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.

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Tom Fitzpatrick