The Early Years (1913-1929)
In the beginning it was just an open field.
Okay, maybe that’s not the best place to start. After all if you go back far enough everywhere was just an open field at some point. So let’s be more specific: in 1905, it was just an open field adjacent to some citrus groves.
Well, some citrus groves and the newly-incorporated city of Hollywood, California.
Even before the rise of the motion picture industry Hollywood was hot property, and it didn’t take a genius to realize that nearby areas were going to be hot property, too. In 1905 real estate developer William H. Hay snatched up some 160 acres of prime land just west of the city and started building along an unpaved road with the aspirational and grandiose name “Sunset Boulevard.”
Hay set aside some a few acres on the edge of the development for his own use. In 1913 he started construction on “Hayvenhurst,” a 12-room Spanish-style mansion with a two-car garage and a verdant garden full of tropical plants and fruit trees. The mansion was completed in 1918, but Hay didn’t live there for long, because Hayvenhurst had attracted the attention of one of Hollywood’s brightest stars.
Though Alla Nazimova is largely forgotten today, at the time she was a huge get for Hollywood. She was a capital A actress who’d studied the Stanislavsky system under the master himself as part of the Moscow Art Theater and cut her teeth on Chekhov and Ibsen. For decades, her Hedda Gabler was the standard against which all others were measured.
Nazimova made her first film in 1916, the now-lost MGM drama War Brides, and Hollywood went nuts for her. Not only could she act circles around everyone else in town but she had the look — slender, pale, with dark hair and eyes that popped on cheap black-and-white film. Soon, she was earning $14,000 a week, making her one of the highest-paid actresses in Hollywood, second only to America’s sweetheart, Mary Pickford.
Well, one of Hollywood’s biggest stars had to have one of Hollywood’s biggest mansions. The one that caught Nazimova’s eye was at the edge of the city on 8152 Sunset Boulevard: Hayvenhurst.
Nazimova took out a 99-year lease on the mansion for an astounding $65,000, and then dropped another $30,000 for remodeling and landscaping. She left the gardens largely intact, but built an aviary and a rose garden. Most of that money went towards the construction of the biggest swimming pool in Hollywood, which was purportedly shaped like the Black Sea, though honestly, it just looks like a regular kidney-shaped pool to me and almost everyone else.
She called her new mansion “Who-Torok,” or “little farm” in Russian. More properly, it was Who-Torok West, since Nazimova had already used the name for her country estate in Rye, New York. Her friends had another name for it: The Garden of Alla, after the popular 1905 novel The Garden of Allah by Robert Hitchens, which had recently been adapted to the big screen with Helen Ware in the lead role.
The vivacious Nazimova was soon Hollywood’s most popular hostess, holding regular parties at her mansion for Hollywood’s smart set, Russian expatriates, and other capital A artists. Also for Hollywood’s gay, lesbian, and bisexual community, of which she was a proud member. Some of the most frequent visitors to her informal “8080 Club” included Mae Murray, Lilyan Tashman, Norma Talmadge, and Rudolph Valentino.
Those salad days didn’t last long.
Nazimova hated the Hollywood studio system, which was designed to turn out mindless pap instead of art, and and also hated the studio moguls that were cheating her out of a fair share of the profits. Eventually, she struck out on her own and formed her own production house. In 1923 she spent a small fortune filming Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, lavishly recreating the Aubrey Beardsley illustrations from the 1904 edition. The film was breathtakingly gorgeous, utterly arresting — and also a total flop. The resulting shock to Nazimova’s finances just about ruined her.
It also came at the worst possible time. Movie roles were drying up since she was too old to be a Hollywood starlet and too proud to be a Hollywood matron. Her taxes were a mess, and she was also in the process of getting simultaneous divorces from her common-law American husband/beard Charles Bryant and her real Russian husband Seryozha Golovin.
So in 1925, Nazimova made two big moves. First, she returned to the stage, which was glad to have her back. And second, she hired Jean and John Adams to be her business managers and put her finances back on track.
The Adamses had one piece of advice for Nazimova: “Turn your estate into a hotel, and it will give you security for the rest of your life.”
Nazimova remortgaged the Garden of Alla property and spent a small fortune to refurbishing the interior rooms and build 25 Spanish-style “villas” around the pool. Day-to-day operation of the hotel was turned over to the Adamses, who took over her 99-year lease in exchange for a guaranteed $14,500 and 50% of all future profits.
The Garden of Alla Hotel had its grand opening on January 8, 1927. There was an all-night debauch whose guest list that included “It Girl” Clara Bow; former World Heavyweight Champion Jack Dempsey; studio moguls Sam Goldwyn and H.B. Warner; actors Betty Blythe, Francis X. Bushman, Rod La Rocque, Gilbert Roland, Lilyan Tashman, and Conrad Veidt; and a host of others including child radio star Robert L. Green, screenwriter Frances Marion, cowboy Fred Thomson, poet Iris Tree, and Ziegfield girl Julia Ross. The first official guest was Madeleine Hurlock, of Sennett’s Bathing Beauties.
By the end of the year, though, it was clear that something was not right. The Adamses hadn’t been making payments Nazmivova was counting on. In fact, they kept wiring her for more money for capital improvements, money which the cash-strapped Nazimova just didn’t have. When she pled poverty the Adamses just vanished, never to be seen again.
It turns out they were not responsible business managers, but con artists who had run a series of real estate scams all over the country. An investigation of the hotel’s books revealed that the rents charged on the villas were not nearly enough to pay for the property’s various mortgages and upkeep, let alone make a profit. And that’s assuming the hotel was operating at full capacity. Which it wasn’t.
After some legal wrangling, Nazmiova was eventually able to regain control of the hotel from the Adamses. She didn’t have the funds to hold on to it, though, and wound up selling it back to William Hay, who she’d leased it from in the first place. After paying off her legal fees and debts, Nazimova made a mere $7,500 from the sale. She spent a good chunk of those funds hiring private detectives to to track down the Adamses, to no avail.
Hay ultimately wound up re-selling the property to new owners, who continued to operate it as a hotel. The new managers made one small change: they changed the name from “The Garden of Alla” to the “Garden of Allah” with an h, to distance the hotel from its former owner.
That’s when the fun times really started.
The Pinnacle (1930-1945)
As a hotel, the appeal of the Garden of Allah was simple. It was cheaper than a luxury hotel, and nicer than cheap hotel. It had a very well-stocked bar where the liquor never stopped flowing. And it was in Hollywood!
The Garden actually straddled the city limits of of Los Angeles, with part of the property in the city and the other part on unincorporated county land. Nazimova had previously used this fact to her advantage, moving her furniture around to confound city and county tax assessors when they came a-calling. For hotel guests it was more of an inconvenience, because you had to figure out whose jurisdiction you were in when you needed to call the cops. And you probably would have to call the cops at some point during your stay, because the Garden did not have a house detective or any sort of security at all. Or even adequate locks on the doors.
In one notorious incident, actress Miriam Hopkins was roused from her slumber when a naked man broke into her bedroom, chased her around the villa, peed in her bed, and then fell asleep in the puddle. Turns out he was a drunk rich kid in the wrong villa, and like most drunk rich kids he got away with it scot free. Poor Miriam didn’t even get a clean set of sheets at the end of it all — the turndown service just put new sheets over the wet mattress without bothering to let it air out.
Small robberies and petty fights were depressingly common. Of course, the lack of security also had some benefits. It meant it was relatively easy to stay anonymous and get away with virtually anything — a naked swim in the pool, drinking in public during Prohibition, hard drugs if you wanted, even hookers. You could share a night of passion with a lover, even a same-sex one. You could even live together without being married, in a time when that was still frowned on.
Of course, anonymity is not privacy. The walls at the Garden were famously thin. Playwright Marc Connelly once quipped that, “Sometimes they kept you from going to sleep and sometimes they compensated you for not sleeping.” Phone calls and lovemaking sessions were far from private, and if there was a raucous party out by the pool you could forget about getting in your forty winks. And there was always a party out by the pool.
In what was undoubtedly the high point of the pool’s existence, Johnny Weismuller and Tallulah Bankhead once dived into it after a night of drunken revelry. Of course, Tallulah couldn’t swim and was wearing a heavy beaded dress and jewelry. In order to get back to the surface she had to shed everything and came up stark naked. And completely unashamed, too, quipping, “Everyone’s been dying to see my body, now they can see it.” While Johnny and her friends dredged the pool for her stuff, she amused herself by screwing with the hotel’s sign so that it said “The Den of Allah.”
Even if Tallulah wasn’t there that day, you were likely to have a better time out partying by the pool, anyway. The Adamses hadn’t exactly splurged on decent furniture, and the Garden’s subsequent owners never bothered to upgrade it. Or pay for any sort of maintenance, for that matter.
Over the years, the Garden of Allah became Hollywood’s ultimate liminal space, teeming with guests whose lives were in transition. Wide-eyed ingenues on their way up, jaded character actors on their way back out. Émigrés and fugitives. People going through divorce, bankruptcy, and any sort of life change, major or minor. And a hardcore group of regulars that can only be described as 24 hour party people drawn by Garden’s “anything goes” reputation.
These were supported by the place’s long-time employees and hangers-on, like the waitress who sold drugs she concealed in her updo. The most notorious was Ben the bellboy, a pudgy middle-aged man who functioned as the hotel’s concierge. He would run errands and make deliveries for guests — when he wasn’t steaming open their mail, stealing their liquor and rifling through their possessions while they were out.
Or maybe the most notorious was the woman known only as “Doc.” She had no actual medical qualifications, but she did have a black leather bag with, uh, an electric marital aid in it and could be called over to your villa at any hour of the night to give you a “massage.”
Patrons of the never-ending party included John Barrymore, who rode his bicycle indoors and kept falling into the pool; “Funny Girl” Fanny Brice; character Charles Butterworth, who used to get pushed around the pool in a wheelbarrow; John Carradine, who once hallucinated that he was Jesus and tried to walk across the pool; Virginia Cherrill, not yet married to Cary Grant; Dolores del Rio; W.C. Fields, who shortened the distance from the villa to the bar by wading through the pool; Errol Flynn; Greta Garbo; Ed Gardner of Duffy’s Tavern; Lillian Gish’s younger sister Dorothy; D.W. Griffith, who liked the beds; Lillian Hellman; Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester; Ernst Lubitsch; Anita Louise, who used to swim fully made-up and somehow never managed to disturb her makeup or hair; W. Somerset Maugham; David Niven; original Ben Hur and closeted gay man Ramón Novarro; Maureen O’Sullivan and her husband-to-be John Farrow; William Powell and Carole Lombard, who lived across the street and would sneak onto the property to use the pool; and Ginger Rogers.
For a brief period, the hotel became sort of an Algonquin Round Table West, serving as a base of operations for East Coast writers and artists when they came to Hollywood to make a quick buck. Over the years it played host to Robert Benchley, F. Scott Fitzgerald, George S. Kaufman, Charles MacArthur, Harpo Marx, Dorothy Parker, Harold Ross, Robert Sherwood, and Alexander Woolcott. They all went sort of nuts on the West Coast, spending their days drinking by the pool, gambling, and in general acting like children.
Robert Benchley was perhaps the Garden’s longest-term resident, living there on and off for years while he pretended to work on his biography of Queen Anne. Really, though, he spent most of his time drinking and partying and tossing off timeless quips like, “I think I’ll get out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini.” He did most of his drinking at the Garden, because he was so terrified of the traffic on Sunset Boulevard that he was afraid to cross the street.
Harpo Marx stayed there for a time, but long days of filming tended to keep him away from the worst of the debauchery. One rare weekend off he was looking forward to having a few hours to practice on his harp, only to be interrupted by a loud piano player in the villa next door who made it impossible to hear. Harpo complained to management, who told him his new neighbor was Sergei Rachmaninoff, and no, they weren’t going to ask him to quiet down. Harpo’s revenge was simple: he opened his door and all his windows and played the first four bars of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C Sharp Minor for two hours straight until Rachmaninoff, who hated his most famous work, couldn’t take it any more and demanded to be moved.
One person who wound up not staying at the Garden of Allah was author Robert Hitchens. In 1936 The Garden of Allah was being filmed for a third time, a Technicolor spectacular starring Marlene Dietrich and Charles Boyer, and the studio brought in Hitchens to doctor the script. Hitchens’ publicist decided his client absolutely had to stay in the hotel that bore his novel’s name, and in their best villa, no less. The desk clerk on duty politely responded that all the villas were spoken for but, that Hitchens could have a room in the main house if he wanted one. The publicist reminded the desk clerk that Mr. Hitchens had written The Garden of Allah, only to get the retort, “I don’t care if he wrote the Bible, we don’t have a villa.”
But you know who did come back? Alla Nazimova. The stock market crash of 1929 had wiped her out, and by 1938 she could no longer to maintain her home in Rye. So she moved back to Hollywood and took up permanent residence on the second floor of Villa 24, overlooking the garden and pool and haunting the wild parties like a ghost.
Even though Nazimova didn’t interact much with the other guests, she was still interested in them. She reportedly spent hours perched over the air vent, eavesdropping on temporary residents of the first floor like Frank Sinatra and Orson Welles. She also put a sundeck and a small garden on the roof, which was also the perfect vantage point to creep on young starlets sunning themselves by the pool.
Nazimova returned just in time for the Garden to go from shabby chic to shabby and dangerous. In 1941, the night clerk was hogtied by two armed men who emptied the cash register in the bar. And he was the lucky one, because the next year a different night clerk was shot dead during a robbery. Guests frequently returned to their rooms only to discover that they had been ransacked by parties unknown. In 1945 Red Skelton was robbed by a marine while he was showing off his gun (probably as a prelude to, uh, showing off his gun, if you know what I mean).
How bad did it get? Well, when Nazimova died of cancer in 1945 she was actively looking for a new place to live, even though the sentimental owners were giving her a massive discount on her rent. That’s how bad.
Final Days (1946-1959)
By the late 1940s, the Garden was visibly in decline. It had passed through multiple owners, none of whom really gave a damn. Years of minimal maintenance and deferred upkeep were starting to pay dividends. The roof leaked. The interiors walls hadn’t been seriously cleaned or repainted in years. The carpets were stained and faded, and the furniture hadn’t been replaced since 1927. Everything was infested with roaches, rats and mice.
The hotel still managed to attract a few high-profile names at strange times in their lives. Errol Flynn returned during his attempted comeback in 1957. Humphrey Bogart lived at the Garden during his separation from third wife Mayo Methot, as did Ronald Reagan during his divorce from Jane Wyman. Other guests of note included Perry Como; Ava Gardner; Jackie Gleason; Burl Ives; Fernando Lamas; Lawrence Olivier; Phil Silvers; Frankie Laine, back when he was plain old Francesco LoVecchio; and poor old Johnny Ray, who sounded sad upon the radio, moved a million hearts in mono.
For the most part, though, residents of the Garden were those who couldn’t afford to stay somewhere better, and those who didn’t know any better. More typical guests included Egyptian actress Patricia Medina, Turkish ballerina Nejla Ates, child actress Patty McCormack, and the Today Show‘s pet monkey, J. Fred Muggs.
Then, a ray of hope. In 1955 the Garden of Allah was purchased by Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney and Dudley Murphy for $500,000. They had grandiose plans for the property: tearing down half of the house to build a larger bar; building a 1920s-themed bar in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s old villa; and replacing the other villas with Hawaiian-style lanai apartments. As time went by they had to scale down these plans, and really only managed to refurbish the bar and replace the furniture.
Speaking of the furniture: actor Denver Pyle was driving by when he saw workers just dumping old beds, chairs and tables into the parking lot. Pyle did a quick negotiation, bought everything for the bargain price of $300, and made a quick profit by selling pieces to curious passers-by. It probably helped that he claimed every bed had been the site of Errol Flynn’s greatest sexual conquests.
The new Garden of Allah didn’t last long — the old clientele had abandoned the hotel in droves during the long months of renovation, and didn’t return in force when it reopened in October. In 1956 Whitney and Murphy sold the property to Frank Ehrhart for a loss.
Erhrhart tried to juice his profits by subdividing the existing bungalows, to no avail. In 1957 he sold the property to Moe Markowitz for a mere $275,000.
Markowitz managed to hold on to the hotel longer than his predecessors by instituting time-based pricing at the bar: at 4:00 PM drinks cost 40¢, and at midnight they cost $1.20. The cheap drinks managed to pack the bar with penniless drunks, and armies of hookers and pickpockets that preyed on them. But it was a short-term solution to what was proving to be a long-term problem.
In 1959, Markowitz sold the property to Bart Lytton of Lytton Savings & Loan for $755,000. Lytton had no interest in running a hotel, but a plot of land at the end of the Sunset Strip was too valuable to pass up. He announced he would raze the Garden of Allah and turn it into a strip mall, housing a branch of his S&L.
The Garden’s last day of operation on August 23, 1959 was capped off by a lavish farewell costume party. Guests dressed as film stars from the 1920s, but there was a singular lack of inspiration: dozens of Charlie Chaplins and Clara Bows, and little else. Bart Lytton hosted the festivities while dressed as the devil.
The next day, the building was razed to the ground. And that was that.
The Garden of Allah was no more. The wild hedonistic parties moved down the street to the Chateau Marmont, and the clandestine gay culture moved… well, everywhere in West Hollywood, really. These days, the former hotel is just a nondescript strip mall, albeit with a bank that’s a magnificent example of mid-century “googie” architecture.
But not for long. Frank Gehry is looking to demolish the whole block and build a giant mixed-use glass and steel monstrosity. Construction is slated to start in 2021 and be finished by 2023. I wish him the best of luck, and he’ll need it. Time has not been kind to previous owners of 8150 Sunset Boulevard and their plans, and I doubt it’ll be kind to its new owners, either.
(2023 Update: It wasn’t.)
In 1957 one of the guests of the Garden was one Freeman Bernstein, who was running a scam where he sold fake jewelry to Hollywood wannabes. This is our third story where Bernstein makes an appearance; in the days before he was a straight-up con man , he had been a sleazy theatrical agent. In 1902 he briefly represented actress Laura Biggar, who had conspired to steal the entire estate of the late impresario Henry Martin Bennett (“Pleadings from Asbury Park”). And in 1909 he actually managed to get fake Spiritualist Ann O’Delia Diss Debar (“Spirit Princess”) booked into Oscar Hammerstein’s Victoria Ballroom, which was her last known public appearance.
Other guests of the Garden include Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester, who stayed there during the production of 1939’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. In the opening scenes of that movie, Quasimodo defeats several competitors in an “ugliest man” competition, including one played by acromegalic Rondo Hatton (“Monster without a Mask”).
Another one-time resident of the Garden was W. Somerset Maugham, who stayed there while working on screenplay. Maugham made a brief appearance earlier this season, writing a witty letter in support of Hugh Lane’s Dublin Municipal Gallery (“More Lovely and More Temperate”).
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