By Mark McLaughlin
Summer at Lake Tahoe offers a virtually limitless bounty of activities to enjoy but do yourself a favor and schedule a visit to the quirky Thunderbird Lodge National Historic Site on Lake Tahoe’s East Shore.
Eccentric millionaire George Whittell, Jr., whose nickname was Captain, built the lodge in the 1930s. Today touring the lodge’s mix of colorful history, fascinating characters and iconic views of Big Blue is a soulful experience.
Born in San Francisco on Sept. 28, 1881, George and his twin brother Nicholas were the only children of George and Anna Whittell, who controlled a banking and real-estate conglomerate. Nick died at the age 4, leaving George, or Junior as his family called him, the sole heir to the family’s fortune.
As a rebellious teenager, Whittell lived a wild lifestyle that would distress his parents and shock their high-society friends. He had an affinity for large animals and followed the Barnum & Bailey Circus around the country. He attended colleges and universities, but never graduated. That’s not to say that George wasn’t intelligent. During a private tour, Bill Watson, chief executive and curator of the Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society, told me that Whittell could speak seven languages by age 22.
When he was 22, he married a young chorus girl, but his father paid to have the union annulled. Shortly after, Whittell eloped with Josie Cunningham, a dancer from a popular British stage show. In 1919, he married Elia Pascal, a Parisian debutante. Although Pascal remained his wife for the rest of Whittell’s life, they spent little time together and had no children.
Captain was fortunate to be born into wealth, but he had a lucky streak, too. Just months before the 1929 stock market crash, he liquidated $50 million in stocks and bonds. When the Great Depression impoverished most Americans, Whittell was loaded with money. He moved his residency to Nevada to escape California’s state income taxes. Whittell financed a partnership to purchase more than 20 miles of undeveloped land on the East Shore of Lake Tahoe.
Whittell planned to construct large resorts and hotels at both Sand Harbor and Zephyr Cove. Fortunately, his vision to build the Sand Harbor Hotel and Casino, complete with 200 cottages and an aerial tram to a proposed ski resort above present-day Incline Village, Nev., was abandoned with the onset of World War II.
Capt. Whittell hired the prolific Reno architect Frederic J. DeLongchamps to design a three-story French chateau for his new home at Tahoe. The Thunderbird Lodge features intricate architectural details, hidden rooms and a 600-foot-long tunnel underneath the structure. One of the defining elements of this estate is its imaginative granite rockwork created by high-school stonemasons from Carson City’s Stewart Indian School. Italian ironworkers from the San Francisco Bay Area forged distinctive metal iconography and Scandinavian craftsmen, who built Vikingsholm Castle in Emerald Bay, fashioned the broad-beamed knotty pine interior. The mountain lodge motif sports wild animal hunting trophies on the walls as do photographs of George’s favorite pets that included lions and elephants.
Whittell hired legendary marine architect John Hacker to design a one-of-a-kind, 55-foot yacht, modeled after George’s personal DC-2 aircraft. Sleek and stylish, the “Thunderbird” was originally powered by twin V-12, 1,250-hp engines that could reach 70 mph. It was the fastest boat on Lake Tahoe
Stories abound about Whittell’s all-night poker games with celebrities such as baseball great Ty Cobb, who had a home at nearby Cave Rock. Whittell allegedly had weeklong affairs with scantily clad showgirls from Reno and Tahoe casinos. Drinking was rampant and one underground room is stained from guests smoking opium. Each summer Whittell flew in his pet lion named Bill. He brought in a polar bear one year and another time flew in an elephant named Mingo.
Over the years Whittell spent much of his time with Mae Mullhogen, his business secretary and favorite mistress. In 1954, she died in a car crash while returning to the Thunderbird after a food shopping trip. Grief-stricken, Whittell became more reclusive.
In 1958, the state of Nevada negotiated an agreement with him to establish Sand Harbor State Park, the first state park on the Nevada shoreline. Whittell resisted additional entreaties to sell his property, but the old captain was finally forced to sell his remaining acreage. Nevada’s State Legislature then banned commercial development on the land, protecting it for future generations. George Whittell, Jr. died in 1969 at age 87.
Whittell’s Castle-in-the-Sky is open for a variety of tours and programs, by both land and water. | thunderbirdtahoe.org
|Tahoe Daily Tribune: State of the Lake report shows extreme highs and lows of the basin, 2023 on track to follow in historic data