NOTE: When I first fancied myself a reporter, I became obsessed with picking at scars and probing the underbelly for dirty secrets often ignored or glossed over by local media. This fixation is reflected today in my historical fiction, which focuses on revealing factual incidents that politicians and flack artists often disdain. I thought it would be fun to share, in a series of posts, a few of my research discoveries—some of which become amplified in my novels.
When San Diego went “sort of” dry
As San Diego’s drought worsens, we’re reminded of another time when the town went dry, but not so much that you couldn’t slake your thirst … if you were willing to break the law.
No place more glamorous than the U.S. Grant hotel became one of the city’s first illegal watering holes during the Prohibition era. Owner Baron Long, a year after converting the prestigious inn, converted the Bivouac Grill into the Plata Real Nightclub, a speakeasy featuring live music, dancing and booze. Long had the illegal hooch delivered through underground tunnels that served as conduits for steam and saltwater pipes.
“In the earliest hours of Prohibition mornings,” according to the hotel’s website, “San Diego’s finest citizens would stumble from the back doors and creep home. With Long at the helm, the U.S. Grant was one of the most profitable places in town.”
Long didn’t have to worry about the police. Mayor Harry C. Clark and Police Chief Arthur Hill struck a deal to go soft on policing violations, especially as it related to conventions, which—like today—fueled much of the City’s economy. But then things went wrong.
“I am not going to bother the conventions, particularly the American Legion convention,” Police Chief Arthur Hill is reported to have told the Mayor.
Nine years into Prohibition, in August 1929, the City sponsored the Legion convention for which it was essential to provide alcohol for the event to be a success. Civic leaders contracted with Los Angeles bootlegger Charles Mulock to supply 3,500 to 4,000 gallons of liquor. The City might have entertained a similar deal with mob-connected and future Mafia capo Frank Bompensiero, but he had been nabbed the previous year for violating Prohibition law. It is speculated that Bompensiero was considered too “hot” for the Legion deal.
After Mulock distributed the stash to a 7th Avenue warehouse, someone tipped off the police, who could not ignore a citizen complaint. The cops raided the building and confiscated $27,000—over $370,000 today—worth of 116-proof liquor.
Organizers of the purchase from Mulock met with the Mayor the next day at the U.S. Grant. The mayor allegedly told the assembly that he would get the booze returned. He wasn’t successful.
The following year six of nine defendants implicated in the deal were convicted, and five pleaded guilty, including Mulock. Each of them served up to six months. Although the mayor was embarrassed by national headlines tying him to the liquor ring, neither he nor the police chief were charged.
For more details, see a 2011 Village Voice article, http://www.voiceofsandiego.org/topics/news/sds-prohibition-scandal-from-hooch-to-hoosegow/ and, for example, the front page of the October 31, 1930, Sarasota Herald, https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1755&dat=19291031&id=GoQcAAAAIBAJ&sjid=MmQEAAAAIBAJ&pg=2912,2908642&hl=en.