Posted by moirafinnie on October 10, 2007
Suppose the year is 1937.
Imagine that you are a writer of some note who has come to “the land where it is always afternoon”, generally known as Hollywood. You reside in a small, rather dark, but cozy little bungalow, optimistically called a “villa” by the rather lenient management. Your abode is one of the twenty-five or so vaguely Spanish-Moorish stucco buildings at 8152 Sunset Boulevard, on about 3 ½ acres of property scattered around a swimming pool shaped like the Black Sea. You wake up, shuffle out of bed, find that there’s no coffee in the small kitchen in your “villa”, and so you begin to consume the dozen or so Coca-Colas that will comprise the only fluid that you will allow in your body that day.
Gathering your strength to face the day, you remind yourself that you are starting fresh. You were here when flush with your first, wild success in the twenties, and you even came a second time when times were tougher. You had a job back in 1931, working on that script for Metro for a movie called Red-Headed Woman—though not much of what you wrote ever made it onto the screen. Especially after that embarrassing slip-up at the Sunday brunch at the Thalbergs’ house. But that was then—and you must remember to “never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat.” You allow yourself to murmur the old cliché, wondering if “perhaps the third time here is the charm.”
Time to get the mail. Good, only a few bills and a brightly colored postcard today. Smiling wistfully to yourself, you turn the postcard over and read the spidery hand that says:
When F. Scott Fitzgerald first moved into the complex of furnished apartments that comprised The Garden of Allah in West Hollywood between Havenhurst & North Crescent Heights Avenue, he wrote this in jest to himself. Perhaps he also meant it as a reminder of his revised identity in his new surroundings, or maybe it was just a lonely man’s attempt to receive something other than bills, like a plain girl sending herself flowers from an imaginary admirer.
As unlikely as that seems to those across a continent and in another century, it was true. Though Fitzgerald would only live another 3 years, he would try, (and fail) to compose screenplays in ways that his employers wished, produce several of his Pat Hobby short stories, and write what many believe to be one of the best novels about the movie business, called “The Love of the Last Tycoon”. This would be eventually published after his death as simply, “The Last Tycoon”. Some of these last achievements would be accomplished at the Garden of Allah, which had been open for business for about ten years by then. Many of Hollywood’s most talented writers, actors and revelers were drawn to the former private residence turned hotel from the time of its opening to the public in 1927 to the day it faced the wrecking ball in 1959. Most observers say that the hotel’s heyday was probably the period from 1927 to 1945.
Among those drawn to the place as if to an oasis—particularly as Hollywood lost its early raffish charm and became much more of a corporate town—would be most of the Marx Brothers, Robert Benchley, Arturo Toscanini, Dorothy Parker, Tallulah Bankhead, John Barrymore, Ernest Hemingway, Marlene Dietrich, Cole Porter John Carradine, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Humphrey Bogart, Orson Welles, S.J. Perelman, Errol Flynn and Francis X. Bushman.
Mr. Bushman, who was called the “King of the Movies” before a Mr. Gable was shaving, was reportedly the only attendee at both the opening and closing parties for the hotel in 1927 and 1959. He is perhaps best recalled today for his appearance as “Massala” to Ramon Novarro’s Ben-Hur in the 1926 silent classic.
Many of these uprooted New Yorkers, émigrés, actors, members of the intelligentsia, and their hangers-on flocked here to avoid public scrutiny and, allegedly, find a quiet spot, off the beaten track—away from the studios and the philistines who ran them—in which to work, and play. Whether they accomplished much in terms of work is debatable, but many of them had a very good time pursuing their “muse” in the salubrious setting.
The somewhat ramshackle collection of buildings that comprised the Garden had started life as a mansion for one of the first movie stars, Alla Nazimova.
The Crimean-bred star of stage and screen, born Mariam Leventon in 1879, is remembered today, if at all, for a handful of silents, such as Camille (1921) with Rudolph Valentino, and Salome (1923), and some good sound films that are likely to be remembered by TCM viewers along with some tales of her rather notorious private life.
Among her appearances in these later movies—in which she’s often billed by the appropriately dramatic single name of Nazimova—are Escape (1940) as Robert Taylor‘s mother, Blood and Sand (1941), as Tyrone Power‘s mother, In Our Time (1944), as Paul Henried‘s mother, and Since You Went Away(1944), which is showing on TCM today, Oct. 10th.
Nazimova appears as the effusively grateful immigrant who befriends Claudette Colbert at the war plant in the latter movie, (Nazimova is seen with Monty Woolley in the accompanying photo from that film).
Sadly, of her great Ibsen roles, only A Doll’s House (1922) was transferred to film with her in the role of Nora and Alan Hale—of all people—assaying the part of Torvald. Like most silent films, this one appears to be lost. Given the fact that her professional life is now elusive at best, perhaps it’s understandable that most people still latch onto her scandalous private life, which included numerous public affairs with members of both sexes.
In 1919, when Nazimova purchased the Spanish style mansion at what was then the rather rural address of 8080 Sunset Boulevard, she refurbished it to her liking and christened it The Garden of Alla (the “h” would come later). One of the improvements made during this heady time was the addition of a swimming pool in the shape of the Black Sea, according to some sources a gift from her then studio of Paramount, designed to remind the star of her birthplace in Yalta.
During this period the actress was at the height of her movie stardom, making an estimated $13k a week when the federal and state income tax rates was still pretty low. Other than dropping the “h” from “Allah” as a nod to herself when naming the building, her inspiration for the estate’s title probably came from the Robert S. Hichens‘ novel of the same name. This very popular book had been adapted as a Broadway play that Nazimova appeared in around 1913, (and of course there were earlier film versions, and there was that “little” movie in the ’30s with Dietrich and Boyer). In the ’20s the actress entertained a parade of lovers, hangers on, and real notables on an extravagant scale, including opera star Geraldine Farrar, Lillian Gish, Arturo Toscanini, Rudolph Valentino and, allegedly, a somewhat understandably bewildered Albert Einstein during his 1921 visit to the states after winning the Nobel Prize.
As Nazimova‘s career waned, her advisors encouraged her had her add the bungalows in the hopes of providing the actress with an income for life. The Garden of Allah opened for business with advertisements that mentioned the “atmosphere of exclusive refinement” at “California’s Finest Summer Hotel in Hollywood” with “excellent cuisine”, (though all and sundry visitors were agreed that the food at the Garden was dismal–though the bar was quite good—and would carry a tab, even during Prohibition). The opening reflected the extravagance of the owner, supposedly featuring wandering guitar-playing caballeros, costumed footmen with silver salvers heaped with caviar, and live chamber music. Within a year after the 1927 opening, however, the actress went bankrupt, and thereafter lived in a small apartment within the complex, between spells on the road with a play, until her death in 1945.
The “exclusive refinement” mentioned in that earlier ad may have faded a bit by the time that columnist Lucius Beebe wrote that “Nothing interrupted the continual tumult that was life at the Garden of Allah. Now and then the men in white came with a van and took somebody away, or bankruptcy or divorce or even jail claimed a participant in its strictly unstately sarabands. Nobody paid any mind.”
Apparently few minded if the “it” girl, Clara Bow, pushed butlers off diving boards, Dietrich took dips in the pool shaped like the Black Sea in the buff, author George S. Kauffman skipped out on the process servers hunting him in the name of Mary Astor‘s husband, an inebriated Robert Benchley had himself moved between the villas’ endless parties via wheelbarrow, and Bogie dodged his wife Mayo Methot while trying to recuperate from one of their many titanic battles.
Some nights John Barrymore could be spotted bicycling between the bungalows, probably beating Mr. Benchley to some party before the booze ran out. Sometime resident Tallulah Bankhead, no doubt opening her door with a throaty laugh, was said to greet telegram delivery boys while wearing nothing but a pet monkey casually draped on her shoulder. No word on whether or not Tallulah was a good tipper.
Another time in the late ’20s there was a notable incident when Harpo Marx took up residence in a particularly quiet part of the hotel to practice his harp. Mr. Marx was content until a new neighbor began to practice his instrument, in this case a large, highly resonant grand piano, all day and all night. Harpo pounded on the notoriously thin walls of his bungalow and complained to the indifferent management, but the fellow refused to terminate his playing. Finally, the frustrated Marx opened his French doors, aimed his formidable harp in the direction of his neighbor, and proceeded to play Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in C-sharp Minor” until his fingers almost bled.
Some time later, this small, classical duel ceased and the boy next door, who it seems, was Sergei Rachmaninoff himself, left rather hurriedly. As Harpo later recalled in his memoir, “Harpo Speaks”, it seems that the Russian “detested his Prelude in C-sharp Minor.“
He considered it a very Minor piece of work. He was haunted by it everywhere he went, by students who butchered it and by audiences who clamored for it, and he wished he’d never written it. After playing the damn thing nonstop for two hours I knew exactly how he felt.”
The tolerant atmosphere in the Garden seems to have infected the staff at times. At one stage, a telephone operator manned the switchboard who refused to connect callers if he disliked the tone of their voice, deeming their character unworthy if their voice displeased him. Since guests were usually trying to dodge callers rather than receive them, this may have been looked on with bemusement. An enterprising waitress was eventually prosecuted for selling narcotics to her customers along with coffee and the restaurant’s dismal cuisine. The front office was the target of armed robbers on more than one occasion, perhaps leading to the loss of some guests’ loot from the office safe. In one truly unfortunate incident, it also led to the loss of a desk clerk’s life.
As Hollywood grew, the studio era began to wane and the city eventually surrounded the Garden of Allah. The real estate it was built on became more valuable as commercial property than the hotel itself. The hotel became seedier and the new stars, such as Montgomery Clift and James Dean, stayed at the nearby Chateau Marmont, which afforded more privacy and less chance of encounters with the less stylish transients who increasingly occupied the neglected villas at the Garden of Allah. Finally, in 1959, in an era when the thought of mentioning historic preservation was often looked on as truly eccentric, the owners decided to close the onetime hot spot and made way for a bank. Today the area has the ubiquitous McDonald’s, a bank is nearby, and a pizza joint has risen where the pool once cooled exhausted revelers after a hectic night of burning their candle at both ends.
Still, maybe, just maybe, on one of the quieter summer nights, when the LA traffic and noise fade away around three in the morning, if you stand near where the Garden of Allah once was, you can almost hear the clink of ice in a cocktail glass, the sound of a distant piano plucking out an old tune, and half-heard, remembered laughter comes drifting by on a warm breeze.
It may not be real, but isn’t it nice to think so?
Graham, Sheila, The Garden of Allah, Crown Publishers, 1970.
Kubernik, Harvey, Canyon of Dreams: The Magic and the Music of Laurel Canyon, Sterling Pub. Co., Inc., 2009.
Marx, Harpo, Barber, Rowland, Harpo Speaks, Hal Leonard Corporation, 1985.
“Show Business: End of the House Party,” Time Magazine, July 27, 1959.
Silvester, Christopher, The Grove Book of Hollywood, Grove Press, 2002.
Wallace, David, Lost Hollywood, Macmillan, 2002.
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