August 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 5
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.
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.
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.’”
Former residents all recall the contrast between the tranquil Garden and the frightful rush of traffic just outside. Benchley took careful account of this peril whenever he wished to visit The Players, a restaurant on the other side of the Strip. Instead of risking passage across the street on foot, he is reported to have turned right, walked one block to Schwab’s drugstore, and jumped into a cab, which then made a U-turn and deposited him in front of The Players.
The increasing traffic Benchley so deftly avoided actually reflected the growth of Los Angeles into a great city in which moving pictures had become one of many major industries. Gradually, the movie people began to feel the loss of their unique importance and, along with the Second World War, there came a chill in the atmosphere of the Garden. Though the hotel had a short period of postwar prosperity, it was due more to the housing shortage than to the old magic of the place. In time, Hollywood notables stopped coming, transients from New York began to find lively new places to stay, and the Garden began to get the reputation of a beloved, but shabby, has-been. The hotel went through a series of management and ownership changes, and continued to deteriorate. By the late 1940’s, even the once-dazzling landscaping had grown drab, for heavy smog, a new and baleful element in Los Angeles, had settled over the area. The Garden stood in a natural funnel for the noxious fumes that rolled up the Strip in such concentration that they split the tiles, asphyxiated the big brown rats in the palm trees, and killed the radiant bougainvillea.
Some of the new guests seemed equally obnoxious. The harmless Hallroom Boys disappeared along with the rich movie people, and the bar was often occupied by smalltime chiselers and petty racketeers. Drunken fights broke out, and the management often had to call the police—something unheard of in happier times. In its last years the Garden seemed like a setting from a story of the Los Angeles underworld by Raymond Chandler, himself long since moved away. One could imagine his private eye, Philip Marlowe, leaving his coupé in the Garden parking lot and meeting some dubious character in the bar. Things grew still worse: one night armed thugs entered the lobby, looted the cash drawer, and shot the elderly night clerk dead.
The last owners gave up in April, 1959, announcing that they had sold the property to the Lytton Savings and Loan Association; the Garden would be razed to make way for a banking and commercial center. The furnishings were sold at auction: comedian Ben Blue bought the china and silver for his nightclub. On the night of August 22,1959, an attempt was made to hold a gala grand closing to mark the official passing of a place that had actually died some years before. Many guests dressed as old-time picture stars and tried to evoke a mood of civilized nostalgia, but on the whole it was an unfortunate affair. Only one genuine silent star stopped by—Francis X. Bushman, still a handsome, dapper man at seventy-six. He stood for a moment looking at the empty bottles floating in the pool, then shook his head, walked back to his car, and drove home.