Guest commentary: A life shaped in La Jolla

Harry Cummins, standing second from left, hangs out at the Hotel del Charro in La Jolla in his youth.
(Courtesy of Harry Cummins)

In the early 1950s, I spent my summers learning how to swim at a bewitching local hotel pool. In the winter I would wait wide-eyed for Christmas and a personal visit from America’s top crime fighter, Mr. J. Edgar Hoover.

In short, I was just another kid living a lucky life of intrigue and romance under the umbrella of palm trees and adolescent innocence.

In those days, my mother worked the night shift as a nurse at the original Scripps Hospital on Prospect Street in La Jolla. As a result, I took up residence among a motley gang of youngsters at Gillispie Cottage, a way station for children of single mothers and working parents, serving the community of La Jolla. Its founders — pediatrician Samuel Gillispie and his wife, Ada — were on the leading edge of early childhood learning long before nursery schools became the norm.

Today, Gillispie Cottage has evolved into Gillispie School, a prestigious K-6 institution of high learning and even higher tuition. Now sporting rigorous curriculum development to include arts, music and physical education, Gillispie School has received awards from Apple and the National Association of Independent Schools. All this was a long way off for us “ground-floor” groupies of the 1950s.

Every summer, the “Cottage Kids” were treated to swimming lessons and poolside lunches every week by the benevolent ladies of the Gillispie Foundation. A couple of times a week, we were transported to the nearby Hotel del Charro, its kidney-shaped swimming pool and secluded lanais a magnet for its hush-hush guest list of the famous and infamous.

The Hotel del Charro was not an ordinary hotel and certainly didn’t have an ordinary guest list. I only came to understand this many years later.

Originally the area was a riding school for girls. In 1951, the former La Jolla Riding Stables were purchased by Texas oil multimillionaire Clint Murchison, who converted the stables into bungalows and built a Spanish-style, tile-roofed luxury hotel on the site. Room rates started at $100 a night at the new playground on Torrey Pines Road near Ardath Road. It became my playground as well.

Del Charro’s proximity to the Del Mar racetrack drew a checkered summer crowd of Mafia figures, Hollywood celebrities and politicians. John Wayne, Joan Crawford, Elizabeth Taylor, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon were among the frequent guests.

So was FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and his deputy Clyde Tolson, the pair spending every summer at Del Charro. In the winter at Christmas, Hoover and Tolson would visit Gillispie Cottage and present each child with a Christmas present along with a personally signed greeting card.

Harry Cummins' coveted Christmas card from J. Edgar Hoover.
(Courtesy of Harry Cummins)

Little did I know at the time what significant events in American history might have taken shape in those secluded Del Charro bungalows occupied by leading political figures, the super rich, Texas oilmen and organized-crime members. There is sufficient information available today to satisfy the most ardent conspiracy theorists and those wishing to journey down the rabbit hole of fact and fiction. I didn’t have time for any of that then — or now, for that matter.

I do remember seeing a lot of important-looking and beautiful people poolside in those impressionable days, but I only had eyes for Nancy Kindall, our Del Charro swimming instructor for the summer. I was “Squints” and Nancy was Wendy Peffercorn — we were forerunners personified of the 1993 movie classicThe Sandlot.”

I never faked drowning that summer, but I did feign learning how to swim to earn extra attention from Nancy. If mermaids existed, surely Nancy Kindall was one. When I found out that she lived just down the alley from my mom and I, I would often hide out behind a nearby garage to get a glimpse of her ascending or descending a large stairway leading to her small apartment behind La Jolla Elementary School. My hormones were on perpetual watch, eagerly awaiting our next close encounter under the guise of a swimming lesson.

Developmental experts tell us that important life lessons can be learned early. From the still-shimmering remains of a nearly forgotten childhood, I now surmise this much to be true: that pubescent passion can be a precursor to a more textured love; that prominent people are capable of unsettling things; that tough and tender get inexplicably mixed up in people and places; and a hidden, deeper life still swirls all around us.

A wading pool can become an ocean once you learn how to swim.

Editor’s note: Harry Cummins is a freelance writer who now lives in Portland, Ore. The Hotel del Charro closed in the early 1970s and was demolished and replaced by condominiums.