You Don't Know Jack

A new play exposes the life of the late proprietor of Durant's, the Valley's legendary steak house

Also in Durant's FBI file, which Leo won't share with anyone even though it's a public record (and which the FBI is happy to share with any reporter who's willing to wait at least 18 months for a copy), is information she says connects Durant to Johnny Stompanato, Lana Turner's late mobster husband who was murdered by Turner's teenaged daughter in 1958. "It was who he knew that got him on the FBI's Most Dangerous list," Leo says, "and what kept him on it was that he was suspected of killing a special FBI agent," whose name she says is blocked out in the FBI report.

Mofford swears she never heard a thing about Durant's Mafia connections. "But I did used to say to the boy who parked my car at Durant's, 'Go ahead and sell it if you can.' Now I'm thinking that he very well might have."

Durant's mob connections dried up for good in 1958 after Gus Greenbaum and his wife were murdered in their Phoenix home, presumably because Gus was skimming casino profits. Durant didn't much care; the gangster thing was getting old. By 1960, he had his sights set on becoming an icon.

Jack Durant's "gentlemen's club" in Miami, Arizona, was recently razed.
Mabel Leo
Jack Durant's "gentlemen's club" in Miami, Arizona, was recently razed.
"Durant's is like church for some people," according to Ernie Canez, who's been the restaurant's head cook for nearly half a century.
Jeff Newton
"Durant's is like church for some people," according to Ernie Canez, who's been the restaurant's head cook for nearly half a century.

This afternoon, in the bar, there's a going-away party for Katrina, a 27-year-old office worker who's moving to Seattle to get married. "I don't know why they picked this place," she says of her soon-to-be-former colleagues, glancing around Durant's dark bar. "I think it's because my boss is older, and this is the kind of place he, you know, used to go to when he was young."

This story enrages Sankovich when it's repeated to him later. He's seated in the living room of his Central Avenue high-rise condo, sucking on a vodka and cranberry and his dozenth cigarette of the evening. Over his left shoulder, 17 floors below, the Durant's sign glows like an ember.

"Young people are so young these days," he bellows. "The ones who do go into Durant's don't understand that this is what a restaurant is supposed to be. And the girls are unforgivable, with their wine spritzers and their hoochies hanging out."

Sankovich worries that the kids are missing the point of Durant's altogether. He's not worried about Durant's closing its doors; he knows you could burn the place to the ground today and it would be back tomorrow, pink and bright and ready with the shrimp cocktail. "But here's what I mean," he says, snapping off each angry word like a carrot stick. "I heard that when Elton John was in town a couple of years ago, he pulled his limo up to the back of the restaurant and had the food delivered to his car. So what are you doing in Phoenix if you're not going to experience Phoenix?"

"Go to Durant's and ask for Geraldine Hickey," he says with all the confidence of a man who has had a piece of furniture named after him. "She's been there for hundreds of years, and I go in and she looks at me and says, 'I know what you want, shut up.' And always the order is wrong. The salad dressing is wrong, or the side of butter is missing. But she's my favorite. It's always a kiss goodnight. So please don't ask me why people still go there. You've got good staff, and good food, and you've got, 'Hello, John, how are you?' The only thing missing is old Jack himself, sitting at the end of the bar, throwing insults at the customers. Still, there's no better place to eat."

If he were still alive today, Jack Durant probably wouldn't be hanging out in his bar. He'd most likely be in court, defending himself against sexual harassment suits.

"One minute he'd be treating a young waitress like a daughter, and the next he'd be asking women customers for blowjobs," Earp says. "There's an old story about him going into [office manager] Becky's office and taking out his dick and putting it on her desk. Can you imagine doing that today?"

Pretty much every oddball story about Durant -- especially the ones about how he treated women -- is at least partly true, according to Russell Hoag, Durant's manager and one of its owners. "He definitely hit on some of the ladies that came in here," Hoag says, chuckling. "He almost certainly would have seen some harassment charges from the waitresses in this day and age. But he didn't take anyone off his Christmas list if they turned down his advances. His attitude was more like, 'How about it, baby?'"

In 1960, the Phoenix Gazette reported that Durant had been arrested for aggravated assault after punching out a dame who'd resisted his advances. He bought 100 copies of the paper and handed them out at the restaurant the next day, and was heard to bellow, "Who else do you know gets arrested for rape at the ripe old age of 70?" (He was 54 at the time.)

There was no floor show or lounge singer at Durant's; Jack himself was the entertainment. People came in just to see who he'd go off on and what he'd say when he did. He drank caseloads of Budweiser, sometimes until four o'clock in the morning, because his wives (he had three of them) kept leaving him, and his dogs (three of those, too, all of them mean, ugly bulldogs) kept dying, and he didn't have anyplace else to go.

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