In Wyoming, the ghosts wear cowboy boots. At night you might hear one creaking down the wooden halls of the old Irma Hotel in Cody. You leap from your bed, fling open the door and hope to glimpse a spectral gunslinger or just the ghost of Belle Starr. No one there.

“Ain’t nobody prowlin’ around,” the manager says, “except maybe the ghost of old Bill.” “Old Bill” is none other than Colonel William F. Cody, better known as the Wild West showman Buffalo Bill Cody. He also built the town and – modest to a fault – named it after himself.

The Irma, made of stone, timber and memories, is no broke-down palace but the grand old lady of Cody. In the morning, down in the ornate dining room, you spot cowboy boots galore. Lined up at the enormous, carved cherrywood bar (that Queen Victoria gave to the touring Bill Cody), a dozen good ol’ Wyoming boys are perched there, all bow-legged and no bullshit, on their barstools, with Stetsons tilted back and de rigueur denims giving way to battered cowboy boots. Outside, their steeds are tethered – giant pick-ups with V8s that could each power a Third World village.


Wyoming, a permanent state of Stetson head and Cuban heel, remains the heart of the Wild West. Not far from the Irma is the Buffalo Bill Center of the West whose collections of art, firearms and Indian exhibits are outstanding: true West, true grit, no spaghetti. Go see it.

Meanwhile, back at the Irma, if you don’t run into old Bill’s putative ghost, they can always direct visitors to other shades of the West. At the old Frontiersman Hotel down the road in Medicine Bow, there’s a recurrent spook called Jake who haunts Room Three, while across the border in Deadwood, South Dakota (where Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane Burke are pushing up daisies side-by-side on Boot Hill), the Franklin Hotel claims its resident ghost is none other than that most presidential of cowboys, Teddy Roosevelt.


©2014 JOHN BORTHWICK. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.


Coronado Night with Moon_JB

For many guests at The Del, as San Diego’s historic Hotel del Coronado is often known, their stay recalls the line from The Eagle’s Hotel California – you can check-out any time you like but you can’t ever leave.

This massive pile, opened in 1888 and today one of the largest wooden structures remaining from the grand era of late nineteenth century resort building in the United States (not surprisingly, most burnt down), is a place of mystery despite the resort ambience of its Pacific Ocean-front position. Ghost stories abound and, within minutes of setting foot inside, I’m drawn to asking the question that I’m sure the staff have heard a million times before.

I’m in the gift shop, just off the main lobby. Amongst the copious Marilyn Monroe memorabilia that fills this area almost to overflowing (Billy Wilder’s 1959 comedy, Some Like It Hot, ranked by the American Film Institute as the funniest US movie of all time, was filmed at the Coronado), I ask a staff member if any of hotel’s ghosts cause problems.

“Heavens, yes,” she replies readily enough, although not without a touch of nervousness. “It constantly rearranges the shelves.” The saleslady seems exasperated by the extra work. It’s bad enough when the earthly visitors leave the place a mess, let along long-dead guests adding to the workload.

“It doesn’t like anything to do with Marilyn,” gazing back at the lunchboxes, fridge magnets and books to check they are still in a general sort of order.


The Coronado’s flesh-and-blood guests have long reported strange occurrences, from sudden plunges in temperature and ghostly footsteps to televisions and ceiling fans that turn on and off without warning.

The usual culprit is claimed to be Kate Morgan, a young woman who checked into the hotel in November 1892 and spent five days awaiting a lover who never arrived. She was found dead on an outside staircase with a bullet wound to the head. The San Diego Coroner ruled the death as suicide.

Kate is said to be still seen wandering the halls while guests in her room (Room 3327) report all manner of unexplained disturbances.

Thankfully, the Coronado is not exactly the Overlook Hotel. It’s a benign and most amazing building, designed in the Queen Anne revival style by Canadian architect James W. Reid, and dominated by a massive red turret.

Construction of what was envisaged as the grandest resort hotel in the United States began in March 1887. At its peak, some 2,000 workers toiled on this sandy wasteland but, when it opened the following year, it was an immediate success.

Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot.
Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot.

It has somewhere around 675 guestrooms and dominates the southern end of Coronado, a peninsula that is linked by a 16 kilometre-long isthmus known as the Silver Strand to the San Diego mainland. At Coronado’s northern end is the sprawling Naval Air Station North Island, comprising some 35,000 personnel and 23 aviation squadrons.

From the early days of manned flight, North Island was an important aeronautic location. Before being commissioned as a Naval Air Station in 1917, it was the site of an aviation school that attracted trainee pilots from around the world. One such aviator was Sadayoshi Yamada, who rose through the ranks of the Japanese armed forces to become Vice Admiral in the Imperial Japanese Navy during World War II.

Over the years, the Hotel del Coronado has welcomed royalty, American presidents and movie stars. One of its most famous turns in the spotlight was during the filming of Some Like It Hot, which used the beachfront and hotel exteriors to great effect (the interiors were recreated in the Culver City, Los Angeles, studios of MGM).

Another famous guest was Frank L. Baum, author of the Wizard of Oz series of books. Although from the East Coast, he was drawn to California’s more welcoming climate. He spent months at a time at the Coronado between 1904 and 1910, after which he built a home in Hollywood that he named Ozcot.

The Coronado also inspired novelist Richard Mathieson (whose 1954 novel, I Am Legend, has been filmed four times, the last with Will Smith in 2007) to create Bid Time Return (1975), that deftly interweaves a love story with time travel. When it was filmed as Somewhere In Time (1980), with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour, the setting was changed to the equally-elegant Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan.

Marilyn Monroe and Tony Curtis during filming of Some Like It Hot at the Hotel del Coronado
Marilyn Monroe and Tony Curtis during filming of Some Like It Hot at the Hotel del Coronado

However, one of the most interesting connections with the Hotel del Coronado is actually one that could have happened but didn’t. When Bessie Wallis Warfield married Earl Winfield Spenser Jr. – an aviator and lieutenant in the United States Navy – in 1916, no-one could have foretold the effect it would have on the world.

Win, as he was known, was posted to San Diego in 1917 to oversee the establishment of the nation’s first naval air base. Wallis, as she was known, was the dutiful but ultimately unhappy military wife of a dissatisfied and alcoholic officer, a woman who loved to entertain and be entertained.

On 7 April 1920, the Hotel del Coronado hosted a ball in honour of Edward, Prince of Wales, who had arrived aboard the British warship HMS Renown en route to a royal tour of Australia. In later years, Win himself recalled he was on hand that evening with his wife who was introduced to the Prince.

Such is the cachè of such a momentous meeting that it has passed, unchecked, into popular legend. Even the Coronado’s website states that many have speculated that “they may have first met at The Del”. However, as Anne Sebba reveals in That Woman: The Life Of Wallis Simpson, Duchess Of Windsor (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 2011), the reality is more like the golden opportunity that never occurred.

Several days before the ball, Wallis left San Diego for San Francisco to visit a socialite friend and didn’t return until the week following. This is confirmed by newspaper social columns of both cities.

It would be another 11 years before Wallis finally met the Prince. In the interim, Wallis divorced Spenser in 1927, moved to England and married Ernest Simpson in 1928. She met the Prince at a country house party in 1931 and they became involved sometime around 1934. He ascended the throne as King Edward VIII in January 1936, Wallis and Simpson divorced in October 1936, and Edward abdicated in December of that year. In June 1937, Edward and Wallis married.

And the rest, as they say, even in the character-saturated hallways of the Hotel del Coronado, is history.

Coronado - Monroe, Marilyn (Some Like it Hot)_06

Words  © David Latta

Main photo courtesy of the Hotel del Coronado. Other photos copyright MGM


MarrakechMorocco 52

It was that line in Crosby Stills & Nash’s Marrakesh Express about being “under cool Morrocan skies” that marked my expectations. I’d been warned to avoid the train itself but the evening breeze, well, that didn’t seem too much to expect. 

And there it was, swirling around Casablanca airport, which is as close to the city of Bogie’n’Bergman, of Rick’s Cafe, as I would get. Dismissed as dreary and corporate by even those who reside there, it seems that Morrocan visitors rarely see it. No sooner are you out of the car park, breeze in your hair, than you’re whipping along a wide motorway to Rabat, just an hour away.

When you think about it, and I did, few relatively small countries have so many cities that can be brought immediately to mind, even by those who may not have been there. Casablanca, Marrakech, Fes, Tangier, Rabat, Melilla all roll off the tongue easily.  It could have something to do with the fact that, since the counter-cultural upheaval of the 1960s, Morocco has loomed large as an exotic destination, a place that you should have found your way to if only to be a bona-fide global citizen. The rock gods of the time, Rolling Stones and Hendrix, came to commune with high-flying traditional musicians and hash sellers and set in train a hippie trail that still exerts a certain pull.

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There’s always been something enticing in the proximity of this North African nation, just there on the far side of Gibralter’s rock, sharing the same sea as Spain, France, Italy and Greece. It could be anything you wanted it to be. The Mediterranean at the top, the Sahara at the bottom, the Atlantic on one side, forbidding Algeria on the other. In the middle, magnificent, evocative landscapes that could be in Continental Europe.  Traditional Berber and Islamic on one hand, French-tongued cosmopolitan on the other.

The allure remains potent – a generation of young women now know it as one of the principal locations of the second Sex In The City film. There is yet to be a permanent monument erected to Sarah Jessica Parker and comrades but, when Orson Welles made Othello in the harbour city of Essaouira, the locals honoured him with a park surrounding a bust set in a monument. Sixty years on, it can be said to have seen better days, with his sculptured face splashed with a bucket of wet cement….but, hey, it was initial thought that counted.

Unless you’re heading well north to Tangier, the former International Zone where spies rubbed shoulders with flower children, there is a natural trajectory to be followed from Rabat – inland to Fes then back west and descending south to Marrakech and on to the vigorously sea-swept ports of Essaouira and Agadir, Bouncing up against the magnificent High Atlas and Anti Atlas Mountains, possibly en route to rolling Saharan dunes. Throughout, well lubricated by cups of steaming mint tea, a ceaseless Moroccan motif of medinas (walled cities within cities), souks (tumultuous markets), riads (intimate oasis-type hotels, usually tucked away anonymously down slender passageways) and meals taken at footpath grills out front of butchers providing cuts to order.

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Rabat has all the business bustle of a capital, with major hotel chains and swish offices drawing that end of the market but it’s also where there’s a chance of catching the young king joining locals at outdoor prayers and where, perched atop a cliff with sweeping views of river and ocean, you’ll find the twelfth century Kasbah Les Oudamas, garnished with carved arches that came, along with the tranquil winding streets full of spruce blue and white painted houses, with Muslim immigrants from nearby Spain.

You can let this serve as a mood-setter, an introduction to million-strong Fes, a couple of easy hours’ drive away; though nothing quite prepares you for that 1200-year-old World Heritage-listed maze. Were there nothing else, Fes would be reason alone to go to Morocco. Evoking Jerusalem on one hand and Venice on the other, it is the world’s largest living medieval Islamic city and the largest contiguous car-free urban area. Hurl yourself in one end and presume you’ll eventually come out another all the better for it, having spent time among bakers, donkey handlers, scholars, singers, scribes, confectioners and craftsmen of myriad shade. Minarets alongside satellite dishes. Musicians only just heard above the din of copper beaters. A true feast for the senses.

On a hill outside the old city early in the morning, hide traders pile pelts atop small horses and trundle away. Later in the day, many of these pelts will have found their way to the Chouwara Tanneries, the oldest complex of curing and dying vats in the world. From surrounding vantage points (usually leather shops), you can watch the exacting ancient trade carried on by descendents of its founders. Just as essential a view is the one had from the balcony of the seductive Palais Faraj hotel, a remodeled traditional house of rich traders and power brokers. If breakfast is taken better anywhere else, I did not come upon it.

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Marrakech is more brash, more accustomed to (and in some ways less tolerant of) tourists. As modern as it is historical, it has – along with offices, skyscrapers and trendy suburbs with boutiques, gelati bars and expensive apartments – an enveloping, labyrinthine medina, expert padlock and musical instrument makers, universities, and a famous centre square inhabited by snakes, monkeys and their handlers by day and busy food stalls (snails steamed in their shells being one specialty) at night. As everywhere else in Morocco, teeming piles of sweet oranges sit alongside juicing machines and thirsty queues.  Proving almost as popular is Argan oil, ground from local nuts and used – depending on the roasting level – for hair care and bread dipping. On the road to the coast, past trees inhabited by goats (with some assistance from herders), there are Argan factories receiving busloads of visitors, many negotiating for further supplies by mail order. Once, they came for substances you smoked but at least they still come.

One is reminded of the initial enticement in a tiny threadbare village on the outskirts of the Phonecian-originated Essaouira, the most essential destination on the Atlantic seaboard. Though the couple of Hendrix-themed bars would suggest something more grandiose, the late guitarist spent a few days there in 1969, chilling out without a guitar but with a little help from his friends.

While one is inclined to think that it must have been quite a place then, the sea port itself is quite a place now – as picturesque a boat-jammed fishing harbour as you’re likely to find in Africa. Whipped rather energetically by winds that have stopped it from become too overrun by mainstream tourism (Agadir picks up the sun-seekers), Essaouira has a rugged, briney, gritty tone and layered mystique of a once-vital commerce link (between Timbuktu and Europe) and fortified garrison town that has retained much of its charm. Painters ply their trade, flogging their canvases under ramparts still dotted with canons, the one where Welles dangled Iago in a cage over crashing waves in that Othello production all those years ago.


Once a French protectorate, its design is courtesy of the man who laid out Brittany’s Saint-Malo port though beyond the arresting harbour is the ancient array of medina, souk, lazas, cafes and aromatic fish markets that is pure Morocco. Blue is such powerful motif that this may be the only place on the planet where the Coca Cola signage is in that shade. UNESCO plonked the whole thing onto its World Heritage Listing in 2001.

Just as Fes hosts an annual sacred music festival which has offered such performers as Ben Harper and Norah Jones, Essaouira claims two world-renowned music events – the Gnaoua and World Music Festival and the Festival des Andalousies Atlantiques. The bluesy, rhythmic and hypnotic Gnaoua is to Morocco what reggae is to Jamaica and many of the loyal foreign visitors are drawn to Essaouira for its creative streak. My eye caught a Led Zeppelin portrait in the foyer of one of the many richly-appointed but encouragingly inexpensive hotels and riads in the town. Snatches of sound swirled through the winding streets, as did compelling characters inextricably intertwined with the place. As ethereal as it is exotic.

As shrieking seagulls swooped, grills sizzled, artists interpreted and the sun sunk over the walls where a couple of thousand troops once oversaw trade in gold, ivory, salt and feathers for the sake of an orderly empire, there was no small amount of joy once again on my part to be under those cool Moroccan skies.

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Glenn flew to Morocco via Abu Dhabi on Etihad Airways. He was exposed to the delights of the country by Morocco By Prior Arrangement.

This article originally appeared in the Autumn 2013 issue of the fabulous Get Up & Go magazine –

©2014 Glenn A. Baker. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.