27 July 2008

Examining Pancho's Secret FBI File Part #2

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The FBI investigation into Pancho Barnes (see 6.12.08 entry) went all the way to the top. At least there's evidence that it did -- the first page of the file, which I obtained using the Freedom of Information Act -- is a memo to Director J. Edgar Hoover from Assistant Attorney General Warren E. Burger. (Yes, the same Warren Burger who later became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court!) Written in the summer of 1953, it summarizes the on-going legal battle between Pancho and the U.S. Government over the pending condemnation of her Happy Bottom Riding Club (see 3.3.07 entry). It also indicates that the U.S. Attorney wants further investigation into whether "Miss Barnes was operating a disorderly house." Yes, that's right, the Attorney General was investigating whether Pancho's Happy Bottom was a little too happy!

A lot has been said over the years about the true nature of Pancho's establishment, and for good reason. It was a wild, kick-up-your-boots and let-your-hair-down kind of place, frequented by tough fly boys and populated with good looking hostesses. It was natural that rumors would blossom, especially in the dry Mojave Desert, where the residents had about as much news to talk about as they had rain. Plus, as late as the 1930's, there were active brothels in the vicinity -- Red Mountain being perhaps the most famous.

Pancho liked publicity, and encouraged some of the chatter with the view that any publicity was good publicity. "If a rumor enhanced her personality," Chuck Yeager told us during his interview, "She didn't dispute it. It didn't have to be true, or not true, but that's the way Pancho was. She wasn't dumb, she was a very smart ole gal."

In fact, Pancho went to great lengths to play up the naughty aspect of her spread. Naming it the Happy Bottom Riding Club was one thing. Making a rodeo poster that featured a naked Lady Godiva riding a bull, was another. It was all in good fun... or so she thought. But when Pancho's land came under threat by eminent domain, and when her relationship with the commander of Edwards AFB turned rocky, it would be the titillating aspects of her p.r. campaign that would cause the most heartache.

A single letter may have triggered the FBI investigation. It was written by Lieutenant James Ratcliffe to General Holtoner. In it, Ratcliffe simply stated that "I will furnish sworn testimony to the effect that [Pancho's] establishment was a house of prostitution." The lack of details in the letter, and the fact that it was written to General Holtoner, suggest it may not have been something Ratcliffe wrote with great enthusiasm. It's hard to know definitively, but in hindsight it's not hard to imagine that Ratcliffe was ordered to write the letter, after making some kind of comment to someone in the chain of command about Pancho's place.

Once it got underway, the FBI's inquiry was without bounds. Agents sought out an interviewed dozens of friends, acquaintances, patrons, business contacts, and Air Force personnel, looking for a smoking gun. The accusations that were raised were all over the map, ranging from charges of "white slavery" to "running an illicit gambling house" to "smuggling, illegal transportation of Mexicans and dope". It sounded like Pancho was a veritable Al Capone-style crime boss, but nothing could be further from the truth. In the end, after many agonizing months, the probe produced nothing except chatter, speculation, and rumor. Not a single reliable witness appeared willing to testify against Pancho.

With one exception: James C. Ratcliffe. He appeared to be the only person wiling to state on the record, that he'd paid for favors at Pancho's place. As things turned out, he'd have to testify, and in open court.

More on Ratcliffe in a future Production Journal.