Hollywood’s Garden Of Allah

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The Garden had opened at a turning point in Hollywood history; the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had just been founded, and Al Jolson was at work on the Warner lot making the pioneer talking picture, The Jazz Singer . Jolson, an early Garden resident, typified the transplanted New Yorkers who first filled the hotel, setting an enduring tone that owed more to Broadway than to California and launching a homeaway-from-home party that lasted more than twenty years. Once in a while during that time the hotel and cottages might have appeared somnolent; but the party smoldered on all the same.

“There were no rules,” reminisced one early resident. “Nearly everybody drank, and drank hard. It was the thing to do, especially at the Garden. You would come back late at night and look around for a lighted window. That meant a party, where you’d be welcome.” The informality took many forms. “If a stark naked lady of acting fame, her head crowned by a chattering monkey, chose to open the door to Western Union, no one was abashed, least of all the lady and the monkey,” wrote Whitney Bolton, a New York drama critic who stayed at the Garden. But the informality was not for strangers and voyeurs. The hotel management posted a guard at the front gate and maintained a discreet patrol of the grounds after dark, one of the watchmen leading a formidable dog that residents fondly called the Hound of the Baskervilles. The private police were strictly for security; they had orders not to harass the guests or interfere with their personal foibles and pleasures.

Such guaranteed privacy soon produced a ceaseless stream of outrageous Hollywood stories. There was, for example, the tale of the Broadway playwright who was ensconced in a bungalow some distance from the main house. For weeks he had been trying to get into the office of an old acquaintance who was now the executive producer at a big studio. Day after day he had been turned away. Late one evening he heard a knock at his door and opened it. There stood the producer. “Hello, old boy,” said the tycoon. “Come to my office tomorrow. I have a contract for you.” The producer disappeared in the darkness, and next day the author signed his contract. Not till some time later did he learn that the producer had mistaken his bungalow for a similar one nearby in which he had recently installed a young lady.

 

Being on the Garden’s guest list was a rough gauge of a film star’s popularity. Clara Bow epitomized the flamboyance of the silent era at the Garden. Producers had advertised her to the world as the “It” Girl—“It” being sex appeal of overpowering voltage—and she was a popular figure at the poolside cocktail hour and at evening festivities as well. Occasionally diving off the high board in a dinner gown or pushing tuxedoed escorts into the pool, she made the evening-dress swimming party part of the Garden’s early lore. But age overcame her and by 1937 her red Kissel roadster ceased to appear in its accustomed place in the parking lot, and her three chow dogs, whose coats matched their owner’s hair, were no longer heard yapping at the bellboys. The “It” Girl was no longer a star.

By that time, Lucius Beebe had become one of the most active residents the place had ever seen. A columnist for the New York Herald Tribune , Beebe was an expert on railroading as well as good living, and had been engaged by director Cecil B. DeMiIIe as technical adviser for the film Union Pacific . DeMiIIe did not require Beebe’s constant attendance at the studio, and so he had plenty of time to participate in—and lead—the life at the Garden. He would stand near the door of his bungalow as guests assembled and greet them with a cordial shout of “Welcome to Walden Pond.” The Garden’s room service especially impressed Beebe. The staff, he noted, could put a six-bartender private bar into operation on a minute’s notice before lunch, so that those persons whom Beebe called “the maimed and dying from the previous night’s party” could be given succor.

Not all the stories about the Garden were based on the Bacchanalia that went on there, though its reputation in that regard was so solidly recognized that H. B. Warner, who was about to play the role of Christ in a movie, was seriously warned by his director, C. B. DeMiIIe, to remain in his bungalow and not get mixed up in the fleshpots of the hotel. Apart from the drinking, however, the resident wits gave the hostelry a general air of group merriment. Sheila Graham, from whose book The Garden of Allah many of these anecdotes come, termed it “the Algonquin Round Table gone West and childish.” Musician Artie Shaw thought it “one of the few places so absurd that people could be themselves.”

The Garden’s easygoing management had a lot to do with the hotel’s informal atmosphere. There was little pressure for prompt payment of bills, for example, even though some accounts carried charges for room service, gratuities to the staff, limousine hire, theater tickets, and cash advances in addition to rent. The owners had learned that in the long run they could depend on their tenants’ high earning power.