Best of Phoenix 2014: Legend City / Lore of the Lair

Many people know the Papago Park Military Reservation's history as a prisoner of war camp, but is it possible that it now houses a secret Dr. Evil-style lair?

During World War II, the military facility served as a POW camp mostly for German sailors captured from U-boats. By many accounts, life at the POW camp was far from terrible, but that didn't stop German prisoners from building a secret tunnel all the way to a nearby canal to plot an escape. The facts about the tunnel get hazy: Four months of digging under bathhouses, fences, and a patrol road ended in a tunnel somewhere between 125 to 400 feet long. Some say the tunnel even went under the canal. During a Christmas celebration in 1944, the prisoners used the noise of the party to plan their escape. Sources say as many as 25 men escaped — some captured, some assimilating into the local population uncaught, and some knocking on the doors of citizens in Tempe and south Scottsdale asking to be sent back to the POW camp (Arizona does get chilly in the winter, you know).

The Army got a call from local law enforcement officials who suspected prisoners may be on the loose. The Army, embarrassed that it didn't even know prisoners had escaped — let alone had been digging an escape route for months — used the story of the tunnel to do some hind covering. The Army supposedly masked its snafu by claiming it had built the tunnel, not the prisoners: A whole underground system (built by the U.S. for the U.S.) that just happened to be discovered by German prisoners and used to escape the camp.

Maybe the U.S. Army really did build those tunnels, or maybe the German prisoners started that underground tunnel and the Army later built it into a super-secret spy center, or maybe it really was nothing more than a prisoner-built escape tunnel. At the very least, we know that there were some underground shenanigans happening at Papago Park in the 1940s. The last piece of the POW camp was destroyed in 2005, and the camp is now home to the Arizona National Guard (and possibly that secret lair).

Best of Phoenix 2014: Legend City / Rescue Me

Who says no good deed goes unpunished? Not former president Bill Clinton, certainly. When Clinton pardoned former Arizona Governor Fife Symington in January 2001, wagging tongues said it was because Symington had long before saved a young Clinton from drowning — literally, not politically.

Legend has it that when they were college students in the 1960s — Symington at Harvard, Clinton at Georgetown — Fife saved young Billy at a beach party in Massachusetts, yanking him out of the water just as Clinton was being pulled away by a strong tide.

Nearly 40 years later, in September 1997, Symington was being indicted on 21 federal counts of extortion, making false financial statements, and bank fraud. Convicted of seven of those counts, Symington was forced to resign from office.

Two years later, the conviction was overturned when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a juror's dismissal during proceedings had violated Symington's right to a fair trial. Just as the government was revving up to retry Symington, Clinton sent the former governor a get-out-of-jail-free card, issuing a pardon that effectively terminated the opportunity for retrial.

In stories recounting the Clinton-Symington pardon, the watery rescue is almost always tagged on as a footnote. Let's hear it for water safety!

Best of Phoenix 2014: Legend City / Mural of the Story

Only a few months after he painted a mural of his quirky, high-color stick figures on the Berlin Wall in 1986, artist Keith Haring, the story goes, also created a mural on the side of the old Hartfield's Dress Shop on the southeast corner of Adams Street and Central Avenue in downtown Phoenix. And while many locals remember well the stunning 125-foot mural, no one seems to know what became of it.

In what's now a parking lot just west of Hanny's, the "comic caveman" mural was created while Haring was in Phoenix leading a drawing workshop at Phoenix Art Museum. He pitched a mural to city planners, who hooked up Haring with art students from South Mountain High School. The original plan was that Haring would sketch his traditionally playful outlined figures, and the students would paint them in. But when the students began improvising — adding images of their own and incorporating their names into the design — Haring encouraged them to continue. The result was a typically Haring-esque diorama of vibrant urban hieroglyphics, a bright spot on an otherwise dreary corner.

At a time when there were few other murals in our still-developing downtown, the prominent Haring display was a welcome addition. City Councilmember Mary Rose Wilcox announced plans to sell the Haring piece to fund a city mural project in 1991, but Haring shut down the sale, pointing out that his contract with the city stipulated that the mural be taken down and destroyed after one year. Having been graffitied, exposed to brutal weather, and otherwise abused, the mural — painted on untreated composition board attached to the side of the Hartfield's building — was a mess. Not long after Haring's death from AIDS-related illness in 1989, city of Phoenix workers tore it down and had it hauled to the dump, where it reportedly was destroyed.

Or was it? Rumors abound, nearly 30 years later, about what really became of this large — and now valuable, if it still exists — work of art. One story places at least part of the mural at the Faux Café, a long-gone art gallery/coffee shop right around the corner from the mural's original home. Another story goes that the late Bruce Kurtz, former curator of 20th-century art for the Phoenix Art Museum, had arranged to have the mural shipped to his home in Paris. (Impossible — Kurtz went public on several occasions about the fact that the Haring mural was "valueless" because it was done in collaboration with kids, unsigned by Haring, and in terrible shape.)

We may never know what became of the mural, but in the meantime, we can watch its creation, via a video that South Mountain High School art instructor Mike Prepsky made at the time and keep our fingers crossed that at least some of its 125 feet will turn up one day in the future.

Best of Phoenix 2014: Legend City / Baier, Beware

Maria Baier: She attended law school and passed the bar; worked for more than a decade in the Governor's Office writing speeches for, among others, Fife Symington; was a flack for Arizona's attorney general; was once commissioner of the Arizona State Land Department, and works now as vice dresident of development and communications for Great Hearts Academies, a charter school in the Phoenix area.

But for people who knew her in the '80s, back when she was Maria Khan, she's the former wildcat gal pal of the late Hunter S. Thompson. The story that's dogged Baier for decades starts out in different locales: In one version, she was a reporter for ASU's State Press sent to cover a speech by Thompson, afterwards disappearing with him for weeks. In another version, Baier met Thompson while she was a cub and he was a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner, and they began a brief but reportedly torrid affair. All versions of the story end with Baier, who reportedly came from a super-conservative background, getting a giant tattoo of a panther on her back before being dumped by Thompson.

Is it true? Well, Baier, the daughter of golf pro Frank Kahn and brother of fire chief Bob Kahn, does appear as a talking head in The Crazy Never Die, a 1988 documentary about Thompson. She features prominently in his story collection Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the '80s, published the same year, which the author dedicated to her and which includes his essay "Saturday Night in the City," a story that commences with the line, "I dropped Maria off in front of the tattoo parlor just before midnight."

Fact or fiction? You decide. Baier didn't return our calls. But we know people who know people who swear they've seen that tattoo.

Best of Phoenix 2014: Legend City / Little Green Men in Cave Creek

In October 1947, legend has it that a UFO crashed in North Phoenix. Many believe it crashed at what is now the site of the Dreamy Draw Dam and that the dam was built to cover up the crash.

That's not true, as the dam wasn't built until 1973, but believers have a different theory on what might've happened:

The Cave Creek version of the legend says that the UFO initially crashed a little to the south of where Carefree Highway is now. Considering that the location was relatively rural at the time, the government had plenty of time to come up with a cover-up, so they decided to place the Cave Creek landfill over the site of the crash.

Allegedly, large groups of government officials could be found in Cave Creek's hotels and restaurants toward the end of the 1940s, including groups driving along Carefree Highway to and from the landfill.

One possible combination of the two crash-site options is that some of the debris from the crashed spaceship was moved and buried under the Dreamy Draw Dam after more people began moving to Cave Creek in the 1970s, making it a less desirable place for the government to hide an alien spacecraft.

The landfill is now closed, and a recycling center servicing both Cave Creek and Carefree is located at the same site, but the landfill certainly had its fair share of questionable issues during its run. Reports of toxicity, water contamination, and radiation coming from the landfill for years surrounding its closing, and though many attribute these issues to normal trash buildup, those who believe in the crash say that the landfill closed after it was found to have been contaminated by fluids leaking from the wreckage approximately six decades after the initial impact.

While no one has proof that a UFO ever crashed in Cave Creek, it's never been debunked like its Dreamy Draw counterpart. That's good enough to be seen as a part of the area's history by most lifelong residents.

Best of Phoenix 2014: Legend City / White Christmas -- in Phoenix?

Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa

"White Christmas." It's the ultimate holiday song. But did Irving Berlin really write this standard while poolside at Phoenix's Arizona Biltmore Resort and Spa?

Long the playground of the Hollywood elite, the Biltmore played host to Clark Gable, Bob Hope, Ava Gardner, and Marilyn Monroe, among a studio-full of other Tinseltown players, since its grand opening in 1929. Berlin was among the Biltmore's regular Golden Age guests, a fan, as he once told a newspaper reporter, of the sun that allowed him to write musical scores out-of-doors as early as 4 in the morning.

The story goes that Berlin was staying at the Biltmore in late 1939, having gone there to write a film score. Lounging by the pool one day, scribbling moon-in-June couplets for some Hollywood dame to sing, he began to feel homesick for New York. The weather here was gorgeous, toasty warm even in December, but nothing in the desert looked like Christmas to Berlin, who was a fan of the holiday.

If it's true that Berlin, a Russian Jew, was inspired to write the most famous and most-recorded Christmas song ever while lying poolside at our best-ever resort, then he must have either considered our cowtown too unglamorous to include in the song's lyric, or else he couldn't think of anything to rhyme with Phoenix. Thus, the song's oft-excised sectional verse, which rhapsodizes about warm winter weather and then laments, in part, "There's never been such a day in Beverly Hills, L.A. / But it's December the 24th, and I'm longing to be up north / I'm dreaming of a White Christmas . . ."

Laurence Bergreen's biography of Berlin, As Thousands Cheer, has the composer completing the song in New York, with no mention of his frequent trips to the Biltmore resort; in Edward Jablonski's American Troubador, the author claims Berlin wrote the song while in sunny L.A.

We like to think they're wrong.

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