Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Fading Iguana Memories

John Huston's "Night of the Iguana" turned sleepy Puerto Vallarta into a go-go tourist boom town. When he died nearly a quarter century later, they put this statue near the entrance to the municipal cultural center, not far from the Le Bistro bar and restaurant, a lush tropical riverside watering hole and night spot where Huston had eulogized Humphrey Bogart 30 years earlier.

But if any Hollywood ghost haunts Vallarta, it's Elizabeth Taylor, and she wasn't even in the movie, or any other filmed here as far as I know.

Liz was here when Iguana was shot, however, supposedly to make sure her new boyfriend Richard Burton, for whom she had just dumped Eddie Fisher, didn't strike any off-screen sparks with his co-star Ava Gardner.

The whole cast and crew were enchanted with Vallarta. After the wrap, Huston bought a house on an island near Mismaloya south of here, where much of the movie was made. Burton bought his new girlfriend a love nest in Vallarta on a hillside overlooking the spot where Huston's statue now sits. 

The house was known as Casa Kimberly. Boyfriends had the custom here of naming such places after their paramours, and Ms. Taylor tried hard to rechristen hers Casa Elizabeth. But the neighbors wouldn't have it, so the story goes, and Casa Kimberly it remained.

Liz and Dick visited their Mexico home many times for several years afterward. They hung out in local bars and restaurants, made friends, got drunk, had many of their famous fights and generally did everything expected of notorious celebrities with bad tempers and too much time on their hands.
In gratitude, admirers commissioned this statue depicting the couple in a moment of harmony and installed it at a restaurant called Fuente en la Puente, just down the hill from Casa Kimberly, about midway between the house and Huston's monument. Burton bought at least two other houses I know of in Vallarta. One was just across the street from Casa Kimberly and was really just a pool and cabana. They built a footbridge over the street between the two, and Burton is said to have retreated across it when things got too hot for him in the main house. The other house was just around the corner. Burton bought that one for Susan Hunt, whom he married when he and Liz went down for the last time.
Ms. Hunt eventually sold it to a woman named Janice Chatterton, who turned it into a gorgeous boutique hotel that never really traded on the Burton connection. Casa Kimberly, on the other hand, remained Elizabeth Taylor's house even after she sold it, furniture and all. It was run for years as a bed and breakfast, and for a few pesos you could also get a tour of the place.

But the house and its succeeding owners grew ever seedier. Casa Kimberly was finally foreclosed on a few years ago for back taxes, and Liz's faded and threadbare former possessions were piled ignominiously at the curb. New investors stripped the structure down to pads and pillars and began construction of a luxury inn, now interrupted thanks to lawsuits by well-heeled neighbors who want to preserve their views.

About all that's left of the house Liz and Dick proudly posed in for photos when they first moved in is the entrance and the bridge to Burton's old doghouse.

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