Bobby Baker’s Carousel: Reminiscences of a Small Town
In researching this story, we not only combed through stacks of archival documentation, we also spoke with several of Ocean City’s most prominent and respected citizens — all of whom were on the scene during Baker’s heyday at the Carousel. While there was some disagreement about certain aspects of the time, there were other subjects about which there was absolute consensus. First, everyone we interviewed agreed that Bobby Baker’s Carousel Motel was a source of unbridled fascination and enthusiasm among the local population. Second, for the way the Carousel catalyzed the growth of the town, and for the pride locals derived from it, Bobby Baker’s image should be carved in stone alongside the images of Ocean City’s most revered founding fathers. Third, virtually everyone loved him. This last one was especially intriguing considering the infamy that is associated with his name. Internet-based accounts tie Baker to everything from greed and corruption to the assassination of JFK, yet like your family’s most beloved uncle, the stigma of scandal seems to roll of his back like water off a South Carolina goose.
In many ways, Ocean City was just waking up to a new day when Bobby Baker pulled into town. Local boys were just discovering the joys of a California pastime called surfing. Commerce and tourism were already established, but with OC extending only as far as 41st Street, it was hardly an international destination spot and certainly in the shadow of places like Atlantic City. But Baker knew that the New Jersey beach resort was rapidly declining and that tourists would be hungry for an alternative. At the same time, he needed someplace off the beaten path where his powerful D.C. associates could play outside the view of a headline-hungry press corps and an intruding public. Ocean City was the perfect place.
On Oct. 1, 1961, construction began on Ocean Highway’s Block 200, which was then considered Fenwick Island. Bobby and his business partner, Al Novak, felt they’d made a steal when they picked up the 300-foot parcel of beachfront property for just $75,000 in May 1959. But there were complications practically from the start: Contractors weren’t providing enough workers; there were frequent delivery delays; downturns in business slowed trade; and, of course, there was the weather.
The Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962 hit the Mid-Atlantic on March 6, laying waste to much in its path — including the Carousel, which was still under construction. With the storm having inflicted damage on the structure to the tune of about $100,000 1962 dollars, Bobby was behind the eight ball. Novak was the money man, but he’d committed suicide in his car three days earlier. So without a partner or flood insurance, Bobby had to hustle like never before to raise the capital necessary to complete construction and pay down the debt that was compounding daily.
The Dawn of an Era
Having pulled every string he could to raise money among his well-heeled friends in Washington, the Carousel finally opened on July 22, 1962 to unprecedented fanfare. The four-story, $1.2 million structure was host to at least 250 people who alit from seven chartered buses — all with onboard bars — and a long procession of limos. Some guests emerged carrying champagne bottles as a band on one of the buses gave them a grand sendoff. The undisputed guest of honor was Vice President Lyndon Johnson, who emerged from one of the limos with Mrs. Johnson, clad in a bright orange dress. Flanking them were senators, congressmen, lobbyists, Hill staffers and a gaggle of young and usually attractive women whose purpose for being there wasn’t readily apparent. To be certain, Ocean City had never before seen such a heady conglomeration of power and influence. That day, it seemed, the town itself was tipsy.
“It was a big deal to go to the Carousel for drinks and dinner in the ’60s,” offered attorney and lifetime Ocean City resident Ray Shockley, who was a Maryland State Trooper with the Snow Hill detachment at the time the Carousel opened. “There was a definite aura about the place that nothing else in the area had.”
“There had never been anything like it in the history of the town, and everyone was talking about it,” added Joe Moore, Shockley’s longtime partner in Williams, Moore, Shockley & Harrison. “The only negative sentiment that had been expressed was one of confusion as to why the motel was being built so far to the north. It certainly wasn’t because it was such a once-in-a-lifetime deal. Still, everyone was behind it and looking forward to its opening with great anticipation. It was the meeting place of national politicians. It added a dash of excitement and celebrity to Ocean City that there was something here that could even draw the vice president of the United States.”
Apparently, it drew more than just the vice president.
In a 1997 American Spectator article, Richard Carlson (father of political commentator and frequent Fox News contributor Tucker Carlson) tells the story of the summer of 1962, when he worked in Ocean City as a police officer.
It was a Saturday afternoon. Carlson and his fellow officers had been briefed earlier by Chief Vernon “Jack” Phillips about what to expect at the grand opening that would take place at the Carousel later that day:
His orders were devoid of nuance. “There are going to be a lot of hookers there. I don’t mean politicians, I mean prostitutes. Leave them alone. I don’t want you to arrest anybody unless you see them commit murder. Ignore everything else.”
By all accounts, that was far from the last Ocean City would see of D.C.’s working girls. They would become a staple of the Carousel, just as they had in Baker’s Quorum Club back in Washington, D.C. That’s where East German spy Ellen Rometsch allegedly worked as a hostess when Baker had arranged a sexual liaison between her and President Kennedy — one of countless assignations that would occur between Quorum Club patrons and call girls.
“It wasn’t very obvious, but sure, that activity was occurring at the Carousel, as well, especially given what was standard fare at the Quorum Club,” observed comedian/political satirist Mark Russell, who played the Carousel four consecutive summers during Bobby Baker’s reign, performing his “Satire by the Sea” show for packed houses. “After all, both clubs were essentially serving the same audience, just 150 miles apart. But it was all handled very discreetly and subtly at the Carousel.”
Michael James, president and COO of Hospitality Partners, which rescued the Carousel from financial ruin in 2000 and has since completely renovated the 21-
story, 427-unit family-oriented hotel/condo complex, worked there as a waiter circa 1980, when he was 22 years old. When asked if it was common knowledge among motel staff and locals that these uncommonly beautiful hostesses and cocktail waitresses from D.C. were there to provide more than just drinks, he replied, “Yeah, I think everybody knew.”
“That has to be true; it came with the territory,” added Ocean City Realtor/appraiser Bobby Jester, who not only worked at the Carousel in his youth but eventually became good friends with Baker. “Even at 15-16 years old, I knew who they were and why they were there, but at that point in my life, I was genuinely more interested in making my $5 a night.
“Honestly, though, I believe that while Bobby would had to have known, he would have been entirely too busy with his Senate responsibilities to worry about that kind of stuff. More likely it was the managers Bobby brought in from out of town who attended to that. I can tell you for sure that none of the locals were involved in it.”
There was one source — a prominent D.C. lobbyist with access to multiple presidents of the United States — who holds a different view.
“In D.C.,” said the political insider, who preferred not to be named, “the prevailing view at the time was that LBJ himself tasked Bobby with building the Carousel expressly for the purpose of making a hideaway where Washington pols could conduct their personal business outside the microscope of the DC press corps and others.”
Baker vehemently denies this, insisting that the Carousel was launched only as a revenue-producing investment.
Jester first met Baker when he’d gotten a job working as a busboy, bellhop and bar-back at the motel’s Sinkalagas Lounge, which Baker would later rename The Wire Tapper following his conviction.
“The Sinkalagas was a great place,” Jester recalls. “It was in the basement; it had a large bar, cocktail lounge and a bandstand where I’d sit in with Tony Villani’s band and play the drums sometimes. There was also a bar upstairs, whose name escapes me. I’d make a whopping $5 a day at the motel over the weekend and would supplement that by catching, steaming and selling crabs for $2.50 a dozen.
“At that time, the local kids had just gotten into surfing,” shared Jester, whose father had become such good friends with Baker that the latter had written to him while serving time in federal prison. “I lived on 73rd St., and we’d walk or ride bikes to the Carousel to see the rich people and gawk at the pretty girls on the beach.”
That time represents some of Jester’s fondest memories. Hanging out with Baker’s kids by the pool, 50-cent dances at the Pier Ballroom off Wicomico St., listening to the likes of Artie Shaw and Guy Lombardo on warm summer nights, and traversing the Boardwalk (“$1 would last you the entire night,” he says). Sometimes, Realtor Bob Bounds would ask the recently licensed Jester to chauffeur him around town in his fancy sedans on those evenings Bounds felt like drinking. In fact, Jester recalls one particular evening on which the two “BBs” met up.
“It was at Billy’s on Vermont Avenue,” he remembers, “and I was with Bobby Bounds, and this gambler/racketeer was there from D.C., and in walks Bobby Baker, looking like a million bucks. There I was, a wet-behind-the-ears college kid, surrounded by these successful and powerful men in their Hickey Freeman suits, smoking Antony & Cleopatra cigars and drinking Cutty Sark. I was in heaven.
Mark Russell also possesses fond memories of both Bobby Baker and the halcyon days of the Carousel.
“Bobby Baker was known in political circles as ‘the 101st senator’ because of how much power and influence he wielded in D.C.,” Russell said. “But Bobby was a great guy; I liked him a lot. He was able to bring high-society Washingtonians to blue-collar Ocean City in this wonderful place called the Carousel, which was opulent not only for Ocean City but for anywhere, really.
“I remember one time in particular,” continued Russell, who’s still working the comedy circuit, “there was this musician named Bruce, who played the trombone and the accordion. On a dare, he dove off the pool’s diving board into the pool in a full tuxedo and with the accordion still strapped around his neck. The Carousel in those days was a hot, happening place by any standard. But Bobby had guts, and I admired him for that. When he was in the middle of all his legal trouble, he deliberately changed the name of the motel from the Carousel Motel to ‘Bobby Baker’s Carousel Motel.’ Except for resigning from his job as secretary to the Senate Majority — which he admits he did on a foolish impulse — he never cowered from the scandal. In fact, when Bobby was released from prison, tourists in D.C. gave him a standing ovation. Now that’s charisma.” Russell concluded with a story about the time a group of teachers were at the club, pocketing innocuous memorabilia, when they saw Bobby and asked if they could take him back to school with them for show and tell.
Trouble in Paradise
“I’ll never forget the sight of that shiny black Cadillac limousine pulling up, seeing Bobby Baker’s smiling face in person for the very first time,” said Moore. “Bobby was driving me and Marc [Williams, Bobby’s lawyer in Ocean City and principal of the law firm Moore worked for] to face Judge Daniel Prettyman at the Worcester County Circuit Court on three counts of violating the county’s Sunday liquor laws.
“We climbed into the backseat of this iconic Cadillac limo, which Bobby was driving himself — and this thing had the jump seat and the whole nine yards — and I remember Mark looking at Bobby and asking, ‘Is this Cadillac paid for, Bobby?’ to which Bobby replied, ‘Why, of course it is, Marc. Why do you ask?’ Marc then said, ‘Good, because I don’t want to be riding to court in no financed limousine.’”
Moore is one of many who emphasized the impression a young Bobby Baker was capable of making. Smooth and handsome, impeccably preened and dripping with treacly Southern charm, Bobby Baker cut a swath pretty much wherever he went.
“I always thought Bobby was a neat guy and great to be around,” Moore recalls. “He was definitely a pioneer of North Ocean City and certainly ran in the highest circles, but I always found him to be down-to-earth and very personable.”
Despite his universal appeal, however, there was the rare individual who seemed immune to Baker’s charms. In Worcester County, the most notable of these by far was State’s Attorney John “Jack” Sanford. A man whose concentrated local power is said to have rivaled that of legendary Louisiana governor Huey Long, Sanford had it out for Baker. On Sept. 1, 1968, Sanford sent in three undercover State Troopers to see if he could catch Baker in violation of the county’s “Dry Sunday” policy, which required that alcohol only be served from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m., to a person or persons seated at a table, only as a supplement to a meal.
The troopers drank for four hours, saving some of the alcohol for the lab. Sanford convened a Special Session of the Worcester County Grand Jury, and Baker was indicted on three counts of violating Article 2B, Section 106 of the county’s
alcoholic beverages laws.
“In 35 years practicing law, I’ve never seen such a frivolous and wasteful indictment,” said Moore. “Clearly, Jack was out to show Bobby who was boss — no matter how much of the taxpayers’ money it may have wasted, which was probably about $5,000 or $6,000 in 1962 money. Marc Williams fought it on Bobby’s behalf, asserting it was both unconstitutional and entrapment; in the end, Judge Prettyman threw out one count and fined Bobby only $50 each for the remaining two counts.”
Moore added that it was a testament to the way Baker ran the Carousel that Sanford was never able to pin anything more severe on the D.C. insider. “Believe me,” stressed Moore, “if old Jack could have caught Bobby at anything worse, he would have in a heartbeat.”
Another factor that may have been in Baker’s favor was the person hearing the case on the bench.
“By far, the two most powerful people in the county were Jack and Judge Prettyman, and, like practically everybody else, Judge Prettyman couldn’t stand Jack,” averred Moore, who had not only worked for Sanford but wound up handing him his first election defeat when Moore won the state’s attorney seat with 63% of the vote — the only time Sanford lost an election in seven campaigns. “You’ve heard the expression ‘Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely,’ well Jack was pretty much the personification of that maxim in Worcester County.”
Bobby Jester had no difficulty seconding Moore’s sentiment in no uncertain terms. “Sanford was a no-account son-of-a-bitch,” Jester said of the three-term state senator, who was notorious for not only chomping raw cigar tobacco but actually swallowing the juice. “He ruled this county with an iron fist of pure fear and intimidation. He was a bad guy.”
By the time 1963 rolled around, fate was catching up with Bobby Baker, and his house of cards was about to fall. There was the scandal with JFK and Ellen Rometsch, allegations of influence-peddling to win contracts for his Serv-U Corporation, which furnished vending machines to companies with government contracts or under federal grants, and even flesh-peddling, not only at the Quorum Club but in exchange for congressional votes and government contracts, as well. When a Maryland insurance man named Don Reynolds was telling Senate Rules’ Committee investigators that he was being pressured to buy advertising time on an Austin, Texas, TV station that was owned by LBJ, it looked as if Baker’s — and very likely Johnson’s — goose was cooked. In a rash and alcohol-fueled response to Republican Senator John Williams of Delaware, who’d launched Senate hearings on Baker’s activities, Baker resigned from his job as secretary to the Senate Majority on October 9, 1963. Fortunately for Baker and his vice-presidential mentor, something else happened on that day, November 22, 1963, which pushed Bobby’s scandal out of the spotlight, and the investigation fizzled out.
When we asked Baker about Jack Sanford, he only remembered that Sanford was a state’s attorney, not that there was ever any animus between them. According to Jester, however, there were certain actions by Baker’s wife, Dorothy, and brother-
in-law Bob Comstock that the disgraced political operator would never forget.
“Bobby gave Bob Comstock his power-of-attorney,” Jester said. “Well, without even consulting Bobby, Comstock and Dorothy sold the Carousel right out from under him, when he was in prison and powerless to do anything about it.
Now, that incident is in Bobby’s book [Wheeling and Dealing: Confessions of a Capitol Hill Operator, 1978, W.W. Norton & Co.], but Bobby told me face-to-face that he was completely devastated by that. He loved the Carousel and Ocean City, and now that he was going to be out of politics, he was looking forward to coming back down here and being part of it in a more hands-on way. He said that he’d never get over that betrayal.”
There was one more thing that seemed to hit Bobby like a ton of bricks. Her name was Carole Tyler. Tyler was a former beauty queen who’d taken a job as Bobby’s secretary. Predictably, an affair ensued. Less predictable is that Bobby fell in love, writing in Wheelers and Dealers: “What started as a harmless affair eventually evolved into a romance, and I grew to love Carole Tyler.”
Baker, by his own admission, paraded Tyler all over town, disregarding the potential consequences — a fact the he was neither proud of nor apologized for, at least not then. Eventually, Tyler — who, according to credible sources, used to share a townhouse with Mary Jo Kopechne, the woman who died on Chappaquidick Island while in the company of Senator Ted Kennedy — got caught up in the web of Baker’s scandals (Ellen Rometsch alleged that Tyler was involved in a call-girl-procurement service that was run out of the Quorum Club, where Baker was an official). This would make her pretty brunette face a household word, though perhaps not as much as it would become the following year.
In 1964, Tyler was subpoenaed to testify before the Senate Rules Committee about Baker’s business and political activities. She invoked her Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination and gave the committee nothing but a good-looking image for the TV cameras.
Tyler ultimately escaped the glare of Washington, not long after Baker had quit his job, and went work at the Carousel as his bookkeeper. According to Baker, Tyler had been putting pressure on him to leave his family, which he claims he refused to do even though he avowed his continuing love for her. There were heated, tear-filled confrontations, followed by her threats of suicide. On May 9, 1965, Tyler and a private pilot named Robert Davis took off from Ocean City Airport in his red-and-white Waco biplane after what observers claim was multiple rounds of drinks. After having buzzed the Carousel a few times at low altitude, the single-engine aircraft failed to come out of a turn and crashed nose-first into the Atlantic at high speed, about a thousand yards from the Carousel.
“I vividly remember that day,” shared Wayne Cannon, a veteran radio-show host, producer and news director at stations such as WGMD-FM and WETT-AM/96. “I was in eighth grade at the time, and I remember watching the CBS Evening News and seeing Walter Cronkite talk about a plane crash in Ocean City, by the Carousel Motel, involving these important people from Washington, D.C. I remember there was illustrated map of the Ocean City area over his shoulder as he mentioned names like Carole Tyler, Bobby Baker and Lyndon Johnson. I doubt that people who are too young to remember that time understand what a big story it was.”
Baker had already flown down to Ocean City with Dorothy and joined the recovery effort when the wreckage was pulled from the ocean shortly after 1 p.m. the following day. Baker wrote that when he saw Tyler’s lifeless body in a green pants suit he had bought her, he “cried like a baby,” adding that informing Carole’s mother that her daughter was dead was “the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”
Norman Cathell Sr. was there that day, too. Cathell Sr. was a lieutenant with the Ocean City Police Department and part of the recovery operation. According to Cathell Sr. — who would later become a captain and be named Ocean City’s 1997 Citizen of the Year — reports that 10 to 12 boats were combing the waters of the Atlantic for the wreckage and that they came into the Talbot St. docks. He adds that the 26-year-old Tyler died in 15 feet of water approximately 1,000 yards from the Carousel. The two indentations made in the cockpit of the plane are consistent with death by blunt force trauma. But Cathell Sr., a veteran law-enforcement officer and expert observer, noticed two more things that registered with him. First, he was “very impressed” with how Baker handled the recovery operation. He says Bobby “went to every boat that was part of the recovery operation and shook the hand of every single person involved, thanking them personally for having participated in the effort.” Second, Cathell Sr. observed that Baker remained very reserved and in control throughout the search-and-recovery operation, that there “was no crying or displays of emotion whatsoever.” If Dorothy Baker was at the site that afternoon, Cathell Sr. did not see her.
Unknown to most in the area, Baker had actually purchased another property, Block 15 at 40th St., though his intentions for this second lot remain unclear.
Baker said in Florida that the $80,000 investment was intended to serve as overflow parking for the Carousel, but when we spoke with attorneys Moore and Shockley — who are not only lifelong Worcester County residents but were also on the scene at the time the Carousel broke ground — they were skeptical.
“There would be no reason to purchase a parcel of land on 40th St. to service a motel on 117th St.,” said Moore, who had been a University of Maryland law student working for Bobby Baker’s Ocean City attorney, Marcus Williams, at the time.
“I’m not sure if Bobby is misremembering or what, but that would have been a highly unlikely and ill-advised move,” echoed Shockley.
What clouds the issue even more is that Baker claims he and Robert Lehman, then-CEO of Lehman Brothers, intended to partner on a deal that would have built 500 luxury condo units in Ocean City — on the same site where the Carousel stood, which, Baker said, he was going to raze to make room for them. The problems with this scenario are multiple.
“To begin with, the idea of a 500-unit condo complex anywhere in Ocean City — or even in the state, for that matter — was unheard of at that time,” Moore said. “The first condo unit in the state of Maryland was Bay Vista, built here in Ocean City, in 1966. Prior to that, such an undertaking would have been utterly inconceivable.
“Bobby closed on the 40th St. property December 7, 1959, about seven months after he bought the Carousel property and way before construction on the Carousel even began,” Moore added. “So what he planned to do with that property I have no idea — and Marc Williams didn’t handle that particular transaction anyway, so he wouldn’t have necessarily known the plans either — but I’m confident that it wasn’t for an overflow parking lot or a luxury-condo complex.”
That’s not the only mysterious real estate associated with Bobby Baker. According to Jester, Baker also owned, or owns, a house in the region.
“Bobby absolutely had a house in Selbyville,” said Jester. “It was across from my uncle’s house. As a matter of fact, I think his sister may still own the house.”
As is so often the case when attempting unravel the arcane and fading aspects of history, the search for answers produces mostly more questions. The likelihood, then, is that the clear truth of Bobby Baker’s life and times will never be fully known. That he is neither all saint nor all sinner, he would be the first to tell you. So would his friends. But there is one thing we do know: When a postmaster’s son from Pickens, S.C., discovered a sleepy beachside community in Maryland called Ocean City, nothing for that town or her people would ever be the same again.
We wouldn’t have it any other way.
Editor’s note: Special thanks to Wayne Cannon, whose assistance with source procurement and information gathering were invaluable to the creation of this article.