In Tijuana, searching for Al Capone

By Maya Kroth/Washington Post (Fragment)

Many argue that the Golden Age of Tijuana was during Prohibition, when the city was mythologized as the premiere playground for the rich and thirsty. Hollywood stars with a taste for betting and boozing made it a favorite getaway, and the city came to represent the shadowy side of the American appetite — a place to do anything and everything that we wouldn’t allow ourselves to do at home.

With its then-porous land border and miles of wild coastline, Tijuana and neighboring northern Baja California towns proved too tempting to resist for many opportunistic rumrunners during those dry years. Ask any local who ran things back then and you’ll hear one name repeated: Al Capone.

The Chicago gangster seems to have left his mark on everything, from an illegal card game at a secluded coastal hideaway to any number of local cantinas. It’s a compelling story. But is it true? I went to find out, heading for a place that’s synonymous with Prohibition-era Tijuana: the Agua Caliente casino.

Hollywood heavies
The next stop on my journey is the storied Rosarito Beach Hotel, which opened in 1925 with the Pacific lapping at its feet and has as much classic-Hollywood history as Caliente. “Through this door pass the most beautiful women in the world,” reads a sign above the entrance to the lobby, a reference to the many stars who once graced these grounds: Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe and Lana Turner, to name a few, as well as Orson Welles, Spencer Tracy and Anthony Quinn.

In its restaurant, fading brass plaques installed along the walls point out Gregory Peck’s and John Wayne’s favorite tables, and the spot where Burgess Meredith once had dinner. No plaque for Capone, although a waiter offers to show me the Quijote ballroom, a supposed Prohibition-era party spot.

The room is decorated with blue-and-white ceramic tiles painted with scenes from Don Quixote, and there’s a lofted area above the bar where mariachis would play. There are sumptuous satin window treatments, crystal chandeliers, stately furnishings and a knock-off Renoir hanging on one wall, but the centerpiece is a stained-glass dome on the ceiling, under which Capone allegedly ran a card game. Today the space is used mostly for weddings.

I’m beginning to feel like my hunt for Capone is itself a little quixotic. His name is on everyone’s lips, with whispers and rumors aplenty — but hard evidence is scarce.

In search of more clues, I leave the hotel and head south on the coast road, the crashing Pacific just beyond my ­passenger-side window. The landscape is as physically stunning as it is tragic, with half-built condo towers looming atop craggy bluffs, crumbling postcards from more hopeful, pre-recession times. If the day were clearer, the Coronados Islands would be visible in the distance, a grouping of weather-beaten rocks in the middle of the ocean where the wreckage can still be seen of another failed Baja business venture: an offshore casino from the 1930s that people say was run by our friend Alphonse, who must’ve been a very busy bootlegger if all these stories are true.

In fact, the ill-fated scheme was the brainchild of a San Diego lumber seller named Fred Hamilton and Tijuana builder Mariano Escobedo. By the time construction on their casino-cum-yacht-club was finished, however, Prohibition had been repealed; when the Mexican government banned casino gambling a short time later, the club closed its doors for good, and the islands were given over to seabirds and elephant seals.

I press southward, bound for the Castle Restaurant, whose Web site openly boasts that “the infamous Al Capone built this castle and a Romanesque arena to entertain his Hollywood friends in the late ’20s.” The small, two-story building — tiny, really, for a “castle” — features faux-medieval turrets and arched windows. A vast amphitheater area below delivers sweeping Pacific views. The Castle’s walls are made of volcanic rock more than a foot thick — Capone demanded bulletproofing, says the restaurant’s ­second-generation owner, David Perez Elfman.

Secluded and a little brash, the Castle certainly looks like the kind of place a gangster might like to retire for a weekend debauch with famous pals (though now it’s open only for weddings and quinceañeras, another casualty of Baja’s ailing economy). But was it really Capone, or is this just spin to drum up business?

Perez is convinced of his restaurant’s Capone credentials, telling me he’s heard the story corroborated by friends, neighbors, archaeologists — even agents from Mexico’s version of the FBI, although he admits Capone’s name wasn’t on the deed. But since when do crime bosses use their real names in real estate deals, anyway?

“It’s a myth,” writes Mario Gomes curtly in an e-mail. He runs the My Al Capone Museum, an online trove of Capone memorabilia. “I have never seen any proof of Capone in Baja.”

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