He was an Englishman, the man who stole the Zombie, an ineffable cocktail better known by reputation than by taste.
He was an Englishman who made something of himself in New York in the 1930s as a furtive publicity hustler and an erstwhile front man for the mob before his inevitable relocation to Las Vegas.
This was the man who stole the Zombie. And he stole a lot of other things that probably don’t matter much, not as much as the thieving.
Late in the afternoon I stopped the car and took this picture in Moorea. We were on the road coming down the hill from Pihaena to Paopao.
Moorea is the island in French Polynesia where Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt lived for awhile in the early 1930s.
Gantt was born in Texas, was raised by his grandfather in Louisiana, and wound up in Moorea aboard either a yacht or a tramp steamer. When he returned to the States his luggage was packed with enough Polynesian dreams to launch a craze that unfurled across three decades.
In California, Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, who eventually changed his legal name to Donn Beach, started scouting real estate in Hollywood. He found a place for his gin mill in a vacant tailor shop around the corner from Musso and Frank Grill on McCadden Place, just north of Hollywood Boulevard.
When it opened in 1934, the place was called “Don’s Beachcomber Café.”
Rum was cheap and bamboo was abundant.
Novelty was worshipped and the place was a hit. Soon he expanded, opened a restaurant across the street and re-named it what they all called the place anyway.
Don the Beachcomber.
And it was in this bar on McCadden Place just around the corner from Grauman’s Chinese Theater and the Roosevelt Hotel that the Zombie made its mercurial debut.
Charlie Chaplin, Joan Crawford, and Marlene Dietrich, they were all regulars. So was Howard Hughes, who may or may not have killed a pedestrian on a feral drive home from Don the Beachcomber one night in 1936.
A Filipino bartender called Ray may have mixed Howard’s last drink that night. Ray mixed up the difficult ones. When you ordered a Zombie or a Missionary’s Downfall, it was usually Ray who did the work.
But you couldn’t have more than two Zombies. House rules. And the original Zombie recipe may never be known. It was changed in 1956 and even if you worked behind the bar at Don the Beachcomber in the old days you wouldn’t have known what was in it.
All you learned from the manual was “1 shot of bottle #7, 2 of bottle #2, 1 of bottle #47, and a splash of #17.”
There may have been more than seven ounces of alcohol in the original Zombie. Purists suggest that most Zombies served over the years have been sloppy retreads long on potency and short on craftsmanship.
So given the murkiness of history we can’t be 100% certain that another cocktail of this genre, the Mai Tai, was also the creation of Don the Beachcomber.
Not unless you asked Victor Bergeron, who said, “I want to get the record straight. I originated the Mai Tai. Anybody who says I didn’t create this drink is a stinker.”
Victor Bergeron, aka Trader Vic, who opened a Polynesian joint of his own at 65th Street and San Pablo in Oakland shortly after visiting Don’s place in Hollywood, may have lacked Don’s panache. But his business acumen was superb.
Bergeron strung up some outrigger canoes, layered the walls with bamboo and turned his nondescript BBQ joint, Hinky Dinks, into Trader Vic’s.
And as Trader Vic’s took off Victor did nothing to dismiss all the stories that he lost his left leg to a shark in the South Pacific. The truth, an amputation at the age of six, didn’t seem quite appropriate.
Trader Vic’s eventually eclipsed Don the Beachcomber with more locations, more revenue and more star power.
The location in Washington DC’s Statler Hilton was a favorite of Richard Nixon. Ronald Reagan took Queen Elizabeth II there and Nikita Khrushchev’s wife Nina Petrovna visited the San Francisco restaurant during her 1959 American tour. She ordered the Chopped New York Hawaiian, a burger with banana and pineapple.
Vic Bergeron and Donn Beach were each rolled by the man who stole the Zombie.
His name was Monte Proser and in the late thirties he launched a back east Don the Beachcomber knockoff.
Monte Proser’s unabashed stolen goods were anchored by a Manhattan flagship at Broadway and 50th. There was a place in Miami Beach at Alton Road and Dade Boulevard and other Beachcombers in Baltimore, Boston and Providence.
Because Proser was thick with the New York mob, legal actions from Donn Beach were ill-advised. At the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair, Proser opened the Hurricane Bar and sold Zombies which he claimed to have invented.
And to make the heist complete, Monte Proser cloned the Don the Beachcomber two drink limit.
For reasons unknown, Frank Sinatra referred to Monte Proser as “The Genius.”
Later on, after Monte married chorus girl Jane Ball, Proser opened New York’s Copacabana and fronted for mobster Frank Costello. In the late fifties Proser headed west and produced Vegas shows for resorts such as the Tropicana and the Thunderbird.
Donn Beach had his own agenda.
When America entered World War II, Beach went overseas. His ship was torpedoed off Northern Africa. Awarded the Purple Heart, he rode out the war providing hospitality for members of the Army Air Force in Nice, Cannes, Venice and Sorrento.
Back home in Hollywood, where his ex-wife Cora had expanded the operation to multiple locations, Donn figured it best to bypass the corporate world.
He lit out for Honolulu and opened a new joint in Waikiki where a myna bird was trained to squawk, “Give me a beer, stupid.”
Don brought one of his most profitable Hollywood capers with him to Waikiki. A makeshift sprinkler system set up outside over the roof.
You don’t want to leave the bar when it’s raining. Better have another Vicious Virgin. Maybe a Montego Bay, a Doctor Funk, or a Shark’s Tooth.
Monte Proser died in 1973.
Trader Vic died in Hillsborough, California in 1984, knowing there was still a Trader Vic’s in New York City’s Plaza Hotel. A few years later the Plaza’s new owner, Donald Trump, declared the establishment to be in bad taste and shut it down.
In 1985, the original Don the Beachcomber building on McCadden in Hollywood was demolished to make way for an apartment building.
And in 1989, Donn Beach passed away.
At the time of his death he held the patents for 80 drink recipes. But something Don the Beachcomber was unable to patent may be his most enduring legacy.
He resurrected an all but forgotten ceremony, brought in the dancers and the torches and the crooners and turned the luau into an inescapable element of Hawaiian tourism.
And his place was still there the last time I was in Honolulu, that old Don the Beachcomber on Ala Moana, empty and ragged with the wind blowing through.