The gap of gringo gulch
My name is Eduardo Castillo. I would like to tell you a story about old Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, a sad but true story. It happened over 50 years ago. After having worked in the hospitality industry in Europe, the USA and Canada, I came back home and got my dream job as head bartender in The River Café in the heart of the city. My story begins on an incredibly humid night, where even the iguanas were sweating.
The bar was hot: our band’s music pulsating out through the open windows gave passersby a free concert of the best syncopated rhythms in all of the city. No mariachi stuff, just outstanding Cuban jazz. Cuban jazz greats like Tito Puente, Hillario Duran, and Jane Bunnett would have loved jamming with our band. The café was Vallarta’s hottest night club: great music, terrific food and famous patrons too.
Then, she appeared in the bar’s entrance, a goddess clad in gauzy, sun-white gossamer. I caught my breath. So did many others.
She was stunning. Her white diaphanous dress screamed sensuality, its bodice squeezing her voluptuous breasts into pneumatic orbs that every guy in the place ogled. The narrowness of her waistline complemented her curvaceous body perfectly. She didn’t walk between the tables; she floated, an erotic visual banquet. She twirled to a bar stool with the flourish of a Spanish dancer, her skirt billowing out like that of flamenco dancer spinning to the clack of castanets. Her regal posture converted the stool into a throne.
The new monarch commanded, “Casa Noble, doble, senor. Sin hielo por favor,” a hint of an American accent. Quickly, I pulled down the vintage anejo and began polishing a clean glass in hopes of masking the trembling in my hands. I poured a generous double of the amber liquid.
“Gracias senor y su nombre?”
“Yo soy Eduardo, senorita, but I speak English.” I stuttered in reply, mesmerized by her majestic magnificence.
“Muy bien Eduardo, gracias.”
Her beautiful face rivaled any angel’s, incredibly white alabaster skin as if sculpted from the finest Thassos marble. Plato would have written, “She is beauty.” Such beauty is not of this world. I was beyond bewitched. I was awestruck.
“De nada senorita….?” I mumbled, an intentional hesitation hoping she would respond to the verbal ploy with her name which I actually knew. I just wanted to hear her say it.
“Elizabeth. Elizabeth Taylor.” She read my hesitation correctly.
The air gasped from my lungs hearing her say her name. I knew who she was. Everyone in Vallarta knew who she was.
Elizabeth Taylor was in Vallarta because her lover, the famous Richard Burton, was filming ‘Night of the Iguana’ in nearby Mismaloya.
Brash laughter and raucous voices preceded a group of Hollywood VIP’s as they barged their way into the bar, most of them were easily recognized because of the heavy local newspaper coverage: Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr, and of course, Burton, himself.
Another man dominated the gaggling group, kind of above them, superior in some way. He shouted, “Liz, there you are! We didn’t see you in the restaurant. Did you eat already?”
She turned to acknowledge him, the light in the bar caught the marvelous colour of her eyes, not dark blue, not ebony black, but an unusual purple, a deep violet. Then she looked back at me, the force of her overpowering gaze almost knocked me over. My legs wobbled. Awesome. Awesome. Awesome.
“Eduardo, un otro por favor.”
She looked back at the man who had shouted the greeting, “John, I’ll have you know I have been here for the last hour waiting. Where have all of you been?”
John was John Huston, the well-known director of the movie. Though his gray hair was thinning and his face grizzled with gray stubble, he still projected distinction and sophistication commanding subordination and acquiescence.
He sagged himself next to Taylor, leaned over and kissed her cheek. Burton scowled at him and shouldered himself between them.
“Don’t worry Richard. We all recognize your staked claim.”
Richard Burton, a handsome man, wavy brown hair, medium height, good physique, neither muscular nor flabby, slid his hand over Taylor’s shapely backside and kissed her with surprising gruffness.
“Calm yourself, Dick,” Elizabeth replied, intentionally using the nickname with its salacious innuendo.
“Were you able to film any scenes today, love?”
“Film any scenes? Shit, I could barely stand up. The damn leg hurt like hell, even after a week,” Burton responded angrily.
Huston, pointing at Taylor’s drink, nodded at me to indicate it as his order too. Then, he grumbled, “We couldn’t film a damn thing today because he could hardly move.”
“I’ll be better tomorrow, Big John. Not to worry, old boy!”
“Sure Richard,” replied Huston sarcastically.
Everyone in the bar knew how Burton had broken his ankle.
He was renting the hacienda at Calle Zaragoza, 39, while filming Iguana. Taylor’s rented house was directly across the street. She’d come to Vallarta to keep Burton company while he was making the movie. More likely, she came to keep him out of trouble, woman trouble. Burton had a reputation as a real womanizer, flirting with every one of his leading ladies until he was successful.
At the end of each day’s shooting, Burton was chauffeured home where he began his nightly imbibing ─ copious amounts of his favourite tequila, Jose Cuervo Especial. For medicinal purposes, he claimed. “I prefer scotch but this Mexican food burns my stomach. Tequila puts out the fire.”
After a couple of hours, Burton was usually really drunk but his libido was still churning at its peak level. In this condition, he would lurch across ‘gringo gulch,’ to Taylor’s hacienda. However, there was one drawback to this advantageous location of their houses. It was the street itself.
This street, in the heart of Vallarta, discouraged traffic. It was extremely narrow and exceedingly steep. Its surface of smooth round stones was a major problem. It was ideal for durability but horrendous for pedestrians and outright dangerous for the tequila-soused Burton. If he successfully traversed it on any given night, it was by sheer good luck. On his last crossing, a rainy night, his luck gave out. The nearby hospital recognized their famous patient, diagnosed a broken ankle and put him into a walking cast. Because the pain was so excruciating even just in standing, the doctors prescribed heavy doses of painkillers. These wreaked havoc with his memory causing him to forget his lines. Without medication however, the pain was unbearable making any filming impossible to the great dismay of Huston.
The first time an accident occurred Huston found ingenious ways to continue filming. He shot scenes that did not need Burton. Production slowed but it continued.
Life in Vallarta went on as usual, slow and steady, hot and humid, just like Burton and Taylor. Each night, Burton, awash in tsunamis of tequila, staggered across the street banging on Taylor’s door.
Knock, knock! Taylor’s housekeeper, Juanita, would open the entrance a bit. Seeing who it was, she greeted him in her usual pleasant way, “Hola, Senor Burton. Como esta?”
Burton slurred a reply, “Hey Juanita, tell Lizzie, her beau’s here!” Then he’d push his way past Juanita and stumble over to Taylor’s bar where he would splash out another tequila.
“How are you doing tonight, Richard?” Taylor asked, her tone like a mother who is about to reprimand her child but wants to do it in a gentler, oblique way rather than scolding her offspring directly. Taylor was never pleased to see Burton like this, but she never chastised him for it. Maybe because she herself drank nearly as much, but seemed to tolerate it better. Maybe because she knew criticizing him would only result in his drinking even more, faster. Maybe because she simply loved him, pure and simple, no matter what condition he was in. In any case, she would walk up to him, passionately kiss him on the lips and say, “Pour one for me too, Dickie.”
Huston, a non-religious man, gave prayers of gratitude for the surprising speed with which Burton’s ankle healed, or at least enough so that Burton could stand relatively pain-free. Shooting resumed though restricted to above the waist or at best, above the knees shots because of the lower leg cast. Filming continued. So did the nightly visitations, each crossing stuttered and staggered progress, premonitions of what was to come. Still, Huston was happy. The producers were happy. Burton and Taylor were happy. Everything was right in Vallarta and I worked nightly listening to every gossipy tidbit brought in by the American film’s boisterous crewmembers. What I didn’t hear directly, I filled with my own guesswork.
Weeks later, Huston strode into my bar with a group of men who I later learned were the chief cinematographer and the film’s producers.
“John, we’re behind schedule and losing a shit load of money,” complained Ray Stark, the movie’s biggest producer.
“OK Ray, OK. But we never stopped filming,” Huston replied, defensively.
“No, true. You were smart how you overcame that ankle disaster but when he broke his fuckin’ arm…that was real shit. You couldn’t shoot around that. Scenic credibility tanked. You gotta find a way of saving this asshole from any more accidents,” continued Stark.
“What do you want me to do? Wrap him up in cotton batten?” Huston rebutted.
“How about telling Taylor to leave Vallarta?” Stark suggested.
“Are you nuts, Ray? If Taylor left, Burton would pack himself into her suitcase. Our movie would be finished. Forget that idea. It won’t happen.”
“Well, you gotta fuckin’ do something. This latest setback puts us on the brink. We’re really over budget.”
The producers were really upset this time because when Burton fell he smashed his face on the stone way, splitting open his cheek. Makeup couldn’t mask the gash.
“What do you want me to do? Buy up all the tequila in Vallarta? Hell, he’d switch to scotch. That lush would drink aftershave if he had to!” retorted Huston.
“We don’t give a shit what you do, John. He can’t have another accident.”
Huston ordered another round of drinks while Stark continued his badgering for a solution to Burton’s repetitive accidents. “Why doesn’t he just move in with her? Then, there would be no need for those damn nightly street crossings.”
“Liz refuses to let him; says she needs her space, her privacy,” replied Huston.
“What bullshit! He’s there every night as is. Hey, why not buy one of the adjoining houses?”
“We looked into it after he broke his wrist. The old lady on the east side, in her 80’s, well, she likes living beside a famous Hollywood star. She refuses to sell. The old guy on the other side won’t tell us why he won’t sell but every day, he’s out on his balcony as Liz sunbathes by her pool.”
“Well, we gotta find a solution. We just can’t have him crossing that fuckin’ street every night, smashed as hell. What are we gonna do?”
“I’ll think of something. But right now I gotta get back home. I really need to recharge my batteries because tomorrow I have to try to convince Burton to double his normal work output to make up for lost time. That’ll be a hell of a battle. I’m going over to his place right now to work on him.”
“Christ John, good luck with that. The harder he works, the more he drinks.”
The group signalled for the check and asked me to call two cabs.
“Calle Zaragoza, 39, por favor, senor,” I directed Huston’s cab driver.
When he arrived, Huston paid the cab, got out, and as he walked to the entrance of Burton’s home, he thought to himself, ‘Geez, this really is a narrow street. You can almost hold hands without leaving your own doorway. And such a lovely neighbourhood, nice houses. I can understand why Richard and Liz like living here.’
‘The only damn problem is this street with those ridiculous round stones. Simple construction, sure, lasts forever, but dreadful to walk on, especially for a drunk.’ thought Huston as he rang the doorbell.
The door opened a little. Recognizing Huston, Burton’s stocky Mexican housekeeper opened it fully and cheerily greeted him, “Hola Senor Huston. Como esta esta noche?”
“Muy bien, Consuela. Donde est senor Burton?” he asked.
Consuela extended her open hand signalling that Burton was across the street.
“Gracias, Consuela,” responded Huston. Carefully crossing the street, Huston thought to himself again, ‘Shit! What a stupid way to build a street. Even a sober person could kill themselves.’
From Taylor’s courtyard, Huston could hear loud voices coming from the center of the house.
“Blimey, look what the wind just blew in. Come on in, old man. What can I get ya?” said Burton, his tequila laced words, barely comprehensible.
“Just a Coke, Richard. I am surprised you’re still up,” adding, in an almost admonishing tone, “You know we’ll be shooting a long day tomorrow?”
“Argh, not to worry, old man. Your number one star will be ready, cock-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to rip, early as hell.”
“I sure hope so ‘cause we’re badly behind schedule and the producers are beginning to really squawk.”
“Fuck ‘em! Cheap bunch of fuckin’ Jews, always worrying about their goddamn profit.”
Huston grimaced at the racist slur, deciding it best not to respond.
“Oh don’t worry John. I was about to take him to bed anyway,” Liz said, her words much clearer than Burton’s.
“Well then, best I leave so you both can get to bed early,” replied Huston as he gulped down his Coke. “I really need some sleep myself.”
Huston turned toward the courtyard, hesitated and turned back toward the famous couple. Looking directly at Taylor, he said, “Liz, it’s crucial he get some real rest tonight because we’ve got nearly a dozen scenes to shoot tomorrow.”
Liz understood Huston’s not-so-well-hidden meaning. She put her hand behind the director’s waist and gently guided him toward the courtyard. More words weren’t needed.
Liz returned just as Richard was pouring another tequila.
“Oh no, big guy! Come on to bed. I want to feel my big guy up against me.”
“Hey baby, … I can be up against you right out here just as easily,” he garbled awkwardly pawing her generous breast. Liz moved his hand to her waist adding, “Come on darling, let’s go to bed. I’ll give you a little honey.”
In the 60’s, Vallarta was little more than an overgrown village and Mismaloya, about thirty minutes away, still an ocean side jungle with unreliable hydro, no running water and no decent accommodation for any Hollywood type. Therefore, everyone came back to Vallarta at night via either the studio bus or a local cab, invariably stopping at the favoured watering hole, The River Café.
Huston was home in minutes, bed seconds later. He was exhausted, from the day’s work and from the stress of trying to defend Burton in the discussion at the café. Burton’s boozing continued to turmoil him but his fatigue overpowered him quickly.
Just before dawn, Huston woke up with a start. “I got it. I got it. I know how I’ll solve the accidents problem. After breakfast, he stopped by Burton’s house and asked Consuela if Jesus had arrived yet.
“Si senor. Hee ees een da keechen,” she told him.
Jesus Valdez was Burton’s gardener/handyman. He was a slow moving Mexican of indeterminate age, but old for sure. Huston had concluded long ago that Valdez was worth his weight in gold because he was the one who had helped Burton many times before when an accident happened. He massaged Burton’s bruised hip after a fall, taped his thigh after another and ice packed numerous sprains and strains. Now Huston had dreamed up a solution to Burton’s accidents and he wanted to see if Valdez could help him make his idea a reality.
“Si Senor Huston. I know someone who can help us. Manuel Artega, he ees a good hombre. Eeee get job done…queek and cheap too senor.”
“How long?” asked Huston.
“I don know for sure senor, but I guess wahhn week, maybe.”
“Quicker, if possible, Jesus,” Huston replied as he thought about the production costs. A speedy solution was crucial.
“Senor, eef one has money, anything is possible een Vallarta. We weel haffa to oil some hands but wee will do it senor.”
“Good Jesus. Here, get started and make the necessary arrangements. We need this completed as quickly as possible,” added Huston as he pushed a wad of money into Valdez’ hand.
Valdez gulped the rest of his morning hot chocolate, tepid now after the discussion with Huston. No matter, his new task was more important than his usual leisurely breakfast with the buxom and personable Consuela.
“Look Manuel, Huston will likely give you a bonus if you can do it in a couple of days.”
“Two days? Impossible. I need a week at least,” insisted Manuel Artega, owner of Muros de Manuel, a construction company in Vallarta. “I have some really good men who might be able to do it. With the right money, the job could be done in three days. But no less. No way. Time is needed for setting.”
“Muy bien, amigo.”
Huston had one more issue to resolve: to convince Burton to stay with him while his solution was being carried out. He was guessing that if Burton discovered the plan, he would see it as an attack on his capabilities, maybe even his manhood. He hoped he could convince Liz to help him persuade Burton to change residences for just a few days.
“What a fantastic idea, John. Richard would never agree to it if we told him. You know how big his ego is but he’ll accept it when it’s done. I am sure of it.”
Vallarta works like most Mexican cities, almost anything is possible if there’s enough money behind it. Huston’s idea would contravene city bylaws intended to protect the historical heritage of the city. A permit for this job would be difficult but the financial ‘lubricant’ was adequate. The job began straightaway.
Artega’s eight man crew started work on both sides of the street simultaneously. Time was of the essence. Late on the third day, they applied the final coat of bright white paint. Job completed as promised and in an amazing three days.
Liz looked up at the work and said, “What a fantastic job! Nobody will complain about this possibly looking out of place. Richard will love it, I am sure.”
The next day, Huston made the announcement to the entire crew at breakfast, “Hey people, today I am going to give you all a break ‘cause you have been working so hard. We’re cutting off at noon. Go home, get some rest, relax for the day.” Everybody cheered as if it were New Year’s Eve on the Malecon. Everyone was tired. The long days and the tension of the frequent filming stoppages due to Burton’s many accidents were exhausting. Everyone understood the challenges Huston faced in dealing with his vitriolic star. Still, they were all grateful for the break.
“I thought you had producers breathing down your neck, Hustie, old boy?” Burton asked Huston.
“Yeah, well, I’ve got them under control for the moment, Richard. Tonight we’re not worrying about them. I am taking you out for dinner and Eduardo’s got a really special anejo he’s been saving just for you. But first, when we get back to town, I have something I want to show you back at your place.”
“Blimey, old chap. I love surprises.”
The cab bringing the duo back to Burton’s house turned the corner at Calle Zaragoza and Huston directed the cab driver to stop right there, “Aqui senor. Stop!”
Burton was surprised at their stopping short of his place but at Huston’s directive, he got out of the cab. As he turned toward his house, he exclaimed, “What the fu…? What is that?”
Burton looked up, his mouth agape. His house was now conjoined with Taylor’s by a beautiful covered bridge, the sun reflecting brilliantly off its gleaming white sides, the red brick trim blending it flawlessly with the Mexican styled surroundings. It looked beautiful as if it had been built as part of the original homes. It suited its surroundings perfectly.
“That my friend is your Bridge of Sighs,” said Huston, with great pride. “Liz made it especially for you. Just so you could get over to her place more quickly each night.”
It never dawned on Burton the real reason for the bridge or its real builder. Such is love!
“It looks just like a miniaturized Ponte dei Sospiri in Venice,” cooed Burton. “That Liz, she can be a real bitch, but such a romantic one.”
So there you have it. The story of Puerto Vallarta’s very own Bridge of Sighs. Sadly today, John Huston is gone, Burton and Taylor are gone, even the bridge is gone. Only the memories remain.
River Café, owner
(As told to Richard Szpin over tequila)