Incident at Billy Grosskurth’s Hotel: Part III

On New Years Eve 1934 the superrich, eccentric George Whittell slipped into his chauffeur-driven automobile and began the bumpy ride from his Woodside estate, where at least one lion roamed about, and headed over a squiqqly road to the Coastside, to the Marine View Tavern in Moss Beach, and its host, Billy Grosskurth, the man with a showbiz past.

Since the end of prohibition business had grown quiet at both the Marine View and its neighbor, Franks, a llively roadhouse which had been built six years earlier. At the peak of prohibition, in the late 1920s, politicians and silent film stars wandered back and forth, between Billy’s hotel and the newer place next door.

The final minutes of 1934 were ticking away when George Whittell pulled up in front of Billy’s three-story hotel overlooking the Pacific. We can only imagine how shocked and stunned witnesses were when the elegantly dressed millionaire got out of the car with a lion cub on a leash–it was as though he were walking his pet dog.

I don’t know what brought George Whittell to Billy’s hotel. Maybe it was on a whim, to celebrate the closing of the old year in Moss Beach. What they talked about I haven’t a clue.

Charles P. Tammany, Whittell’s chauffeur, said that Billy invited Whittell and the adorable five month old pet lion into the hotel. Against the advise of Whittell, added the chauffeur, Billy began to play and tease the lion. The lion was so cuddly cute, but at that moment it wasn’t feeling playful–and started to maul poor Billy. Or so he said in the lawsuit that followed.

“It was a wild African lion of vicious and irascible nature,” testified Billy Grosskurth.

“It was a friendly gentle little lion kitten of kind and amiable temperament,” countered George Whittell.

For the terror and mauling he suffered, Billy sued the Woodside millionaire for $250,000. He added that Whittell was of a depraved and vicious character and delighted in the animal’s attack.

But Billy was no match for George. Whittell, playing a game he was long familiar with, responded that he was a Nevada resident which may have technically protected him from Californian litigation at the time– (remember, Whittell had built the spectacular Thunderbird Lodge at Lake Tahoe, on the Nevada side, which I have visited, and can assure the reader of its uniqueness, in particular, the underground tunnel where Bill, the lion roamed freely, and where George, after a late night of drinking and gambling took his friends on a tour–).

A year later Billy Grosskurth’s lawsuit was dismissed.

As for the Marine View Tavern, the glory of what it had been during Prohibition continued to fade but Billy refused to sell the property. By the 1950s the building was decaying–and Billy became a familiar sight on the porch, playing solitaire and reminiscing about the past.

During the summer of 1958 there was a fire in Moss Beach and the Marine View Tavern hotel was torn down. The hotel had been Billy’s life and a year later he died at age 75.

Last look at the Marine View Tavern

Incident at Billy Grosskurth’s Hotel: Part II

Through his ties to the entertainment industry, Moss Beach hotel owner Billy Grosskurth met lots of eccentric characters but the red-haired Woodside millionaire George Whittell may have been the strangest of them all.

Perhaps the men became acquainted in Oakland. Whittell loved animals and he may have been drawn to Idora Park, where Billy worked as the theater’s manager. Part of the show included caged animals.

A third generation Californian, Whittell inherited a fortune from his parents who had invested wisely in real estate. Not the working type, George pursued the life eccentric. He owned a luxurious apartment in San Francisco, a chateau in France, an apartment in Paris–but these were just the trappings of the super rich, just like his custom made Duesenberg automobiles, world class speedboats, airplanes, expensive gadgets and toys were.

Of all the eccentric characters Billy Grosskurth met up with, George Whittell (below with is dog) may have been the strangest of them all. It was at his Woodside estate on Kings Mountain Road–and later at Thunderbird Lodge on Lake Tahoe– that he began to live out his fantasies. photo Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society

And his fantasies included a love of circus characters, and it was widely known that Whittell kept lions and elephants outside his Woodside home. Like Billy, he’d had woman trouble, too, though of a different nature. When George Whittell was an impulsive young man he wed an actress his parents disapproved of. They paid the lady to vanish and start another life. Later, again single, some women George met complained about his behavior, even resorting to the courts for financial compensation as a result of injuries they claimed to have suffered.

At Woodside he kept a lion that scared off U.S. Marshals attempting to serve him with a subpoena. A local joke was that a boa constrictor that hadn’t eaten in several months lived in a tree near the estate’s entrance.

By 1934 his erratic personal life had settled down. He married a lovely woman he met during World War I in Paris where he earned honors and distinction driving ambulances in the City of Lights. And unlike others who were financially devastated by the Great Depression, Whittell was one of the remarkable few who preserved his wealth by liquidating his stocks before the market crash.

All was not perfect in his life. George was in the middle of a thorny situation. He was being sued by his stepbrother Alfred for half of the family inheritance–reportedly some $9 million. As Whittell tried to overturn Alfred’s suit, the newspapers rubbed their hands together, anticipating a juicy trial.

Whittell’s lawyers recommended that he change residence to avoid his stepbrother’s lawsuit and so he was building a fabulous getaway at Lake Tahoe called Thunderbird Lodge–outfitted with a boathouse large enough to berth his custom-built 50-foot speedboat, powered with two airplane engines. There was also special housing for three elephants, stone stables standing side-by-side, outfitted with individual fireplaces to keep the animals warm when the weather turned cold.

How unlikely it seemed that the paths of Moss Beach hotel owner Billy Grosskurth and Woodside millionaire George Whittell would cross–but that is exactly what happened in an extraordinary encounter on New Years 1934 at the Marine View Hotel.

Heady Times At Billy Grosskurth’s Hotel: Part I

Photo: Marine View Tavern

By 1934 Prohibition had ended, and now that it was legal to drink booze in Half Moon Bay roadhouses, people stopped coming to the Coastside.

Instead attention turned to the Bay Meadows Race Track in San Mateo that had just flung open its gates– and to make things sweeter, a rich Burlingame car dealer was about to purchase Seabiscuit, the famous super-racehorse that was going to help distract people’s minds from the doldrums of the Great Depression.

There was a real drought at Moss Beach where generous shots of liquor had dried up at the Marine View Tavern, former vaudevillian Billy Grosskurth’s seaside roadhouse. Billy was a toe tapping piano player, all show biz, and proud of his talent. He’d had some success traveling with roadshows, too.

When his traveling days were over Billy managed a live theater in Oakland, part of an amusement park with “girlie productions”, thrilling roller coaster rides, a swimming pool and caged animals, including a bear called “Hi”.

One of the “girlies” may have been at the center of a lawsuit filed against Billy. He had pressed one of the young ladies–against her better judgment– to go down the “Joy Laundry”, a giant slide. Finally she did and like a self-fufilling prophecy, she was injured, thus the lawsuit.

That was just one of the lawsuits Grosskurth was dealing with when he decided to get out of town. He knew about the Ocean Shore Railroad and the little beach towns that were popping up on the San Mateo County Coastside. Friends said, “take a look, there might be a good investment for you.” He did and learned that the 20-room Marine View Hotel at Moss Beach was for sale, fell in love with it, and purchased it about 1915.
The three-story Marine View Tavern stands at the left. Both photos by R. Guy Smith

And it was a good investment. During the heady days of Prohibition, Billy’s fingers rolled across the piano keys as he entertained the politicians and silent film stars who wandered about, drinks in hand. Outside it was dark and on the reefy beach below it was business as usual for the rumrunners and bootleggers.