Inside the Hotel Where Hollywood’s A-List Felt Safe to Misbehave
During the Golden Age of Hollywood, the Garden of Allah Hotel was where Marlene Dietrich allegedly skinny-dipped, and where Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall began an affair.
In 1927, 22-year-old silent film star Clara Bow would tell her protective father she was going to Joan Crawford’s house, then she would drive to the USC campus to pick up her friends on the football team and take them to the secret room she maintained at the Garden of Allah hotel on Sunset Boulevard. Once there, they would party the night away before taking a sunrise dip in the pool.
In 1949, when Ronald Reagan’s first marriage was heading towards divorce, the future president moved into the hotel, where his lifestyle of drinking, partying, and getting lucky with the ladies once led him to comment that he couldn’t always remember his overnight guests’ names.
In the 1950s, Marilyn Monroe and her crew of fellow starlets decamped to the favored hotel haunt to spend long nights on the dance floor drinking, smoking, and enjoying the fruits of celebrity.
The Garden of Allah was the spot to be for anyone who was anyone in Hollywood from the turn of the 1930s through the late 1950s.
From its grand opening in 1929 until the farewell rager was thrown in 1959, the Garden of Allah was a refuge for celebrities who wanted to fully embrace the wild bohemian lifestyle of the rich and famous as well as those on the run from a home life on the skids; it was the keeper of Hollywood’s secrets and the site of some of its largest deals; and it was the master of ceremonies for all kinds of bad behavior.
“Nothing interrupted the continual tumult that was life at the Garden of Allah,” writer Lucius Beebe, a Garden resident, once said. “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.”
The party started at the end of the 1910s when actress Alla Nazimova treated herself to a $60,000, two-and-a-half-acre estate on one end of what would become the famous Sunset Boulevard. Originally named Hayvenhurst, the home was built in 1913 as the private residence of real estate developer William H. Hay.
Nazimova decided to put her own touch on the property and filled the grounds with flowers in addition to commissioning the construction of the largest pool the city had ever seen. It was also the most interesting. In an ode to the star’s Crimean roots, the pool was shaped like the Black Sea.
Nazimova loved her new estate with its flower-filled gardens and Spanish house that, in a foreshadowing of the role it would soon play in Hollywood, was the perfect setting for her liaisons with female lovers.
But as the 1920s got underway, Nazimova started to suffer from financial difficulties. She turned her home into a hotel, built 25 bungalows around the pool, and sold the property to a new owner with one condition: she would be allowed to live out the rest of her life there. (She did just that, staying at the Garden of Allah until she died of cancer in 1945.)
On January 9, 1927, Clara Bow accompanied the actor Gilbert Roland to the Garden of Allah's grand opening party. Nazimova's estate had come to be known as the Garden of Alla, named after both herself and a popular 1905 novel by Robert Hitchens that was turned into a movie staring Marlene Dietrich in 1936. The "h" was eventually tacked on to the end after it came under new ownership.
By all accounts, the hotel wasn’t the picture of gilded luxury that we imagine wealthy A-listers ensconced in today. Even before it began to show the wear and tear of being the chosen late-night party spot for decades, it was known for its thin walls, ordinary decor, and subpar dining experience. But oh, the parties guests and residents threw there.
The culture in Hollywood at the turn of the 1930s was very different from today. Many of the budding film stars didn’t yet have permanent residences in the area, so they would move into hotels temporarily or as full-time residents while they were in town on company business.
This collection of celebrity neighbors with time and money on their hands living it up in a semi-vacation state created the perfect conditions for debauchery to flourish. It also didn’t hurt that queen among the revelers was the original resident herself, Nazimova, who had set the tone for free love and the free flow of booze even during its early days in the midst of Prohibition.
In the 1930s, the Garden of Allah became the go-to spot for late night parties. After the more proper—and undoubtedly more boring—soirees wrapped up around town, revelers would decamp to the Black Sea pool where off-duty bands would pick their instruments back up and the dancing, drinking, and romantic liaisons would ensue.
As a report in the Middlesboro Daily News put it, the Garden of Allah was the “roaringest oasis in the roaring Hollywood of the 1920s and 1930s.”
The list of famous residents who made the hotel their home for a time is long. Errol Flynn, Greta Garbo, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ginger Rogers, and John O’Hara all stayed on the property, as well as Tallulah Bankhead and Marlene Dietrich, who allegedly enjoyed skinny-dipping in the pool.
John Barrymore kept a bike outside his hotel villa so that he could quickly get to nearby parties, while writer and comedian Robert Benchley was known to be transported from party to party via wheelbarrow. It was here that Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall began an affair while filming together, and where Frank Sinatra met Ava Gardner while he was in residence.
In the 1940s, the parties continued unabated, but the flavor of the revelers shifted slightly after the Garden of Allah became the favorite home away from home for the New York literary set who had ushered in the ongoing tradition of hopscotching between the two coasts.
In The Dream Endures, Kevin Starr writes that the hotel “brought to its portion of Sunset Boulevard the wit and spirit, together with the drinking, of the Algonquin Circle of New York.”
Benchley was king of the party set during this time when such a high-falutin’ motley crew as Dorothy Parker, Alexander Woollcott, and Johnny McClain moved into the pool-side villas.
It was here that Benchley made his famous comment “I’ve got to get out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini” after being caught in a rainstorm or thrown fully clothed into the pool, depending on which account you believe. It was also here that Beebe observed “The Garden catered to the best dressed and the best undressed.”
But all good parties must come to an end. As the 1950s raged on, newer and nicer hotels began to pop up to cater to the Hollywood set, and the Garden of Allah slowly lost its luster.
In 1959, as the next set of Hollywood stars migrated to newer and nicer digs, the Garden of Allah was sold to a developer who tore it down and paved it over, turning the once-storied hotel into a strip mall (a move, so the rumor goes, that inspired Joni Mitchell to write “Big Yellow Taxi”).
But first, the developer honored the storied history of the place by throwing one last goodbye bash. It was only proper given the important role the hotel had played in creating the glamor and myth around the Hollywood we know today.
As the blog Hollywood Lost and Found put it, “whatever the reason for the visit, the Garden of Allah was an escape from reality for those whose job it was to provide that escape for everyone else.”