By November that year, I’d found the perfect location. The wali, or governor, of Greater Casablanca, Driss Benhima, a good friend from my foreign service days, persuaded me to look for a building in the Ancienne Medina. I resisted at first. The crumbling, old walled city had a look reminiscent of the Warner Brothers set, but it was riddled with drug dealing, prostitution and petty crime. Still, Driss insisted I meet him by the clock tower outside the walls one Sunday. As he strode through the labyrinthine alleys, I struggled to keep up. Feral cats fled as we navigated the narrow streets. Urchins and unsavory-looking char-acters who recognized the wali slipped out of sight, into hidden doorways. As we walked along, the buildings with their arches, verandas, latticework and domed roofs began to win me over. A tawdry-looking game parlor brought to mind the pickpocketing scene in the film. Like Driss, I was now convinced that the Ancienne Medina was the natural home for Rick’s Café.
Two visits later, I was shown a decaying mansion on a dark, dead-end alley, opposite a former bordello. I followed the owner’s daughter through a dingy corridor and up a set of broken stairs. Dull, cracked ceramic tiles lined the lower portion of the wall. Then she opened the door to the living space. Dominated by a central interior courtyard with a dismantled fountain in the middle, the house seemed to stretch forever. Winter light streamed in from the open octagonal cupola above the courtyard, illuminating arches, columns and balustrades. From the second floor balcony, I could see the ocean and the Hassan II Mosque. The house was in terrible shape, but I saw it with the eyes of someone falling in love at first sight.
It would take 1.7 million dirhams—then about $175,000—to buy the place. When several prospective investors
fell through, I turned to my friends and former colleagues around the world. I created a company called the Usual Suspects and designed a flyer that read, “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, I’d like you to
buy into mine.” The response was overwhelming. Suddenly, money from Prague, Tokyo (where I’d run a business for seven years) and the U.S. was being wired to the Usual Suspects SARL (similar to our LLC) in Morocco. In the post-9/11 world, this raised some eyebrows. One U.S. investor even got a visit from the FBI.
By October 2002 the house was mine. I already had my set designer lined up. The late Bill Willis (he died in January 2009, just before the Café’s fifth anniversary) was a Memphis-born, Mississippi-raised, New York–educated designer who came to Morocco in the late 1960s and, like me, fell in love
with the country and the culture. His skill at marrying Western designs with traditional Moroccan artisanal work had earned him an international reputation. At Rick’s, it is evident in the tiled central staircase, the five fireplaces and inlaid oak floors. He even sketched out a table lamp with beaded shades. (I commissioned 42 of them—just like the film version, only more glamorous.) It was Bill who came up with the idea of creating a dramatic front door, reminiscent of the film, on the ocean side of the mansion. On Bill’s only visit to Rick’s Café, after it opened, I nervously awaited his reaction. He took a sip of Jack Daniel’s and surveyed the room. I held my breath. I knew Bill would not mince words. “Well, my dear,” he said finally. “It’s even better than the movie. But you shouldn’t wear a blouse under your tuxedo jacket. Think of yourself as Marlene Dietrich, not Humphrey Bogart.”