel business. The stewards relented and reinstated him, but he did not change his mind.

He opened negotiations to sell the Rancho el Valle de las Viejas to the government for use as an Indian reservation. This embroiled him in a long battle between the Indian tribe and their adversaries in Washington’s Bureau of Indian Affairs that dragged on until late 1934. The government was in process of building the El Capitan Reservoir to provide water for San Diego. It had ordered the removal of about 150 members of the Capitan Grande band of the Kumeyaay Indians who lived along the banks of the San Diego River in the floodplains of the projected El Capitan Dam. The Indians by treaty had the right to select where they might be moved. They objected first at leaving their graveyard behind, but finally chose two adjacent spreads, the Barona Ranch and Baron Long’s Rancho el Valle de las Viejas.

The plan almost fell apart when it was discovered that a second village along Conejos Creek would also have to be moved and the costs of the move and the Baron’s land looked prohibitive. A minority of the Capitan Grande Indians selected the Barona Ranch of J. Wadham, about four times larger than Valle de las Viejas and only $75,000. Long was asking $200,000 for his smaller spread. He eventually came down to $125,000.

The government was still dubious but Historian Tanis Thorne writes that a small group of the Capitan Grande Indians and their relatives from Conejos Creek were adamant that Long’s property was what they wanted. “It had a sportsman’s out-of-town clubhouse, an abundance of hay and alfalfa, and ten to twelve barns. The Paipa brothers, stock-raisers and horse-lovers, were attracted to the Baron Long property, particularly as one of their major financial assets was a large horse herd.” The Bureau of Indian Affairs tried to persuade the pro-Viejas group to settle for shares in the already-purchased Barona Ranch. They failed. Thorne writes:

“[I]n February 1933, those in Conejos joined in the petition with the Paipa group to purchase the Baron Long ranch, touting its advantages of nearly 900 acres of almost level farm land, farm machinery in good condition, barns and stables for houses and stock, electricity, and other modern conveniences.” In a final poll of the eligible Indians in August 1934, 57 voted to go to Barona, 74 still asked for the Baron Long ranch, and 23 were undecided or planned to leave the community. The graves were moved in November 1934, the Capitan Grande and Conejos Indians following immediately, though the purchase was not finally approved by Washington until May 1935. The land today is known as the Baron Long Reservation. According to Wikipedia, 289 members of the band live on the reservation. They run the Viejas Casino, which should amuse the old Baron.

The Biltmore Years

As he was extracting himself from his horse breeding ranch, Baron Long made another huge investment, taking a twenty-five year lease on Los Angeles’ premier hotel, the Biltmore, facing Pershing Square in downtown. The LA hostelry was part of the exclusive chain founded by Gustav Baumann with the New York Biltmore that opened in 1914. Baumann died a few months later in a mysterious fall from his hotel’s twenty-second-floor parapet. His secretary, John McEntee Bowman, took over the business and expanded it nationally, opening the Los Angeles Biltmore in October 1923.

It was elegance incarnate.  Designed by architects Schultze & Weaver, the eleven-story building is a melange of Spanish-Italian Renaissance Revival, Mediterranean Revival, and Beaux Arts. It’s signatory angel, representing both the hotel and the City of Angels, is used liberally.

Inside there is lavish use of bas reliefs, frescos, murals, carved marble, oak paneling, crystal chandeliers, and fine tapestries. Italian artist Giovanni Smeraldi, whose work graces the Vatican and the White House, spent seven months painting the mural ceilings in the main Galleria and the Crystal Ballroom, filling it with images of Greek and Roman gods.

 

The Biltmore Hotel in recent years

Bowman in turn died in October 1931, leaving his company somewhat in disarray, and the elegant Los Angeles Biltmore soon slipped into the red. Baron Long took it over in 1933.

“The Baron then proclaimed (as only he could) the Depression over, the country healed, and turned the Biltmore into a lustrous magnet for celebrities, politicians, social elites, and foreign dignitaries” (Satan’s Playground). He had stayed in touch with Wayne McAllister, the young architect he had hired to design Agua Caliente. Earlier in 1933, as Prohibition was ending, Long and McAllister jointly founded the Balboa Brewery in San Diego. McAllister became a capable brewer and vice president of the company, which had profitable sales in San Diego and Los Angeles. When the Baron acquired the Biltmore he called in Wayne and Corinne McAllister to make a number of strategic renovations aimed an increasing profitability.

First, he had the McAllisters add a bar on every floor, careful to make them architecturally compatible with the existing building and commissioning paintings for their walls. Then he added the Rendezvous, an afternoon dance hall open from noon to 6 pm. The final touch was construction of the Biltmore Bowl restaurant and nightclub. It premiered on April 5, 1934. It was considered the world’s largest nightclub, and could seat a thousand diners. The Bowl was 140 feet long and used no interior pillars. It featured a full orchestra and floor show. Jim Heimann comments:

“With the stars in regular attendance, the society crowd wanted in, and made the Bowl the spot for their parties. The fraternities and sororities from nearby colleges virtually took it over for Friday Collegian Nights, and local radio station KFI sent out national broadcasts from the instantly popular room. The Bowl was a jump ahead in the Biltmor

Baron Long's May 7, 1939, party for his Biltmore employees

 

The Baron gave a party there for his employees on May 7, 1939, that filled the place. He also added a restaurant called Little Paris where he imported not only the furniture from France but the entire staff and chef as well.

 

Baron Long (seated with beret) on his yacht, the Norab, 1940

The Baron kept his yacht, the Norab. He used it while Agua Caliente survived to sail regularly from San Diego or Los Angeles to Tijuana (he also owned a plane that he sometimes used for this trip). He gave President Cardenas a short cruise but it didn’t persuade the militant reformer to back off from his plans to close Agua Caliente. In 1936 he cruised to Catalina Island with producer Irving Thalberg and Norma Shearer as guests. He held frequent parties aboard in San Diego harbor. Vanderwood in Satan’s Playground and even the Los Angeles Times in Long’s obituary say that when the U.S. entered World War II Long leased the Norab to the U.S. government for $1 a year and it was used by General Douglas MacArthur as his headquarters during the Pacific War. As so often happens in searching for the truth about the Baron’s life this account is disputed. The summer 2010 issue of the Liberty Log, a newsletter for U.S. merchant seamen who sailed during World War II, carries an article by Ron Stahl, who served on the Norab in New Guinea. He writes:

“Once it was taken over by the US Army Transport Service, the beautiful staterooms were ripped out and converted into hospital wards with four tiers of bunks close together. It was intended to use it as a sea going ambulance, retrieving wounded soldiers from the front line. Once the refit was done, it set out alone and unarmed across the Pacific war zone to join the US Army Transport Service Small Ships fleet.”

Shallow draft vessels were needed to penetrate the bays and inlets in New Guinea. The ships were crewed by men too old or too young for regular military service. Stahl says that the chief steward and cook were in their seventies and two crew members were only fifteen. In New Guinea the Norab for several months “went up seven days a week and each day brought back about 70 stretcher cases and 100 walking wounded.”

Gary Cooper visited the harbor to entertain the troops along with Red Buttons and Una Merkel. He recognized the Norab from his own time aboard her at the Baron’s San Diego parties. He came on board for a dinner, which Stahl attended.

After the war the Norab lay at anchor in Sydney harbor for several years, then was sold to lobster fishermen from Tasmania, the island and Australian state off the south coast of Australia. It sankl in a storm in the country’s principal harbor. Stahl returned thirty years after the war on a kind of pilgrimage:

“On the sightseeing boat which took passengers around the harbour, I was amused to find that the guide was saying that ‘General Macarthur’s yacht was sunk below.’ He was very disappointed when I told him that was simply not true.”

Baron Long sold his interest in the U.S. Grant hotel in 1944 for $3 million. The Biltmore was sold in 1951 for $12,750,000 to a Texas syndicate, but this did not cancel Baron Long’s lease and he continued as the hotel’s president and operator. His twenty-five-year lease expired in 1958, and he was then made chairman of the board. He died on April 18, 1962, of a heart attack in his rooms at the Biltmore. Martha, his wife of fifty years, survived him. The LA Times, which had once campaigned against the evils of the Baron’s Vernon Country Club, wrote that “his name was legendary in the history of hotels and horses.”

After the Biltmore renovation, Long’s protege Wayne McAllister was in high demand for similar work. His wife Corinne left the business in 1938 to raise their children. Wayne designed makeovers for the Hollywood Roosevelt and Town House hotels. He designed the original Bob’s Big Boy and the Pig and Whistle, as well as renovations and expansions for the Brown Derby, Clifton’s Cafeteria, Lawry’s Prime Rib, and the layout of the kitchens and part of the design for the golden arches for McDonald’s when the franchise was just beginning.

McAllister perfected the drive-in, his creations providing no seating at all, just a circular food preparation hub around which cars parked for outdoor service on trays that were hung on the car windows by carhops. His drive-ins are now long gone: Simons, Wich Stand, Roberts, Herbert’s. They are recorded in The Leisure Architecture of Wayne McAllister by Chris Nichols and can be seen occasionally in old movies. Alan Hess in Googie Redux called McAllister’s works “the most radically modern buildings ever constructed in the United States. No other buildings were shaped so effectively by technology – the automobile.”

In the forties and fifties McAllister worked on the hotels and casinos of the newly minted Las Vegas. He and a partner built the hotel El Rancho Vegas, opening in 1941. The next year he remodeled the El Cortez Hotel for Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel. In the early fifties he designed the Desert Inn, and his most famous Las Vegas construct, the Sands, which opened in 1952. He became a vice president of the Marriott hotel corporation in 1956, moving to Washington, DC, but he and Corinne returned to California around 1961, living in Pasadena, where he gave up architecture and took up ostrich farming. He died in 2000 at the age of ninety two. Corinne followed in 2001 at ninety six.

 

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