Where Marilyn slept

A seedy resort in Lake Tahoe hosted Monroe, Sinatra and the Kennedys -- sometimes all at once.

By Jack Boulware
January 17, 2001 1:15AM (UTC)
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I'm standing in the circular bar of the Cal-Neva Resort, which is nestled on the rocky North Shore of Lake Tahoe. Built in the 1930s, the chalet-style main building boasts of being America's first licensed casino. But thanks to former co-owners Frank Sinatra and Sam Giancana, it's best known as a mobster and celebrity getaway. The bartender gestures out the windows to three little cabins on a slope just above the lake.

"There you see 3, 4 and 5," she points. "Three was where Marilyn stayed. It had the circular bed, and that's where she got it on with JFK. There's all sorts of catacombs underneath here. When I first started working here I stepped in the wrong place and fell 6 feet through the floor."

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"Was there anything down there?" I ask.

"No," she replies, "but I broke two of my toes."

Lake Tahoe is the third-deepest alpine lake in North America, a puddle of endless mysteries. Many have drowned in its freezing water over the years, but their bodies are never found. Perhaps through osmosis, the Cal-Neva is also endlessly mysterious, a creepy ghost from America's alternative history. From the 1940s through the 1960s, the place jumped with movie stars, politicians and hoodlums. In later years, it sat boarded up and neglected, until a Southern California businessman bought it in 1985 and reopened it as a resort and spa. The original casino tables and wagon wheel light fixtures remain, and the gift shop sells Rat Pack memorabilia. But underneath all the scrubbing, the air still reeks of gangsters and sex.

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The buildings sit off the main road, back in the trees, and were constructed on the very border of California and Nevada. A painted line bisects the fireplace of the Indian Room, and extends across the floor, out the window, through the swimming pool and into the lake. In the years before air travel became Greyhound with wings, Cal-Neva was where you whisked away your mistress and caught a show by Lena Horne or Red Skelton. While picking up the family Christmas tree at Lake Tahoe each year, Joe Kennedy reportedly brought along his secretary for surreptitious scrumps.

According to various biographies, Sinatra bought the place in 1960, in partnership with Giancana, and reserved three bungalows with the best views of the lake -- one for himself, the other two for broads and pals. He added on the Frank Sinatra Celebrity Showroom, installed a helicopter pad on the roof and hired Skinny D'Amato to be manager, and for the next three years, the horses were out of the chute.

Those titillated by the most recent wave of Rat Pack-era nostalgia -- including the Kevin Costner film "Thirteen Days," about the Cuban missile crisis, and an upcoming Marilyn Monroe miniseries based on Joyce Carol Oates' latest tome -- will be happy to hear that the 350-seat showroom is still in use today. The hallway leading to the room is lined with memories of drinking and other high jinks, including photos of Monroe, Sinatra and other members of the Rat Pack. One shot is of Sinatra in a laughing crowd, wearing a Cal-Neva Shriner fez while a blond in a low-cut dress looks on. Another shows Sinatra chatting with a smiling Monroe, their table bristling with liquor bottles and glasses.

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I climb onto the stage of the empty room and clap my hands. The acoustics are perfect. I imagine the man swaggering around with the band cooking behind him, a paisano on his home turf, in his prime -- not merely crooning like that pussy Perry Como. Sinatra knew how to swing dick and give 'em a show. Razzle-dazzle horn section, a few slow heartbreakers for the chicks and naughty patter in between -- like this boozy one-liner Sinatra tossed out during a gig recorded in 1962:

"This is a new concoction we whipped up yesterday afternoon when we were out here rehearsing. It's, ah, it's half prune juice and a touch of Tang; it's called a prune-tang."

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After the shows, Ol' Blue Eyes had his choice of backstage blow jobs. Dino (Dean Martin) himself once said, "When Sinatra dies, they're giving his zipper to the Smithsonian."

What a place the Cal-Neva must have been: goons opening the doors of big sedans at the entrance, high rollers coming to Tahoe to lose their shirts, bang a couple of hookers and catch the last scraps of pre-rock 'n' roll showbiz. Audiences often saw Monroe in the front row, cackling into her Dom Perignon, her breasts spilling out of her dress. Those were the days when entertainers got shitfaced in public like good Americans -- before the dawn of "Entertainment Tonight" and the rest of the sniggering media pests. It was a time when the biggest singer in the world could sing a lyric right to the twinkling eyes of the international sex icon, sharing a look that said, "I'll see you back at bungalow No. 3."

With Monroe's insatiable desire to be the best and have the best, it's no surprise she would link up with the chairman of the board. Their affair was hot and cold for years, and she believed he would actually propose to her.

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She played the sex card early and often, and while her sultry bitch-in-heat image turned every male into a slobbering wolf, she focused her energies on the picks of the litter. Her affairs embraced the most powerful men in the free world: Sinatra, the King. Marlon Brando, the actor's actor. Yves Montand, the sexy Frenchy. Joe DiMaggio, the best-loved player baseball ever produced. Arthur Miller, the Pulitzer-winning playwright. The Kennedy brothers, president of the free world and the nation's top cop. Before the insanity was over, she was even sneaking into the White House and calling the president at home. You don't have to be famous to succumb to crazy love, but it seems to help.

Biographers always linger on the fact that Monroe was not considered a great lover. For her, sex was clearly something else, something from deep inside her past, perhaps a horribly wrong experience from childhood. She masked it with a hunger for knowledge, a quest for control. In that sense, Sinatra the bully was her perfect match. At the dawn of the 1960s, both were at the top of their game, having the time of their lives, yet too famous to have anything approximating normal lives. Both possessed depressive and lethargic personalities when not performing, and needed an audience to give them meaning and purpose. Their public personas were transparent enough to keep the broken part of them visible, where all classes of people could see their own insecurities. The sexpot and the saloon singer were together because in some sick way they deserved each other. And in Tahoe, they were just two doors apart.

Little of this information, of course, came to light until many years later. If Monroe and Sinatra and the Kennedys were alive today, exposing butt thongs and staining dresses, it wouldn't hold. Our piranha tabloid culture would instantly smell the blood, and the Cal-Neva casino would be swarmed with reporters, the roads lined with TV trucks, the skies covered with choppers.

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It's very quiet in the Lakeview Restaurant. A waitress says that Sinatra's favorite table was the third booth from the entrance. I stand there and observe a postcard scene out the plate-glass windows. Sinatra made it a point to bring his latest girl home to Jersey to taste his mom's special home-cooked pasta. No doubt the chef at the Cal-Neva was instructed to cook it the same way. I can see Sinatra nuzzling a broad in this booth, the special marinara sauce untouched in front of them, other diners sneaking glances at the mating dance.

I'm eventually introduced to Mike, the resort's security guard. We chat a bit and he agrees to take me on a tour of the secret underground tunnels. We descend a flight of stairs and end up in a walkway that leads out from the kitchen and splits into two paths. One ended up in Sinatra's cabin -- No. 5; the other led to Monroe's cabin -- No. 3. We walk down the Monroe tunnel, a cement-floor corridor lined with cinder blocks, until it stops in a dead end. It has been sealed off for years, Mike says.

"After he died, we had all the 'Hard Copy' TV shows down here filming it." Mike indicates a life-size cardboard cutout of Monroe, leaning against the wall. Spice it up for the cameras, what the hell.

I try to picture the scene 40 years ago: Monroe clipping down this tunnel in a skintight dress and high heels, a bottle of champagne in her hand. Is that Sinatra chasing behind her, squeezing her ass? Or is it a Kennedy?

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Mike says the cabins are due to be torn down this year to make room for condos. He doesn't have the keys to Sinatra's room, so we peek inside the windows. I can see portraits of the singer and the original cheap wicker furniture. Bad puns come to mind. Was this where he "did it his way," where he came for a little "Ring-a-ding-ding"?

Mike has a key to the Monroe cabin, and we walk inside. There's a framed portrait of her on the wall. The bed is round and tiny. She was small, maybe 5-foot-5. It looks like a snug fit for one person, let alone two. I sit on it and bounce for a moment. The action this mattress must have seen -- journalists and conspiracy theorists have gone nuts attempting to trace the inhabitants of this bed. Maybe she even boffed Peter Lawford here, the Kennedys' loser bagman, just to throw him a bone. And there were undoubtedly nights when she just crawled into the bed by herself, drunk and depressed, pulling the sheet over her head to try to block out the demons that dwell inside the empty cacophony of fame.

"Pretty damn short, isn't it?" says Mike. He opens her closet and points to the floor, where it's believed the tunnel culminated in a secret trapdoor.

In 1963 the FBI yanked Sinatra's casino license because known criminals like Giancana were frequenting the Cal-Neva. But the lodge really reached its historical apex a year earlier, at the end of July 1962, the last weekend of Monroe's life -- a weekend about which Skinny D'Amato would later say: "There was more to what happened than anyone has told."

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Monroe hadn't been seen in public for a few months, since the infamous "Happy Birthday" ditty for JFK at New York's Madison Square Garden in May and a baseball appearance in June. Sinatra invited her up for the weekend of July 28, on the pretense of celebrating her new Fox movie deal and discussing an upcoming film starring them both. And she could also catch Martin in the Celebrity Showroom. Monroe took a break from the set of "Something's Got to Give," and flew up to Tahoe with Lawford in Sinatra's private plane with the heated toilet seats. As she checked in under a fake name she knew that Sinatra would be there, but she hadn't anticipated visits from both Giancana and her ex-husband, DiMaggio.

That night, Dino took the stage, churning through his ballads about big pizza pies and evenings in Roma, but although he was costarring in her next film, Monroe wasn't sitting at a table with her champagne. She was back in her room by herself, making phone calls, too depressed to move and too afraid to leave. And here's where history gets murky. Everyone agrees she was seen standing barefoot by the swimming pool, looking up the hill to where DiMaggio was standing, watching her. Neither spoke. They were still close. Earlier that year he had helped her make a down payment on her new house. He had flown out from San Francisco to meet her, perhaps in response to her call. But Sinatra had barred him from the club this weekend. Crazy love.

Most sources say she overdosed on pills that night. But in his 1999 book "The Last Days of Marilyn Monroe," Donald Wolfe claims she was invited there specifically to be scared into silence. The noose was tightening around every neck involved. Monroe, the Kennedys, Sinatra, the mob, the FBI -- all the links were crumbling. Desperate times, desperate measures.

According to Wolfe, Sinatra and Giancana took Monroe into one of the rooms, drugged her into unconsciousness and had photos taken of her being sexually abused. The idea was to have solid blackmail material to shut her up. The result was a sordid scenario that foreshadowed the end of Camelot and the Rat Pack.

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Photos were snapped, with Sinatra and Giancana in the room, while the rest of the Cal-Neva guests partied away. Although he'd once been in love with Monroe, Sinatra was done, finished with her, the Kennedys, Lawford and all of it. He'd started his own Reprise record label, won the 1961 Grammy. He'd slept with Ava Gardner, Kim Novak, Juliet Prowse. There were more broads to come, and he didn't need this one hanging over his head, even if he did once give her a pet poodle.

Giancana also was through with Joe Kennedy and his spoiled sons. He didn't need this broad either. He'd started with Al Capone, spent 10 years in the can and returned to run all of Chicago. He personally pulled strings to squeeze JFK past Richard Nixon and into the White House, and shared a chick -- Judith Exner -- with both JFK and Sinatra. Shit, they held the meetings with Joe Kennedy right there at the Cal-Neva. And now RFK was making noise about bringing down the heat on organized crime. Everybody needed to stop talking.

As the weekend came to a close, Sinatra's plane flew Monroe and Lawford back to Los Angeles, and she was reportedly so dazed that she walked off the plane barefoot to her waiting limo. The next week, on Aug. 5, she was found dead in her home in Brentwood, in a suspicious suicide that will never fully be explained.

According to Wolfe's interview with photographer Billy Woodfield, who worked for both Sinatra and Monroe, after the Cal-Neva weekend, Sinatra supposedly handed Woodfield a roll of film. Woodfield developed the images and realized they were of an unconscious Monroe essentially getting raped. Sinatra was delivered the prints and negatives, but by that time the point was moot. Corpses can't be blackmailed.

Soon after Monroe's death, an FBI wiretap recorded a conversation between Giancana and mobster Johnny Roselli, discussing a sex orgy at the Cal-Neva. On the tape, Roselli told Giancana, "You sure get your rocks off fucking the same broad as the brothers, don't you?"

DiMaggio arranged for his ex-wife's funeral, barring Sinatra and the rest of Hollywood from the service, and sent roses to her grave for the next 20 years. Crazy love.

Three weeks after her death, Sinatra and Dino returned to the Cal-Neva to perform for two nights, and a month after that, Sinatra, Dino and Sammy Davis Jr. appeared in Chicago to help Giancana open a new club. The show must go on.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

The security guard walks me outside and around to the front of the Cal-Neva. To current employees, the club's gangster history is just part of the folklore, harmless trivia that tickles a tourist for a few seconds. We end up in a parking lot off to one side. Next to the rear loading door of the Celebrity Showroom, two parking spaces are reserved. Above each is painted the one word "Sinatra."

This sad sexual circle eventually came to a close, with everybody involved dead at last -- none with a smile on his or her face. Monroe, face down on her bed. JFK and RFK, assassinated by who knows. Giancana, gunned down in Chicago, shot once in the head and five times in the mouth. Lawford, a sad, broken alcoholic. Sinatra, robbed of his voice, dying of a final heart attack in a hospital. And the enigmatic DiMaggio, signing baseballs to the end.

All that's left are the mountains of biographies and FBI files -- and the Cal-Neva. Gambling and live shows add little to the Cal-Neva bankbook these days, but sex still perfumes the hallways. The resort's primary income now derives from weddings, sometimes as many as 12 in one day.


Jack Boulware

Jack Boulware is a writer in San Francisco and author of "San Francisco Bizarro" and "Sex American Style."

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