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Oil and Politics in La Jolla
How two Texas oilmen ran Del Mar and national politicians from a La Jolla hotel.

By Matt Potter | Published Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2011

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." â– 

Continue to Part II

Stories Del Mar | Feature Stories | La Jolla
The Big Rich, Part Two

By Matt Potter | Published Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2011

In last week's cover story, we described how two of America's richest and most powerful oil barons took a small La Jolla hotel called Del Charro and turned it into an unlikely base for their political and financial schemes. In the second installment, we trace how the pair used their political influence and financial connections to seize control of the Del Mar racetrack.

Even before Clint Murchison and Sid Richardson acquired control, the Del Mar racetrack had long been associated with mobsters and various other unsavory personalities whose ownership interests were obscured behind famous names.

Bing Crosby, Pat O'Brien, and their pals from L.A. had been the founding operators in 1937. "Bing was president, Pat the vice-president, with the board including the late William A. Quigley, the late Charles (Seabiscuit) Howard and Kent Allen," wrote L.A. Times columnist Ned Cronin in 1955.

That group sold out in 1946 to a Chicago syndicate headed by Arnold Grant. "Crosby got out and put a chunk of his money in the Pittsburgh Pirates, which is roughly the equivalent of parlaying a gold mine into a gopher hole," Cronin noted.

"Grant and drawling Charlie Carr ran the Del Mar affairs for two years, unloading in 1948 just before the summer meeting got underway."

This time the buyers were Joseph M. Schenck and Jay Paley.

Six years earlier, on September 7, 1942, Schenck had been released from a federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut, after serving four months for income-tax evasion in a sensational 1941 case involving, among other things, fraudulent deductions taken in conjunction with the sale of stock in Tijuana's Agua Caliente racetrack.

To lighten his sentence, Schenck agreed to testify against Willie Bioff and George E. Browne, two members of the Chicago mob who used the corrupt International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees union to extort over a million dollars in protection money from the big Hollywood studios. Schenck, who was chairman of the board at Twentieth Century Fox, worked hand in glove with the mobsters throughout the mid-1930s extortion scheme. (On October 26, 1945, Schenck was granted a full pardon by president Harry Truman on the recommendation of "prominent people," the New York Times revealed more than a year later, in January 1947.)

Convicted in November 1941, Bioff and Brown were both sentenced to hard time but soon started talking to federal investigators and were released in 1944. Using their testimony, the Feds busted Johnny Rosselli, the Chicago mob's top Hollywood operator, and six other hoods, who all ended up behind bars. Rosselli would later become a Del Charro regular and a figure of interest in the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

By 1955, Bioff was living under an assumed name in Phoenix, Arizona, where he was friendly with Republican Senator Barry Goldwater and working as an entertainment consultant for the new Riviera Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, backed by the Chicago mob. That November he was killed by a bomb rigged to the ignition of his pickup truck, according to the New York Times.

The Schenck and Paley group ran the track for four seasons "and did a great job of hanging up a new longevity record," Cronin said. "Then came Al Hart and a new slate of directors." The year was 1952, and it was announced that Hart was buying his interest in the track for the Alfred and Viola Hart Foundation.

Hart, a longtime associate of the Chicago mob, had been a beer runner for Al Capone, writes Gus Russo in his book Supermob. In the 1930s, Hart owned Central Liquor Distributors, the San Angelo Wine and Spirit Corporation, and Alfred Hart Distilleries.

"In 1949, a San Bernardino grand jury was convened to investigate two of Hart's partners in Alfred Hart Distilleries, Edward Seeman, the slot machine king of San Bernardino, and State Senator Ralph E. Swing, for soliciting a bribe from a citizen who wanted to obtain an auto-racing concession. However, the grand jury returned no indictment," according to Russo.

While an owner at Del Mar, Russo says, Hart "struck up a lifelong friendship" with J. Edgar Hoover, "despite the fact that Hart's FBI file notes, Hart has a reputation of associating with known hoodlums.'" In 1948, Hart had invested $75,000 in Bugsy Siegel's Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas. At the time of the partnership, says Russo, Siegel had a box at Del Mar, which he shared with his girlfriend Virginia Hill.

In November 1959, Hart crossed paths with Judith Campbell later to become one of John F. Kennedy's mistresses in a penthouse hotel suite in Hawaii rented by Frank Sinatra. The singer had invited Campbell along for a week in Hawaii with Peter Lawford and his wife Patricia Kennedy, the sister of the president-to-be. Hart, like many of Sinatra's mobbed-up friends, dropped by for a visit.

"He was in and out, and I seem to remember him being there that first day, but it could have been the next day," Campbell, then known as Judith Exner, recalled in a 1977 autobiography, My Story, as told to Ovid Demaris. "He sticks in my mind because of the comical image he presented when he walked out in swim trunks.

"They were of a jersey material, jockey style, very tight, and his paunch and saddlebags hung over his waistline like an inner tube. None of the parts legs, arms, torso, head seemed to go together. He reminded me of a koala bear."

Despite his appearance, Hart had a reputation for big-time womanizing. One of his many conquests was Anna Maria Pierangeli, a statuesque Italian actress married to singer Vic Damone, who went ballistic when he discovered the affair. Damone related the story in his 2009 biography Singing Was the Easy Part, written with David Chanoff.

"Al Hart, that weasily little son of a bitch! That weasily little soon-to-be-dead son of a bitch! I kept a gun in the glove compartment of my car. We lived up on Moraga Drive in an out-of-the-way area, which is why I had it. Well, now I was going to use it. I'm going to drive over to that son of a bitch's office and shoot him right between the eyes that was the one thought I had in my head. I was going to kill the lying little prick. I was so enraged I could hardly see.

"I'm going to kill that son of a bitch Al Hart," Damone says he told a friend, who in turn called Frank Sinatra: "Vic Damone is on the way to kill Al Hart. He's got a gun in his car. You better stop him," the friend told Sinatra. A quick sit-down between Sinatra and Damone ensued.

"Dago, listen," Sinatra told Damone. "You want to find how the fuck this guy ever did it? I mean, just how did he do it? You're a good-lookin' guy, you have a kid with her. And look at him. Jesus. How in the world did a guy like that manage it? I want to know how he got her away from you. Send him roses. Talk to him. You son of a bitch, how did you do it? What did you say to her?' And if you're going to kill someone, kill her. But you know what? She's not worth it."

Two weeks after Del Mar closed for the season on Labor Day, 1953, Clint Murchison wrote Hoover with details of his scheme to buy the track using a charity as a front. "I have talked with my tax man as to the methods we should use to make this a tax-free organization," he said in his September 15 letter, excerpted in Clint, a 1986 biography written by Murchison's longtime personal secretary Ernestine Orrick Van Buren, who said she had exclusive access to Murchison's personal files.

"Assuming I am successful in making proper overtures in Chicago, I want your permission to tell them that I expect you to head it on an honorary basis in the beginning and that when you arrive at the period of your retirement from the FBI, you expect to devote your every effort to the furtherance of this project. I do not want to use your name in vain, so I would appreciate it if you would give me permission to tell the owners of the tracks in Chicago that I expect to have your cooperation."

On June 11, 1954, Murchison and Richardson staged a press conference in the Gold Room of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Los Angeles, where they appeared, flanked by Hart and Louis B. Mayer, to announce their takeover of Del Mar. Time magazine reported they were buying a 40 percent controlling interest for $1.2 million. On July 12, the New York Times reported that C. Ray Robinson, a Merced-based attorney for the Texans, had outlined a plan to take over a total of six racing operations across the nation.

"Del Mar would be the nucleus of the planned chain of tracks," the Times said. Ninety percent of the operation's net would be given to Boys, Inc., a nonprofit that had been incorporated in Delaware on June 3, 1954.

"The foundation would operate a chain of centers in underprivileged urban sections from coast to coast," the Times reported. "These centers would have recreational facilities, guidance counselors, and vocational training facilities in which industrial concerns might participate.

"The sponsors would like to have J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, head Boys, Inc., whenever he sees fit to retire from the Federal Service. Mr. Robinson said Mr. Hoover had been approached on the matter and expressed enthusiastic approval of the foundation idea but had not committed himself on taking the position."

"It was a racket, if you want to know what it was," George Allen, a longtime Washington insider and crony of both presidents Truman and Eisenhower (as well as Murchison and Richardson), told Ovid Demaris in the 1970s. "You see, they could go in and buy the track with their foundation, the Boys' Club deal, and there's no taxes. They would lend the money, then get it back, but you see, they would then control the track. 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, who was Secretary of the Treasury, wouldn't let them do it."

The board of directors of the new operation, according to Murchison biographer Van Buren, was composed of Clint Murchison and his son John; Sid Richardson and his nephew Perry Bass; and Dallas attorney George C. Anson.

On September 10, 1954, the state Horse Racing Board granted a one-year license to run the Del Mar racetrack to Operating Company, a corporation owned by Clint Murchison and Sid Richardson. But the controversy over handing the Texans control of the track had not subsided; if anything it had gotten more heated.

The state Senate's Committee on Racing, citing a loss of taxes to the state and federal government caused by the charity setup, protested the move. When it became obvious that the Horse Racing Board would award the license anyway, Senator Harry Parkman told the New York Times, "We'll propose new legislation to take care of a situation like this. We'll amend the law to require the owners of a track to operate it."

Parkman did not carry out his threat, and the state ultimately gave Boys, Inc., a ten-year lease to operate the track. But the protests continued, and the Texans were persistently rebuffed when they attempted to get the Boys Clubs of America to accept their money. In April 1957, according to Van Buren, Boys Club board member E.E. "Buddy" Fogelson, a frequent Del Charro guest, wrote his friend Murchison, saying, "…the National Organization would not accept directly or indirectly income derived from racetracks."

"Not one cent has been turned over to Boys, Inc. I do not know where the money went," said Gen. Holland Smith, a retired Marine general whom Clint had retained as a front man; they later had a falling out. "It is my considered opinion that no money will be transferred to Boys, Inc., for at least five years, if then. I hope I have given you a fair idea of what I think of Mr. Murchison and Mr. Richardson…"

Sid Richardson died September 30, 1959. John Connally, as co-executor of Richardson's estate, replaced him as a board member of the Del Mar track; Sid's nephew Perry Bass, who had inherited the bulk of Richardson's empire, also went on the board. Murchison, who had suffered a series of strokes, was replaced by his sons John and Clint Jr.

Connally was 16 when he enrolled at the University of Texas in the fall of 1933. Two years later, a local newspaper publisher introduced him to Lyndon Johnson, an ambitious congressional aide who'd recently been named head of Franklin Roosevelt's National Youth Administration.

Connally was admitted to the Texas bar in 1938, along with college friend Robert Strauss. Both had worked in the 29-year-old Johnson's 1937 special election campaign to fill a vacancy in the House of Representatives. In 1939, Johnson made Connally his top assistant.

In 1948, Connally was a principal player in the infamous South Texas ballot-box scandal that got Johnson elected to the U.S. Senate by 87 votes, earning for Johnson the nickname he never lived down: "Landslide Lyndon."

Connally went to work for Austin lawyer Alvin J. Wirtz, an LBJ insider who had helped set up Johnson's wife Lady Bird in an Austin broadcasting empire, allowing the Johnsons to maintain the fiction that she, not Lyndon, was making millions on advertising bought by his political benefactors. When Wirtz died suddenly in 1951, Connally was hired by Sid Richardson and became a Del Charro regular.

Together, the new board members would face a two-front war, against the state of California on the one hand and the U.S. Internal Revenue Service on the other.

In 1962, the IRS revoked the tax-exempt status of Boys, Inc., and ordered it to pay four years' worth of back taxes, a total of $729,234.90, plus interest. That fall, Jim Mills, a freshman assemblyman from San Diego, introduced a bill to prohibit Boys, Inc., from renewing its lease on the track scheduled to expire in 1969 without a public bid.

The Texans sued the IRS in Federal District Court in Dallas, which ultimately ruled in their favor. The IRS did not appeal. To take on Mills, they turned to one of Murchison's favorite fixers. His official title was secretary of the Senate Democrats under majority leader Lyndon Johnson, but Bobby Baker, a country boy from South Carolina who had started out as a senate page, was by turns a bagman, procurer of carnal pleasures, master of the payoff, and possessor the darkest personal secrets of virtually every member of the senate.

Clint and his sons had done much business with Bobby, including a commission deal with the Murchison-owned Haitian-American Meat and Provision Company, commonly known as Hamco.

"Though in 1960 the Murchisons backed Richard Nixon for president and gave him Lord knows how much money, they had Tommy Webb, a former FBI agent, bring a bet-copping $10,000 in cash for the Kennedy-Johnson ticket," Baker wrote in Wheeling and Dealing, his 1978 memoir with Larry L. King.

"The loyal courier Webb and I flew to New York City where, outside an office building owned by the Kennedy family, we traded handshakes with Bobby Kennedy and then handed him the money in a white envelope. He whisked it to the safety of his inner coat pocket and, as with so many people to whom I made cash deliveries, seemed eager to see our departing dust."

Baker, who set up a vending-machine company called Serv-U with two of mobster Meyer Lansky's associates and who later went to prison on a tax rap, was said to be a Del Charro regular during racing season, hanging around the bar with senators he kept supplied with high-class hookers. As always, Hoover was taking notes.

In the spring of 1963, the industrious Baker traveled to California to help save the Murchisons' ever more tenuous hold on Del Mar. "Gov. Edmund G. Brown disclosed today that Robert G. Baker made a special trip to California last May in an effort to protect a racetrack monopoly in San Diego," United Press International reported.

Brown, who told the wire service that Baker had been accompanied by Clint Jr., said he "believed that Mr. Baker was intervening on behalf of the Murchisons because of the financial support the family had given the Democratic Party."

But Brown wanted his pal and campaign contributor Johnny Alessio to take over the track. Spurning Baker, the governor said he "favored the bill and wanted it to move. I believe that the track should be leased to the highest bidder if others are available." The story went on to report that "Governor Brown noted that Mr. Baker had said the appointment was set up by Vice President Johnson. The governor said this was not true, and that Mr. Baker had acted independently."

Jim Mills, the bill's author, is now 83 years old and lives in Coronado. He doesn't recall Baker's role, but he distinctly remembers the power Alessio exercised with Brown. "Johnny Alessio raised a lot of money for Pat Brown and had a lot of influence. In addition to the Del Mar bill, Alessio [who owned the Hotel del Coronado] also got Brown's backing to build the bridge between San Diego and Coronado."

Brown signed the Mills bill in June 1963. The days of the Murchison family's control of Del Mar were nearing an end. The L.A. Times headlined it "Texans Want Out at Del Mar." By the time the story appeared on Dec. 6, 1965, Clint Sr. was wheelchair-bound, and his sons John and Clint Jr. who founded the Dallas Cowboys and become a notorious playboy spent little time at the track and had little interest in the Del Charro hotel. Murchison senior would die on June 20, 1969. The hotel was sold and torn down for condos in the 1970s.

In December 1966, the 22nd Agricultural Association board voted 8-1 to give a 20-year Del Mar operating lease to Johnny Alessio, the onetime shoeshine boy who ran Tijuana's Caliente racetrack and its bookmaking operation. The crony of both Democratic Gov. Edmund G. Brown and San Diego's Republican kingpin C. Arnholt Smith, Alessio, who would later go to jail for income tax evasion, was suspected of using his considerable political influence to sway the decision especially since the amount of his bid was second to one made by the San Diego Turf Club, reported the New York Times.

In the end, the decision of the agricultural association board was reversed, Alessio was denied the lease, and he never got to run the track.

Two years later, after a flurry of investigations and legislative action, the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club was awarded the lease. The club billed itself as a "a non-dividend paying corporation that uses its share of the track's profits for capital improvements," according to a July 1989 Union-Tribune report. "It was the pits," the club's general manager Joe Harper told the paper about conditions in 1970. "The grandstand was in disrepair and the stable area was an absolute disgrace. There had just been years of neglect and there wasn't enough money to do anything."

And in 1989, when the lease again came up for renewal for another 20 years, the club beat out John Brunetti, owner of Florida's Hialeah Park and the Ogden-Nederlander Group, which offered to build a new grandstand and concert venue to boost revenue. Both had argued they could deliver more income to the state, even after making a profit.

Critics of the Thoroughbred Club said it obtained the lease in time-honored Del Mar fashion, through connections, pointing out that over the years its directors have included ex-GOP congressman Claire Burgener, grocery-store magnate John Mabee, and John Connally's old pal, Bob Strauss. The club argued that its agreement to give the state 75 percent of the net profit was what sealed the deal. "The trick was to give the state the best deal," Thomas Hamilton, a lawyer who was president of the club from 1970 to 1987 told the Union-Tribune in July 1989. "I had known Cap Weinberger, who was the state's finance director, for years, and I went up to Sacramento and had a series of meetings. I said no one can offer to give you more than all of the profit."

Mills, who authored the 1963 bill that eventually forced out the Murchisons, says that the group that came to control Del Mar was primarily composed of wealthy Republican insiders. "People like [political consultant] Larry Remer later claimed I wrote the bill for my political donors, but that was ridiculous. The Republicans who gave money against me were the ultimate beneficiaries. I just wanted to open up the bidding to competition."

"It's sort of like the cattlemen's club on the TV show Dallas," an anonymous critic told the L.A. Times in February 1989. "They sort of sit around and say, I'll trade you a grocery store for an oil well.' It's an appendage to their personal prestige and personal wealth. I think that was nice and fine in its time, but today you've got to look at running this as a business."

Last year, the Del Mar track lease was put up for bid once again. Only the Thoroughbred Club responded with a bid, which was approved by the state racetrack leasing commission at its November meeting, according to spokeswoman Linda Zweig. In the meantime, Democratic state Sen. Christine Kehoe has introduced a bill to sell the land under the track and the rest of the Del Mar fairgrounds to the City of Del Mar for the bargain-basement price of $120 million.

And a racing group led by Michael Pegram, co-owner of 2010 Preakness Stakes winner Lookin at Lucky, is jockeying for a new $30 million, 50-year lease. Governor Jerry Brown, son of the late Gov. Pat Brown, Johnny Alessio's old crony, will no doubt have a big say in the final outcome. Clint Murchison and Sid Richardson would be envious. â–