A favorite destination of the rich and famous, the Jet Set, was always Acapulco. Just a quick hop from Texas, it offered an oasis of an exotic stay for those who sought the new and different. Join our vintage travel expert Lori Duran, as she whisks us back to the glory days of the Latin destination of many prominent Texans.
Glamorous Acapulco has, without exception, always been attractive, as not only Mexico’s oldest seaside resort but also because of its ties to the Jet Set of yesteryear. It was famous for its breath-taking topography, nearly flawless year-round weather, and its horseshoe-shaped bay with azure waters. So much so, that by the middle of the last century it was a regular destination for celebrities and the wealthy. It was also a dream vacation for many others. Hollywood immortalized it with the Elvis Presley 1963 film, Fun in Acapulco, 1965s potboiler Love Has Many Faces starring Lana Turner, and License To Kill, the 1989 James Bond caper. Besides the beautiful natural attractions the region offered, visitors could look forward to La Quebrada cliff divers, luxury hotels, cosmopolitan discotheques and swanky parties.
By the middle of the last century it was a regular destination for celebrities and the wealthy. It was also a dream vacation for many others.
Coincidentally, Acapulco helped introduce the Margarita cocktail, the Acapulco Chair, and trend-setting residential architecture that worked closely with the landscape and local nature. Braniff Airlines, with its flight attendants outfitted in colorfully bright Pucci uniforms, recruited a socialite party concierge, Sloane Simpson, for the destination…and Howard Hughes spent the last few weeks of his life in a penthouse at an Acapulco hotel.
Film star Merle Oberon was known to host legendary parties at her Acapulco home and often frequented the Las Brisas beach club. According to Slim Aarons, the famed mid–century photographer, Oberon was a popular hostess, and her tasteful villa was considered to be one of the most beautiful resort houses anywhere in the world. In 1979, Oberon became world news after the deposed Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, found temporary refuge in Mexico following intervention from former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger. The Shah was one of the wealthiest men on the planet and a target for revenge-minded Islamic revolutionaries. Reportedly, he was considering exile residence in Acapulco and possibly at the home that had been built for Oberon and her then husband, Bruno Pagliai. Despite all the speculation, the Shah ended up residing in a Cuernavaca mansion during his time in Mexico. San Antonio businessman John Agather spent a considerable amount of his youth in Acapulco and remembered Oberon as being especially gracious.
TEXAS TIES AND THEN SOME
Nearby and at the same time, Villa Arabesque was being built for Houstonian Baron Enrico “Ricky” and Baroness di Portanova. Villa Arabesque was a spectacular sight with Moorish arches along with other grand features. According to guests, the villa seemed to rise out of the water like the Taj Mahal. It was built with 32 bedrooms, 26 bathrooms, four kitchens, and two indoor waterfalls. A few years later it was featured in the Bond film, License to Kill. Baron Ricky Portanova was an heir of Texas oil magnate Hugh Cullen. Ricky’s father was said to be an Italian playboy who called himself a baron, and he passed on that title to his son and Cullen’s daughter, Lillie. For the scion, jetting from Houston down to Laredo’s Cadillac Bar for lunch was a way of life, so a jaunt to Acapulco was a natural extension of his love of the Latin culture.
When Braniff Airlines teamed up with the Dallas-born socialite Sloane Simpson, it was a match made in heaven. Braniff hired her as its Acapulco spokeswoman and hostess, with the catchy slogan Call Sloane, while the airline provided transportation to Acapulco.
Acapulco’s guest registry read like a Who’s Who of pop-cultural icons including Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth, Gregory Peck, Rock Hudson, George Hamilton, Lynda Bird Johnson, and many other well-known people who vacationed there. Elizabeth Taylor married one of her husbands, Michael Todd, there. John and Jackie Kennedy and Henry and Nancy Kissinger all honeymooned in the town’s luxury accommodations when the resort city was at its zenith. Besides the hotels, Acapulco was also built-up with a proliferation of palatial homes constructed atop the rocky cliffs for such notables as Dolores Del Rio, Orson Welles, Johnny Weissmuller, and many others. And it’s still possible to rent Dallasite-turned-New York socialite Sloane Simpson’s expansive villa through a website home rental.
Elvis’s Fun in Acapulco celebrated the glamorous vacation site in 1963. Co-starring bombshell Ursula Andress, the film featured two things of note: Acapulco cliff diving and the Top 10 Billboard hit Bossa Nova Baby, sung by Presley, which reached #8 on the Billboard Pop Charts. The film would be Presley’s last release before the arrival of Beatlemania…and it was the top-grossing movie musical of 1963. Acapulco is also where Rita Hayworth filmed The Lady from Shanghai in 1947 with then husband Orson Welles, as the seaside resort was really catching on after WWII. The broad appeal of a Mexican beach vacation was even reflected in the cartoon animation in 1964 when the Flintstones coveted a trip to Rockapulco.
POP CULTURAL BEACON
Acapulco helped introduce a tequila-based Margarita. In fact, that drink may have actually been created by Dallas resident Margaret Sames who concocted the cocktail for her guests at her Acapulco vacation home in 1948. Hotel heir Tommy Hilton was in attendance, and he later brought what would soon be a ubiquitous drink to his family’s chain of hotels. The Acapulco chair is a stylish patio chair that was also popularized there. Cecilia Leon de la Barra, a Mexican designer, has made claims that she gave the chair its name. Meanwhile, the illustrious Guadalajara architect, Marco Aldaco, collaborated with nature for his designs when he built houses for Loel and Gloria Guinness and others. Loel served in the British parliament, and Gloria was a native-born aristocrat from Mexico who was considered to be one of the most beautiful and stylish women of her era, always landing on the International Best Dressed List.
John Agather remembers John Wayne in Acapulco with his “converted WW II former minesweeper, the Wild Goose.” He fondly recalls that the Duke was kind, showed interest even in kids he met, and remembered names.
When Braniff Airlines teamed up with the Dallas-born socialite Sloane Simpson, it was a match made in heaven. Braniff hired her as its Acapulco spokeswoman and hostess, with the catchy slogan Call Sloane, while the airline provided transportation to Acapulco. Simpson was the one to call to find out about what parties were taking place, where to go and where to be seen. According to San Antonio-based author and former Braniff employee, William Jack Sibley, if Simpson didn’t make an appearance at your Acapulco party, it never happened, baby.
Some of the world’s first discos were in Acapulco. Agather recalls the rise of the discos and the first real hotspot as being Armando’s LeClub. The sophisticated dance clubs are still a prominent feature of the seaside resort, and the Acapulco nightlife was chronicled in the media then as sometimes decadent. By the late 1970s, Acapulco purportedly may have become a little more depraved. Grace Jones is said to have put on an especially racy show for a New Year’s Eve celebration decades ago.
The signature tourist attraction, The La Quebrada cliff divers, began in the mid–1930s and this spectacle includes divers that first climb to precarious bases on steep cliffs before diving approximately the height of an 11–story building into a channel only four meters wide at high tide. La Quebrada divers thrill spectators with their dangerous descent into the narrow and shallow foamy waters of The Quebrada.
Hotel Los Flamingos was the former private hideaway resort of John Wayne and his gang, which included Cary Grant, Richard Widmark, Johnny Weissmuller, and many others. Built in 1930, Los Flamingos was small and unpretentious when John Wayne and partners bought it in 1954 (why buy an avocado ranch in the San Fernando valley when you can buy something much more fun and exotic down Mexico way?). The resort was known for its remarkable location with ocean waves smashing up against the cliffs below and some of the best sunsets in the area. For the next few years, it remained a private club of movie stars who came there to lounge by day and party by night. Agather remembers John Wayne in Acapulco with his “converted WW II former minesweeper, the Wild Goose.” He fondly recalls that the Duke was kind, showed interest even in kids he met, and remembered names. So did Cary Grant. The Agather family got to know quite a few celebrities in Acapulco, along with the Apollo 11 astronauts, who were relaxing there with their families after coming out of quarantine from their trip to the moon.
Las Brisas was a favored hotel for luminaries like Frank Sinatra and Sylvester Stallone…and John and Jackie Kennedy honeymooned there. Las Brisas is known for exemplary customer service, clean white, and pink décor, all on a sprawling and lushly landscaped property with private pools for its visitors. The resort has deep roots in Acapulco’s Golden Era, having been built in 1957 at the dawn of the development of the Diamante area and lured the affluent and powerful to the city’s beaches, restaurants, and discothèques. The property has multiple terraced levels and a pink signature color that was worked into everything seemingly possible. They whisked customers up the hill in one of the pink and white jeeps, later named after Hollywood’s renown, to their private casita, a little house, with a pink and white striped roof where their customers could get settled. The property is designed to highlight its stunning hillside views over the surrounding bay and ocean, and Las Brisas remains to this day one of the top places to stay in Acapulco.
The Acapulco Princess has been an Aztec pyramid-shaped luxury hotel since 1971, with a unique design that included 15-stories and 1,011 rooms. The billionaire Howard Hughes, who always had a fondness for hotel living, left the Bahamas in February 1976 and moved into an entire floor at the Princess. Unconfirmed reports said that Hughes was in search of a readily available supply of narcotic pain medications, which he used daily to counter his agony from injuries sustained in a plane crash years earlier. While he was able to obtain the medicine he needed, the unfamiliar food and finicky air conditioning system further exacerbated Hughes’ anxiety. Already in declining health, Hughes nearly died at the Mexican resort hotel. On April 5, 1976, Hughes was carried out of his penthouse suite unconscious, and onto a chartered jet. He had stopped eating by the time he was loaded onto the plane, destined for Houston, and he weighed just 93 pounds. Hughes passed away while on that final flight. The Princess operates today as Hotel Princess Mundo Imperial.
Despite all the beautiful and interesting attractions, sunny Acapulco eventually lost its cool. It had become less alluringly exclusive over the years. Braniff and other airlines had made it more accessible as did the highway, built in 1955, that connected Mexico City to Acapulco. In the 1980s, Cancun became the new destination resort city where mega-hotels sprang up seemingly overnight. Cancun and other new resorts provided stiff competition as Americans headed to these new resorts for sun-soaked and value-filled vacations. Also, in 1982, Mexico devalued its Peso and the financial issues and instability that followed influenced foreign residents like Dallas socialite Sloane Simpson, who pulled up stakes altogether and abandoned living in Mexico. But, the final death blow to Acapulco’s international status as the place to go, has been the recent drug cartel fighting there with often deadly results. The fighting has spilled into all areas, and the U.S. State Department continues to warn Americans against travel to the region. Hopefully, this violence can someday be abated, and as the new generation of affluent travelers seek hot spots, they will rediscover the Acapulco that so many still look back on with fondness of the memorable times during the Jet Set era of years past.