La Jolla’s Fancy Cowboy Hotel
Last month I talked about how writer Raymond Chandler’s time in La Jolla in the 1950s inspired my upcoming novel, The Esmeralda Goodbye. Another inspiration for the book was the Hotel Del Charro, which was located in the La Jolla Shores neighborhood. Chandler stayed at the hotel on several occasions and created a fictional version of it—Rancho Descansado—for his final novel Playback.
The hotel was owned by Clint Murchison and Sid Richardson, two Texas oil barons who were among the wealthiest men in the United States. They purchased the property in 1951 from Evelyn Marechal and her husband James, professional horse trainers who built the original hotel on land previously used for their horse stables (Mrs. Marechal makes a brief appearance in my book). Charros are the Mexican cowboys you’ll see at parades and rodeos, dressed in fancy outfits with silver decorations, ruffled shirts, short jackets, and sombreros. So a literal translation of Hotel Del Charro could be “the fancy cowboy’s hotel.” Guests who wanted to actually ride horses could rent them from Mrs. Marechal’s stable next door.
In the 1950s the La Jolla Shores area was rural and mostly uninhabited. Which made it a great hideaway for Hollywood actors on vacation. Regular guests included John Wayne, Joan Crawford, William Powell, Ward Bond, Mel Ferrer, Dorothy Maguire and Gregory Peck (the last three founded the summer stock La Jolla Playhouse in 1947). The Del Charro provided a high level of service and comfort as well an escape from the madding crowds. 1950s prices could be as much as $100 per day, over $1,000 per day in 2023 money.
With the arrival of Murchison and Richardson, politicians and power brokers became a fixture at the hotel as well. John Connally, Joe McCarthy, and Richard Nixon were among those who came to consult with the two men. The most interesting guests, for the purposes of my story, were FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and his partner Clyde Tolson. Both men appear as characters in The Esmeralda Goodbye.
Hoover and Toland were regular visitors at the hotel, spending two weeks there every summer. Bungalow A, set discreetly on the backside of the property, was always reserved for them. In the 1970s reporter Jack Anderson broke the story that Hoover and Toland never paid a dime for their stays at the hotel.
The two men were also guests of Murchison at the Del Mar Racetrack’s Turf Club. It’s rumored that Hoover may have won more than his share of race bets. It’s also rumored that Hoover had a hand in convincing the previous owner to sell the racetrack to the Texas oilman.
Sid Richardson died in 1959 and Murchison sold the hotel in the 1970s. Developers tore it down and built a condominium complex, the Del Charro Woods, which still stands today.
So did Raymond Chandler and J. Edgar Hoover ever cross paths at the Hotel Del Charro? I’ve heard a couple of a stories that involve the two men, but I’ll save those for another post.