Tonight, lolling three miles off the coast of Santa Barbara, was the fabulous gambling ship Portafortuna. The impressive vessel was originally a British war ship and after World War I it was retired, auctioned off, then acquired by the White star line and refitted as a first class cruise ship. The finely appointed ocean liner was brought to the Pacific where after some years operating at a loss it was considered to small to compete with the new major super liners.
Oakley's syndicate, Aroncioni, well-known link to a branch of the Cosa Nostra in Italy, purchased the large ship and it was converted into a luxury casino at a cost of $300,000. Her interior was modernized and her boilers were converted to burn oil rather than coal. Oil was more expensive than coal, but it reduced the refueling time from days to hours, and allowed the engine room personnel to be reduced from 350 to 60 people. Named for an Italian monastery on a small Sicilian island, it could accommodate over 2,000 gamblers and was said to generate thousands, a small portion of which was donated to the grateful Church and Convent of the Nuns Collegine, the Sacred Family of Marfata. Over 200 feet long, it carried a crew of 150, including housekeeping staff, waiters and waitresses, gourmet chefs, a full orchestra, with a squad of gunmen. When it arrived near Santa Barbara another layer of service people and performers came aboard on weekends and for special events. It’s first class dining room served French Cuisine exclusively. Most important during Prohibition was the extensive fully stocked bar and wine collection. Games available included roulette, blackjack, poker and craps. It had 200 slot machines on board, and a bingo parlor that seated 300 players. The ballroom, a mirror image of the famed Monte Carlo Casino’s Bal de Rouge & Noir, commanded a large oval space in the center of the top deck. Doubling as a theatre its brilliance was breathtaking with a black and gold color scheme and jardinières of flawless artificial long stemmed red roses. A classical paneling of white Ionic half columns, interspersed with sections in white cloudlike drapery, surrounded a black and white checkerboard dance floor. Splendid saucer like Deco light fixtures with chrome details and giant globes etched in the style of Lalique highlighted the staff. Men dressed in tuxedos each with a red rose boutonniere, ladies were in fetching brief French maid costumes. Well-appointed staterooms were available for overnight guests and some said ladies of the Forbidden Palace offered their services upon request.
The Captain of this hedonistic enterprise, always dressed in white formal dinner jacket with a handsome assortment of medals, origin unknown, was the very very good-looking Oakley, Paco’s father, transformed now from his pastoral boyhood image to one of the sharpest, most powerful casino Lords alive. Even at this he bore a strange nobility. Years of secretly suffering the loss of his one great love and the joy of seeing his little son grow to manhood had tempered him, giving him a compassionate heart. So at the same time he ruled his unlawful domain with an iron hand, he never failed to right the wrongs that had merit. That is why, a night some weeks past, he was on a mission to rescue the kidnapped white woman from the Forbidden Palace’s opium den. There he also came face to face with a severely wounded Paco who he immediately recognized, from the photographs he had secretly ordered, and experienced the agony of taking him bleeding to his Mother. Seeing her again shattered his soul and only served to ignite his deep yearning.
Now the wealthy of the region were slowly taking water taxis back to the shore after a night of gambling, shows, and restaurants. Captain Oakley was seated behind his large carved walnut desk mounded with ledgers and papers that occupied the main part of his cabin. There was a small bunk inset into one wall with drawn velvet drapes. Other small doors and cabinetry completed the fine paneling and there was a distinctive black and gold carpeting that bore the image of a bee in the latticed rope design. A sideboard held crystal decanters with bottles of premier liquors and wine. He held his head in his hands hovering over the remnants of his very late night dinner. So much flooding his mind. Earlier that evening the Fong twins, Little Pete’s descendants, made a sinister visit inferring they knew he had something that belonged to them. A rap on the door brought him to respond. His right hand man, Carmino, brought the news that a brawl of monumental proportions had broken out in the ballroom and it sounded like members of the Ludington retinue were largely at fault.
Oakley knew Wright Ludington fairly well since he was a blue ribbon patron, always spending freely. They also shared an ardent interest in the collection of art competing often at important auctions. So it was that the Captain and crew disengaged the scuffling mass of guests, pulling Chef Printise Yonkopolus aside for serious detainment and guiding everyone out to the deck.
Seated at a distance with a quiet aristocratic demeanor was Wright, watching the entire episode with amusement. The Captain joined him and once seated, he pulled out two Havanas, offering him one then asking about a Corot painting, suspected to have been recently acquired by Ludington. He talked about a recent trip to Paris and finding the Rousseaus exciting.
Oakley’s interest in fine art was legitimate, not only because he carried the Italian gene that seemed to guarantee an affinity for the arts but also he honestly developed an eye for master works during the years that he quietly served the old Don who had saved his life thinking he was his son. Paco’s grandfather a fact that was always hidden. This powerful man, the head of a gigantic syndicate, carefully guided the Captain’s career, commanding him to represent his interests in many areas, the most important being a spectacular art collection maintained in his San Francisco mansion.
Oakley and Ludington talked about upcoming auctions and how the market for Greek and Roman Sculpture was wide open since the death of Stavros Archimedes who’s entire collection was up for purchase. They reminisced about the time they both lost out on a Hyacinthe Rigaud painting of Cardinal Henri Oswald. Surprisingly, at one moment Wright leaned into Oakley and said, “What do you know of the young woman who disappeared? Lillian Hoover, I believe it was? Some say she was out at the Forbidden Palace recently, a place you may know something about?” Ludington was gently grilling the Captain whose eyes looked away. They sat, a little frosty, for seconds and as Oakley stood to leave, Wright confided quietly, “I would be pleased to take her off your hands, that is if you actually have her.”
The next morning, primly alighting on deck was the very chic Penny Lavigne, her French accent flowing. She had come to meet with the Captain and discuss the spectacular weekend event that would coincide nicely with the long awaited opening of the Biltmore Hotel. Oakley knew this would attract a congregation of high rollers and he intended to get his share of the action so with the help of Miss Penny, “Naughty Nights in Paris”, now in preliminary stages, promised an all French festival complete with a twelve foot Eiffel Tower in the ballroom and vivacious French maids handing out complimentary champagne.
Penny had persuaded Oakley’s engagement of Il Brolino’s marvelous Chef Velly, whose facility with haute cuisine was legendary, to create the menus and instruct the excellent kitchen staff on the Portafortuna. She was ushered into the Captain’s cabin and decorously arranged herself so as to show a fair amount of her silky white stockings that clung to a pair of sassy long legs. She had a little crush on Oakley but try as she may nothing stirred his interest, a fact that honestly puzzled the precocious party planner. His handsome face just seriously analyzed her schedules with menus and the price tag for each item. This took a very long time and Penny excused herself to the ladies room several times while Oakley studied everything intently. During her last trip in the corridor, on the way back, she passed a partially open door as Carmeno carried out a tray. She had a fleeting glimpse of a fair woman just sitting very still, trance-like, in a chair next to a vase of red roses.
On this same day, back at Diehl’s, Paco was also in a meeting. The Executive Chef of the Biltmore, Phillbert Omeyer, headed a table with Tahj & Paula, the market’s owners, Quincy MacClenny, produce manager, and Mac Massini the butcher. Salvador joined in as Paco was seated. The plan was to coordinate the ordering and delivery of many specialty products that the Hotel’s monumental grand opening demanded. Jolly and roly-poly, Chef Bertie, as he was commonly called, was giddy now with excitement over the astonishing event to come. He had been Chef to the late King Leopold of Belgians, spending years in Hungary and France so his accent was somewhere between St. Petersburg and Budapest, very thick when animated. Paco picked up what he could of a long list of stars who were supposed to appear including names like Miss Norma Shearer, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, Ronald Colman, Lupe Velez and Ramon Navarro, Janet Gaynor and Ruby Keeler along with Jean Arthur, Buddy Rogers, and surely Charlie Chaplin, even Cecil B. De Mille. Deeply interested now, Paula asked if Rudolph Valentino would be coming whereupon Chef Bertie grinned and nodded vigorously with big fat rosy cheeks jiggling. He further described the decor that would enhance the lavish Spanish Colonial Revival architecture and gardens designed by architect Reginal Johnson and landscape architect Ralph Stevens, reported to cost $1,500,000. Paco thought the man said, “There will be giant bouquets of bird of Paradise and tropical pink ginger with a dozen live parrots placed throughout on pedestals”. Did he mean the birds were live or some other kind of flower? Everyone was confused as the old Chef, gazing up to the heavens with rapture, continued. “And now we must plan for the food. We will have four dinning rooms, each with it’s own theme, orchestra and menu all this during three days of separate events and we must expect to serve between two and three thousand guests,” panting now, anticipating the tremendous challenge ahead, Bertie began to weep taking out a giant handkerchief. Wiping his eyes for sympathy he passed out page after page of ingredients needed to produce the many menus he designed, luckily written in excellent English so the little team set about assigning the duties and soothing the old man with confidence and encouragement.
Later that day it was Miss Penny and Chef Velly who hurried into the market and asking for Paco they set about making an enormous order for the Portafortuna’s Parisian extravaganza. The party planner’s understanding was that they would actually deliver everything in a water taxi. This prospect excited Paco and Sal who were over eager to get a look at the notorious operation.
The team at Diehl’s worked for days to receive and repackage then deliver all the goods to The Biltmore and it was also time to convey the huge order to the ship. The two men packed the truck and arrived at the Biltmore kitchen receiving dock, unloading and taking the paper work inside to see Chef Bertie, his blousy toque falling straight back almost to his shoulders. Combining with the little curls peeking out of the headband it appeared he had a voluminous head of white hair. His big weepy eyes were bloodshot today and intense behind small round gold-rimmed glasses. He was pouring over a multitude of documents on his long counter of a desk that was meticulously organized. Bertie was intently curious to know if some of his most esoteric ingredients had arrived. “You received from mon ami Albéric Guironnet? Chocolaterie du Vivarais in Tain l’Hermitage? And the Pernigotti chocolate- hazelnut Gianduiotto? My Felchlin Cru Sauvage Couverture con lemon et jus pamplemousse?” Then nodding yes, he was now assured that his chocolate sauce would have ultimate complexity, unlike any other, as it poured over fresh peaches with a hazelnut ice cream and combined with his silky cake batters to bake lovely turbans with buttery velvet centers. “I see you have the Hungarian herbs; the vanilla, poppy seeds, cinnamon, coriander, rosemary, anise and the marvelous Floracopeia's Juniper Oil!” Gleeful, now really childlike, he was fondling the precious items he knew would make his dishes delicious above all others. Whispering, he mouthed a “Thank you mon cher” when he came to an unmarked crate with the bottles of Meyer’s Dark Rum, Mumms Extra Dry Champagne, Courvoisier Napoleon Cognac and the treasured Chartreuse made only by the Carthusian Monks in Voiron, all carefully nestled in excelsior. An exotic bundle of pine nuts from Greece and all the way from the old Chef’s favorite Souk in Istanbul, numerous extra large bags of pistachios, chestnuts, almonds, hazelnuts and walnuts with a lengthy personal note of greeting enclosed. Now he was satisfied that his Tomato Bisque would be extra savory with an extraordinary blend of rich paprika. The Crabmeat Mousse and sauces for the pastry purses would have an uncommon blend of fresh herbs and spices only this worldwide culinary shopping spree could provide. Paco knew that was why Master Phillbert Omeyer was great. He seriously admired how well the eminent Chef understood what each dish needed and, even more interesting, how he knew exactly where to get the elements to ensure a sublime product. Many other cases and bags of ingredients passed by the connoisseur’s watchful eye, each checked in for quality and freshness. Finally with only a few items missing that they promised to find, the delivery was done.
It was very late in the day when Paco and Sal together packed the truck again this time with most of the Portafortuna order and headed for the wharf. They arranged for a water taxi and paced around until one large skiff docked and they loaded everything. Then, connected with the large ship in a special loading area, the two began battling the motion of the waters surge to bring everything aboard. Inside, greeting them excitedly, eyes spinning wildly, came Chef Velly who was aggressively creating his Parisian fantasy buffet. Paco always had a great fondness for Velly who never failed to offer him tea or sweets when he delivered to the great French Chef’s kitchen at Il Brolino. The bouquet of his savory stocks and rich demi-glace, always infused with remarkable French vintage wines, would be considered the best of the best. Now Velly motioned to them to follow with the large cartons of Chanson de L’amour Bonbon, tins of Petite Biscuit de Reims , real crystallized violet flowers, a magnificent array of truffles, candied fruits from Poppies of Nemours, Moroccan stuffed dates, Foucher’s chocolate covered cherries, cans of Turkish Delights and boxes of Niniche of Quiberon multicolored lollypops, all specifically ordered to fill a series of tiered crystal trees that crowned his dessert table in the big Ballroom now almost completely decorated. Paco and Sal placed the sweets under the table as Velly directed. Walking around with the Chef they were able to get an idea of the dazzling elements that would provide the entertainment for crowds of gamblers and merely fun seekers who would begin boarding soon. “I would love to see this party Velly is there any way?” He smiled broadly bringing two tickets out of his white jacket pocket. “This will get you in mon fils mais danger danger, comprend?” Double kissing the amazing Chef with gratitude, Paco and Sal carefully snooped around on the way out. Wound up now like two springs with anticipation, they rode the taxi to shore without a word and counted the minutes until they would be able to experience all that the nefarious Portafortuna had to offer.
The charm of the Santa Barbara Biltmore was experienced in a far more understated and rustic manner than it’s magnificent sister in Los Angeles. Decorated in key areas with frescos and murals; carved marble fountains with marvelous Spanish and Portuguese tiles; massive wood-beamed ceilings; oak paneled walls inset with Moorish screens; exceedingly handsome wrought iron fixtures and giant chandeliers some with fine amber glass hurricanes that provided a golden glow; Vintage casements that adorned the stairwells and doorways; excellent marquetry and mill work; heavily embroidered tapestries and draperies, the ambience conveyed the magic of an early California rancho with luxurious romantic embellishments.
Starting with the “Entrada Court”, the lobby that also served afternoon tea. Just to the left was “El Cantina”, the spacious bar with a fireplace that would warm any heart. Enhanced by huge palm trees with exotic flowers in big blue and white patterned vases imported from Valencia, there was a long bar with stools and scenic tapestry on the walls. Off the bar to the right was “Parrilla Pacifica”, or The Pacific Grill that was a huge outdoor terrace with open braziers, attended by cooks in vaquero attire, barbequing many specialties all surrounding a grand fountain brought in from an Andalusian plaza in the center. Countless hand painted hanging pots filled with red geraniums swung from a giant hand hewn Ramada that shaded everything and included canvas awnings that could be pulled for rain. All the chairs were wood crafted in Mexico with tall ladder-backs and spool details that were painted in bright colors.
“La Aguja Cobriza” or The Copper Marlin, was created as the ultimate seafood restaurant. Just off of the terrace, it had a spectacular bank of large arched windows with a perfect view of the bay at sunset and a massive carved wood ceiling. Highly polished tile floors were covered with choice Persian carpets. Aqua pots filled with orchid laden tree ferns stood against the walls that displayed five large seascapes painted in oil, framed in antiqued wood with softly glowing picture lights. At the far end, mounted as the signature image and detailed on menus and linens, was a mammoth copper leafed sailfish above a black marble fireplace.
“El Loggia D’Oro”, or The Golden Ballroom, unlike interiors elsewhere, was themed to be extra luxurious and dramatic. Spectacular with crystal chandeliers it was available for grand galas and nightly a dining room for elite guests and haute cuisine. To thwart Prohibition it featured hidden liquor compartments and to feed the Society Columns there were panels along the ceiling press photographers to take pictures of the events below.
On this night, the specter was sweeping as Paco and Sal pulled into the portico on the Indian. They were starting here and then moving on to the much more interesting venue three miles out to sea. The entrance was clogged with luxurious autos and mobs of elegantly dressed guests filled with gaiety and expectation for the wonder that was to come. Walking past the lobby and into the bar the young men maneuvered through the throng including brushes with some of the familiar Hill Barons, the powerful Captains of industry and their radiant retinues, glittering starlets and authentic big personalities. Peeking through the doors of the Golden Ballroom they detected Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks dining on some of Chef Bertie’s best dishes. They saw Buddy Rogers at one of the bandstands and thought they caught a glimpse of Marlena Dietrich or maybe Jean Arthur? They knew many were famous but not appreciated much since their identities were a mystery. On the way out they did see Charlie Chaplin and a big group from the Flying A Studios swept by. Paco and Sal, standing out in front under the portico pretending to look for Rudolph Valentino, were just bidding their time until it was late enough to visit the Portafortuna.
The waters were dark and choppy when the two boarded the gambling vessel. They had an awkward arrival since the motion of the ship distorted their balance and once inside the big crowd lurched and swayed. Arriving on the upper decks the scene began to level off. They presented their tickets at the entrance to the Grand Ballroom where “Naughty Nights in Paris” was clearly underway.
Passing through the casino and the poker parlor the two climbed the stairs to the ballroom now a throbbing centerpiece of the event. A large swing band played as the revelers danced “The Foxtrot” then turned hot with “The Charleston” and “The Black Bottom”. All this action revolved around the big silver painted model of the Eiffel Tower that supported many little mirrored shelves filled with cups of champagne. Four provocative French maids passed out the refills with big magnums. At the far end of the room, centered between large columns that supported a white tulle draped pavilion, was the revered Chef Velly’s masterpiece, a sixteen-foot long buffet that gleamed like a celestial city from afar. Paco drank his way across the huge room purposely grazing the lovely bare back of Il Brolino’s young Mistress who turned and blew him a kiss.
The two began to study the great spread. Servers in tuxedos with red aprons aided the guests to select from four grand silver domed thermadors, the first serving Torte Canard, a pate and mushroom duxelles densely packed with cognac spiked duck confit encased within thin pastry and sauced with verjus-soaked cherries. The next displayed rows of crusty topped scallop shells St Jacques style filled with oysters, crab, shrimp, and lobster. The third served Carre de cochon with a puree of celery chataigne et truffles that Paco discovered was a thick slice of tender succulent ham seated on a whipped potato like cloud of goodness that perfectly expressed Velly’s genius for seasonings. The fourth served a famous classic Parisian dish and the Chef’s specialite called “Noisette d'agneau en eroute”, a lamb pie, foie gras in the middle and an exquisite orange-chervil sauce of sublime complexity. At the end of the table was a big, shiny metallic, double tiered cheeseboard, designed by Velly for the large elaborate garden parties at Il Brolino. Tonight it was filled with ten sorts of fromage – St Marcellin, Echourgnac, Tomme de Savoie, double Crottin, Boulette d’Avesnes, Manchego, Chabichou, Camembert, Selles-sur-Cher and la caillé de brebis . In addition, as condiments there were jars of honey from Provence, gelée de piments, the famous black cherry jam of Toulouse and a separate plate of pâte de coings the legendary quince paste known as fruit cheese. This generous help-yourself fifth course was just a portal to the piece de resistance, the desert table, glittering now with all manner of Chef Velly’s imported candy and cookie favorites. The crystal trees, supporting little plates holding beautiful stacks of truffles and bonbons, were made even more fanciful studded with hundreds of fruit colored lollypops that delighted the guests who walked away sucking and giggling like children.
Paco and Sal danced with anyone who would and sauntered back and forth near an especially pretty French maid and presented their empty cups over and over until they caught the eye of one of the burly bouncers frowning at the crowd in ill fitting evening dress. Soon over to the far left Paco saw Captain Oakley, a figure that struck an unconscious note of recollection even in his bleary condition, who was not amused by their behavior. Motioning to another bouncer the three approached the young men and strong-armed them to the exit marching on to the lower level and to the debarking area. They were being briskly thrown out. Paco was complaining loudly that, he had a ticket and he was twenty-one. Shouting, “this is unfair”, while kicking and strongly resisting until the very large hands of the Captain grabbed him by the shoulders and shaking roughly he exploded.
Oakly said, “You are not ever to come here again. If you do you will suffer serious consequences. Do you hear me? I have put you on the list for expulsion and you must obey this order. If you don’t there are very dangerous people who will make you pay.” Oakley could not help taking a close look at his handsome son, so striking with his mother’s coloring and some of his features.
Paco, cussing and hazy, with some sixth sense knew who was holding him tightly. “I know who you are”, he blasted out the words, “I hate you, my Mother and I hate you”. The words acted like a spring and the huge man flung the young one from him to the handling of the bouncers who quickly sat him next to Sal and the Water Taxi left for shore.
The brisk trip across the sea to the Biltmore dock served to sober the two and leaving Sal at the Grand Opening Party that was still raging, Paco hopped on The Indian, sick at heart, and headed for East Beach, a place he always returned to when he was down and out. He hid the bike and took off all his clothes except for the briefs. Still heated and confused by the confrontation with his Father, he dove into the cold water swimming out far enough to be challenged by a return to shore. At the height of his effort, summoning all his strength the thought came to him. He reasoned in an instant, “why don’t I just let go? I am tainted with a criminal for a Father? I failed Lillian. I’ll never be an artist. I can’t tell my Mother about the ship. It will crush her” All these issues passed in and then out of his mind as he did let go then exerting everything he found new courage and won his way to the sand.
The evening was warm and balmy as he turned around and around, getting dizzy, slowly drying off. He was just ambling along the water line playing with the surf, missing the edge of the waves as they rolled in. Off in the distance something caught his eye further up the beach. He could vaguely make out the image of a person sailing through the air like a bird and whirling wildly. Moving closer he could see it was a girl, entranced by some unknown music, devising a passionate dance. Approaching quietly he watched her intently and when she seemed to come to the end he clapped and called out “bravo”. Startled now the person spun around to leave and then turned back as if in recognition. Coming even closer now she walked straight up to him and said. “Hello Paco, it’s me, Huguette.”