King of the Hollywood Hedonists
Allan Carr's extravagant, outrageous, celeb-filled parties in the 1970s were the biggest thing in town. An excerpt from Robert Hofler's new book recounting this hedonistic heyday with the likes of Roman Polanski, Diana Ross, and Rudolf Nureyev.
The last of L.A.’s red-hot party animals, Allan Carr, was a flamboyantly gay, morbidly obese, caftan-wearing manager-turned-producer who ruled the Hollywood social scene for nearly two decades. His reign of fun began in 1973, when he purchased Ingrid Bergman’s Hilhaven Lodge in Beverly Hills, and it ended bigtime in 1989, when he produced what came to be known as “the worst Oscars telecast ever” thanks to an unfortunate duet between a tone-deaf Rob Lowe and an unknown actress in Snow White drag. Allan knew how to mix it up at his parties—movie stars and rockers, gays and straights, Old and New Hollywood—and the town has never seen his likes again.
Allan attracted a defiantly eclectic guest list through all kinds of inducements, and no one seemed to mind when he said undeniably clunky things like “I’m instant Elsa Maxwell!” Whoever the hell she was. The food at 1220 Benedict Canyon Drive was good, the cocaine and sex even better.
“The next person through the door could be Rita Hayworth or Zubin Mehta, Diana Ross or David Geffen, Sidney Poitier or porn star Harry Reems or a neighbor’s good-looking pool boy.”
With those first starry nights at Hilhaven Lodge, the parties merged deliriously into each other, honoring a lazy-Susan array of celebrities ranging from Martha Raye to Mick Jagger. “It was just before the Robert Stigwood disco period,” says rocker Alice Cooper, “and Allan was the social butterfly who had a million different parties. We’d go to Allan’s and it would not be surprising to find Mae West sitting next to Rod Stewart or Salvador Dali or Jack Benny.”
“Allan was the bridge between New and Old Hollywood,” says producer Peter Guber. “When I first came to Hollywood, he gave parties on a scale of what you read about in Harold Robbins.”
Allan’s parties weren’t the only celeby gatherings in town in the early 1970s. Agent Sue Mengers’ dinner parties were strictly A-list, as were the weekend salons over at Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne’s house. But, “what made Allan’s parties unique is that you just didn’t know who would walk in the door,” says ICM agent Ron Bernstein.
Director Joel Schumacher agrees. “It was like Noah’s ark. His parties were two of everything.”
Who knew? The next person through the door could be Rita Hayworth or Zubin Mehta, Diana Ross or David Geffen, Sidney Poitier or porn star Harry Reems or a neighbor’s good-looking pool boy. It was Allan’s introduction of the rockers to the movie mix, however, that really shook up Hollywood. “He was a force that drove that kind of thinking in the 1970s,” Guber adds. In some respects, the celebs took backseat to the nameless beauties who fast became an Allan Carr trademark. L.A. Times gossip Joyce Haber remarked on them obliquely in her coverage of the April 1974 party honouring the National Ballet of Canada and Rudolf Nureyev.
“If [Easter] Bunnies were lacking, muscle-bound young men were not. Mae West would have had as much of a ball as Nureyev,” wrote Haber. Those two sentences were a promise that both Allan and Rudy delivered on at a following party, which featured a much more exclusive, if far less famous, guest list.
“Nureyev was sexually insatiable,” noted Dominick Dunne. “For one party in his honor, Allan hired a hustler for every room in his house so Nureyev could be serviced on the spot, if he so chose.” This is what came to be known, unofficially, as the Nureyev Mattress Party, which might have been payback for all the women Rudy had to dance with on that previous evening.
Allan welcomed his Russian guest of honor to this second fete with an abundance of Beluga caviar, Stolichnaya vodka, and Hollywood rent boys. Curiously, it was the latter dishes that Nureyev never got around to sampling, although other guests made quick use of them. At one point in the evening, producer Howard Rosenman wondered when he was going to see, much less meet, the world’s greatest dancer. Then he heard someone cry out into the jasmine-filled night air, “Nureyev’s getting fucked in the lanai!”
Actually, it was the cottage—the same one on the Hilhaven grounds where Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini kicked off their illicit affair in 1946. Rosenman estimated the line outside the tiny stone house, now being used as Allan’s office, at 25 men. He peeked inside the door. Yes, Nureyev was on his back, his heels banging away on a Smith-Corona.
The Hilhaven Lodge parties became so famous that Jesus Christ Superstar producer Robert Stigwood hired Allan to promote his new movie Tommy, and for the opening night on March 18, 1974, Allan knew he had found the perfect party locale: the new subway station at Sixth Avenue and 57th Street in New York City. Indeed, it was a happy audience that left the Ziegfeld Theater to make a three-block journey up the avenue and down one flight of newly cemented steps into the subway mezzanine, where they were greeted by an eight-foot long Tommy sign fashioned from 3,000 cherry tomatoes, radishes, cauliflower, and broccoli.
The invitation requested “black tie or glitter funk,” and in the definitive words of Women’s Wear Daily, the subway that evening showcased every look from “terrific to terrible.” Trains rumbled below as 700 guests fought over 600 seats. It was a scene of such unbridled frenzy that Elton John, lightly dusted with black sequins, remarked, “I’ve never been so frightened in my life!”
New to Allan’s party mix of movie stars and rockers were the drag queens. “The party was almost a costume ball,” says publicist Kathie Berlin. “But leather weird.” The odd amalgam of cross-dressers and society matrons unnerved no less a notable than Pete Townshend, who complained, “I just hope none of them turn up at any Who concerts.”
Tina Turner was no less indelicate. “We have a little bit of everybody here, and not everybody has soul,” she remarked, then took her seat in a roped-off section of the subway near Allan’s No. 1 client, the bugle-beaded star of Tommy. In this crowd, only Andy Warhol sank to the level of being totally, unashamedly star-struck. “I just wanted to see Ann-Margret,” he gushed.
A few months later, Allan threw a Fourth of July fete back on his Beverly Hills home turf, and invited David Geffen, Cher, Liza Minnelli, James Caan, Mario Puzo, Gene Kelly, David Janssen, Buck Henry, Tony Richardson, Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis Jr., and 300 other people to see a new pop group that he touted as clients. The Cycle Sluts were 10 very bearded men who wore female S&M leather gear—studded bras, corsets, high-heel boots—as they cranked out a rather diluted brand of heavy-metal rock.
At the buffet, Rex Reed complained that “a bunch of hustlers from Hollywood Boulevard” had cut in line, and worse, they advertised “amyl nitrite” on their T-shirts. Wearing a leopard print bathrobe, Allan laughed and called the drug wear “cute,” but even he knew that some damage control was needed when his security team warned that a drag queen had OD’d on his front lawn and the police were on their way.
“I don’t have a front lawn,” Allan cried in defense. “What happened was a crasher collapsed on my neighbor’s lawn.”
It was one overdose Allan didn’t have to disown. As Bruce Vilanch describes the general Hilhaven vibe, “People were so chemically altered then. You could have people like Gregory Peck’s wife, Veronique, or Louis B. Mayer’s daughter Edie Goetz or Billy Wilder’s wife, Audrey, talking to Allan’s latest boy toys.”
It would be reported in the Los Angeles Times that Hugh Hefner looked “aghast” when he caught sight of the Sluts. With their muscled gender-obliterating mien, they compelled few people to listen as they performed. “Out came the Cycle Sluts, these guys in leather chaps with their bums hanging out,” Lorna Luft recalls. “People were shocked—people like the Irving Lazars and the Henry Mancinis. People thought Allan had gone loopy, but then everybody had a really great time.” Watching the daughter of Judy Garland watching Gene Kelly watching the Cycle Sluts, Allan knew his latest party could never be topped. But he would try.
In November 1975, Diana Ross, Peter Sellers, Lucille Ball, Dominick Dunne and a few hundred other Hollywood notables were stunned by the summons delivered to their doorstep that crisp autumn day. “It was quite a shock to receive it,” observed Dunne. “When you open the front door and someone is serving you a subpoena, your heart stops!”
The joke was pure Allan Carr. In his mind, the party scheduled for December 14 began three weeks earlier when those 300 “summons,” i.e. invitations, went out by way of unemployed actors dressed up in cop costumes. The law-enforcement theme carried right through to the Jailhouse Party itself, held in the deserted Lincoln Heights Jail in northeast Los Angeles. “I have a headache from all the red tape,” Allan told his guests, referring to what the city’s Economic Development Office put him through to rent the jail for the night. “Actually, the week,” he added. “It took a few days to turn this place into something other than a pig sty, which it was.”
Dunne praised the cleanup crew. “The bathrooms were fit,” he recalled. “That’s where everyone was piling in for the coke.”
The jailhouse theme came courtesy of the evening’s guest of honor and his most famous book, In Cold Blood. Truman Capote had recently escaped New York City after achieving leper status by spilling a bunch of society beans in Esquire magazine about Babe Paley and other members of the Park Avenue world. An early look at one of the chapters, “La Cote Basque 1965,” from his long-awaited but never-delivered novel Answered Prayers lost him entrée to his beloved Beautiful People. But none of this mattered in Los Angeles, where Capote remained a literary genius with people who read Liz Smith but not Esquire.
For his part, the In Cold Blood author looked at all the raw seafood in a nearby cart, and nearly passed out. “I’m ordering rice and beans. I’m having jailhouse food,” he said, and instead ate nothing. The hurly-burly of Allan’s party left its guest of honor strangely unnerved, and he soon retreated to one of the cramped eight-by-ten-foot cells with sink and exposed toilet. Capote left it to the 500 other guests to dance, eat, and smoke dope in the common area. Dominick Dunne wandered into another cell and for a moment his gaze met Capote’s. “There was such sadness in Truman’s eyes,” Dunne recalled. “He never recovered from that snub of Mrs. Paley’s.”
In July 1977, having made millions producing a cannibal exploitation movie called Survive!, Allan eschewed funky, novel party locales in favor of his recently purchased Malibu house, which he called Seahaven. “I’m going to hold a party that runs over two nights,” he announced. He called it his Rolodex Party. “People with last names A–L will be invited on Friday night. Those with names M–Z on Saturday night.”
Allan asked everyone to wear “beach chic.” Keith Carradine came in a jogging suit. Gossip columnist Rona Barrett wore a terry beach robe and diamonds. Struggling photographer (and ex-wife of the Canadian prime minister) Margaret Trudeau arrived in a simple suit. Producer Carlo Ponti showed up in a checked jacket and open-neck shirt. John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, who were shooting Allan’s new movie Grease, assiduously obeyed the alphabet dictate, as did Michael Eisner, Roger Vadim, Johnny Carson, Steven Spielberg, and Alana and George Hamilton, who were on the verge of divorce but not so separated that they wanted to miss a good party.
Only Anjelica Huston broke rank by attending the second night M-Z party and regretted her defiance the minute Roman Polanski appeared. The big news at both parties was Polanski’s rape trial, in which Huston gave evidence for the prosecution. With the trial ongoing, Polanski’s appearance on Saturday night propelled it from a must-attend event to one for the record books, and Allan led a standing ovation the moment the indicted rapist walked through the front door. The gesture nearly moved Polanski to tears, even though not everyone approved. “Only in Hollywood,” complained Alana Hamilton.
Allan Carr went on to give other lavish parties in the 1980s, most notably the premiere for the Village People’s Can’t Stop the Music, which required the entire north plaza of Lincoln Center to stage; and the opening night gala for La Cage aux Folles, which clocked in as the most expensive party in Broadway history. There were also huge blowouts at Studio 54 to launch Allan’s productions of Grease 2 and Where the Boys Are ‘84. As his faithful publicist Kathie Berlin put it, “The parties were always great. Only the movies stank.”
The festivities, however, ended abruptly in 1989 when Allan produced that year’s Oscars telecast. The Hollywood establishment was so offended by the spectacle of Rob Lowe singing to Snow White in the show’s campy opening number that 17 movie luminaries, including Gregory Peck and Paul Newman, signed a petition that, in essence, banned Allan Carr from ever producing the telecast again. The affront so hurt Allan that he became a Beverly Hills recluse, and died in 1999 of liver cancer at the age of 62.
Robert Hofler, a senior editor at Variety, is the author of Party Animals, The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson, and Variety’s "The Movie That Changed My Life". His articles have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, and the Washington Post. He lives in Los Angeles.