Once upon a time, last November in fact, almost 200 Beautiful People jetted from New York's John F. Kennedy airport to Puerto Rico. There were, for example, Elaine May, Xavier Cugat, Stephen Birmingham, Amy Vanderbilt and Maureen O'Sullivan, known to a past generation as Mrs. Tarzan and to the present as Mamma Mia, who entered the Trans Carib terminal elegantly trailing her coat across the floor. Also along on the junket were assorted members of the press, such as bouncy Bosley Crowther, late of The New York Times, the dashing Earl Dash, the editor of that lively sheet Women's Wear Daily, and Robert L. Green, fashion authority, who cooks marvelous dinners at his home in Bucks County, changes his clothes five times a day and speaks with a strange upper-crust accent that a very dear and close friend whispering confidentially across the table called British Yiddish.
All the Beautiful People and press were bound for a four-day trip to the very latest fun spot in the sun, El Conquistador Hotel and Club. As Eddie Meyers, the voluble PR man who dreamed up the junket, exclaimed of the hotel, "It's hedonism, it's opulence, it's the end of Western civilization!" Ten or 12 years ago, when West Side Story was a Broadway smash, Puerto Rico did not exactly have class. At best, the popular image was of long lines of cadaverous natives waiting at the San Juan airport to fly to New York to get on relief and vote the straight machine ticket. But Puerto Rico has changed. Thousands upon thousands of Stateside Americans, including the Beautiful People, are jetting to San Juan for absolutely razzmatazz vacations. Last year, for the first time, the island had more than a million visitors, and projections for the future are up, up and beyond.
The boom is due, in fair part, to the efforts of a onetime New York feather merchant, Louis Puro, a relative newcomer to Puerto Rico. Puro has more visions of splendor than the Great Gatsby, and he has spent money on hotels with such a lavish hand that even the people at the Rockefeller-owned Dorado Beach have had to gasp. Short, dapper and white-haired, Puro is a strong family man (three daughters, six grandchildren) who likes to mix with the fancy show-biz crowd. Euphoric by nature, he peppers his conversation with such superlatives as "fantastic," "wonderful" and "beautiful." Puerto Rico is "beautiful," the weather there is "beautiful," his guests are "beautiful" and he has a "beautiful wonderful relationship" with all his help who are doing a "beautiful job." A longtime baseball fan—he would like to get a major league franchise for San Juan—he finds baseball "just a beautiful game to see" in Puerto Rico.
Now 54, Puro was born and raised on the Lower East Side (which was not beautiful), and when he was 16 went to work with his father in the feather and down business. Wonderful. In time, business grew as he and his father expanded into pillows and comforters, and Purofied Down Products is now the biggest pillow company in the world. Beautiful. In 1960 Puro and his wife went to San Juan on a vacation. "I fell in love with it," he says. "I thought the future of Puerto Rico was fantastic." Castro had closed down Cuba, and Puerto Rico was starting to get a tourist trade. ("But Puerto Rico is on its own now," says Puro. "Even if Cuba did open up tomorrow, Puerto Rico wouldn't have to worry.") A bit of a wheeler-dealer in suburban real estate in the States, Puro was approached by some business associates who wanted to buy the El San Juan Hotel. Puro joined in and became chairman of the board of the San Juan Hotel Corporation which bought the hotel from a subsidiary of Pan Am. "The hotel wasn't doing too well," Puro says, "and the occupancy was low. The hotel didn't have a dramatic flair."
To give it that flair, Puro called in Alan Jonathan Lanigan, a young decorator who had done the Puro home in Forest Hills, and let him have his head. Ten million dollars later, an expanded, redecorated and very loud El San Juan was hopping. It would sprain eyeballs even in Miami Beach, but in San Juan it has been a hit both with tourists and Puerto Rican society. Puro broke with tradition by bringing in star entertainment. Victor Borge, Sammy Davis Jr. and Eddie Fisher perform regularly at El San Juan, and, after other hotels followed suit, Puerto Rico soon ranked immediately after Vegas in big-name entertainment.
Several years ago Puro again did the unexpected. He and his wife Gertrude went off to Fajardo, in the sticks of the northeast coast of Puerto Rico, for a vacation of their own. They stayed at a small hotel, El Conquistador. Puro liked what he saw: the hotel was perched atop a 325-foot hill overlooking both the Atlantic and the Caribbean. In the distance were the islands of Culebra, Vieques and St. Thomas, while inland the view was of the jutting peaks of the El Yunque rain forest. El Conquistador was then being managed by the estate of a deceased Detroit millionaire. Financially, the hotel wasn't going anywhere; it had only 87 rooms and fewer facilities. Puro made inquiries, and he and his El San Juan associates bought El Conquistador. Aside from the Dorado Beach and the Dorado Hilton, no other major hotel in Puerto Rico was then located outside San Juan, but this did not make any difference to Puro, who wanted to create what he frankly calls "the greatest hotel in the world."
In came Jack Katz, one of Puro's sons-in-law, who supervised construction, and off to South America and Europe went Decorator Lanigan in hot pursuit of surplus armor from Pizarro's army. Thirty-two million dollars later, in time for the November junket of Beautiful People and press, an expanded and glistening El Conquistador celebrated its inaugural. Instead of 87 rooms, there are now 388 rooms and suites in a complex of buildings. Each room and suite has a terrace and its own view of the sea. There is an 18-hole golf course on which Arnold Palmer, Chi Chi Rodriguez and Gay Brewer have already played a match that will be shown on the Wonderful World of Golf on Jan. 11. Puro even imported swans from Europe for the fairway ponds, and one of the birds later laid an egg that produced the first swan ever born in Puerto Rico, prompting one guest to ask, "Where's Leda?"
There are badminton courts and tennis courts and a chlorine of swimming pools, including a five-acre palm-fringed saltwater pool down by the shore. There is an opulent domed gambling casino (craps, roulette and 21) that is a sort of hushed temple to money. In Puerto Rico it is against commonwealth law to serve drinks in a gambling den, but there are multitudes of bars nearby for the thirsty, the ultimate being Sugar's, the nightclub, done in plastic and hallucinogenic colors and furnished with 250 different kinds of chairs, love seats and couches, including a VW beetle painted lavender and parked on the floor. (If you must startle fellow merrymakers, the horn still works.) More than $5 million was spent on furnishings. There is a hand-hewn, solid copper mural, 10 feet by 65, done in Italy, that serves as the outer facade for the Good Table restaurant (open 20 hours a day), and the opulent main dining room, the Sovereign's Court, is decorated with 53 paintings of kings, monarchs, infantas and pretenders that quietly murmur Instant Prado.
There is hall after hall for conventioners, one named after Pablo Casals, a resident of Puerto Rico. Casals himself put in an appearance for the dedication of the hall during the Beautiful People weekend, and he seemed to enjoy himself despite a couple of gaffes. For one, his name is misspelled Casal's Hall on the wall, and also there was the young lady, aspiring to be chic, who carried on what must have been a baffling conversation with the maestro under the misimpression he was Xavier Cugat.
Then there is the spa at El Conquistador. It is not a natural spa in the old-fashioned sense of magical waters bubbling from a cleft in a rock. This is a new type spa, a posh factory for fatties that cost $2.5 million. The spa is Puro's idea, because, as he puts it, "Spas today are becoming a big thing. All the spas opened in the States, such as in Florida or Palm Springs, have been very, very successful. All over the world people want to lose weight. The bookings are coming in great for our spa plan. Corporations want to send employees here to lose weight. Guests will be examined by our special doctor, we'll put them on a diet and they'll lose 10, 15 or 20 pounds in a short stay. They have special diet food, but they sit at the same table with other guests, they mingle with the other guests." The spa has separate but equal facilities for men and women, furnished in Mies van der Rohe steel-and-leather elegance. There are steam baths, massage tables, saunas, facial rooms, gyms with chromed dumbbells and, up on the roof in the sun, a pair of open-air, giant whirlpool baths. According to one of the shapely Broadway actresses Puro had flown down to serve as a miniskirted guide for the Beautiful People weekend, "When you get in the bath, it feels as though you had 10,000 tiny fingers running over you—if you like that sort of thing."
The lanai complex, with an Olympic-size freshwater pool, a restaurant, a snack bar and a bar (Big Fish, Little Fish and Fish Bowl) nestles in an amphitheater toward the bottom of the hill. To get down to the lanai, or to the saltwater pool and marina below, you have to take either a cable car or a funicular. To speed traffic and ease congestion, Puro has ordered from a Swiss firm two giant air-conditioned funiculars, each with a carrying capacity of 30 persons. The marina should be finished next month and will offer berths to 70 boats; Puro plans to build a pier so that cruise liners can send passengers ashore. A catamaran now takes guests out to swim and frolic on nearby islets, and Walt Hendricks, an experienced diver, leads novice snorkelers or experienced scuba divers on underwater tours of nearby reefs. A charter boat is available for deep-sea fishing, but what an angler will catch is anyone's guess. Paradoxically, Puerto Rico has done little to develop its sport fisheries for sailfish, dolphin and blue and white marlin. ("I guess most Puerto Ricans have stuck with dried cod up till now," says a biologist who has spent time on the island.) Inshore, right at the hotel, there is excellent light-tackle fishing to be had for jack, barracuda and sundry reef fishes.
Inevitably, an occasional Cassandra thinks Louis Puro is going to fall flat on his euphoric face with El Conquistador, but Puro says, "We are almost completely-booked right through May." A second golf course will be finished this year, and then condominiums and houses, starting at $25,000, will be built around both courses. Late this year, too, jumbo jets, carrying up to 490 passengers apiece, will start arriving at San Juan from the States, and four Puro helicopters will be ready to whisk guests to El Conquistador's private landing field only 10 minutes away. "Eventually I hope to build another 400 or 500 rooms," says Puro. "I am very optimistic." Given his optimism, Puro has no trouble sleeping at night in his all-white suite at the hotel. His pillow is Purofied. Beautiful.