You Don't Know Jack

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

When he did wander away from the bar, he usually got into trouble. One of his favorite games was impersonating local millionaire P.K. Wrigley while golfing at the Biltmore, because he got better service and because he thought it was funny the way the caddies jumped when they heard Wrigley's name. Then there was the time, Canez recalls, that Durant got so drunk he backed his sedan into the restaurant, then spent most of the next day telling everyone in the bar that his dog did it.

"The guy was a scam artist," Bledsoe says. "He was an insomniac with a photographic memory. He'd sit up all night reading about some obscure thing that no one would know about, and then he'd go into the bar and say, 'Betcha 10 bucks you can't tell me the population of this little town in Iowa' or whatever. He was bored, and he must have been pretty lonely, too."

BJ Thompson, who left in 1995 during a failed attempt to update the menu and eradicate the restaurant's Chicago whorehouse look, recalls Durant throwing a patron out because his lunch companion was black. "He said, 'I can't ask this black man to leave, but I can ask you to leave, sir.' Then he paid for the black guy's meal. He was prejudiced and mean, but he was also smart about how to get away with it."

Mobster turned restaurateur Jack Durant, shortly before his death in 1987, with pet bulldog Humble. Durant once told a reporter, "If anyone ever writes a book about me, 400 assholes will have to leave town."
courtesy of Durant's
Mobster turned restaurateur Jack Durant, shortly before his death in 1987, with pet bulldog Humble. Durant once told a reporter, "If anyone ever writes a book about me, 400 assholes will have to leave town."

Durant was also deeply generous, Thompson says. He contributed $25,000 annually to Good Samaritan Hospital, and threatened to cancel accounts with food distributors if they didn't contribute to local food banks. And he was forever handing out cash to employees and regular bar patrons.

Rumors that Durant left his restaurant to his staff and his dog are only slightly exaggerated. In fact, the restaurant went to Swede McElroy (who in turn left it to his son, Jack McElroy) and manager Russell Hoag. Durant set up a $50,000 trust fund for each of his 12 most loyal employees. The dog got the house and an annual allowance of $50,000, and expired on the one-year anniversary of his master's death: December 12, 1988.

"Durant was a great man," Thompson says. "I miss him."

For some folks, there's no need to miss Jack Durant, because he's still around. Joe Lauder was a Durant's regular who takes his whiskey neat but never, ever at Durant's. He's been in the place only once since Durant died, because during that visit he saw the old man himself, and he looked plenty pissed. "He was coming out of the men's room, and he looked right at me and his eyes kind of squinted up," Lauder says between slugs at the local Irish pub where he drinks these days. "I knew he was mad as hell, because when he died I owed him $200." Ask Lauder if he didn't try to make amends with Durant's ghost, and he fixes you with a glassy eye and a tight smile. "He didn't leave behind a family or a wife I could pay. And you can't very well give money to a dead man, can you?" he says.

Bledsoe agrees that there's some kind of presence at Durant's. "Now, I'm not saying there's a ghost there. But his legacy and antics are so legendary, it's less about a ghost and more about an enigma. You feel his presence because you look around, and everything about the place says Jack Durant."

The man appears to have some kind of postmortem powers. "I didn't choose him, he chose me," Leo says of her subject. "It sounds silly, but he was definitely here with me throughout the whole process. Whenever I couldn't find something out about him, there it was. One night I was stuck, and I said to his picture, 'If you want this written, help me out here.' Bingo, the next day I got what I needed."

Even from the beyond, it seems, Durant still favors naughty tricks. Leo remembers meeting a psychic at a book fair while she was working on her Durant biography. "She said to me, 'Do you want to know why you're writing a book about Jack Durant? It's because you and he and your husband were a ménage à trois in another life.'" Leo shakes her head and chuckles. "But that can't be right, because my husband hated men named Jack."

Leo thought she saw Durant at Park Central the other day, but she knows that can't be right, either. "He's definitely dead," she says. "But wouldn't he just love knowing that there was a book and a play about him, and that everyone is still talking about how he was such a bad dude? That's why he did it -- all of it. He wanted to be with us forever."

There's a big, framed photograph of Durant's, taken in 1960, in the lobby of the downtown Phoenix building where John Sankovich lives. He's standing next to it now, telling one last Durant's story before calling it a night.

"The last time my father got out of the hospital, I took him to Durant's on the way home. He had a walker by then, and we got there and he said, 'You can go straight to hell if you think I'm going into Durant's with a goddamned walker.' And in he walked, on his own. Steak sandwich with Roquefort dressing. And that was the last meal he had in his life."

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