The Scent Of Petty Theft: A Hollywood Survivor Relishes the Perfumed Air, Monogrammed Linens, and Other Perks of the Luxe Life

An excerpt from “I See You Made An Effort,” Annabelle Gurwitch’s collection of essays about turning 50


Annabelle Gurwitch is the former host of Dinner and a Movie on TBS, and the author of three books, most recently, I See You Made An Effort: Compliments, Indignities and Survival Stories from the Edge of 50, which comes out March 6 on Blue Rider Press.

The rich are different than you and me. Fitzgerald’s line repeats in my head as I pull my dusty Prius into the driveway at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. It has been years since I have been a guest in such an opulent setting, but I am neither intimidated nor overly impressed, because I am as comfortable at my corner burrito stand as I am in a five-star hotel. I have transcended class. I am an artist.

This is the narrative I have crafted for myself since I was nineteen and flat broke in New York City. I didn’t see it then, but it was my youth, a certain amount of beauty, style really, and the promise of a big career that allowed me to travel between classes. This combination can give you an allaccess pass to the enclaves of the wealthy, but there is a time limit. There’s a grace period you’re allotted when the future is ahead of you, before people in your industry start saying things like, I’m so impressed with all the ways you stay creative, which translates to, It’s astounding that your body hasn’t been found decomposing in a flea-bag motel in the high desert. I am not becoming anything anymore. That’s the kind of thudding honesty that occurs at fifty and it’s that kind of thing that can lead to petty theft.

I’ve arrived to discuss my duties at a charity event being held at the hotel that evening. 1

Monica, the catering manager, who I’m introduced to, is professionally attractive in the way that every woman working here today is. Tall, in good shape, but not so beautiful that she takes up space in your head, We sit down in a cozy alcove on a silk damask settee and I sip what is probably the most expensive latte I have ever ordered. How do I know that? The price is written in Arabic.  We’re discussing the event, but I’m distracted, maybe it’s because I’m shivering. It’s as cold as a meat locker. Glancing around, I see that I am surrounded by expensively maintained skin, capped teeth, and two sure signs of wealth: women with hair so blond and so immovable it can only be described as starched and, though we are nowhere near a body of water, 75% of the gentlemen present wear nautically themed jackets, brass buttons polished to perfection. 

And I am gripped by a sense of dread that this might be the last time I will be invited into a place where even the air smells expensive.

It turns out that hotels have started pumping fragrances through their air vents to aromatically enforce their brand. The Beverly Wilshire’s aroma, Purple Water, has been designed to reach into your reptilian brain and mimic the smell of old money. It has notes of leather, cigars, and cooked peas. If an odor had corporeal form, Purple Water would be wearing an ascot. 2

The hotel’s Purple Water works its magic on me and I hear myself announcing that I’m going to be so tired after the event, I will need to stay overnight. The event planner actually agrees to this and after lunch I head up to my suite. My hotel room is well appointed and maintained in a way that my home, built in 1932, will never be with its corners that don’t meet exactly.

There are no watermarks on the suite’s tables, no cats have sharpened their claws on the upholstery, and the walls bear no children’s handprints or bicycle skid marks. In fact, the paint looks so fresh I have to touch it to determine it’s not still damp. 

It also has a feature I always think of as the true sign of luxury: a heavy door separating the toilet from the rest of the facilities. It’s like Vegas: what happens there stays in there. 

I open a bottle of Asprey hair conditioner in the bathroom and inhale deeply. I proceed to stuff every single bath product into my purse and call down for more. I took home rolls of toilet papers from the nightclubs where I worked in the 1980s, yellow legal pads from the offices I worked in the 1990s and there was also that time I was sent to audition for the director John Hughes at a hotel in New York. I sat with another actress, who I assessed as so plain I was genuinely saddened that she’d never work in film or television, though I’d greatly admired her stage work. That actress was Cynthia Nixon.  Afterwards, John candidly admitted to not seeing me in the role, I thanked him and on my way out stopped to use his bathroom.  I stole every amenity in plain sight and a few more from the housekeepers cart in the hallway. I couldn’t stop myself then and I can’t stop myself now. 

A card on the marble bathroom vanity reminds me that guests are invited to go to the spa, so I have to take them up on that as well. Who am I to turn down the invitation? 

The spa changing area is paneled in dark mahogany, the lighting indirect and muted and there are no windows. It’s like a tomb, a bomb shelter, or the inside of a bank vault.

There are cut orchids everywhere. There’s even one in the pocket of the spa robe.

And an attendant appears and inquires whether I am experienced. Is he making a Jim Morrison reference? No, he means, have I tried The Experience Shower. It would just be impolite to refuse. I push the first of three buttons in front of me. This one is labeled Atlantic Swell.  Streams of water lash my back; the pressure varies and moves from side to side like I’m being tossed in the middle of the ocean. I startle and turn when I feel someone’s hand tapping me hard on the shoulder, but no one is there. It’s The Experience Shower’s many nozzles ratcheting up the pressure. I must be farther off shore now, as I’m drenched by torrents of hard rain. I begin to feel seasick.  I saw The Perfect Storm. This might not end well! The lights in the shower area move from yellow to green to purple.   Was the person who designed this on acid or in the employ of the C.I.A.?  It was like The Experience Shower was trying to get information from me. I switch to Caribbean Rain. It’s a gentle sprinkle, falling softly, but it soon becomes chilly so I try the mist setting. A slow swirl of cool mist envelopes me. 

When I emerge fully Experienced, I check the full-length mirror to see if I’ve sustained any bruising, but I am intact. Pulling on my robe, I again think of that line—the rich are different than you and me—and then I remember the rest of the sentence– and we will know them by their showers. No, that can’t be right. I know that, but my brain got jangled during the monsoon and it seems true. In less than five minutes, I’ve been drenched with enough water for several large families to cook and bathe for a week. How, I wonder, will I ever go back to my state mandated low flow shower head with its 2.5 gallon per minute limit?

I know I can’t stay in the spa all evening. I do have a job to do after all, so I head upstairs, change into my clothes and proceed down to the ballroom. It would be too tedious to explain my duties, but they involve two and a half hours of facilitating a panel about the preservation of wetlands that includes an elderly philanthropist, a noted film producer and an American alligator. One of them urinated on my lap during a spirited moment. After the show, I see that mistress of efficiency, blandiful Monica, and ask her to point me in the direction of a bathroom. She says there is one I can use just down the hall. I follow a hallway that narrows until I’m practically brushing past the walls.  The lighting starts to look different, dimmer, and even the paint looks less lustrous. The hallway ends  in a stairway lit by a single naked light bulb. Where am I going, Anne Frank’s bathroom? I open the door at the top of the stairs. It’s a restroom. There’s a row of individual stalls separated by dented metal dividers and an industrial soap dispenser with a greasy pinkish film coating the pumping mechanism. Water drips into a rust-stained cracked sink, and rough, brown paper towels are stacked haphazardly in a pile on the windowsill. It’s simply outrageous.  Where’s my bathroom with the heavy door? Where are my products? It doesn’t smell like any kind of money here, old or new. She’s sent me to the bathroom for The Help. I am not The Help. I am a guest. I turn, march down the stairs, run out of that hallway and search until I find a hotel guest bathroom. 

I didn’t sleep at all that night. I would like to say I was kept awake horrified by my own selfinvolved, entitled, elitist behavior, but that would not be accurate. After dousing myself with more Asprey Purple Water, I lay awake because the pillow had my initials monogrammed into them. That’s something I am still a little confused about. Do they keep stacks of initialed linens?  Surely there must be an algorithm that predicts the frequency of combinations otherwise the linen closet would be immeasurably vast? Was my head resting on the same pillow used by Alan Greenspan? Do they remove the embroidery after you check out or was I expected to take the pillowcases home? It was truly vexing. Plus, I didn’t want to waste one minute of how pleasurable the bedding felt by sleeping. 

In the morning, I head back across town where the air is hotter, the streets are dirtier, where a sticky cough drop and half an Ativan can be found in my bathrobe pockets.

[1] This is the same venue where Julia Roberts hooked her way into Richard Gere’s heart in Pretty Woman.

[2] The W Hotel chain, with its hipster appeal, uses a micromist diffusion system to infuse the atmosphere with a scent that’s uniquely calculated to encourage the spending of lots of dough. W’s scent, named “Bling,” calls up champagne, stainless steel and sex. Perhaps they harvested wrist sweat from Sean “P. Diddy” Combs during a VIP event and worked from there.

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