Of course, I had heard of Charles Keating. The man became famous as an anti-porn crusader in Cincinnati back in the '70s, hustling his version of morality against Hustler's version of what the Founding Fathers meant in the First Amendment. My knowledge of Mr. Keating didn't end there, however. I read about his adventures through his land-development empire-building in Arizona and watched him, eventually, go down in flames when his Lincoln Savings and Loan collapsed in the midst of controversy and accusations while investors lost their life savings in the debacle.
Although I had heard of him and knew a little about him, I must confess that I never really thought of him as a crook, someone who'd step out of his way to steal the Social Security check from a widow with promises of riches beyond avarice. Yes, I knew I was in the minority, that millions of Americans thought of him as a thief and swindler. That thousands of Americans lost money in the Lincoln collapse. Still, I thought there must be another side to the story. This man who had created so much enterprise and land development couldn't be that bad. Or, could he?
In August 1997, my wife and I were having dinner with a business associate and his wife at Tomaso's, a nice Italian restaurant in Phoenix, when, like the coronation of a king, Charles Keating and his entourage entered the restaurant and seized the table next to ours.
In those days, his entourage consisted of his personal secretary and her husband (the crowd of admirers had thinned a bit after spending all that time in federal prison). Keating had been released, the beneficiary of an overturned decision on a technicality, and I guessed this was his first big night out. He looked great. More than 70 years old and not an ounce of fat on him. Tall, tan, and thin and telling everyone who cared to listen (and a few who didn't) that he swims 1,500 meters a day.
Charlie sat down as though he owned the place. No one at our table said a word to him, not only because we didn't want anyone to think we were star-struck but because we genuinely had nothing to say. Yet, Charlie looked over at our table and noticed a bottle of chianti I had ordered and commented: "That's a fine wine you've got there." Well, I like a good chianti as much as the next guy, but I would never call it a "fine wine." Still, I understood that, being in prison for so long, even Ripple would taste good to him at that point. So, I poured him a glass, and he replied "Oh, I don't want to sponge off you."
Strange, I thought, that he would consider me offering him a glass of wine as "sponging." I should have known right then and there. It was only later I learned the true definition of that colloquialism as it applied from Mr. Keating to me.
As dinner progressed that evening, the conversation flowed along with the wine. Bottle after bottle was brought to our table. We laughed and joked with Charlie and his crew. Charlie was fond of saying, again and again, "You know, I don't have any money since they took it all away from me." If he was flat broke, I thought, then why was he dining with his team at a pricey Italian restaurant in Phoenix? Wouldn't it be more appropriate to see him taking in the bill of fare at the local Olive Garden if he were truly busted? I didn't ponder that thought too long because the wine was flowing along with my good sense. And, at one momentous point in the evening, Charlie announced, "On the 15th of October we (meaning he and his staff) are eating at Mary Elaine's and you are all invited!"
Now, understand, Mary Elaine's was not some greasy spoon diner outside Winslow on old Route 66. No, I had heard of this restaurant and the hotel in which it is located. It was the most expensive place to eat in Arizona. It was the restaurant named after Keating's wife and was the jewel in the crown of his crumbled empire. Located on an upper floor of the man's Xanadu, the Phoenician, Mary Elaine's was where the elite went to meet, greet, and eat. It was not a place I especially wanted to go since I proudly did not count myself among that crowd. Yet, it was apparent that my friend and his wife were excited about it, so I agreed but offered that my wife's birthday was around that time and, if it was convenient, could the date be changed to the 16th of October? "Done," said Charlie, clapping his hands like Yul Brynner in The King and I. Then, he remarked, "Now, please understand that I'll only be able to pay for me and my party, you'll have to pick up your own check." "Of course," I remarked, "that is only fair."
The rest of the evening was uneventful until Charlie, with a few too many belts under his belt, stood up and picked a fight with our waiter, offering to take him out in the parking lot and rearrange his face. The waiter politely declined. How strange it was, I thought, that this man, after all he had been through, after all the shame, degradation, and mockery of his name, could still act so arrogantly over something so trivial as the waiter not responding to a demand quickly enough to suit him. Keating paid for his own party with a wad of bills emerging from his front pocket. For a guy who's broke, he's got a lot of green, I thought. Later, we parted ways, assuring each other that we'd all meet again in October at "his" hotel for dinner. I half-expected never to hear from him again. All things considered, I wish I never had.
The following week, a package from Charlie arrived in the mail. It was an autographed book titled Legal Extortion by Jack D. Atchison. Atchison's premise was that the whole case against poor Charlie was a government charade, that it was looking for a scapegoat to blame the collapse of Lincoln on, and that poor Charlie was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The fact that poor Charlie could never account for the billion dollars the feds were looking for didn't matter much. I appreciated the inscription: "To the McWeeney's, Charles Keating." Now, I must confess I did not read the book cover to cover. In fact, I just skimmed through it. My interest in the case against Charles Keating was passing, at best, and I was content to believe there are two sides to every story. Of course, I could be proved wrong.
A week before we were to meet at the Phoenician, Charlie's secretary called confirming "for Mr. Keating our dinner engagement on the 16th of October." Here's a guy fresh out of jail on a technicality, and he's got a personal secretary. God bless America, I thought, and breathlessly awaited the night to come.
We spent the 15th in Las Vegas and flew back in time to meet the crowd for dinner at Mary Elaine's. Joining us were my business associate and his wife, along with another one of our friends. Charlie arrived right on time with his secretary and her husband. It was clearly understood that I would take care of the tab for my party, and Charlie would take care of the tab for his party. Looking around the hotel I saw the opulence and extravagance of it all. The finest materials and craftsmanship were brought to Arizona to complete this castle, this monument to himself.
Charlie spared no expense and, as the evening wore on, he explained, over and over, the method, materials, and madness used to build this palace.
We were seated after having a cocktail at a round table situated squarely in the middle of the restaurant. There wasn't a table in the place with a finer view of the Valley. Nor was there a table in the place without an unobstructed view of Charles Keating (I wondered if our table was chosen for the former or the latter reasons). Charlie sat on my right and my wife was seated on my left. When the waiter came by, Keating made it clear that this evening was for my wife, as it was her birthday. The waiter presented me with the wine list. It was then that I broke out in a cold sweat. A sweat that continued for a record-breaking three hours. I slyly asked Charlie if he would like to select the wine, and he replied, "Your pleasure, sir." Now, I really began to sweat. Could he really be planning on sticking me with the check? I thought. Nah, he's just being nice because it's my wife's birthday. Don't worry about it, order some wine and have a good time.
Charlie was snapping his fingers and yelling at waiters like General Patton issuing orders to his troops. He called for the chef and informed everyone within earshot (a mighty distance, I should add) that it was he who had brought [the chef] to this fabulous place to cook for him, Charles Keating. The chef smiled pleasantly and ran back into the kitchen. What, I wondered, was he going to do to Charlie's food for embarrassing him like that? I worried that, whatever it was, it would miss his plate and hit mine.
Minutes dragged into hours. Story after boring story about the building of his hotel. An exciting moment arrived when his secretary informed Charlie that she had just had a conversation with the manager and, it seemed, Charlie couldn't have the private dining room he wanted for another dinner he was planning there the following month. Someone else had booked it for that date. "You're kidding," he said incredulously, his voice rising like the tide at full moon. "No" she replied weakly, "that's what he said." Charlie just sat there dumbfounded. It was as though he had just been shot and didn't yet know how badly he'd been hit. Here he was, at his place, and the new management just told him to take a flying leap. Charlie just said, "I'll speak to him about it later."
The food, ah, yes, the food. What can I say about the food at Mary Elaine's except that the soup was cold, the service was terrible, the entrée undercooked, and the wine overpriced. This place sold itself on reputation and presentation. I can't imagine anyone actually liking the food there, but then again that's not why you went. You ate at Mary Elaine's because you could. You went to be seen dining at an establishment that is so obscenely overpriced that the thought arises: If you have to ask how much it is, you can't afford it. But, hey, who cares, right? We were having dinner with Good Time Charlie. We were in the "A" crowd.
Dinner came and went, dessert was brought, and afterward, Charlie got up from the table and announced "Let's all go to the bar for a drink." At which point, my friend slapped his hands together and replied, "Hey, is that how it works with your crowd? Fuck the check, we're outta here!"
Charlie said, almost sheepishly, "Don't worry about it, they'll find us." They found us, all right. To be more accurate, they found me.
Charlie was practically sprinting into the bar. Hot on his heels were his secretary and her husband, the wind lifting her hair back. They never even noticed the waiter bringing the check. "Here you are, sir" the waiter said with a grin, and he dropped the check in front of my nose. As I looked around for Charlie, I got a grand view of his ass heading into the bar and heard him order a drink.
What a setup, I thought, I'll pay this and settle with him later. Opening the cover, I saw that this dinner for eight people ordering modest wines and eating food that left me ravenous was $985. Just 15 American greenbacks shy of a grand. "Happy birthday, Honey," I said to my catatonic wife, who was equally as hungry as I. As I dropped my American Express card into the check wallet, I thought how nice it was that my appetite had disappeared in the last few moments. Neither one of us was very hungry anymore.
As we stumbled into the bar, Good Time Charlie sidled over to me and said, "I hope I didn't sponge off you too badly" (That word again!).
I replied, "Charlie, I'll let you know your share later." His face turned a little gray, and he ordered another drink. His cohorts were still there, looking the other way and laughing at their good fortune to have found a sucker who would spot them for a dinner. It was just like the good old days to them. The days when Keating really did own this place and sponsored dinners that dwarfed the amount I spent on this one. I had heard about the "good old days" that evening. The stories about the how the guests at dinner would find stacks of hundred dollar bills under their plates. How only the finest of everything was ordered with the bill always being torn up. Yes, I had heard the stories, but I'd never believed them until now. Still, I thought it odd that [his secretary and her husband] who, apparently, work for a living would think that I would buy them dinner. I could almost understand why Charlie would think it, him being a great man and the honor of [his] allowing us to dine with him.
I thought I'd drown my sorrows in the overpriced drinks the Phoenician had to offer and watch in amazement the number of people all coming over to Good Time Charlie. They were hugging him, kissing him, wanting their picture taken with him, laughing, and, tangentially, touching what they perceived to be "greatness." If only they knew him the way I did, I mused, as I downed another Absolut Citron on the rocks. "I wonder who is picking up the tab for all this booze" I asked my wife. She smiled and shook her head at my stupidity.
It was only after Charlie had his fill for the evening -- stumbling over to me and giving me his patented line again about how much he regretted "sponging" off me -- that he and his crew made their triumphant exit, avoiding the unpleasant task of paying yet another tab. As my signature scribbled across the bar tab of almost $200 (bringing the total for the evening to roughly $1,100), I decided that I wasn't going to let Good Time Charlie (or GTC, as we now refer to him) get away with it. Nope, he was going to pay me what he owed me.
It occurred to me that this same thought raced through thousands of people's minds as the sun sank into the west on Lincoln Savings and Loan so many years earlier. Still, I would be different. I would get my money.
The next day I sent GTC a nice letter thanking him for changing the original date of the dinner and reminding him that we had agreed on "going Dutch." I supplied him with a photocopy of the check for the meal and commented not to worry about the almost 200 bucks I dropped in the bar afterward. That, I said, was on me. Still, his portion came to $337.
I checked the mail for his response. Days turned into weeks. Weeks turned into months. I even dropped GTC another note inquiring into some ridiculous scheme he had mentioned at dinner about building telecommunication sites on Indian land. Still, no reply. Well, I figured, this is the way it's going to be. I'm one of the huddled masses that was swindled by GTC. But, I think I have an understanding of Charlie's attitude about the whole thing. He never set out to swindle anybody. In fact, he still didn't believe he did anything wrong. He was just doing his job. The fact that a few people lost some bucks along the way, well, that's a shame but he's not to blame. He was just being Charles Keating, The Empire Builder. Charles Keating, The Elite. Charles Keating, The Great Man. He didn't intentionally swindle me out of a dinner and drinks at the Phoenician. It just worked out that way. Where I come from, the term we use to describe people like that is "deadbeat" as in: Charles Keating, The Deadbeat.
Over the years, I found myself running to the mailbox to see if the check had arrived less and less and, little by little, even feeling a little sorry for Charlie. One of his children died, his wife (the namesake of the Phoenician restaurant) told him to take a hike, and he pleaded guilty to three counts of wire fraud (something he swore, at dinner, he never would do). Then, the final slap: They tore Mary Elaine's apart and made it an entirely different restaurant. That must've really gotten to him.
Mostly, I saw him as a pathetic figure. And I wondered if we all have a little Charlie Keating inside us. Given the timing and opportunity to build an empire and make millions for ourselves, would we have taken a drastically different road than Charlie? I like to think I would have but, who really knows.
And now, he's dead. I wonder if the people who lost everything will have any charity in their hearts for him. I wonder if the angels will welcome him, but, most of all, I wonder if he left me the damned money he owes me in his will!
Tim McWeeney is an 18-year resident of the Phoenix area who works in the electronic-payments industry. He lives in the East Valley with his wife and three cats, none of which is named Charles, Charlie, or Keating.
Keep Phoenix New Times Free... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.