Code / June 2016

Acapulco Gold: Mexico's Halcyon Days

As documented by Slim Aarons, once upon a time this Mexican seaside resort town was the gold-standard vacation destination.
Guests around the clifftop pool at Warren Avis' villa 'La Barranca', Las Brisas, Acapulco, Mexico, January 1971

Teddy Stauffer doubtless led many a conga line in his day. But the greatest procession the Swiss-born bandleader ever kicked off was the stream of visitors that would turn a sleepy seaside town named Acapulco into the Mexican mecca for America’s rich and famous.

Word of Acapulco’s charms had begun to spread among the haute-monde following a 1920 visit by the future Duke of Windsor. (The dapper abdicator was deeply enamored.) Nevertheless, in 1943, when Stauffer landed, the town remained relatively undeveloped, with a population of just 4,500.

Stauffer had enjoyed great success in pre-war Germany as the ‘Swing King’ of Europe, but when his “racially impure” musical stylings fell foul of Nazi tastes and World War II broke out, he beat a path for the United States, plying his trade as a composer for the movies. Visa difficulties, however, soon necessitated a trip south of the border down Mexico way, where Stauffer found himself poverty stricken until thrown a life-preserver by Hollywood pal Errol Flynn, who engaged the tall, blond Swiss as quartermaster on his yacht, Zaca.

It was to be a short spell at sea for Stauffer. His temper exacerbated by a raging cocaine habit, Flynn came to suspect that Teddy had been padding the boat’s books, and enraged at having been squeezed by someone he’d hired out of charity, in a flurry of profanities, the swashbuckling Tasmanian movie-star dumped Stauffer ashore while anchored in Acapulco.

"Where the rich and famous went, the merely wealthy followed."

This would turn out to be the greatest favour Flynn could ever have paid his ‘friend’ Teddy. Within days, Stauffer had charmed his way into being hired by Carlos Barnard, proprietor of the El Mirador — one of Acapulco’s first A-grade establishments, opened in 1933 in an enviable position overlooking the famous cliff divers of La Quebrada — to run the hotel’s new nightclub, La Perla. Offered a 25-year contract and a third of profits, the erstwhile ‘Swing King’ was back on his feet, and soon repaid his new employer’s faith. Under Stauffer’s stewardship the club was an immediate success, Barnard earning back his investment within four months of La Perla’s doors opening.

Stauffer began luring his friends from the movie scene to Acapulco — El Mirador hotel guests would include the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr — and where the rich and famous went, the merely wealthy followed. To meet the burgeoning demand for lodgings, savvy European, Mexican and American investors (entrepreneurs, politicians, real estate speculators, and prominent millionaires such as J Paul Getty) began buying up vast swathes of undeveloped land and building grand holiday homes and hotels.

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Christian Barker

Christian Barker is The Rake's Asia editor-at-large, a frequent contributor to this site, and an enthusiastic consumer of fine whiskies, sashimi and classic disco music - ideally in unison.