‘I’m lookin’ for a gun-slinger,’ I announced self-consciously rapping the door. No response.
Was it a wind-up? The concierge had winked in what I took to be a conspiratorial manner as he handed me the slip of paper and mouthed ‘password’ but perhaps he was just having a joke at my expense. ‘I’m lookin’ for a gun-slinger’, I repeated, more forcefully. Along the thickly-carpeted corridor came muffled footsteps: a tuxedo clad figure, finger pressed to his lips, beckoned me forward and flung open the door. I was in the Mystery Room of the Arizona Biltmore Hotel at the recently resurrected, infamous speakeasy.
The room was dimly lit, dominated by an imposing tiered stone fireplace. A few comfortable leather chairs, small tables and a grand piano were the only furnishings. As my eyes grew accustomed to the gloom I could make out the high ceiling with its stained glass panel. I knew from old photographs that it remained largely unchanged from 1929 when the ‘Jewel of the Desert’ opened. Back then it was called the Men’s Smoking Room, accessible via a secret staircase and a weekly-changing password. Although influential male guests did indeed congregate there to puff on their cigars and discuss the latest happenings on the volatile stock exchange, its primary appeal, during the years of prohibition, was the illegal booze which could be secreted in false bookcases. Guests were able to purchase a ‘set-up’ which included a glass, ice and mixers for bootleg liquor. Helpful hotel staff would shine a torch on the glass ceiling to warn the gathered drinkers when police arrived at the main door to conduct a raid.
Even without the threat of a raid the flickering lighting lent a frisson to the proceedings. In the corner, a pale, intense couple, dressed in formal evening wear avoided eye contact but a Texan drawl from the centre of the room was more welcoming. ‘Howdy y’all, come and join us over here. Bartender, a Tequila Sunrise for the lady.’
My new friend gestured to the couple in the corner. ‘Russian millionaires. Too many darned Ruskies over here,’ he confided in what he fondly imagined to be a whisper. Anxious to avoid a diplomatic incident I asked the bartender, by way of diversion, if he could tell us more about the history of the Biltmore. We learnt that the gold leaf ceiling in the lobby is second only in size to that of the Taj Mahal; that every US President since Herbert Hoover had stayed at the hotel; that Marilyn Monroe’s favourite swimming pool was the resort’s Catalina pool; that Irving Berlin penned ‘White Christmas’ whilst soaking up the Arizona sun in its grounds in 1939. ‘As for this room, ma’am, there sure was some high jinks took place,’ the bartender reminisced. Alas, I had an early flight to catch the following morning; the juicy details would have to wait until my next visit. That’s if I were privy to the current password of course.