You Don't Know Jack

He speaks from the murky shadows of Booth #55, a man in navy pinstripes with a voice like gravel frying in brown butter. "You wanna know about Jack Durant? I've got stories you won't believe." His hands are neatly manicured; his tie expertly dimpled; there's a felt hat on the seat beside him. He looks like every movie gangster the Warner Brothers ever caught on film: tallish, dark, with chin stubble and pomaded hair. Maxie the Mint. Bugsy the Boob. A dandy from another era who doesn't look the least bit out of place in this dark corner of Durant's, the Phoenix restaurant that time forgot.

"I've been coming here almost since the place opened," the man wheezes through a Tiparillo cloud. He lowers his vodka-tonic and leans forward. "And I know stories about Jack Durant no one has ever heard before."

Yeah. Right. You and a hundred other people, pal. Everyone here tonight -- the untucked trio of businessmen at the next table, the twentysomethings giggling over their cosmos, that old guy and his "niece" in the corner -- would likely say the same. They've all heard about Jack Durant, the late, some-would-say-great founder of this restaurant that's more than a restaurant; this time-warped, velvet-flocked chophouse where murders have been planned and where Minnie Pearl has been dissed right to her face. They've heard Durant was a hit man, a small-time gangster turned restaurateur; a pimp and a gambler and a drunk who liked dogs better than he liked people.

Whoever he was, Jack Durant left behind a reminder of Phoenix at its most glamorous and corrupt, an eccentric time capsule that's survived 50-plus years and barely budged an inch in its approach to fine dining. There are chicer places to eat; hipper places to be seen. But people come to Durant's at various times of the day for the same reason they fly across the continent to eat Christmas dinner with parents they barely know anymore: because it's good to check in on your roots. Because the food is good. Because you can.

A favorite of local power brokers, lawyers, journalists and theater types since it opened in 1950, Durant's steaks-and-whiskey ambiance says "Phoenix" like no place else. Locals like to talk about how Jack Durant, who died in 1987, was a former gangster who left his house and an annual allowance of $50,000 to his pet English bulldog, Humble. They talk about the Jack Durant who married a movie star; the Jack whose money helped build Good Samaritan Hospital; the foul-mouthed grandpa who boasted that the Don Bolles murder was planned in Durant's lounge; who ridiculed his patrons; and who, for a time in the 1950s, was one of the FBI's Top Ten Most Dangerous Men in Arizona.

Some cast Durant as a bad guy who made good, a local legend whose life inspired a stage play that's set to open in Phoenix this week. The play is set in 1988, one year after Durant's death, and tells his sometimes seedy life story in flashback. The dead-guy-talking-about-himself is an old stage device, and one that's oddly fitting where Durant is concerned, because there are plenty of people who think he's still hanging around the celebrated restaurant that bears his name.

"Well, if he is here," Pinstripes says, glancing around the room, "he's probably laughing his ass off, because we're all still sitting here talking about him."

Outside on Central Avenue, it's the 21st century: Hummers cruise past; a teenaged girl snickers into a cell phone; a woman types steadily into her laptop at the bus stop outside the big pink box that is Durant's. Inside that box, it's Chicago circa 1930, a Damon Runyon novel come to life: tuxedoed waiters circle tuck-and-roll leatherette booths; busboys wipe down shiny black tabletops; and everywhere you look, the restaurant's infamous red flocked wallpaper stares back. The staff in recent years has hooched the place up with fresh flowers and paintings of Jack Durant and his dogs; they even tried white linen tablecloths for a while. But Durant's dark-paneled interior somehow defies change, which is just fine with the thousands of people who pass through its humid kitchen entrance each month. For more than just the cocktail set, its unchanging velveteen walls and curving bar are as much a part of the Phoenix landscape as Camelback Mountain or the Arizona Biltmore.

"When he put that red flocked wallpaper up in 1961 and made it look like a whorehouse, he did it because he thought that was elegance," Pinstripes is saying. "You gotta remember that this guy's aesthetic was formed in casinos and cathouses, my friend."

The man in the pinstripes isn't Maxie the Mint or Bugsy the Boob. He's not a gangster at all, although he's played one or two on the stage. Local leading man John Sankovich visits Durant's so often, it's named a table after him. Seated at his namesake, puffing on an umpteenth after-dinner cigarette, Sankovich holds court without even trying. Waiters wink as they pass; a fellow actor stops by to gush about Sankovich's recent performance in Art; the bartender sends over a break-a-leg brandy and warm holiday wishes. Sankovich isn't playing Jack Durant in Terry Earp's play, partly because he's an Equity actor and Earp's show is strictly non-union, and partly because no one asked him to. But Sankovich probably could have played Durant without a script; he's covered in stories about the guy.

"Knowing something about Jack Durant is like knowing where the corner of 19th Avenue and Indian School is," Sankovich booms like a Barrymore. "It means you're a Phoenician."

Durant's and Sankovich were born in the same year. His father and Jack Durant were friends, and he figures he's been eating at the restaurant since he was 4 years old. Sankovich's earliest memory of Jack Durant is hearing that the old man ran the cathouse on Central Avenue in his spare time. "I was 15, and I thought they were talking about an animal shelter," he quips. "I've been coming here so long I remember the parquet dance floor and the four-piece combo, and my mother and I doing hotcha steps over in that corner. But please, don't ask me who the man was. We could be here all night, and then you'd go ask someone else and they'd tell you about an entirely different man."

It's true, says Terry Earp, who wrote the play about Jack Durant, In My Humble Opinion, that opens at The Space Theatre Phoenix this week. "You could know the guy your whole life and never really know who he was."

Earp based her script on Mabel Leo's 1996 biography, The Saga of Jack Durant, and took her title from a long-running ad campaign that went, "In my humble opinion, Durant's is the Finest Eating and Drinking Establishment in the World -- Jack Durant," which was considered amusing because Durant wasn't known for his humility. In the play, a postmortem Durant is found seated at set designer Robert Severance's dead-on copy of the restaurant's bar, regaling a face-down drunk with a rambling narrative about himself, some of which is acted out upstage. The drunk, who has no lines and never lifts his head from the bar, will be played by various local celebrities. So far, Earp has signed Bill Thompson, who played Wallace on The Wallace & Ladmo Show, and a former Phoenix Sun, and is hoping to score appearances by Durant's fans Alice Cooper and Pat McMahon.

"The script is heavily sprinkled with 'fuck,'" Earp admits. "I really couldn't bring myself to use 'cocksucker,' which was his favorite word. There's a lot of 'bastards' and 'assholes,' but I know a good portion of our audience is going to be elderly. I figured they could go with 'fuck,' but not with 'cocksucker.'"

"Oh my God, he did have a foul mouth!" former governor Rose Mofford says of her late friend. "He swore like a buzz saw. He could call you an SOB, but you knew he liked you. He was full of twists and turns that way, and he always had a story."

Mabel Leo spent years trying to untangle those stories. "Jack was such a prolific liar, I had no idea how to tell his story. You can't prove very darn much about Jack Durant except that he was a pretty complicated man. He'd break your leg with a baseball bat and then pay the hospital bill."

The first thing Leo discovered was that Jack Durant wasn't Jack Durant at all. According to her account, the former James Earl Allen of tiny Tellico Plains, Tennessee, left home at age 14, hopping a freight train that eventually dumped him off in Miami, Arizona, where he worked as a copper miner and part-time gambler for a while. His dream to play semiprofessional baseball -- he'd played briefly for the L&N Railroad Team -- inspired him to change his name, just as some members of the Chicago White Sox had recently done. They'd been busted for trying to throw the 1919 World Series in what came to be known as the Black Sox Scandal, and were banned from baseball forever. Anyone caught playing with them would be banned as well, and several of them were playing in the Arizona league under false names. To protect his hoped-for baseball career, James Earl took the name of burlesque comedian Jack Durant, because Durant was tall and handsome, and James Earl figured if you're going to name yourself after someone, why not someone good-looking?

He landed a job pitching for the Miami Miners, but baseball pay was lousy, so he moonlighted as a bartender and later opened a gambling parlor and whorehouse called the Keystone Room, reportedly with Miami's mayor as his partner.

When gambling was outlawed in Miami in 1933, Durant headed for Phoenix. Leo claims in her book that in order to raise capital for the move, Durant visited each of the numerous Chinese families who ran Miami's laundries and grocery stores and who lived in fear of deportation. Impersonating a federal agent, Durant told the families that in return for $100 per person, he would see to it that they were not deported. He pocketed the money and blew town.

In Phoenix's gambling dens, Durant met local cattleman Swede McElroy, and Gus Greenbaum, a professional gambler and soldier of Al Capone. Greenbaum sent Durant to Las Vegas, where he worked as a mole, spying on Bugsy Siegel. Durant wound up befriending Siegel and worked for the mobster at Siegel's trendsetting Flamingo Hotel until his murder in 1947.

If you believe Leo, Durant's FBI files claim he killed a man himself in a Vegas alleyway right around this same time. Things were reportedly "taken care of" by his mobster friends, and Durant was hustled off to Burbank, where he began trolling for work in the movies. He landed a small part in a Western playing a train conductor, and married B-movie starlet Helen Gilbert, who'd appeared in a handful of programmers before becoming -- practically at gunpoint -- Mrs. Jack Durant.

"Helen told me that Durant stationed a couple of goons at her hotel room door," Leo says, laughing, "and told them not to let her out until she agreed to marry him." The marriage took place in Gilbert's hotel room that same night, before she had a chance to change her mind.

Durant's movie career never got off the ground, and he returned to Phoenix, where he and McElroy purchased The Midway BBQ from the bankrupt estate of George Vaugh for $26,000. Durant renovated the interior in upscale '50s Vegas chic and painted the exterior Pepto-Bismol pink in homage to the Flamingo. The brass handles on the front doors, which were rarely used by patrons who preferred to tromp through the restaurant's steamy kitchen, were shaped into Jack Durant's initials.

Inside, tuxedoed waiters (waitresses worked days, because Durant believed that gals should be home with their kids at night) served steaks and sweetbreads and Yankee pot roast and Durant's signature baking powder biscuits with honey. ("Oh, remember those biscuits and honey?" Mofford trills. "They're how I got these hips!") The food was simple and hearty and filling, like at the best steak houses in Vegas. Durant was no culinary expert, no closet foodie with a secret hankering to serve specialty dishes or to reform the palates of backward westerners. Nor was Durant's a front for anything nefarious; no money laundering was going on there; no one was pouring cement shoes in the coat room. So why open a restaurant?

"Jack's thinking was, 'If you want to make money, you don't manage things, you own shit,'" Earp says. "Running a casino was hazardous to your health, and you couldn't open one here, anyhow."

Robert Bledsoe, who's playing Durant in Earp's play, believes that opening a restaurant is how mobsters went legit but stayed connected to both the underworld and the stars linked to it. "If you were John Wayne or Marilyn Monroe and you were going to Phoenix, you'd call the mob and say, 'Where do I eat?' and they'd send you to Jack's place," Bledsoe says. "Which meant he was a big deal because he was hobnobbing. And once the movie stars started coming in, the politicians and local celebs turned up, because this was the place."

It's still the place, Mofford says. "After the presidential debate in Tempe last October, I went to Durant's to have dinner, and who did I run into but John Edwards and his wife. They'd been told that they absolutely had to go to Durant's for dinner. Now, I don't know about Jack and any mob connections. But there were more lawsuits filed and more bills passed at Durant's than any other place in town. We all hung out there, politicians and lawyers and ballplayers."

Movie stars, too. Ernie Canez, who's been Durant's head cook since the night in 1957 when the chef didn't show up and Durant handed him the job, can rattle off a hundred names of glamour types who've frequented the place. "Some of the people you saw the most were John Wayne, Burt Reynolds, Jim Nabors, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Lucille Ball." Asked if today's celebs still frequent the place, Canez thinks for a moment. "Yes. Engelbert Humperdinck was here not long ago."

Durant's famous back entrance, which drags diners past the busy cook staff en route to the dining room, stumped movie star Jane Russell during her first visit. "So, this is Durant's," she's said to have hollered. "What a dump!" At which point one of the kitchen help interjected, "This is the kitchen, Miss Russell."

Sankovich remembers Robert Mitchum hanging off the bar, reciting poetry, and of being dragged over to Barry Goldwater's table on the occasion of the senator's birthday. "But my favorite is the time [stage actress] Lisa Fineberg Malone climbed up on the bar to do her impersonation of Charo singing 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.' You don't see stuff like that in there anymore."

Gone, too, are references to Jack Durant as a former gangster. Canez just shrugs when asked if his old boss was a small-time mobster. And BJ Thompson, a hard-boiled dame who was a hostess at Durant's for 15 years and knew the man better than most, says, "Everyone likes to tell about him being a gangster because it makes the restaurant and Jack himself seem so much more glamorous. He probably wouldn't mind."

Others mind very much, according to Leo. "The guys down at the restaurant don't like that part getting out," Leo says of Durant's gangster days. "When I wrote my book about Jack, they said I made it all up. They don't want to believe it, but in the 1950s he was considered one of the top 10 most dangerous men in Arizona. He was capable of ordering a murder or of doing it himself. That's in the FBI records."

Also in Durant's FBI file, which Leo won't share with anyone even though it's a public record (and which the FBI is happy to share with any reporter who's willing to wait at least 18 months for a copy), is information she says connects Durant to Johnny Stompanato, Lana Turner's late mobster husband who was murdered by Turner's teenaged daughter in 1958. "It was who he knew that got him on the FBI's Most Dangerous list," Leo says, "and what kept him on it was that he was suspected of killing a special FBI agent," whose name she says is blocked out in the FBI report.

Mofford swears she never heard a thing about Durant's Mafia connections. "But I did used to say to the boy who parked my car at Durant's, 'Go ahead and sell it if you can.' Now I'm thinking that he very well might have."

Durant's mob connections dried up for good in 1958 after Gus Greenbaum and his wife were murdered in their Phoenix home, presumably because Gus was skimming casino profits. Durant didn't much care; the gangster thing was getting old. By 1960, he had his sights set on becoming an icon.

This afternoon, in the bar, there's a going-away party for Katrina, a 27-year-old office worker who's moving to Seattle to get married. "I don't know why they picked this place," she says of her soon-to-be-former colleagues, glancing around Durant's dark bar. "I think it's because my boss is older, and this is the kind of place he, you know, used to go to when he was young."

This story enrages Sankovich when it's repeated to him later. He's seated in the living room of his Central Avenue high-rise condo, sucking on a vodka and cranberry and his dozenth cigarette of the evening. Over his left shoulder, 17 floors below, the Durant's sign glows like an ember.

"Young people are so young these days," he bellows. "The ones who do go into Durant's don't understand that this is what a restaurant is supposed to be. And the girls are unforgivable, with their wine spritzers and their hoochies hanging out."

Sankovich worries that the kids are missing the point of Durant's altogether. He's not worried about Durant's closing its doors; he knows you could burn the place to the ground today and it would be back tomorrow, pink and bright and ready with the shrimp cocktail. "But here's what I mean," he says, snapping off each angry word like a carrot stick. "I heard that when Elton John was in town a couple of years ago, he pulled his limo up to the back of the restaurant and had the food delivered to his car. So what are you doing in Phoenix if you're not going to experience Phoenix?"

"Go to Durant's and ask for Geraldine Hickey," he says with all the confidence of a man who has had a piece of furniture named after him. "She's been there for hundreds of years, and I go in and she looks at me and says, 'I know what you want, shut up.' And always the order is wrong. The salad dressing is wrong, or the side of butter is missing. But she's my favorite. It's always a kiss goodnight. So please don't ask me why people still go there. You've got good staff, and good food, and you've got, 'Hello, John, how are you?' The only thing missing is old Jack himself, sitting at the end of the bar, throwing insults at the customers. Still, there's no better place to eat."

If he were still alive today, Jack Durant probably wouldn't be hanging out in his bar. He'd most likely be in court, defending himself against sexual harassment suits.

"One minute he'd be treating a young waitress like a daughter, and the next he'd be asking women customers for blowjobs," Earp says. "There's an old story about him going into [office manager] Becky's office and taking out his dick and putting it on her desk. Can you imagine doing that today?"

Pretty much every oddball story about Durant -- especially the ones about how he treated women -- is at least partly true, according to Russell Hoag, Durant's manager and one of its owners. "He definitely hit on some of the ladies that came in here," Hoag says, chuckling. "He almost certainly would have seen some harassment charges from the waitresses in this day and age. But he didn't take anyone off his Christmas list if they turned down his advances. His attitude was more like, 'How about it, baby?'"

In 1960, the Phoenix Gazette reported that Durant had been arrested for aggravated assault after punching out a dame who'd resisted his advances. He bought 100 copies of the paper and handed them out at the restaurant the next day, and was heard to bellow, "Who else do you know gets arrested for rape at the ripe old age of 70?" (He was 54 at the time.)

There was no floor show or lounge singer at Durant's; Jack himself was the entertainment. People came in just to see who he'd go off on and what he'd say when he did. He drank caseloads of Budweiser, sometimes until four o'clock in the morning, because his wives (he had three of them) kept leaving him, and his dogs (three of those, too, all of them mean, ugly bulldogs) kept dying, and he didn't have anyplace else to go.

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."

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."

A few days later, at his father's funeral, Sankovich looked up from his prayers and saw half the staff of Durant's standing there. "Talk about putting a knife through your heart," he says, his eyes watering. "This isn't a story about a restaurant. It's about a community, a word that we all use way too much. I think Jack Durant was one of the few who knew what that word meant."

In My Humble Opinion continues through January 29 at The Space Theatre, 4700 North Central Avenue. Call 602-564-6606.

E-mail robrt.pela@newtimes.com

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