Tahoe Nugget #110:
George Whittell: Tahoe's Playboy Enigma
April 24, 2007
George Whittell, who died in 1969 at age 87, was an eccentric, playboy millionaire whose quirky yet expensive habits benefit contemporary Tahoe visitors. Thanks to Whittell, people can visit his historic lakefront
Thunderbird Lodge, admire his mahogany and chrome art deco yacht or enjoy 20 miles of pristine, undeveloped Tahoe shoreline.
Born in San Francisco on September 28, 1881, George and his twin brother Nicholas
were the only children of George and Anna Whittell who controlled a huge banking and real estate fortune. Nick died at the age of four, leaving George, or Junior as his family called him, as the sole heir to the
family's millions. Junior knew early in life that he wasn't going to be a respectable businessman like his father and he charted out a wild lifestyle that would distress his parents and shock their staid
As a rebellious teenager, Junior fell in love with the circus and ended up following the Barnum and Bailey Circus around the country. He attended a slew of colleges and universities, but
never actually graduated from any of them. When he was 22, he disappointed his parents by marrying young chorus girl. His father quickly paid to have the union annulled. Shortly after Whittell eloped with a stage
dancer, but she divorced him two years later.
In 1919, he married Elia Pascal, a Parisian debutante, who would remain his wife for the rest of his life. It wasn't the typical marriage, however, because after
a few happy years together in California, Whittell's sexual escapades convinced Elia to spend much of her time in Paris and the couple never had any children.
Whittell was fortunate to be born into wealth,
but he had a lucky streak too. Only a few months before the bottom fell out of the stock market in the Wall Street crash of 1929, the savvy investor liquidated $50 million in stocks. He said, "When men stop boozing,
womanizing and gambling, the bloom is off the rose."
To protect his wealth he moved his residency to Nevada where he found shelter from state income taxes. In Nevada Whittell became partners in a plan to
purchase and develop the land; about 29 miles of spectacular real estate along Tahoe's northern and eastern shoreline.
Whittell wanted to develop huge resorts and hotels, but his plans never made it past the
drawing board. The aborted developments spared some of the most beautiful stretches of beach at Lake Tahoe. His 40,000-acre domain encompassed virtually all of Nevada's east shore.
During the Great
Depression, Whittell built his opulent Thunderbird Lodge. It took 100 workers more than two years to build the three-story French chateau and other stone structures that overlook the lake's famed blue water.
Whittell then hired legendary marine architect John Hacker to design his Tahoe yacht. Powered by dual 550-horsepower aircraft engines, the sleek and stylish Thunderbird is now owned by someone else and can still be seen ripping across Lake Tahoe during the summer months.
Stories abound about all-night poker games in Whittell's notorious subterranean Card House with celebrities like baseball great Ty Cobb who had a cabin at nearby Cave Rock. It is rumored that Whittell occasionally lost up to $100,000 in a single night.
Parties at the Captain's "summer playpen" were relatively rare, but they were extravagant. Old timers still talk about Whittell's week long affairs with scantily clad showgirls from Tahoe casinos and the fact that he had a small cell-like area off the tunnel called "The Dungeon" where rowdy guests were occasionally confined. The wild shenanigans at Whittell's Tahoe estate didn't stop there. It's reported he once leaped onto a horse to chase naked guests around the grounds.
Each summer Captain Whittell flew in his pet lion named Bill. He brought in a polar bear one year and another time flew in a baby elephant named Mingo. The polar bear presumably enjoyed his short stay at the Thunderbird Lodge, but after a week at the high altitude Mingo had to be returned to California. Bill the lion, as well as a tamed cheetah, were sometimes permitted to wander freely around the property during Whittell's outlandish parties.
Over the years Whittell spent much of his time with Mae Mullhogen, his business secretary and favorite mistress. His wife spent most of her time in France. In 1958 the state of Nevada managed to negotiate an agreement with Whittell to establish Sand Harbor State Park, the first state park on the Nevada shore. Nevada eventually forced the old captain to sell his remaining acreage to the state and virtually overnight all of the Tahoe's east shore property became protected from commercial development.
The unique and flamboyant character of George Whittell can be experienced firsthand by a visit to his Thunderbird Lodge, perched on a rocky point, bristling with tall majestic pines and boasting an incredible panoramic view of Lake Tahoe.
Most impressive is Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park, a cornucopia of pristine, white sand beaches, hidden coves and stunning rock formations, all available to us because the reclusive Captain preferred his privacy.
Photo #1: Captain George Whittell, Jr.
Photo #2: Tour group at the Thunderbird Lodge
Photo #3: The "one-of-a-kind" Thunderbird speedboat
Photo #4: View of just a portion of the
40,000 acres owned by Whittell