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Rich Way To Make a Getaway

Aug. 31, 1970
Aug. 31, 1970

Table of Contents
Aug. 31, 1970

Yesterday
Big D
Debbie Meyer
Getaway
Golf
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

Rich Way To Make a Getaway

First the Mexican army chased out the peasants, then Texan Troy Post built 'the most prestigious club anybody ever heard of,' a $30 million hideout just for good ol' boys—and girls—with lots of money

By Edwin R. Shrake

There is a story that Texas merchant millionaire Marvin Leonard looked out a window one day while having lunch at Shady Oaks, the elaborate and quite exclusive country club he built in a rolling, wooded pasture on the west side of Fort Worth. Four golfers were driving electric carts down the first fairway, a couple more were standing on the 9th green and four tiny figures could be seen at a tee far off on a piece of high ground in the distance. Leonard frowned and called for the club pro. "What the hell is going on here—a tournament?" he demanded.

This is an article from the Aug. 31, 1970 issue Original Layout

About 40 miles east of Shady Oaks an old friend of Leonard's, Troy Post, has just parked his Continental Mark III in front of his office building. Bruce Leadbetter, the young red-haired president of The Post Company, is upstairs in his own office talking about his place in Baja California. "I can take off in my plane from Phoenix and when I get altitude I radio my boat captain in Baja. By the time I'm coming down I can see the wake of the boat heading toward the airstrip to pick me up, and a few minutes later I'm fishing," says Leadbetter, who made his reputation in Dallas by transforming a moribund apartment project into a fancy hotel.

A buzzer sounds. Mr. Post is waiting. Leadbetter rises, cinches up his tie, buttons his cuffs and puts on his coat to walk a few feet down the hall to the office where Post sits behind a desk. Post is wearing a green suit, white-on-white shirt, gold tie and gold cuff links. He regards Leadbetter approvingly and then frowns as he peers through gold-wire spectacles at his visitor, whose outfit is a bit careless. This office is no place to look slouchy. "Down in Acapulco a man might go around dressed, ah, informally." Post says in a voice that is eerily like that of Lyndon B. Johnson, who is an old friend, "but when you enter a man's business office, where serious affairs are conducted, there is a, ah, proper manner of dress. In Dallas you don't go around without socks."

Troy V. Post grew up in the small West Texas town of McConnel, which is a weed patch now. He did a lot of plowing and chopping as a boy. With a stake of $186 he worked his way into insurance and finance, and during World War II he offered to sell protection to GIs, who were considered unwise risks by other actuarial thinkers. In 1965 Post's Greatamerica Corporation, which controlled, among other things, Braniff Airways, had grown so large that Post sold it to Jim Ling, still another friend and something of a protégé, for $500 million. That left Post with a $3 million house in north Dallas, an island in Hawaii, a staggering collection of clocks that is continually supplemented by agents around the globe and a few commercial ventures of sufficient size to satisfy most ambitions.

"But I got thinking about what Marvin Leonard had done," said Post. "I was one of the original members of Colonial Country Club, the first club Marvin built, and I watched him build that next club at Shady Oaks—not to make money but for pleasure—and I figured that had prolonged Marvin's life 20 years. It gave me the idea to build a club of my own. I had been over to Mauna Kea, Rockefeller's club in Hawaii. Now, that's a swell club, all right, but it's hard to get a starting time on the golf course there. If you belong to a club and spend your money at it, you like to be able to tee off whenever you please. A real golfer is willing to pay the price for that privilege. What it meant was that my club had to be really big and really nice, and above all it had to be really exclusive. You don't want to sit around all day because the golf course is too crowded."

Post began searching for a site. He wanted warm weather, sunshine and convenience. The location had to be handy for international club-hoppers. Both U.S. coasts were rejected for several reasons, including the sort of advanced provincialism that causes a New Yorker to sneer at California, a Californian to grow ill at the thought of New York and both to be aghast at the idea of visiting Texas. Finally, Post poked his finger down on the map at a spot called Acapulco, on the Pacific coast of the Mexican state of Guerrero, and it was here that he decided to build his conception of a superoligarchic country club called Tres Vidas en la Playa.

Tres Vidas en la Playa means "three lives on the beach" in Spanish. "The way I conceive of it, the three lives are recreation, relaxation and communication," Post says. "At Tres Vidas you can get away from the outside world, rest and play sports, but you'll run into some of your own kind to talk to." A Tres Vidas member said recently he considers the three lives to be "achievement, sociability and recreation. You can't get in this club if you haven't got a lot of money and a good record or good contacts, and you can't stay in it unless the other big shots like you. As for the recreation, anybody would have to admit there's plenty of that."

Acapulco is a fantasy—whatever you want it to be. Once a village dominated by a stone fortress on a hill above a magnificent bay, Acapulco is now a city of about 100,000 permanent residents. During the official "season," from December until Easter, the population expands to 500,000 or more. The villas in La Pinzona, La Quebrada, Las Brisas or the newer section in the heights above the old golf course are crowded with elegant people who wear no socks or neckties; the views from these villas are spectacular vistas of mountains, jungle and blue water. Much closer, often immediately beneath the pools and terraces, are the smells of cooking fires of the very poor, and their pigs and chickens and naked children wander around palm-thatch huts.

For most American and European tourists Acapulco is a strip of tall glassy hotels that rise along a crescent of beach fronting on the bay. If the tourists leave this strip, it is to buy turista remedies at an air-conditioned, Americanized department store called Sanborns, shop for sandals and straw hats in the market, go out in chartered boats in quest of sailfish and marlin, dance in expensive discothèques or eat hamburgers in plastic and vinyl restaurants where norteamericanos believe they can get food just like back in Tulsa. (Many gringos insist upon eating at high-priced restaurants that advertise "U.S. beef." not knowing that all beef served in Mexico is Mexican, the label meaning only that the beef is supposedly judged by U.S. standards.)

Walking along this resort hotel strip, looking at the fat ladies in shorts and sunglasses, it is almost possible to imagine Miami Beach. But a few blocks from this strip—sometimes a few yards—the rest of Acapulco begins. Were it not for tourists Acapulco would depend mainly on copra, sesame seeds, fruit and fishing for its commerce. It can be a tough town and very wild, tropically lazy and suddenly violent. Three years ago, on Avenida Ejido in the north part of town, the army broke up a union meeting of copra workers by opening fire, killing 33 and wounding more than a hundred. A year earlier several cops had been drinking beer all afternoon at a sidewalk café on the zócalo; an auto backfire caused them to jerk for their pistols and begin shooting each other. Bandits are not uncommon on the highways between Mexico City and Acapulco or on the road north along the coast to Zihautanejo, where most of the region's most famous product—a weed called Acapulco Gold—is grown. Thousands of poor people camp on hillsides of the town and work as servants in hotels and villas, and farther out, in stands of coconut palms, every man carries his own machete, but these people are more willing to be friendly than a gringo has any right to expect. The life there is hot, hard, lurid and indolent, filled with such amusements as the arrival of a cruise ship from Liverpool with bare-legged Germans and baffled British, or the sight of secretaries from Manhattan, reddening in the sand. Death may come early to a campesino or a housemaid, but who is to say for sure that a poor man with his family in a dirt-floored hut that looks down at the Pacific is worse off than one who lives in a heavily mortgaged brick box in a claustrophobic suburb, working 50 weeks a year in a factory so that once in his life he can go to Acapulco and gaze at the Pacific with his own eyes and say to his wife, "Madge, this is what I call living."

Besides considering climate and convenience, Troy Post selected Acapulco because construction costs there are still relatively cheap. A club with the dimensions of Tres Vidas simply could not have been built in the United States or in Europe for less than the cost of, say, reconstructing Englewood, N.J. For one thing, the club as envisioned by Post's architects and designers—among whom was the intercontinental dandy Valerian Rybar—called for an incredible amount of handcrafted work, mosaics, carvings, intricately laid patterns of stone and brick. This is artisan stuff. Work of this quality can still be obtained in the United States but at enormous expense and uncertain quality. In our work ethic it has somehow become thought of as unmanly, even embarrassing and suckerish, for a worker to be proud of a masterful job.

That is not the case in Mexico. Whatever faults Mexican workers may have, they do not lack pride or skill. "These people are natural artists," says Post "They've had to use their hands to exist. In our country we've pretty much gotten away from using our hands, but the Mexicans still work on a building the way an artist works on a statue."

Land in Mexico is cheap, too, compared with prices in other choice and convenient locales, particularly considering Acapulco's beauty. There are laws, however, that are meant to regulate the exploitation of Mexican land. No foreigner may own property within 50 miles of the coast. The beaches are for the use of the people. A tourist who is paying $75 per day to lie on the sand has no more privacy than the natives who walk on it for free. On the beaches in front of the very swankiest of hotels on the Acapulco strip, peddlers roam with sunglasses and armloads of huaraches and children come down from the hills to play in the surf.

But the law about owning coastal property has a loophole the Mexican navy could sail through. Hundreds of gringos own homes in Acapulco, for example, by owning control of small Mexican corporations that in turn own the homes. With a good Mexican lawyer or a friend of Mexican citizenship it is simple to acquire at least a long lease on a piece of land on the shore. When Post announced his corporation would pour $20 million into the Mexican economy (some of his Dallas associates say Post has put more than $30 million into Tres Vidas, exceeding his corporate authorization but unlikely to bring complaints from Mexico), the government welcomed him as if he were Quetzalcoatl returning from the sea.

The site Post picked is about 20 miles down the coast from Acapulco, beyond the new airport. He obtained anywhere from six to 15 miles of oceanfront, depending on who tells the story, in a stretch that faces the Pacific and backs up to copra fields, with gigantic Lake Papagayo, six times larger than Acapulco Bay and as yet undeveloped, a few miles farther inland. In contrast to the splendor of Acapulco Bay, with its steeply rising hills that evoke comparison with Hong Kong, Post's land was flat, barren and uninteresting; the gray surf crashed onto muddy sand and there were mountains back in the distance, but one would never have gone there for scenery.

On Good Friday four years ago the Mexican army, with bayonets, moved onto the future Post land, cleared out squatters who had lived there for generations and bulldozed their huts. This move was not greatly popular with the squatters, but real-estate speculators cheered it as progress of the happiest sort. Post himself estimates that since the onset of the Tres Vidas project, land in the area is worth more than 10 times what it cost him to buy it. "The one big reason for the existence of Tres Vidas is to make money on land development around the club," says an Acapulco real-estate dealer. Post admits that the initiation fees, monthly dues and even the exorbitant daily rental on a suite or villa at Tres Vidas can never pay half of what the club cost to build and operate.

"I'm not crazy," Post says. "I didn't go into this to lose my shirt. But I don't intend to make a profit off the members of Tres Vidas. My return will be in the adjoining land, in rising property values." He intends to build a public golf course and other hotels on his land outside the Tres Vidas walls, to create a new Miami Beach-like resort strip, another tourist city reaching down the Costa Chica. Already J. Paul Getty, D. K. Ludwig and Warren Avis are deeply involved in resort developments near Tres Vidas and potential investors step off nearly every airliner into the dazzling heat.

Before developments of the scope of Tres Vidas could be financially successful there had to be better transportation into Acapulco. Post helped to convince the Mexican government to allow airlines other than government-owned Aeronaves to fly directly to Acapulco rather than having to unload passengers in Mexico City. The airline Post had primarily in mind was, naturally, Braniff. "I knew we couldn't get in, though, without taking in several other airlines," says Post. "I don't guess they'll ever thank me for it, but everybody has benefited from this deal."

With land acquired and transportation available, Tres Vidas began to become a fact. An army of 2,300 workers started making furniture and fixtures in wood and metal shops, laying cobblestone streets and walkways, digging wells, making bricks. More than 6,000 palm trees were planted on what had been grassy dunes, and uncountable numbers of flowers, spice and fruit plants were sown about the grounds. By now Post had hired Jimmy Ukauka from Hawaii as executive vice-president to supervise the project and see to the two golf courses designed by Robert Trent Jones. Post felt that if his intention of never having to wait in line to tee off were to be realized, Tres Vidas demanded two golf courses for its quota of 800 members. "I belong to six country clubs, and not one of them has as few as 400 members per course," he says. "With those other clubs, too, the members live within driving distance. Our members live all over the world, with the exception of Acapulco. We don't want resident members. So I don't see how our courses can ever be crowded."

Jimmy Ukauka, a golf pro, had known both Post and Jim Ling for years. He and Post are partners in a golf course in Hawaii. Ukauka was not eager to leave the Islands, but he packed up his family and bought a house in Acapulco. To his surprise he found that shallow wells brought fresh water for Tres Vidas grasses and plants. Though the city of Acapulco has a constant water shortage, Tres Vidas seemed to have all the water it could ever need. For a while they even thought the water would be fresh enough to drink, but there was a complication. Although the water is fairly free of bacteria it has a potent mineral content. "Drinking this water is like taking a dose of salts," says one Tres Vidas employee.

Besides watching over, and slightly altering, the two courses (one seaside links and one U.S. country club conventional), Ukauka had the responsibility of being certain the golfers had grass to play on. A golf course a few miles down the road had been under construction for years and still looked like Death Valley. Jimmy flew to Tifton, Ga. and returned with an attaché case full of sprigs of Tifgreen and Tiflawn (dwarf). He planted the grass and nurtured it until he could cut out blocks for companies of workmen to sprig into the ground by hand. Within two months of the sprigging, vast fields of green lawn flourished at Tres Vidas.

Post wanted Tres Vidas to be "the most exclusive country club in the world." The first 250 members were invited to join at $5,000 each plus $40 monthly dues, a bargain for those who care. Each additional 100 members paid an extra $1,000 initiation. At the moment there are about 500 members, and they own about 200 private jets, more jets than could be mustered by the Mexican air force.

The Tres Vidas board of directors includes Post, Ling, former Mexican President Miguel Alemàn (chairman), Sir Frank Packer of Australia, Bolivian tin baron Antenor Patino, Count Ferdinand von Bismarck of Germany, chemical magnate Tokusaburo Kosaka of Japan, Giovanni Agnelli of Fiat, Italian politician and fashion designer Marchese Emilio Pucci di Barsento, Prince Bernhard of The Netherlands, Prince Franz Joseph II of Liechtenstein, Prince Rainier of Monaco, the Portuguese Duke of Cadaval, the Spanish Duke of Arion, Count Jean de Beaumont of France, former U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Anderson, Richard Berlin of Hearst, former New York Stock Exchange Chairman Gustave Levy, John D. Harper of Alcoa, Gordon Metcalf of Sears, Roebuck, George Moore of First National City Bank of New York. Then there are ordinary members like Texas lumber tycoon Arthur Temple, Gary Laughlin of the oil business in Texas and Argentina, and Harding Lawrence of Braniff, whose wife is Mary Wells of the advertising agency, and so many others that they ought to wear numbers on their backs. Post's delight at this is immense; never was such a crowd assembled in McConnel. "This is the most prestigious club anybody ever heard of," he grins. "Why, our board of directors reads like Who's Who itself."

One problem in getting all these lovely folks together is Acapulco's artificial season. Those who read society columns know one is not to be found anywhere near Acapulco between Easter and Thanksgiving. "Hawaii used to have a season, too, but the jets changed that. Now Hawaii is just as crowded in July and August as it is in January and February. Jets will make Acapulco a 12-month resort," says Post. "The Acapulco season," Ukauka says, "is an invention of gringos who don't know better."

They are right about the season. The worst time to be in Acapulco is in late April and early May, when farmers in the hills and out in the tierra caliente are burning fields to prepare for the next planting. A haze like smog covers the sky, and the hills are brown and dry. When the rainy season comes in June the skies clear up, hills turn green and the sun is hot for long periods, broken by rain. Fishermen figure there will be 60 days of sun and 60 days of rain, in no predictable order, during the rainy season. Weather then has some drama. Rather than the unrelieved sunny glory of winter ("Another gorgeous day in Acapulco," says Tres Vidas tennis pro Don Budge every morning, with more than a touch of boredom), the rainy season offers terrible thunderstorms with inspiring shows of lightning and nights of wind driving the rain hard against the roof and shutters. Every so often a Pacific hurricane may blow away the awnings and the rain gauge, close the port and cause flooding in mountain villages that are never quite prepared for frequent catastrophes.

Last Easter there were some 250 members and guests at Tres Vidas for the weekend, and a large crowd gathered for a party in March to watch the solar eclipse from the roof of the Clubhouse (Rybar, Robert Finch, Joseph E. Levine and Linda Christian were among the participants who lay on cushions in a rather Moroccan setting and peeked at the eclipse through 20 boxes which had been built for the occasion at a cost of $100 each). But a couple of weeks later the entire club was entertaining less than 40 guests. The several restaurants, open from early morning until midnight under the chefdom of Emanuel de Camp of Maxim's in Paris, were empty of nearly all but waiters and a party of Oklahoma insurance salesmen and wives who had come to Tres Vidas as a reward for hot selling, the strobes of their movie cameras lighting up the ornate chandeliers and the fantastic ceiling of the cocktail lounge—a domed, patterned brick ceiling so lightly and artfully done it looks like woven straw.

When the insurance salesmen departed, there were less than 20 guests, the ratio of servants to guests at more than 30 to one. Tres Vidas has a staff of about 600, all paid higher than the local average wage of $2.50 per day and none of whom appear beaten down with labor. It is not unusual to look up from a book and find eight people somehow engaged around one two-bedroom villa—two men watering the flowers, another on an aluminum ladder changing light bulbs, one fiddling with the wooden lid that hides light switches for the pool each villa is equipped with, a security guard standing on the seawall in green coveralls, two more riding past in a golf cart, and inside the room a maid who has been there for hours and comes out occasionally to talk, to pull the pincers off a crab, to look at the ocean. With so few members and guests in the place, those who do arrive are curiosities, the only show for miles up and down the beach, where empty white red-tile-roofed villas stand like Palm Beach houses seen in a mirror that reflects the same image on and on. There is a more intelligent attitude toward work in Mexico than among the hustlers in the North. In the evening at Tres Vidas the setting sun is like a round wet cherry, and the light on the water is golden, and all along the seawall are gardeners and maids quietly watching the display for half an hour or more.

No matter how deserted Tres Vidas may be, Troy Post maintains his dream of exclusivity and respectability. Last spring Hugh Hefner of Playboy arrived in Acapulco in his private black 707 jet with a load of bunnies and dudes to meet Bernie Cornfeld, the peppy little fellow who bought himself a castle with money he made selling mutual funds in Europe. Cornfeld had been talking to Post about developing property at one end of Tres Vidas and Hefner now wished to discuss developing the other end. But no one had mentioned to Post that Hefner intended to be included. When the information reached Post that Hefner and several bunnies were inside the walls of Tres Vidas, well, as Ukauka put it, "the old man had a fit. He said ask Mr. Hefner to leave and tell Mr. Cornfeld there is no deal between us." Playboy magazine is banned in Mexico, where only men may bare their breasts in public, and you may believe that bunnies are certainly banned from Tres Vidas unless they arrive singly or with acceptable escorts. Cornfeld had reserved 10 bedrooms (two-bedroom villas rent for $250 per day), but he gave them up and quarters were found for the bunnies at Warren Avis' house in Las Brisas. Cornfeld and Hefner went off to look at sites in Zihautanejo, where there are no tall glass Hiltons and not a country club within 150 miles.

Such decorum is more a requirement of Tres Vidas than of the Acapulco community. In the afternoons Acapulco businessmen may be seen strolling along downtown streets carrying briefcases and with coat, shirt and necktie neatly folded over one arm. There is always some female tourist showing enough flesh to have her chased out of less sophisticated areas of Mexico. A few years ago a promoter from California moved to Acapulco and gave a cocktail party to celebrate his desire to build a big hotel. He hired a printer to do up 500 engraved invitations. Instead, the printer made 5,000 invitations, the surplus to be sold or given away in town. The cocktail party was jammed. People from the streets surged into the ballroom waving invitations. The Californian looked at this scene in dismay; most of those invited had come, as well as thousands of uninvited, and he was the only man in the room wearing a coat and tie.

This is not to say formal dress is expected at Tres Vidas. The requirement is for approved behavior. Many Tres Vidas members plan to build their own houses on the grounds. The design and decor of these houses must be certified by the board of directors as belonging to the "club village." If you don't fit in you git out.

At Tres Vidas recreation is extensive: golf, tennis on clay courts and grass, horseback riding on the beach, surf-fishing (this section of the coast has a high population of sharks, stingrays and sand fleas, as well as a powerful undertow that discourages surfing), freshwater fishing in Lake Papagayo and the Papagayo River, hunting for waterfowl, deer, wild boar, cougar and mountain lion. The clubhouse has saunas, reducing and muscle-building equipment, whirlpools and pressure hoses, massage tables, barber and beauty shops. Between the clubhouse and the beach is an enormous swimming pool with, at one end, a bar with stools in the water. The golf shop, run by pro Earl Whitten, and the tennis shop, run by former Mexican Davis Cup star Alfredo Millet, are owned by Tres Vidas, as is the boutique. At this boutique not long ago Lyndon Johnson ordered himself $200 worth of the white linen shirts so often seen around Mexican resorts. Rather than supplying the handmade shirts Johnson wanted, the boutique manager rushed into town, bought the shirts at J.C. Penney's and proudly presented them to the ex-President without removing the labels. The boutique is currently under new management.

One lady guest at Tres Vidas was sitting in the golf shop with an anxious expression as she waited for her husband to be rubbed and jiggled in the men's locker room. Finally she spoke up: "Those soldiers at the airport with guns, who are they protecting us from? Do the people hate us?"

"The soldiers are not protecting us, they're protecting the airport," replied Beto Batani, whose job title is director of special services. "We have our own guards."

The woman was only slightly reassured. She could still sense something wild, hot, nameless and probably threatening out there in those mountains and jungles, and she felt somehow uneasy even here in the air conditioning, behind glass and stone, with guards at every gate and dozens more patrolling the grounds. The state of Guerrero has no railroads, hardly any highways and few telephones. Zihautanejo has one public phone and its number is easy enough to remember—1. Guerrero is known for blood feuds lasting generations. Dope farmers in the mountains ambush soldiers with more bloody efficiency than was ever managed by moonshiners in the U.S. In parts of Guerrero the law may be two or three days away and coming on horseback, if at all. The state of Michoacàn, on Guerrero's northern border, is even wilder and rougher.

But the arrival of jets and big hotels and Tres Vidas en la Playa with their accessory developments is pushing back the jungles at a rate far faster than man had been able to do with a machete for hundreds of years. "We are creating a whole new aspect of Mexico," says Post. In the midst of which privacy still is secure for those who can afford it.

PHOTOSHEL HERSHORNPHOTOSHEL HERSHORNProprietorially posed at poolside: Tres Vidas Owner Post and wife.PHOTOSHEL HERSHORNFiguring a man shouldn't have to wait, Post built two golf courses.PHOTOSHEL HERSHORNSpotted at one end of the pool is a handy swim-in bar serving up exotic drinks and cooling, half-submerged seating.PHOTOSHEL HERSHORNSurrounded by touches of elegant handwork, guests dine in style.PHOTOSHEL HERSHORNLiving easy, a visitor can golf-cart right up to her arched door.PHOTOSHEL HERSHORNSpanish architectural influence marks a superoligarchic setting.PHOTOSHEL HERSHORNTo spruce up the place Post imported 6,000 palm trees, added spice plants and flowers and created a tropical aura.