Keating's Monument to Cupidity

I keep thinking about Charlie Keating. Right now he's sitting alone in a jail cell near Bakersfield, California. He's serving ten years.

The other day, a federal jury in Tucson awarded $3.3 billion in damage claims against Keating for swindling thousands of investors.

I wonder how Keating feels about this latest development. He's 68. He may have some money hidden. But nobody has $3.3 billion. More criminal charges are pending.

Is this the end for him? Will he die behind bars? I remember Keating saying once that the Phoenician hotel was going to be his crowning accomplishment. He said that when he was gone, the hotel would still be sitting there as a reminder of his desire to create the spectacular.

I don't know why, but suddenly I got in the car and drove out along Camelback Road to take a walk around the Phoenician. They say it cost $35 million to build. I believe it. It's the kind of place that makes you feel you'd better pay attention to what clothes you're wearing. I stopped at the gate and identified myself and received a card that allowed me to enter. I drove slowly up a road that runs almost a mile to the hotel's front door. The road is lined with huge palm trees that Keating imported especially for the hotel. There are acres of well-kept grassy lawns.

I pulled the car up to the entrance and turned it over to one of a half-dozen attendants.

I walked up a few steps and into the front lobby. It is spectacular. It is so totally different from anything else in Arizona. The place was bustling. There was a doctor's convention sponsored by the American Cancer Society in progress. The doctors were paying half-price.

Charlie Keating was a boaster and braggart, but maybe he was right about the Phoenician. It is an astonishing place. Depending on your taste, it is either gross or spectacular. It may be a bit of both. Either way it's memorable.

I wonder if Keating ever tries to visualize the 35 acres at the base of Camelback Mountain with its pools, fountains, waterfalls and lush landscaping these days as he sits in his prison cell. For a while, Keating ruled this place like an emperor. He stands better than 6 feet 5 inches tall and when he moved through the lobby, his presence was unmistakable. Hotel workers jumped to attention when they saw him approaching.

But now Keating is just another con. . .and a distinctly aging one at that.

The lobby of the Phoenician sets the stage. Its floors are of Italian marble. There are spectacular fountains and chandeliers. You can sense how valuable the rugs are. I remember hearing Keating boast how he had been able to buy things like the famous Maguire chairs at a big discount. I don't ever remember seeing so many flowers, giant pots and paintings outside an art gallery or a museum.

The lobby is incredibly spacious. That, in fact, is a hallmark of the hotel. There is such great space wherever you walk. Enough tables and chairs are spread around the lobby and its adjacent area to accommodate hundreds of people comfortably. So just by walking into the place, you experience a feeling of well-being. Obviously, Keating decided to construct this place with no thought given as to how much things might cost. I think, in fact, there was a deliberate attempt to make it as expensive as possible.

And when it was done, many of the contractors went unpaid. Keating haggled with them for more than a year, claiming they hadn't performed up to his standards.

So maybe Charlie knew even while building this monument to himself that the jig was up. He understood the savings-and-loan scandal would wash over him and that not all the politicians he had bought would be able to save him.

His whole financial empire would crumble. It would disappear. But this hotel was going to be his personal monument. It was a lace-curtain Irishman's answer to the Egyptian pyramids.

There's nothing in the Phoenician that isn't the most expensive of its kind. I don't know myself whether that makes the Phoenician memorable. Is it better, for example, than the wondrous Arizona Biltmore?

The huge, decorative pots placed around the entire hotel are better than those on the Squaw Peak Parkway's dividing wall. The sculptures are both massive and impressive. Keating boasted once that the artwork on the walls throughout the hotel cost him more than $1 million.

The first couple of times I went through the Phoenician, I thought it was overdone. But I think now that my feelings about Keating gave me a prejudiced view.  

On this trip I find the place beguiling. But maybe it's because I'm walking through the halls and thinking about Keating in his cell at the same time.

Hotel residents can listen to a piano player in the evening or attend high tea in the afternoon. There are pianos all over the place.

High tea, which consists of finger sandwiches and a pot of tea, costs $12.75 per person.

I rode down a long escalator to the main ballroom in the lower level. It's a room with an extremely high ceiling and is large enough for a football game. It's bigger than the main ballrooms in either the Conrad Hilton in Chicago or the Waldorf-Astoria in New York.

I remember going to the Phoenician the first weekend the hotel opened. Senator Dennis DeConcini was on hand with his entire Washington, D.C., and Arizona entourages to help Keating celebrate.

Even before the grand opening, Keating had held a fund raiser here for his great friend, Senator John McCain.

DeConcini, one of the richest men in the United States Senate, wondered aloud: "How can anyone dare make this big an investment?"

If you walk down the hall from the ballroom, you come upon a sign for the men's room. This isn't your ordinary men's room. Once inside you see it's big enough to accommodate the crowds at halftime at Sun Devil Stadium. There's a significant difference. Thick, dark-brown hand towels sit waiting in large baskets. There must have been at least 300 towels on hand. Later I find there are men's rooms like this all over the hotel. And they are all supplied with hundreds of brown towels.

I walked out a doorway and came upon Mary Elaine's restaurant. It doesn't open until 8 p.m. and it is named after Keating's wife.

There was a sign on the front door notifying customers that they would not be allowed to enter unless the head waiter thought they were properly dressed.

I remembered a day when Keating was a guest on Pat McMahon's talk show on KTAR. He was talking about how wonderful this restaurant was going to be.

One of those rare callers with the nerve to register a complaint got through to Keating. He said something that outraged Keating.

"I don't know what to say to a fella like that," Keating said to McMahon. "It makes you kind of sad. You work day and night creating employment for 2,500 people.

"You put your life savings into the place to bolster it and then you get tagged with something like that."

I don't even remember now what the caller had said to arouse Charlie's ire. But it never did take much. Charlie lived his life surrounded by yes men, and that included politicians like McCain and Bob Corbin, who was then the Arizona Attorney General.

One year Keating gave Corbin more than $50,000 in donations and Corbin ran unopposed. In the entire state, Corbin raised only another $3,000. Does it surprise anyone that Corbin never sent any of his lawyers to investigate Keating's enterprises?

One day there was a dinner to honor Corbin. He was sitting at the head table. When Keating walked into the room, Corbin got out of his chair and rushed to embrace his patriarch. Does any of that surprise you?

Keating was outraged anytime he ran into someone who wasn't prepared to genuflect. This is a common failing I have noticed among men who make a great deal of money. They begin to take themselves too seriously. On McMahon's show that day, another caller made the mistake of knocking down Keating's accomplishments, saying it was easy for Keating because he was such a rich man.

"That's garbage," Keating shot back. "I'm not a rich man."

I always wondered whether Keating worked hard because of his work ethic or because he was reacting excitedly to the acts of stealing, defrauding and swindling. Perhaps he was a man intoxicated by theft.

During all those days of testy relations with the local press, Keating was continually on the edge of filing libel suits.

I remember the day he called a press conference in the Phoenix Press Club, which was located across the street from the downtown offices of the Arizona Republic.

About a dozen journalists showed up. Keating acted as host, paying for the coffee and breakfast rolls. He got up and threatened to take all his business operations out of Arizona unless the press stopped sniping at him.

Keating, however, always maintained friendly relations with KTAR. He spent tons of money advertising with them. Actually, he was quite a ham. Keating loved to perform. He cut several series of radio commercials extolling his various enterprises.  

Quite often Keating's sessions with Pat McMahon would end up with the talk-show host thanking the Great Man for appearing.

"I'll always come on with you, Pat," Keating would say.

I was standing on a ledge overlooking the pool area as I thought about the love fests McMahon and Keating always had.

The other day, McMahon interviewed the man who escaped prison and led the cops on a merry chase for weeks. He talked by telephone to the escapee, who was then back in prison in Florence. I wonder why McMahon doesn't call up Keating over there in his cell in California?

He could ask him all sorts of things that would call for answers we'd like to hear:

"Charlie, why did you really bring Mother Teresa to Phoenix on your jet plane? What did she say when you gave her that $1 million donation?"

"Charlie, as you look back on it, was that $80,000 you spent to buy off the Phoenix City Council a good investment? Couldn't you have gotten the job done cheaper?"

As a student at the University of Cincinnati, Keating was a swimmer of world-class caliber. Even at his advanced age, he appears to be as fit as a barracuda. I figure that's why he spent so much money on the pools at the Phoenician. There are three connected on the top level and a fourth down below. They are as pretty as you've ever seen.

As you stand along the top, you see a regulation croquet court on one side and a miniature putting green on the other side.

There is a health club, too. They call it "The Centre for Well-Being."

You can buy a consultation with a personal trainer, attend yoga classes, get a desert-clay body mask or even get a shiatsu massage, which is an ancient Japanese pressure-point technique. I walked down to the golf clubhouse and then to the tennis clubhouse. The facilities in both are elaborate.

Charlie always did go for the spectacular. In the first year the Phoenician was open, he bought up $800,000 worth of season tickets for the Phoenix Cardinals games to make sure his customers could get in.

I remembered the day a television crew was going through his offices at 26th Street and Camelback and Charlie raised a secretary's salary to $100,000 a year on the spot.

Those were the days when he kept plenty of magnums of Dom Perignon chilled in the refrigerators just in case there was something to celebrate.

The thing you keep noticing about the Phoenician is that the hallways are so wide. There are so many rugs that the sound is deadened. You have the overall sense of restfulness. There are no shouts. There are no crying babies. It is almost like a museum.

Does Keating think about this now as he lines up to eat his prison food?

When he was free, Keating tried to swim a mile a day and he paid himself a salary of $3.2 million a year. He paid all the members of his family lavishly, too.

But these days, all the friendships the money bought are things of the past. The Keating story is a closed book. Only the Phoenician remains. And these days, it is owned by the government of Kuwait.

I pulled my car out of the lot at the tennis club and spotted down the road a big, white, iron gate which seemed to lead out to the street.

I headed for the gate. Two golf carts pulled out into the road and I had to stop the car quickly. They clearly had no intention of stopping.

After the golfers passed by, I resumed driving toward the gate. It opened automatically as I approached and I drove out of the Phoenician and back into reality.

I turned on the car radio. The announcer was reminding his listeners that Charlie Keating still faces charges of criminal fraud and racketeering in a trial that will begin October 20 in Los Angeles.

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