Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand

  Howard knew that to get his automobiles into the public eye, he had to get his name into the press. He also knew that car salesmen didn’t interest journalists. Race-car daredevils did.25 Donning a gridiron helmet, a white scarf and goggles, Howard slipped behind the wheel and put on a holy show.26 He drove his Buicks in breakneck speed races at Tanforan and harebrained hill climbs up the harrowing grades of Diablo Hill and Grizzly Peak. He ground through twenty-four-hour endurance tests and “stamina runs,” in which contestants looped up and down local roads until their beleaguered automobiles exploded or shed their wheels—the last one rolling was the winner. He was reportedly the first man to send a car down into Death Valley and the first to push over the snowbanks of the Sierra Nevada, performing the feat on an annual basis. The ventures were not without risk. Drivers were killed all the time. The cars also came to sad ends; the joyous celebration after the first Skaggs Springs economy run came to a tearful halt when the winning car spontaneously burst into flames and burned to the ground. Howard was utterly fearless and wildly successful, especially with his sturdy new Buick White Streaks. When he wasn’t winning other people’s races, he was organizing his own and pressing other Buick agents to join him.

  The reporters ate from his hand. Here was the dream subject: daring, dashing, photogenic, articulate, a man who was always doing something stunning and always saying something quotable afterward. Out of the rubble of San Francisco, a perfect marriage arose. Howard gave the press a banner headline; the press gave him the public. He and his Buicks became local legends.

  Where the press fell short, Howard and the Buick management filled in by papering the city with full-page ads and brochures trumpeting every win.27 Critical to the publicity’s success was Howard’s shrewdest decision. He recognized that the common practice of competing with specially outfitted racing cars muted the promotional effects of victories, given that the consumer knew he was not buying the race car. So Howard opted to race unmodified stock models, exactly the same cars customers could buy off the dealer floor. He also made the transition from horseman to auto driver as easy as possible for prospective buyers. Because virtually none of his customers had owned a car before, he gave free driving lessons. Most important, he began accepting horses as trade-ins. The experience he gained in judging horses would be invaluable to him later, though he would have scoffed at the idea at the time. “The day of the horse is past, and the people in San Francisco want automobiles,” he wrote in 1908.28 “I wouldn’t give five dollars for the best horse in this country.”

  The promotion worked. In 1908 Howard sold eighty-five White Streaks for $1,000 each.29

  In 1909 he paid a visit to Durant. The new GM chief was grateful; Howard had virtually created what would be one of the industry’s leading markets. With a handshake, Durant gave Howard sole distributorship of Buick as well as GM’s new acquisitions, National and Oldsmobile, for all of the western United States.30 Howard began ordering multiple trainloads of cars, some three hundred at a time, and printing his orders and the company shipping confirmations in full-page ads. He was soon the world’s largest distributor in the fastest-growing industry in history. Throughout the West, frontier regions that had long revolved around the horse were now dotted with sleek, modern Howard dealerships.

  He wasn’t done yet. Durant, for the umpteenth time, took a huge financial leap before looking, and emerged bankrupt. Howard bailed him out with a reported $190,000 personal loan.31 Durant repaid him with GM stock and a generous percentage of gross sales, guaranteed for life. A poor bicycle repairman just a few years before, Howard soon had hundreds of thousands of dollars for every penny he had brought to California.

  In the mid-1920s, Howard began to live like the magnate he had become. In 1924 he funneled $150,000 into the establishment of the Charles S. Howard Foundation and built a home for children suffering from tuberculosis and rheumatic fever.32 It was the first of a lengthy list of philanthropic projects he spearheaded. He also began to live a little. Finding his elder sons, Lin and Charles junior, attempting to play polo with rake handles and a cork ball, he divested Long Island of its best polo ponies and gave them to his boys, who became internationally famous players. A few years later he outfitted a gigantic yacht, the Aras, rounded up a crew of scientists, and sailed them all down to the Galápagos for a research expedition.33 He returned with a rare blue-footed booby and a collection of other animals, which he donated to a zoo.

  He also lived out a fantasy that he had probably cultivated since childhood. He stumbled upon a magnificent ranch sprawling over seventeen thousand acres of California’s remote redwood country, 150 miles north of San Francisco, near a tiny lumber village called Willits. Fulfilling a long-held desire to be a rancher, Howard bought it. Though he stayed in a mansion in the San Francisco suburb of Burlingame whenever he was on business, Howard thought of the ranch as his true home. For all his love of the automobile, Howard was still attracted to the romance of frontier simplicity. He strove to make the ranch, called Ridgewood, a model of rustic self-sufficiency, complete with massive herds of cattle and sheep, several hundred horses, a dairy, a slaughterhouse, and fruit orchards. Dressed in embroidered western shirts, Howard surveyed his ranch from a stock saddle on a cow pony. But he couldn’t resist a little modernity here and there; he sped around his lake in gleaming speedboats. On the hills of Ridgewood, removed from his business, “Poppie” Howard watched his sons grow.


  On the weekend of May 8 and 9, 1926, Charles Howard took Fannie May to Del Monte, California, to attend the opening of a new hotel. They left their fifteen-year-old son, Frankie, behind at Ridgewood. Early that Sunday morning, Frankie borrowed one of his father’s old trucks and set out for a morning of trout fishing with two friends. At about 9:00 A.M., they gathered up a big catch and headed back toward the main house. Driving along a canyon road about two miles from the house, Frankie saw a large rock in his path and swerved to avoid it. A front wheel dipped over the side of the canyon and Frankie lost control. The truck flipped headlong into the canyon. No one saw it crash.

  Frankie’s friends found themselves at the bottom of the canyon, thrown clear. The truck was near them, wheels facing skyward. Struggling to the vehicle, the boys saw Frankie pinned under it. They ran to the ranch house and notified the ranch foreman. There was no hospital anywhere near Ridgewood. The closest thing was the house of the town physician, “Doc” Babcock, who kept a few spare beds to cope with the cuts and bruises suffered by the local loggers. The foreman fetched Babcock and they rushed to the scene. Babcock climbed through the wreckage and used what little medical equipment he had to try to revive Frankie. He was too late. When the Howards arrived by special charter train from Del Monte, they were told that their son was dead, his skull and spine crushed.34

  Howard retreated to Ridgewood and remained secluded there for months, prostrate with grief. Doc Babcock came to console him and found the auto magnate wrestling with the question of how he could best memorialize his son. Babcock had an idea: Build a hospital in Willits. Howard embraced the idea, underwrote the entire cost, and arranged to have Ridgewood’s orchards, fields, and dairy supply the hospital with food. Ground was broken by an ox-drawn plow in 1927, and in 1928, with Doc Babcock at the helm, the modern, well-equipped Frank R. Howard Memorial Hospital was open for business. Howard remained on its board of directors for the rest of his life.

  He would never truly recover from Frankie’s death. In his Buick office in San Francisco he kept a large painting of Frankie, kneeling beside a dog. Many years later, a teenaged job applicant named Bill Nichols casually asked Howard if he was the boy in the picture.

  “Do you think it looks like me?” Charles asked.

  Nichols said yes. When he looked up, tears were running down Howard’s face.35

  In the 1920s California was not the place to be for a man in a sinning frame of mind. The temperance folks had given America Prohibition, and had thrown in a ban on gambling while they were at it. A guy
couldn’t cavort with women, and thanks to the ban on cabaret dancing, he couldn’t even watch women cavorting by themselves. If he was discovered in a hotel room with a woman not his wife, his name would appear in the section of the newspaper reserved for public shaming. Everything was closed on Sundays. The only place to go was church. There he could hear the usual warnings about alcohol, gambling, dancing, and cavorting. When the Southern California ministers were really whipping their congregations into a froth, they would get rolling on the subject of “the Road to Hell,” a byway that ran south from San Diego. At the end of it stood the town of Tijuana, “Sin City,” a place where all those despicable things, and a whole lot more, were done right out in the open.36

  You can’t buy that kind of advertising. Thousands of Americans a day were sprinting for the border.

  For all the fire-and-brimstone buildup, the avenue that led down to Tijuana was a little disappointing. One might expect the Road to Hell to be well-paved. It wasn’t much more than a meandering dirt lane, one car wide in spots, cutting through the blandness of sagebrush and ducking down to an anemic border river. If travelers were on foot, they could usually wade across and catch a burro taxi on the other side. If they had wheels, they could take a somewhat rickety-looking bridge, followed by a road dipping into Tijuana.

  Now, there was some sinning. Only recently a sleepy village, Tijuana was fashioning itself into California’s guilty pleasure. For every restraint in force north of the border, Tijuana offered unlimited indulgence. During Prohibition, one third of the businesses revolved around alcohol, including the longest bar in the world (241 feet), in the Mexicali Club. The minute San Diego outlawed cabaret dancing, Tijuana bristled with high-kicking girls. When boxing was illegal in California, you could find an abundance of the sweet science in Tijuana. You could get married anywhere, anytime; enterprising matchmakers tailed American couples down the streets, offering to get them hitched for cheap. Those who declined were offered quickie divorces, while single men were steered into one of the many brothels, a cottage industry in Tijuana. The town was wide open every hour, every day. In 1929, when the Depression came and poverty began to replace temperance as the narrower of American life, Tijuanan businesses kept prices at bargain-basement levels, so that northern tourists purring past the clapboard shops along the Avenida Revolución could afford to live high in every conceivable way: lobster dinners, fine spirits, salon services, dancing. The place had a state-of-nature feel to it; former jockey Wad Studley recalls seeing a truckload of Mexican soldiers pull up in the middle of the desert, force a rape suspect out onto the sand at bayonet point, send him running, then use him for target practice.37

  Tijuana’s greatest tourist attraction was its racetrack, which benefited from the hard times afflicting the racing industry in the United States. Thoroughbred racing had a lengthy and celebrated history in America, but at the height of the temperance and antigambling reform movements in the first decade of the century, a series of race-fixing scandals involving bookmakers inspired a wave of legislation outlawing wagering. The result was catastrophic for racing. At the turn of the century, well over three hundred tracks had been operating nationwide; by 1908, only twenty-five remained, and the attrition continued until World War I.38 In California, the center of top-class western racing, the only track that survived the ban was San Bruno’s Tanforan, which barely scraped by. Many horsemen were forced to abandon the sport and sell off their farms and horses. Most of the rest, especially in the West, retreated to a sort of racing underground, a series of leaky-roof tracks scattered through Canada and the few American states where the sport had not been banned.

  For Tijuanans, the racing ban was a godsend. In 1916, shortly after California’s ban on wagering, they opened the Tijuana Racecourse, which immediately became a haven for American stables and racing fans. It was a dilapidated place—one former rider compared it to an outhouse—but like everything else in Tijuana, it was innovative, offering the first primitive movable starting gates and photo finishes. When a departing Hollywood film crew forgot to pack its loudspeaker equipment, racetrackers appropriated the gear, fiddled with it, and soon fashioned the first race-calling public address system.39 The racing was lawless and wild and the Americans loved it.

  Among the Yankees pouring down to the border was Charles Howard.40 He never explained why he came. Perhaps the place freed him from a straitjacket of grief. By some accounts, his marriage, already ailing before Frankie’s death, was staggering, and maybe he needed to get away. Or it could have been that all that he had worked for mattered less now. The automobile, which had given him great wealth, had stolen something immeasurably more important. His interest in cars, said at least one acquaintance, withered. Howard found himself slipping down the Road to Hell and drifting into that exuberant, swaybacked little town. He avoided the girls and the booze. It was the horses that captured his attention. He tumbled along with the racetrackers, and soon found himself buying a few nondescript Mexican horses and traveling down to attend their races. They were the poorest sort of runners, racing for no more than a handful of pesos, but Howard enjoyed sitting in the stands and cheering them home.

  On a summer day in 1929 Howard’s eldest son, Lin, invited his father to the annual Salinas Rodeo. With Lin that day was his wife, Anita, who had talked her older sister Marcela Zabala, a local actress, into joining them for the outing. There in the stands, Charles Howard first set eyes on her dark, wavy hair, straight, slender eyebrows, easy smile.41 Schooled in a convent and raised on a modest horse ranch just outside of Salinas, where her father was a lawyer, she had once been named Lettuce Queen at the annual Salinas Lettuce Festival.

  Charles Howard was bewitched. Not long afterward, Anita gave birth to her first child and asked Marcela to stay with her. Marcela moved into Lin and Anita’s home, where she and Charles saw each other daily. Though a May-December romance must have caused a sensation, Howard fell in love with Marcela and she with him. She was twenty-five and the sister of his son’s wife; he was fifty-two and married. His marriage, wounded by Frankie’s death, collapsed. In the fall of 1932, at a ceremony at Lin’s house, Charles and Marcela were wed.

  In Marcela, Howard found his perfect complement. Like him, she was deeply empathic. Suddenly elevated into the world of the rich, she moved with an easy, charming propriety, yet had the rare grace and aplomb to make her frequent departures from convention seem amusing instead of scandalous. She dazzled the society writers. At golf, she packed such a wallop that she swung from the men’s tee. In 1935, when Charles organized a five-month African safari, Marcela eagerly enlisted in the adventure.42 In a world in which women’s roles were still highly traditional, Marcela’s trip was the talk of the town, prompting the San Francisco Examiner to feature daily reports on her exploits in the jungle. She gave them plenty to gawk at. When a lion charged their party, it was Marcela who leveled her gun and cooly shot the animal. And when she found a tiny orphaned baby blue monkey, she smuggled him back to New York in a hatbox. She talked the Waldorf-Astoria into letting her house him in a luxury suite, posed for reporters with “Blooey” and a banana on the Waldorf’s plush settee, then carried him home as a pet.43 She shared Howard’s understanding of the importance of image and cheerfully joined him in the public eye. And like her husband, she had spent much of her life with horses.

  In 1934 Charles Howard could look out from his offices and see a city shaped by his vision. The horse-drawn San Francisco he had walked into thirty years before had vanished. Only a few horses clopped down the city’s streets, and they would be gone before the decade was out. Howard was worth millions, lived in supreme luxury, and enjoyed the devotion of friends and the admiration of the public. But he was not content. He was ready to move on.

  Howard’s friend George Giannini, owner of a string of fine racehorses, thought he knew where Howard belonged.44 Giannini saw Howard rekindling his lost love of horses and thought he should stop dabbling and commit himself fully to Thoroughbred racing. Howard was
only lukewarm. He would not enter the business on a large scale, he said, unless he could go first-class, with the very best trainer. The idea was bandied around a bit and apparently dropped.

  It took a San Francisco dentist, former pro baseball player and investor named Charles “Doc” Strub to change his mind. Five years earlier, on a Monday afternoon in the fall of 1929, Strub had sat down in his lucky chair at his barber’s and settled in for a shave. He was handed a telephone. Sitting there with his face slathered in shaving cream, Strub learned that the stock market had crashed, and in a single day he had lost everything and fallen into a debt of more than $1 million. Strub put the phone down, stunned. An idea came to him. He had lost his money, but not his connections, nor his eye for opportunity. He would build a racetrack, the finest in the world, and bring horse racing back to California.

  His timing turned out to be flawless, for the catastrophe that had struck him that afternoon had plowed under the entire nation. Over the next three years, as the Depression strangled the economy, state governments searched desperately for revenue. Californians hoping to relegalize racing pounced. For the first time in a quarter century, they received an audience. In 1933 California agreed to legalize wagering on two conditions. First, tracks had to use the pari-mutuel wagering machine instead of the bookmakers whose corruption had prompted the betting ban. Second, wagering would be heavily taxed. Racing was reborn.

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