Saturday, August 6, 2022

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

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WWhen James Caan’s death was announced last month, the film legend’s favorite table at the Polo Lounge — the Beverly Hills Hotel’s famed on-site restaurant and bar — was cordoned off. On the hidden table one, which was also Charlie Chaplin’s favorite stand, was a candle and a photo of the star, along with Caan’s favorite food; the house specialty of a chopped “McCarthy” salad with chicken, bacon, beetroot and avocado; and an extremely dirty martini with extra olive brine. “When one of our really great, well-known regulars comes by, we always set aside their favorite table and let them sit all day and night,” said Steven Boggs, director of global guest relations at the hotel and true source of Hollywood history. “We call it ‘setting a final place’.”

Carrie Fisher, James Garner, and Burt Reynolds are just a few of the other regulars who died who 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 – judging by last week’s posts 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 crème de la crème of stars, no other Los Angeles venue boasts the same enduring star power as the Beverly Hills Hotel.

“We also sit where Al Pacino likes to sit,” says Boggs, who cordoned off Caan and Chaplin’s table for our chat, a cozy corner seat with sage-green velvet benches. “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 Dean Martin’s 49th known art collector has a fractured skull.

“But I can also show you the table Steven Spielberg likes to write at and the table Leonardo DiCaprio likes to have. Dinner is interesting too. Jimmy Fallon will come in and sit down at the piano and play some tunes. People are still coming here – business is being done all the time. It’s 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 center of the film industry for a little over 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 (adored by Greta Garbo, Clara Bow and Errol Flynn), the stately Ambassador Hotel — complete with the Rat Pack-friendly Cocoanut Grove nightclub — and seedy rock ‘n’ roll haven The Tropicana Motel all fell victim to the wrecking ball. Hollywood Boulevard’s majestic Egyptian Theater was recently acquired by Netflix, leaving many concerned about the future of the 100-year-old movie palace that was built during a period of Egyptomania.

Yet the Beverly Hills Hotel still stands tall. Built in 1912 on 12 acres in the pristine foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains west of Los Angeles, the hotel was originally intended to spark a land rush so owners could sell neighboring properties. As soon as it fired up, it attracted the first wave of Hollywood, with the likes of Chaplin, Gloria Swanson, WC Fields and Harold Lloyd all stopping by. The golden couple of silent films, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, followed the hotel and bought a lodge next door, which they converted in mock Tudor style into the lavish “Pickfair” – one of America’s most famous private residences.

In the 1930s, with the advent of talkies, a new wave of actors made the hotel their playground. Among them was Marlene Dietrich, who flouted the Polo Lounge bar’s rules – no women traveling alone and no women in trousers – by showing up alone in smart 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 his signature hot pink — check out the peachy turrets on the cover of The Eagles’ seminal 1976 album Hotel California — and coined the property’s famous green and powder pink color scheme.

But it is not the main building of the hotel that has the most star power: this claim belongs to the bungalows behind it. These self-contained hideouts – 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 of those guests was Elizabeth Taylor, who stayed in different bungalows after six of her eight weddings. The British-born icon’s preferred bungalow was number 5, and after her death in 2011 her family held a private memorial service within its walls.

The bungalows also saw one of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s long bed-ins (on a divan ordered by Dietrich for the suite), while Paul McCartney and Linda Eastman spent a week in another shortly after meeting them. 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. Reclusive director and businessman Howard Hughes often stayed in number 4 and booked several rooms at once so no one knew exactly where he was staying. “The only person in the hotel who knew exactly where he was was the chef,” Boggs explains. “Because Howard Hughes loved his roast beef sandwiches.” Even then, the chef didn’t deliver the snack directly to Hughes, instead leaving it in a treetop outside his bungalow for the insomniac director to fetch in the middle of the night.

Then there’s Bungalow One, where Gore Vidal’s celebrity mother, Nina, had an affair with Clark Gable. “I’ve gotten to the point where I won’t say something is definitely true unless I’ve seen 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 chuckle. The US writer and intellectual was a longtime lover of the hotel, and spent his final days in 2012 in the lobby in front of a roaring fire, singing to himself after another martini-heavy lunch. “Gore, thank God, he spent every day in the Polo Lounge towards the end of his life,” Boggs explains. “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 know who he was were very upset!”

It’s not just entertainment history buried deep in the bungalows, but also political history. In Bungalow Three, Robert Kennedy’s young children tragically found out their hopeful father had been murdered after seeing it on the news.

The Beverly Hills Hotel’s swimming pool — once ringed by golden sands specially shipped in from Arizona — has also seen its fair share of sensational activity. British actor Rex Harrison had a penchant for sunning himself naked in private cabanas with nothing but a handkerchief covering his Doctor Doolittle, which is where composer Leonard Bernstein came up with the idea Westside Story. When the Beatles stayed at the hotel, they had to be smuggled in via the pool exit to avoid the hordes of screaming fans. Their manager Brian Epstein even met with Colonel Tom Parker in the Polo Lounge to set up a meeting between the band and Elvis, which unfortunately didn’t materialize on that occasion.

The pool is also the location of one of the most iconic Oscar photos of all time — that of Faye Dunaway, reclining dramatically the morning after winning the Best Actress Oscar in 1977’s Actors Win 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 it opened, the Beverly Hills Hotel remains as popular as ever, swarming with the world’s biggest celebrities on Oscar and Grammy weekends. “It’s still relevant,” says Boggs proudly. “We are literally the last of our kind.”

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

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