Sole survivor of Hollywood’s golden age? The hotel that has seen it all

The hotel's swimming pool, seen here in 1938, was surrounded by golden sand shipped in specially from Arizona and has seen its fair share of sensational activity (Beverly Hills Hotel)

The hotel’s swimming pool, seen here in 1938, was surrounded by golden sand shipped in specially from Arizona and has seen its fair share of sensational activity (Beverly Hills Hotel)

When James Caan’s death was announced last month, the film legend’s favorite table at the Polo Lounge – the Beverly Hills Hotel’s grand restaurant and bar – was blocked off. On secluded Table 1, which was also Charlie Chaplin’s preferred stand, was placed a candle and a picture of the star, as well as Caan’s most beloved meal; the house specialty of a chopped “McCarthy” salad, with chicken, bacon, beets and avocado, and an extremely dirty martini with extra olive dressing. “When one of our really great, famous regulars passes, we always set aside the favorite table and leave it there all day and all night,” says Steven Boggs, director of global guest relations at the hotel and a veritable font in Hollywood history. “We call it ‘setting a final spot’.”

Carrie Fisher, James Garner and Burt Reynolds are just some of the other late regulars who have received the same honor. As you may have noticed, the regulars at the Beverly Hills Hotel are not like other regulars. They are Rita Hayworth, Katharine Hepburn, Paul McCartney and – considering last week’s post from celebrity gossip Instagram account Deux Moi – Kim Kardashian, Megan Fox and rapper Machine Gun Kelly. While other venues fall in and out of favor with the cream of the celebrity crop, nowhere else in Los Angeles boasts the same sustained level of star power as the Beverly Hills Hotel.

“We also sit where Al Pacino likes to sit,” says Boggs, who has roped off Caan and Chaplin’s table for our conversation, a cozy corner seat with sage-green velvet banquettes. “I can show you where Frank Sinatra sat, where Marilyn Monroe sat, where Elizabeth Taylor sat and so on,” he adds, pointing to the table where Sinatra celebrated Dean Martin’s 49th birthday complete with subsequent bar brawl, which ended in a good – famous art collector suffering from a skull fracture.

“But I can also show you the table where Steven Spielberg likes to write, and the table Leonardo DiCaprio likes to have. Dinner is still interesting too. Jimmy Fallon comes in and sits down at the piano and plays some tunes. People still come here – deals are made all the time. It is still the powerhouse.”

Los Angeles is a city that likes to play fast and loose with its history. Although it has been the world-famous hub of the film industry for a little more than a century, many of its architectural treasures and buildings steeped in pop culture folklore have been razed to the ground. Despite their legendary status, the Garden of Allah hotel (worshipped by Greta Garbo, Clara Bow and Errol Flynn), the stately Ambassador Hotel – complete with Rat Pack-friendly nightclub Cocoanut Grove – and the sleazy rock’n’roll- the harbor The Tropicana Motel have all fallen victim to the wrecking ball. Recently, Hollywood Boulevard’s majestic Egyptian Theater was bought out by Netflix, leaving many worried about the future of the 100-year-old movie palace, which was built during a period of Egyptomania.

Yet the Beverly Hills Hotel still stands tall. Built in 1912 on 12 hectares in the pristine foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains, west of Los Angeles, the hotel was originally intended to create a land rush, allowing the owners to sell lots of adjacent land. Almost as soon as it opened, it attracted the first wave of Hollywood, with stars such as Chaplin, Gloria Swanson, WC Fields and Harold Lloyd all stopping by. The golden couple of the silent screen, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, followed in the hotel’s wake and bought a cottage next door, which they remodeled in mock Tudor style into the opulent “Pickfair” – one of the most famous private residences in America.

Marilyn Monroe was a regular at the hotel (Beverly Hills Hotel)

Marilyn Monroe was a regular at the hotel (Beverly Hills Hotel)

In the 1930s, with the dawn of talkies, a new wave of actors made the hotel their playground. Among them was Marlene Dietrich, who defied the rules of the Polo Lounge bar – no single women, and no women in trousers – by turning up alone in elegant trousers. An expansion in the 1940s by renowned Black architect Paul Revere Williams made the hotel even more attractive to Hollywood’s ever-growing celebrity community. The exterior was painted its trademark pink – check out the peachy towers on the cover of The Eagles’ seminal 1976 album Hotel California – and the property’s famous green and powder pink color scheme was emblazoned.

However, it’s not the main building of the hotel that has the most star power: that claim belongs to the bungalows just behind it. These self-contained boltholes – 23 of them, the first five of which were built in 1915 – had direct access from the street and were perfect for residents who wanted more privacy. One such guest was Elizabeth Taylor, who stayed in different bungalows after six of her eight weddings. The British-born icon’s bungalow of choice was number 5, and after her death in 2011, her family hosted a private memorial service within its walls.

The bungalows also saw one of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s long bedsits (on a divan commissioned by Dietrich for the suite) while Paul McCartney and Linda Eastman spent a week in another not long after meeting. Marilyn Monroe was also a big bungalow fan, often staying at numbers 1 and 7 – where she spent Christmas with her second husband, baseball star Joe DiMaggio – and having an affair with her Let’s make love co-star Yves Montand in adjoining rooms, 20 and 21. The reclusive director and businessman Howard Hughes often stayed in number 4 and booked out a number of the rooms at a time so that no one knew exactly where he lived. “The only person in the hotel who knew exactly where he was was the head chef,” explains Boggs. “Because Howard Hughes loved his roast beef sandwiches.” Even then, the chef would not deliver the snack directly to Hughes, but instead left it in the crook of a tree outside his bungalow for the insomniac director to retrieve in the middle of the night.

Then there’s Bungalow One, where Gore Vidal’s socialite mother Nina had an affair with Clark Gable. “I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t say something is definitively true unless I saw it with my own eyes, or someone who saw it was drunk enough to tell me,” Boggs assures me. So who told you about the affair, I ask? “Gore Vidal!” he says with a laugh. A longtime lover of the hotel, the American author and intellectual spent his final days in 2012 in the lobby by a roaring fire, singing to himself after another martini-heavy lunch. “Gore, bless his heart, towards the end of his life he spent every day in the Polo Lounge,” explains Boggs. “He brought his own sheet music and let the piano man play. He had a tremendous ear for music but a terrible voice – people who didn’t understand who he was were very upset!”

Marlene Dietrich in 1940: she defied the rules - no single women - for the Polo Lounge bar (Beverly Hills Hotel)

Marlene Dietrich in 1940: she defied the rules – no single women – for the Polo Lounge bar (Beverly Hills Hotel)

It is not only entertainment history that is buried deep within the bungalows, but also political history. Bungalow Three is where Robert Kennedy’s young children tragically found out that their presidential hopeful father had been assassinated after seeing it on the news.

The Beverly Hills Hotel’s swimming pool — once surrounded by golden sand shipped in specially from Arizona — has also seen its share of sensational activity. British actor Rex Harrison had a penchant for sunbathing naked, with nothing but a handkerchief covering Doctor Doolittle, in the private cabins, which is where composer Leonard Bernstein came up with the idea of West Side Story. When The Beatles stayed at the hotel, they had to sneak in via the pool exit, to avoid the hordes of screaming fans. Their manager Brian Epstein even met with Colonel Tom Parker at the Polo Lounge to arrange a meeting between the band and Elvis, which unfortunately did not materialize on that occasion.

The pool is also the site of one of the most iconic Oscars photos of all time – that of Faye Dunaway dramatically leaning back the morning after winning the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1977. Newspapers are scattered on the floor, one announcing Peter Finch’s posthumous best. Actor wins for the same film. Finch was also indelibly linked to the hotel, having died of a heart attack in the lobby just two months earlier.

Celebrating 110 years since its opening, the Beverly Hills Hotel remains as popular as ever, with Oscar and Grammy weekends packed with the biggest celebrities in the world. “It’s still relevant,” says Boggs proudly. “We are literally the last of our kind.”

Rare photos of Elizabeth Taylor by Bert Stern will be on display in the lobby of the Beverly Hills Hotel from August 1st to September 30th

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *