Hollywood’s Garden Of Allah

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One group of tenants, however, was denied credit. These were the Hallroom Boys, an assemblage of English actors who had flocked to Hollywood and who found occasional work as bit players in British Empire epics such as The Lives of a Bengal Lancer . These Englishmen, generally down-at-the-heels, inhabited the former servants’ rooms in the hotel’s main building. Their main occupation, it seemed, was to serve as stooges and jesters to the affluent residents of the bungalows. Wearing totally unwarranted Old Etonian ties, and blazers with the armorial emblems of Oxford and Cambridge colleges, with which they had no connection whatsoever, they amused their patrons with prattle about Sandhurst, the Guards, and tea on the vicarage lawn. According to John McClain, a New York drama critic and frequent Garden guest, the Hallroom Boys lived on tequila and nibblings from the cocktail buffet. One day, as McClain was settling his weekly account at the desk, a Hallroomer interceded disapprovingly: “You mustn’t do this, old man. Embarrassing for the chaps. If you do it again, your name will be posted for payment of bill.”

Perhaps the most loved and lovable of all the Garden’s residents was humorist Robert Benchley, who came to Hollywood to star in a series of shorts and shared one of the larger bungalows with his friend, John McClain. The Garden of Allah suited Benchley perfectly, and he became the genial familiar spirit of the place in the period of its final glory, which began as the 1940’s came on. It was here that he is supposed to have said after leaving the pool that he believed he would get out of his wet clothes and “into a dry martini,” a witticism as often repeated at the time as the cable he is supposed to have sent to David Niven from Venice: “Streets full of water. Please advise.”

Stories of Benchley’s association with the Garden are legion. Once he tried to phone New York at night but was unable to rouse the hotel operator. He finally went to the main house, upended some furniture, and left a note on the switchboard, reading, “Let this be a lesson to you. I might have been having a baby.” On another occasion, he held forth at the pool to British novelist P. G. Wodehouse on the Hollywood “nodders.” They were lower, he explained to the British author, than the studio “yes men,” for after the “yes men” yessed a producer, he said, the “nodders” nodded. There was also a memorable night when Benchley was lured against his will into playing The Game, which he loathed, and was given to act out the name of Ladislas Bus Fekete, a Hungarian screenwriter who was then working at one of the studios. Benchley immediately dropped to his hands and knees and began to crawl around the room. Then, as his bewildered teammates tried to guess what he was trying to convey, he crawled across the floor and out through some French doors, disappearing into the darkness—to be seen no more that night.

One of the best-remembered Benchley anecdotes concerned a new doorman at the Garden. As Benchley brushed past him, the doorman stretched out his hand for a tip and asked, “Aren’t you going to remember me, sir?” “Why, of course,” Benchley replied. “I’ll write you every day.” Nevertheless, everyone at the Garden liked to be near Benchley, to hear his booming laugh and bask in his warm generosity. Sometimes his kindness got him into trouble. One evening in a bar on Sunset Strip, he encountered an odd little man, wearing a derby and pince-nez, who told Benchley he was a song writer and was working on a number entitled “Stars Fell on Orchi Chornya.” Benchley was so tickled by this that he invited the man to drop in on him at the Garden any time he felt like it. Accepting on the spot, the song writer accompanied Benchley to the hotel and established himself in the spare bedroom of Benchley’s bungalow. The visit was a disappointment to his host, for the man said nothing worth remembering, although he ate and drank heartily. After several days of freeloading, he put on his derby and left, remarking as he departed, “I’m sorry to have to eat and run.”

Like many guests, Benchley was an out-of-place New Yorker, somewhat uneasy with the close-to-nature California life. He got along well enough with the Garden’s cats and dogs, but waged a celebrated war against the large number of birds that flew around the grounds. One rainy Sunday, Benchley was peering out the living room window when McClain heard him explode with laughter. “You know the bird who keeps me awake all night,” Benchley asked, “the one who sits outside my window and keeps saying, ‘ Chicago, Chicago ?” McClain said he knew of this bird, and Benchley went on, “Well, he just came in through the rain for a landing. The tile around the pool was so wet his feet went right out from under him and he slid three or four yards on his tail, coming up against the edge of the pool. Then he looked over and saw me watching him, and I swear he shrugged his wings and his expression was, ‘All right, you know me and I know you and this time you have the laugh.’”