Sex, gamblers and Mafia: The untold story of Nanyuki’s Mt Kenya Safari Club
What you need to know:
- On June 21, 1959, what was billed as ‘the most prestigious tourist enterprise’ — the Mt Kenya Safari Club — opened its doors.
- It’s membership was uber-exclusive. Then the FBI started investigations after learning that the Mafiosi were members.
Ray Ryan, an eccentric gambler, had stepped out of the gym and now was sitting in his luxury Mark V Lincoln Continental ready to drive home.
As the self-made dollar millionaire turned on the ignition, a massive blast that shook the entire neighbourhood in Evansville, Indiana, blew him up. The former owner of Nanyuki’s exclusive Mt Kenya Safari Club, the hideout of billionaires, was dead.
The Mafia, whom he once cavorted with, and later double-crossed, had finally caught up with him.
Ryan worked with the Italian Mafia, at least the Chicago-based underworld, also known as the Mob, and they had turned the Mt Kenya Safari Club into one of their African hideouts – at least in the 60s and 70s, when he still operated the high-class club.
Those said to have been given membership included Gerardo “Jerry” Catena, a member of the ruthless Italian mafia family whose kingpin was Vito Genovese, Tommy Eboli, who was gunned down in July 1972, and Pasquale Eboli, a drug dealer and close associate of the Genovese family. Ryan, operated within these networks of sleaze, sex and vice.
An oil millionaire, and touted as one of the richest men in the world then, Ryan, whose other business partners were film actor William Holden and Swiss financier Carl Hirschmann, had owned this piece of Africa by chance.
Previously known as Mawingo Hotel (a corruption of the name Mawingu – meaning clouds), Ryan had apparently been taken to the Nanyuki hotel to convalesce following a hunting accident that had left him with an injured eye.
There, and with a near mono-eye, he fell in love with this little paradise, teeming with wildlife and with the misty peaks of Mt Kenya visible in the background.
Stories and histories
“Jeeesus, I love this place, I’m going to buy it,” he had quipped to his two companions, Terry Mathews and Tony Archer. And when he told his fellow billionaires Holden and Hirschmann of what he thought — he was surprised to find they harboured the same thoughts.
Mt Kenya Safari Club, now owned by Kenyan billionaire Humphrey Kariuki, has its stories and histories. Ryan bought the hotel from Jack Block, the son of Israeli entrepreneur Abraham Block, whose Block Hotels owned the New Stanley and the Norfolk in Nairobi. Jack had bought it at an auction after one of the owners, Rhoda Prud’homme left for America.
Previously married to a New York Jewish millionaire, the flamboyant Rhoda Lewisohn had arrived in Kenya to visit a girlfriend at Wanjohi Valley — the Happy Valley — where sex, drugs, and drunkenness among white settlers was the order of the day.
It was while on safari that she fell in love with a French playboy Gabriel Prud’homme, 15 years younger.
The short of the story is she went back to the US, divorced her husband, got a settlement of £20,000 a year and started looking for a place to settle with Gabriel. That is how they bought the Nanyuki property from a widow, Mrs Myra Wheeler – whose only condition was that Gabriel flies to France, have Wheeler’s husband’s body cremated and return to Nanyuki with the ashes. That is how Gabriel and Rhoda bought the property in 1938.
With no income, Gabriel had an annual allowance of £6000 from Rhoda and being that he was a Casanova, Rhoda would always fine him £200 every time she caught him in bed with another woman. Soon, Gabriel was in debt. In the early 1940s, the marriage collapsed and Rhoda returned to the US where she bought a beach property. She left the Nanyuki property to Gabriel who apparently died in 1948 with no will. That is how it was auctioned — and bought by Jack Block.
Jack was also running the tour company Ker and Downey, one of the oldest safari operators in Africa. It was here, at Jack’s office, according to legend, that Ryan offered to buy the hotel.
“Take it for £50,000,” Jack offered jokingly – at the time it was an exorbitant sum. He was known to have turned down a £26,000 offer.
“Deal,” Ray, perhaps, replied, to Jack’s surprise.
And with that, the construction of the modern day Mt Kenya Safari Club started, as the three millionaires, and their wives, supervised the renovations and extensions, pouring thousands of dollars into the project, even as the Mau Mau war continued in the vicinity. On June 21, 1959, what was billed as ‘the most prestigious tourist enterprise’ opened its doors.
“We deal with the very, very, special, we are not in the shoe business,” Ray jested to the press. But the club was only reserved for their guests. There were, however, charter members such as Sir Winston Churchill and Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands. Others would be Lord Delamere, the Earl of Portsmouth, Duke of Manchester, first man in the moon Neil Armstrong, Lord Louis Mountbatten, Conrad Hilton, President Omar Bongo, the Saudi Arabian royal family – and any dollar millionaire they liked.
“Membership was so exclusive, it was said, that even the insects dressed for dinner,” one writer wrote.
But besides being an oilman, Ray was also a gambler, and his other social circles, besides some of the reigning billionaires, were hunters and playboys – those who loved fun, escapades and wild parties. Nanyuki offered more than the £50,000 that he paid to own the hotel — and the thousands of dollars he poured into it.
When the FBI learnt that some of the chieftains of the Mafia in Chicago had been given membership to the Mt Kenya Safari Club, they started investigations. The presence of the Mafia in such a high-end hotel would have surprised anyone. Ray quickly destroyed the membership records of the club and was indicted, at a Los Angeles court, for criminal contempt of court. Also indicted was his Swiss business partner, the 48-year-old Hirschmann.
The connection with the Italian mafia was through the Chicago Outfit, a gambling hit-squad that was once controlled by the legendary Al Capone, the crime boss of Chicago, in the 1920s until he was imprisoned aged 33. Although regarded as one of America’s most notorious gangsters of the 20th century, Al Capone did not last long in prison, because a combination of syphilis and gonorrhoea destroyed his brain and he was released to go and die.
It is said Johns Hopkins University Hospital refused to put him on the trials for the new penicillin drug because of his reputation.
But even after Al Capone’s death, Chicago Outfit continued to operate and Ray Ryan had friends in its circles. One of these was Marshall (Johnny Shoes) Caifano, a senior member of the Chicago Outfit who supplemented his tiny size with notoriety and extortion, according to the Chicago Tribune.
It is members of this group of kidnappers, hit-men and extortionists, who had been given membership at the Mt Kenya Safari Club. The matter had become public in 1969 when the court in California asked for the club’s documents belonging to Kenya-registered Ryan Investments Ltd and Mawingu Ltd, to get to the bottom of the Mafia connection with the club.
Ryan is said to have destroyed the documents and in July 1970, he was found guilty of “altering business records to conceal proof that he gave members of the Mafia free membership at the club”.
But that did not destroy the club’s reputation. Ryan Investment, which was being investigated, soon became Gazelle Holdings Ltd. It appears that Ryan sold his interests to himself. By 1974, the club’s overseas membership was 300 millionaires, who were paying $1000 as entry fee per visit and $37 a day.
But it is Ryan’s death that shocked everyone. The story was that while playing poker with Greek millionaire Nick Dandolos at a Las Vegas casino, some of the Mafiosi alleged that he cheated and that is why Dandolos lost a $550,000 fortune. The Mafia then told Dandolos that he was duped, and Ryan agreed to pay $25,000 to Dandolos, and the Mafia started to extort and blackmail him.
That might explain why he always had a bodyguard — Fred — even in Nanyuki.
And that is how Caifano came into the picture in 1964 — by trying to extort Ryan some $60,000 a year as protection fee. Ryan asked his friend, John Drew, whether he should pay. He was told to pay.
However, incensed after meeting with Caifano, Ryan, in a risky move, informed the police. He would later testify against the Italian-American extortionist, and his friend Charles Delmonico, and had Caifano sent to jail until 1970. Aware that Caifano would revenge, now that he was free, Ryan offered to pay him $1 million as compensation. How much protection money he paid is not known.
Killing of Ryan
It was alleged in a separate case that Caifano told another Mafia underworld leader Joey Lombardo: "Let's take the million and kill him anyway." It is thought that it was Lombardo who organised the killing of Ryan after he stopped making the payoffs demanded by Caifano.
Tired of Nanyuki and the Mafia, and with age slowing him down, Ryan sold his stake to his friend, the arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi. On October 18, 1977, three months later, Ryan was assassinated.
Khashoggi was in a class of his own: His entourage, flying in choppers and small planes would have blondes in tow, Egyptian belly dancers, an orchestra, a masseur, a retinue of girlfriends, some of them 17-year-olds, and Korean bodyguards. They would occupy all the cottages – while the spillovers would be taken to his other hideout, the Ol Pejeta.
Ray’s other partner, Holden, would later die a lonely death at his luxury Santa Monica flat in California where he had slid and hit a bedside table. His body was discovered after four days.
Post Script: On July 19, 2008, years after Khashoggi had sold the Safari Club, he one day arrived in New York handcuffed like a criminal. The end had started, and on June 6 2017, the man who was later eulogised by The Independent as “the ‘whoremonger’ whose arms deals funded a playboy life of decadence and ‘pleasure wives’ died.
It was as if the club was a cursed investment.
[email protected] @johnkamau1