THE BACK STORY OF CASA KIMBERLY, PUERTO VALLARTA
This is an update to a 2018 review of Casa Kimberly. As always, there’s more to a property than meets the eye…
In 1983, a sensational call-girl scandal broke in San Francisco. It involved many people and many aspects of society: wealth, sex, class, ambition, greed. For the “employees” it was an opportunity to make a little spare change on the side for a little “something” on the side. Its tentacles reached from San Francisco to Central California.
The story was so huge that it became an international sensation. Granted, this was before social media and the speed of the internet, when we were reliant on newspaper and TV news. It was a story that could not have been written because no one would have believed it, and watching it unfold live was as enrapturing as any Netflix special.
Organized prostitution was and is usually managed by men, but in this case, the mastermind was a brilliant woman, Miss Janice Chatterton, who lived in a half-million-dollar home in the tony neighborhood of Mill Valley in Marin County. This was a half-million-dollar home in 1983 — so one wonders how many millions it would be valued at today where prices in Marin County are stratospheric!
>Her home was furnished in the finest taste with valuable antiques and artworks. Where her fine taste and knowledge of antiques was honed, I don’t know… because part of her education had been walking the streets of the Tenderloin, an gritty and “colorful” side of downtown San Francisco, where she first found clients.
Far from her origins in the Tenderloin, at the time the scandal broke Miss Chatterton was employing nearly 200 women. These were not ladies with painted faces, decollete necklines and high heels —but women with “normal” lives, including housewives, teachers, nurses, and secretaries. One of the fascinating elements of the story was that the “employees” involved were regular people who were earning money on the side doing part-time work,
The operation was run from a storefront in Haight Ashbury west of San Francisco using a 35-line telephone system and four switchboard operators. The women were hired out at $160 an hour and kept $100 for themselves, meeting clients in a hotel or making house calls. There was a lot of confidentiality involved — and the women never met one another. Each service was billed using a credit card machine and no cash was ever handled. It was estimated that at the organization’s peak, Miss Chatterton had as many as sixty bank accounts, with some processing over $80,000 a month.
Altogether there were four people involved in the leadership of the ring, including Chatterton’s daughter, it took two years for the vice squad to track down all the information. When the scandal broke, San Francisco was rocked more violently than if there had been an earthquake — because the scandal involved men from every strata of society. Among them were high society gentlemen, prominent professionals, bankers, politicians, and sports figures. The fear was, of course, that the “guest lists” would be made public during the judicial process. My own imagination tells me the luxury gift business increased at that time, as men were buying expensive gifts to appease their wives in advance for their indiscretions – of course, no proof of this exists!
Miss Chatterton was finally charged with pandering and pimping, a crime which carried sentences from 3 – 6 years. But as far as I could see, she did not serve any time in prison. She was able to hire the best legal services and her lawyer, George Walker, said the previous year she had paid taxes based on one million dollars for “escort services” — and escort services were legal in San Francisco. In fact, the Yellow Pages phone book — remember those doorstoppers? — listed sixty-three escort agencies in San Francisco at the time. At least six of these were known to belong the Chatterton, with cute names such as International Pets, The Perfect 10, and Boccaccio.
Eventually, the case died down, there were other news stories and Miss Chatterton was forgotten. Until…
In 2018 I visited Puerto Vallarta. I l am interested in hotels, especially hotels with a provenance — and if they were once dilapidated and then resuscitated I love them even more. Researching hotels in Puerto Vallarta, I found Casa Kimberly which had become the home of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Puerto Vallarta in 1964.
Richard Burton was one of the leads in “Night of the Iguana,” a film directed by John Houston. As Taylor and Burton were in lust at the time, he would not move without her and so she accompanied him to Mexico for the filming. They were living in the best hotel in the town — and even though it was the best in the city at the time, it had dirt floors and was fairly basic. Too basic for Taylor.
One night Elizabeth saw a huge cockroach that caused her to let out a loud scream. Jumping up off the floor, she declared this was not for her and she was heading home, to the civilization of Beverly Hills. Wisely, John Houston recognized If she went home so would Burton.
To save the situation John Houston loaned Richard Burton his home, Casa Kimberly, and they moved in. Burton loved Casa Kimberly so much that he bought it from Houston as well as an adjacent house. He connected the two houses with a bridge that was known as the Puente del Amore, a copy of the Bridge of Sighs in Venice.
This made it possible for each of them to be together (and if there was a fiery argument, Richard could retreat to his space until they each sobered up … or were ready for more lust). It also gave them privacy from the paparazzi who followed them relentlessly and would gather outside between one of the two houses waiting for them to emerge.
Elizabeth kept the house after they divorced, even though it sadly reminded her of Burton after he unexpectedly passed away. She would use it from time to time and brought friends and family with her on occasion. It went through various ups and downs and was eventually sold to…
I do not know how she funneled money from the US to Mexico, but over the years, she had applied the same diligence that she had used to blueprint her callgirl scheme into becoming a hugely successful property owner and developer, owning some prestigious buildings in PV. These included Casa Kimberly and Casa Angel, another boutique hotel that had originally been the home of Susie Burton, also one of Richard Burton’s wives. Both these hotels are top-tier boutique hotels, overlooking the spectacular Bay of Banderas with its turquoise waters. Their nightly rate is significant.
When Janice Chatterton acquired Casa Kimberly, it was dilapidated and rundown. But with architects and builders, she redesigned the building to include nine suites, the hugely successful Iguana restaurant, a tequila bar, a spa and swimming pools — of course, memorabilia from the “Thn Night of the Iguana.”
I managed to arrange a tour of Casa Kimberly and was overwhelmed by the way it had been redesigned. No expense was spared — which is very unusual in hotels even the best of them. There are purchasing companies that control the spending and they endeavor to keep costs low — but in this case, Janice Chatterton was the purchasing company and it was her money she was spending.
Antique furnishings were used, four-poster beds, colonial armoires, antique mirrors and fine artworks that I was told had come out of her own private collection. Not all the antiques or artworks were authentic, but even the copies were magnificent. The indoor/outdoor Iguana Restaurant with its spectacular view of the Bay of Banderas in the hotel is a “must” with a waiting list to get in — and the Tequila Bar is one of “the” places to meet for a drink.
I had no idea while I was touring the hotel who Mrs, Chatterton was at the time and did not recall her history on hearing her name – although I was told she had originally come from San Francisco. As is my usual, I did try to meet the hotel owner and tried every which way to get to speak with Chatterton — found an impenetrable wall around her preventing any possible rendezvous.
It was not until I returned to San Francisco and started doing research that I found out it was the same Janice Chatterton who had made her capital in San Francisco in the 1980’s. I made my mind up that if ever I visited Puerto Vallarta again, I would have to find a way to meet her.
That will no longer be possible. Just recently, I learned that Janice Chatterton had passed away towards the end of last year after a short illness. As she was forty-nine at the time of her arrest in San Francisco, she must have been a woman in her eighties when she passed away.
Reading through the updates, I found out she had been responsible for starting the SPCA in Puerto Vallarta, an organization dedicated to doing something positive about the number of stray animals on the local streets and the cruelty to those animals. It appears she had put a considerable amount of money towards her charity and there was much gratitude from residents for what she had done.
This is a remarkable story about a most remarkable woman. I do not know her background or her level of education but I suspect she was self-made and an industry typically run by men!
Now I will never meet her and probably not be able to find out much about her – where she was born, had grown up or her family background. Did she perhaps once have an older lover who had taken her to Europe where he had schooled her in the finer things in life? Did he pass away and leave money for her in his will? I cannot help admiring her for the way she succeeded in a man’s world, both in the call girl ring and her entrepreneurship in Puerto Valla. It was a colorful life, but those make good stories.
Although I did not know her “story” when I was at the hotel, I feel sure there were people living in Puerto Valla who must have known her background. It is an extraordinary story of survival and overcoming the odds, picking up the pieces after her arrest, moving to Mexico and making a fresh start. This woman exemplified brilliance in whatever business she tackled. She was hardworking, driven and deserving of great success. If I could choose a select group of people with whom to dine, she would be on the list. I can only imagine the stories she’d tell at the Iguana.
For those who missed the original post on Casa Kimberly, here is the link.
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