We’ve all heard the stories about Frank Sinatra, the Mafia, the secret tunnels, JFK and Marilyn Monroe, as well as the glamour and glitz of the Cal-Neva Casino on the north shore of Lake Tahoe. It all sounds like fantasy and legend, but many of the stories are true. Tahoe was a place for the rich, famous, and infamous in those days and they flocked to North Lake Tahoe’s Cal-Neva Lodge, “The Lady of the Lake”, from all over the world in droves.
The Cal-Neva Lodge was built in 1926 by a rich San Francisco businessman who simply used it to entertain friends and guests. In the 1930s, the lodge was sold to new owners who were able to obtain a Nevada gaming permit. The lodge instantly became a hit with the rich and famous of the 1930s right until the place burned down in 1937. Somehow, they rebuilt the lodge using 500 workers in only 30 days.
Not long before burning down, in 1935, an 11-year-old girl named Frances Gumm performed at the Cal Neva, was discovered and signed by an MGM agent. Frances Gumm changed her named to Judy Garland and became one of the most famous entertainers of the 20th century.
The Cal-Neva Lodge became a hit with big gamblers and mafia types in the 1940s and 50s. The owner of Cal-Neva in the 50s was a good friend of JFK’s father, Joseph Kennedy and the Kennedys were known to frequent the Cal-Neva throughout the 50s and into the 60s.
In 1960, Frank Sinatra bought the Cal-Neva and was determined to turn the place into a world-class casino/resort. Sinatra had an immaculate concert hall built along with a helicopter pad and secret tunnels between the showroom and bungalows behind the hotel on the lake.
The secret tunnels were carpeted and lined with brick. Celebrities and Sinatra himself could easily travel to and fro without being detected by fans, paparazzi, and media. Entrances to the tunnel were in Sinatra’s office, at the heliport, and a closet of one of the lakeside bungalows.
Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. all performed at Cal-Neva during Sinatra’s tenure as owner. They also vacationed there and invited their celebrity friends such as Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, Will Rogers, Peter Lawford (brother in law of JFK) and more to join them.
Did JFK hook up with Marilyn Monroe at the Cal-Neva as legend would have it? Maybe…
Sinatra’s close friendship with movie star Peter Lawford, the brother-in-law of President John F. Kennedy, inspired rumors of furtive exploits in Tahoe by JFK and his younger brother Robert. Legend has it that whenever Jack or Bobby were visiting Sacramento, Sinatra would send his private helicopter for them. One especially juicy nugget suggests that the blonde “sex goddess” Marilyn Monroe and JFK once made love in the Cal Neva tunnel, but a little fact-checking suggests the alleged tryst probably never happened. – TheStormKing.com
Sadly, Marilyn spent her last weekend alive at the Cal-Neva before dying of an overdose in Los Angeles in 1962.
Sinatra’s Cal-Neva was booming after his remodel and parade of celebrities in the early 1960s. By 1963 the Cal-Neva had grown to include 11 cottages and 55 rooms. Sinatra’s only problem was his affinity for the unsavory characters of the 1960s mafia. Sam Gianaca was a friend of Sinatra’s and was discovered by authorities in the Cal-Neva in August 1963. At the time Sam was the top head mob boss of the Chicago mafia, Al Capone’s successor, was suspected to have ordered the murder of over 200 men, had been arrested over 70 times and was referred to as “The Godfather” of the American Mafia.
Upon discovering Sam Gianaca in the Cal-Neva in 1963, the Nevada Gaming Control Board revoked Sinatra’s gaming license and began pressuring him into selling the casino. The pressure became so great that Sinatra gave in and agreed to sell the Cal-Neva on October 7th, 1963 effectively ending the golden age of North Lake Tahoe gambling and entertainment.
The Cal-Neva has changed hands many times and has seen many hard times since those golden days. It was shut down due to lousy business in 2010 but was fortunately renovated in 2013. The Cal-Neva is now a 219-room, 10-story hotel with a 6,000-square-foot casino. The goal of the new renovation was, of course, to try to return the Cal-Neva to that golden era that Frank Sinatra created.
“Our goal is to bring it back to its former glory and to make it what it was like in Sinatra’s day. It has such great soul and character, and it’s needed this redo for many decades.” – Robert Radovan co-owner of Criswell-Radovan told The Associated Press