Hollywood’s Garden Of Allah

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Tallulah Bankhead called it “the most gruesomely named hotel in the western hemisphere.” Others, perhaps thinking of its curious architecture or the monumental hangovers that accompanied its boozy high life, called it simply the most gruesome hotel. To most of its denizens, however—to the scores of stars, writers, directors, wits, and wags who would stay nowhere else when they went to Los Angeles to “make a movie”—it symbolized Hollywood itself.

It is gone today, replaced, fittingly perhaps, by a many-storied bank. But from the late 1920’s until the years immediately after World War II, the Garden of Allah on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip was a hotel and an institution without peer. An uninitiated visitor might have passed it by without a glance. But rubbernecking tourists in buses that took them to see the homes of the stars were sure to have it pointed out to them. After gazing at the houses of the likes of Mary Pickford, John Gilbert, and Greta Garbo, they would roll past the restaurants and shops on the Strip, and then the guide with the megaphone would announce, “To your right, folks, the famous hotel, the Garden of Allah. Probably more luminaries living there right now than in all the rest of Hollywood put together.” Through the window of the moving bus they got a fleeting glimpse of something sprawled out in a hollow below street level—red-tiled roofs smothered in tropical growth; a pink neon sign glaring in daylight among palm and pepper trees, sometimes with some of its letters failing to light up so that it announced THE DEN OE ALLAH .

“Garden” and “den” were equally appropriate. Some awed guests recalled the Garden as an earthly paradise. But Lucius Beebe, raconteur and expert on luxuriously riotous living, announced shortly after moving into the hotel that he had seen nothing like it for “concentrated alcoholism and general dementia” since the old days of the Harvard-Yale boat races during Prohibition.

Generally, the hostelry lived up to its billing. The new arrival’s neighbors often included stars such as Humphrey Bogart, Laurence Olivier, John Barrymore, Vivien Leigh, Gloria Swanson, Al Jolson, Clara Bow, W. C. Fields, and Errol Flynn, or perhaps such musicians as Igor Stravinsky, Leopold Stokowski, and Sergei Rachmaninoff, as well as swarms of celebrated writers, including William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, John O’Hara, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Raymond Chandler.

The hotel began its life as a luxurious private home in 1920. Los Angeles County was then experiencing a mammoth real estate boom, and among the many speculators to profit from it was one W. H. Hay, who signalized his success by building himself a large house on Sunset Boulevard, surrounded by three and one half acres of formal gardens and framed by palms and other tropical trees. Under its tile roof were forty rooms, with floors of teak, and richly carved decorations in rosewood and pale mahogany. The mansion cost him some $200,000—considerably more than a million dollars in today’s terms.

 

Hay enjoyed his munificent home for just four years, then leased it at $50,000 a year to Madame Alla Nazimova, a Crimea-born actress who was then one of the brightest stars of the silent screen. There was a blaze of publicity when she took possession of the place, and she spent a small fortune redecorating, adding new landscaping, and installing a free-form swimming pool whose shape, some claimed, had been inspired by the configuration of the Black Sea. When she was finished she modestly called the whole works the Garden of Alla.

 

Living there did not bring her much luck. Her picture career declined, she suffered personal as well as business troubles, and after two years of lavish entertaining, she had to turn over the lease to a corporation, which planned to convert the estate into a hotel. The house was remodeled to accommodate paying guests; many of the gardens were demolished; and single and duplex bungalows were built around the main building and the pool.

The grand opening of the new hotel on January 9,1927, was in the gaudy tradition of the Hollywood première. Greeters in swallowtail coats and striped pants ushered thousands of unabashed gawkers through the rooms and bungalows, while a string quartet played in the lobby of the main building and a platoon of Japanese butlers served tea, punch, and sandwiches. When darkness fell, visitors gasped with wonder as colored lights lit up the grounds, and strolling troubadours in Spanish costumes sang and played beneath the night-blooming jasmine. The theatricality of the opening suggested the make-believe world of the movies, and it was assumed by most visitors—and reported by the newspapers the next day—that the new establishment would appeal most to movie makers.

They came in droves, and by the end of the first week the management knew that the Garden of Alla was a hit. Within a few months, common usage by the guests, and references by the Los Angeles newspapers, had permanently corrupted the spelling of the hotel’s name; thereafter it became the Garden of Allah.