As Mel McKinney will tell you, where there’s smoke, there’s bound to be a good story.
In fact, “Where There’s Smoke” is the title of the Mendocino County innkeeper’s novel about President John F. Kennedy’s plans to round up as many Cuban cigars as could be found ahead of the Cuban economic embargo.
Published by St. Martin’s Press in 1999, the novel is a fictionalized treatment of what McKinney said is a “completely true” story.
“The night before JFK heightened the blockade . . . making flirting with the enemy a crime . . . Kennedy sent Pierre Salinger out to scour Washington and Baltimore for (his) favorite Upmann Cuban cigars,” McKinney said.
McKinney has also been a duck hunter most of his adult life, and his newest book is called “Dead Duck,” in which the author introduces “the reader to the notion that duck hunting has a beauty to it and an ethic to it,” though he tries “not to preach that through the characters.”
When he’s not busy writing, McKinney holds forth at his family’s storied coastal inn on Highway 1, about 2 miles south of the charming village of Mendocino, which doubled as a New England setting in the 1966 hit movie “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.”
McKinney remembers the night the late comedian Jonathan Winters, one of the stars in the movie, took a break from filming and “conducted a three-hour, nonstop mono-logue . . . that had people literally rolling on the floor in uncontrollable laughter (at Little River Inn’s Whale Watch bar).”
Anecdotes like this can be found in “The Finn, the Twin and the Inn,” McKinney’s soon-to-be-reissued history of the pet-friendly Little River Inn, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year with a round of special events culminating Memorial Day weekend.
The inn has been a family institution ever since Ole Hervilla, of Finnish descent, and his wife, Cora Coombs Hervilla, McKinney’s late in-laws, opened the place in 1939.
That was when Hollywood discovered Little River Inn’s farmhouse-style main building as an ideal getaway along California’s north coast.
Over the years, Hollywood has also favored the Mendocino area as a setting for many films, including “Frenchman’s Creek,” starring Arturo de Cordova and Joan Fontaine in 1943, and “East of Eden,” with James Dean and Jo Van Fleet in 1954.
In 1947, Mendocino’s Main Street was seen in the movie “Johnny Belinda,” for which Jane Wyman won an Oscar for best actress.
But that’s only half the story.
On Wyman’s visit to Little River Inn, her husband at the time, Ronald Reagan, got down on the floor and showed everyone his old football moves.
Just imagine – who in Little River Inn’s bar back then could have known that they were watching a future president of the United States?
Of course, the show must go on, and while it doesn’t involve football moves, the entertaining McKinney is known to play “Happy Birthday” on his trumpet for guests celebrating their birthday at Little River Inn, where son-in-law Marc Dym, classically trained at the Culinary Institute of America, is chef.
Of my own experience in the restaurant, I particularly remember the Petrale sole meuniere, fresh from Noyo Harbor up the road in Fort Bragg.
Then there’s a terrific Little River Inn breakfast item, Ole’s Swedish Pancakes, served with olallieberry jam and, as McKinney likes to say, “The place would crumble without olallieberry jam.”
Dym, who was a restaurant consultant in Tel Aviv in the late 1990s, is concentrating these days on a farm-to-fork sustainability approach to his menu.
Moreover, in honor of the inn’s 75th anniversary, he teamed up with the Anderson Valley Brewing Company to produce Saison 75, a Belgian farmhouse-style beer with three types of hops, magnum, fuggle and goldings, as well as his own spice blend.
The restaurant also features many wines, including vintages from Mendocino County, of course, with John Sverko, an authority on California wines, as sommelier.
Currently in its fifth generation of family ownership and management, Little River Inn’s philosophy, said McKinney, is “family hospitality.”
“We feel that most, if not all, of our guests are part of our family and many have been coming here for generations,” he said. “We try to embrace and treat them as if they are family.”
It’s a lovely setting, all 225 acres of it across from the ocean and 67 rooms with wonderful ocean views, especially at sunset; a nine-hole golf course that plays 18 the second time around with reconfigured Tees; plus a spa.
Then, of course, there’s the nearby, walkable village of Mendocino, with quaint shops and panoramic views of the water.
Once a coastal logging center in earlier times, Mendocino is also known for its signature, historic water towers, with some restored versions still dominating the village skyline here and there.
Meanwhile, as night falls at Little River Inn, it’s time to settle in, light a fire and, well, take advantage of the sounds of the sea to slip into sleep.
More information about Little River Inn is available at www.littleriverinn.com.
George Medovoy writes on travel at www.postcardsforyou.