She was a beauty, a brunette, "very good looking," Danny Herrera will tell you. Her name was Marjorie King, and she was a show girl and movie actress who had not done much acting and never would.
In the mid-1940s, her project was to purchase the Hotel Rivera del Pacifico in Ensenada. So she was spending a lot of time in Mexico, which she loved, and she had what Mexicans called simpatia. Many of her friends south of the border called her Margarita, and Margarita de la Planta, for she was divorced from a New York millionaire named Phil Plant.
"She was a beautiful woman," Herrera said, "around 28 or 30 years old. She was staying in San Diego, and she went to Ensenada every day during negotiations to purchase the hotel. She stopped both ways and had a drink. She was allergic to everything except tequila. But she couldn't take it straight, or even with the lemon and the salt. But she liked it. So I started experimenting . . . . "
One day the experiment became three parts white tequila, two parts Cointreau, one part fresh lemon juice. Herrera mixed them, added shaved ice, and shook the container. Then Herrera selected a small glass with a short stem, wet the rim with fresh lemon juice, and dipped the rim into salt. He poured some of the potion into the glass for Marjorie.
"She liked it," Herrera said. So did Collingwood and Miss Allbritton. Danny figured that the drink might stick around awhile, and so he gave it a name: " margarita, " after Marjorie.
As Cinco de Mayo approaches, many will be reminded again that the drink stuck. As did the name.
Herrera, a Tijuana pioneer who will be 90 on July 21, owned a restaurant-bar, Rancho La Gloria, midway along the old road connecting Tijuana with Rosarito Beach. It was one of the first good restaurants and inns in the area, a watering hole and hostelry just small enough and hidden enough to attract clientele from both sides of the border--including Hollywood personalities.
"Charles Collingwood of CBS News and his wife, (actress) Louise Allbritton, were staying here then, and they helped me with my experiments. This took several days."
"I think it was around October or
November, 1947 or 1948" that the drink was born, he said. "I'm not positive of the date. Three things happen to you when you get old: You lose your memory and . . . . I can't recall the other two.
"A lot of people don't believe me, because the drink is so well known now. But plenty of people know."
The only "official" tequila for a margarita is white, Herrera said, not dark, although Triple Sec may be substituted for Cointreau. Lemon juice must always be fresh, not canned.
"Cointreau or Triple Sec take the astringency and bitterness out of the lemon," he said. "But you have to have the lemon."
Word of Herrera's savory creation spread rapidly as friends learned about it at Rancho La Gloria and began asking for it in San Diego and Los Angeles and in other Mexican bars.
"The Mexican bartender at the Tail of the Cock in Los Angeles was a friend, and I told him how to make it. One day I walked in there and he said, 'Danny, look around. Everybody's drinking margaritas.' "
Herrera moved to Tijuana in 1929 from Mexicali, where he had spent five successful years managing the Union Oil Co. storage works. He rented an apartment in San Diego.
"Tijuana wasn't crowded, just that there were no apartments." Through a friendship with Gov. Abelardo Rodriguez, Herrera was supplying pumps and other machinery for construction of Rodriguez Dam, on what has become the eastern rim of Tijuana.
In 1930, he built the Tijuana slaughterhouse. But a new governor, pleading lack of funds after a partial payment, told Herrera to accept agricultural equipment for the remainder due.
"I picked out a tractor, a plow, a thresher and a bailing machine to cover some of my loss. But what to do with it? A friend in Los Angeles owned 6,000 acres here. He called it La Joya, and he gave me 100 acres." Herrera became the first settler of the community that soon became known as La Gloria, named for Herrera's daughter (the name was officially changed recently to San Antonio de los Buenos).
By then Herrera was living in Tijuana with his new wife, Lucia, sister of Manuel Barbachano, holder of the electricity and telephone franchises for the Baja California Peninsula and who later would own the Rosarito Beach Hotel.
In 1932 they had a shack to live in, a fence, a cow, some chickens and a well. As soon as they could, they built a home behind the shack. The home had a bar.
"Ours was the only home around with a bar in it. So we had lots of company, and we decided we'd have to start charging. Then we went into business, and all our friends disappeared."
So their first home became the restaurant "around 1935." They served Mexican food, mixed drinks, beer and wine, and they had an international menu within two years.
Herrera constructed his first 10 motel rooms there in 1940. Later he built a swimming pool, 16 units in a two-story addition, and four rooms he called the Governor's Suite. In 1960 he built his present home at the rear of the grounds. In 1971 he sold everything except his home, and the motel-restaurant has since been converted into a hospital for cancer patients.
But Herrera and others had 40 glorious years there.
"Vincent Price was a regular every New Year's Eve," Herrera said. He, Phil Harris and Alice Faye became close friends, still are. Mickey Rooney was a frequent visitor. "I knew two of Mickey's wives, although mainly I was friends with his mother and stepfather. Eight wives Mickey had. That's why he looks so old. I've only had seven."
Clara Bow also came, as did Mack Sennet, Lew Cody, William S. Hart and more, including a nondrinker named Walt Disney.
Herrera was born in Mexico City. He was on a train blown up by rebels near Vera Cruz when he was a teen-age paymaster during the Mexican Revolution and was held prisoner for five days before escaping. He also lived for a while in Chicago before moving to Tijuana.
Herrera and Lucia divorced in 1940. In 1950 he married the former La Venda Van Ness, a longtime Coronado resident. Since her death in May 1989 he has spent some of his time in San Diego, near his daughter, but mostly he lives at La Gloria.
Herrera still complains that no one makes a good margarita nowadays.
When Gloria and her husband, Oscar Amezcua, take over the Senor Frogs restaurant in the College Area of San Diego this summer, Herrera said he probably will have to stop by to show the bartenders how to make a margarita. And you can imagine how he feels about strawberry margaritas and blackberry margaritas or, no less, wine margaritas.
As for the beautiful young brunette, Marjorie King, her hotel project never got off the ground.
"She couldn't own it, being a foreigner," Herrera said. "She went to an attorney. His advice was to marry him. She did. After the attorney got title to the hotel, he called the immigration on her and they kicked her out of the country.
"The last time I saw her she stopped by and told me, 'Danny, I'm being kicked out.' She must have complained to the governor, because the attorney was put in jail in Ensenada. He asked the mayor to let him out for the day because he had some things to do. The mayor gave his permission. He never came back. It caused the mayor to lose his job. It was a big scandal in Ensenada."
Herrera has not heard of King since, and he knows of no one who has.
"I read once where a woman in New York claimed the margarita was named for her. They didn't believe her. It didn't give her name. But I figured it was Marjorie."