Photograph courtesy The Beverly Hills Hotel and Bungalows—The First 100 Years
by Robert S. Anderson, official historian for the Beverly Hills Hotel. Publication date May 2012.
Piers Morgan dreamed up the perfect gift for his son’s 13th birthday: Father and son would go for a ride in a new Lamborghini Murciélago. But where to score a $300,000 sports car on the spur of the moment? Morgan didn’t call his agent or his personal assistant. Instead he speed-dialed a group of more influential Hollywood players: the staff at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, the grand, estate-like fortress on Wilshire Boulevard where the television personality happened to be staying—not visiting, mind you, but residing—at the time. “I gave them eight hours’ notice,” Morgan recalls. “They located the only available one in California and had it waiting outside, bang on time. My son said it was the best day of his life.”
An impromptu spin in a luxury vehicle is but one of the many perks afforded certain members of L.A. society: those who call five-star hotels home. From Greta Garbo
to Lindsay Lohan, high-end accommodations have provided plush hideaways for the gilded class. For some, a hotel is a convenient place to crash while making a movie, as it was for Robert Pattinson, who moved into the Euro-chic Palihouse while shooting parts of the last Twilight installment. For others, like Cheryl Cole, it’s a creative space—last year the British pop sensation and almost-X Factor judge was but one of countless musicians who have holed up at the Sunset Marquis to record an album in the hotel’s basement studio.
Living in a hotel for several months or years might sound extravagant, but for the rich and famous it’s often more appealing (and practical) than buying, say, a multimillion-dollar Holmby Hills manse or a midcentury lair in the Hollywood Hills. Why juggle a mortgage and manage a 12-person staff when you can have 3 a.m. room service and Swiss chocolates on your pillow? Not to mention a built-in community in a city where social connection can be elusive.
To global hotelier André Balazs, hotel stays offer something even more profound. “When someone transfers their life into a hotel, the hotel isn’t a substitute for a family but a surrogate family,” says Balazs, whose Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard figured prominently in Sofia Coppola’s film Somewhere, in which a father and daughter bond not just with each other but with the hotel.
If what Balazs says is true, that guests develop a relationship with these landmarks, then the Chateau Marmont is a seductive enabler. Over the years the neo-Gothic hotel has attracted (and perhaps inspired) decadence and scandal: John Belushi famously overdosed in Bungalow No. 3, while Jim Morrison once tumbled off the roof. More recently Lohan, using the alias “Lily Flowers,” stormed the Chateau’s halls, barking demands at the front desk at all hours. The staff always accommodated her, just as they do any long-term resident—even one patron who requested that the hotel procure special grains for a pet kangaroo. (“Of course!” Balazs says. “What else are you gonna do?”)
The Beverly Hills Hotel extends a similar largesse to its guests: Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton had a bottle of vodka delivered to their bungalow daily at breakfast and lunch. These days its priciest bungalow rents for $17,300 a night and is equipped with a walk-in closet bigger than most people’s bedrooms, a private plunge pool, an executive study, five limestone fireplaces (indoor and outdoor), and a kitchen with a blinding array of stainless steel appliances—presumably for decoration.
The Sunset Marquis, a few blocks east, is where musicians such as Bono and Morrissey flock, flipping the bird at any sense of decorum. Then there’s the Sunset Tower Hotel, which contains so much star power that one feels inadequate walking its halls. Last year Jennifer Aniston moved in while she house hunted, continuing a tradition set by Whoopi Goldberg back when it was the St. James Club. Nearby is the ultraposh Hotel Bel-Air, where Michael Jackson once encamped for months, keeping a life-size, cardboard cut-out of Marilyn Monroe stationed outside his suite.
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The tradition of hotel dwelling in L.A. may seem rarefied and out of touch, but the practice was key in the evolution of the city as an entertainment mecca. In the early 20th century, when the movie industry was just starting to unspool, stars from New York and Chicago arrived to find a “city” that was mostly bean fields and orange groves. Hotels were built to provide a civilized spot for a creative class accustomed to comfort. The Beverly Hills Hotel was one such place. Built in 1912, it existed two years before the City of Beverly Hills was established. According to historian Marc Wanamaker, the hotel “served almost like a city hall, community center, theater, and restaurant. Everyone went there—it was the place to be seen. Will Rogers loved it. He built a home and polo field across the street, and after polo he’d walk across Crescent and have drinks. When he died, they remodeled the old kids’ dining room into a lounge and called it the Polo Lounge in his honor.”
Families, meanwhile, fancied the hotel’s bungalows because, says Wanamaker, “they didn’t want to stay in a formal hotel and bother other guests.” Movie stars, too, appreciated being tucked away, not just at the Beverly Hills Hotel but at the old Ambassador Hotel, where John Barrymore and Jean Harlow each lived for a time.
Hotels were, and still are, a refuge for artists seeking privacy and tolerance for their eccentricities. When the Chateau went up in 1929, it was perched atop a desolate section of Sunset Boulevard known as “No Man’s Land.” Five years later, director Billy Wilder would exploit its geographical seclusion to write scripts undisturbed. Montgomery Clift checked into the Hollywood Roosevelt when he was filming From Here to Eternity and amused (or perhaps annoyed) other guests by marching up and down the hall rehearsing lines and playing the trumpet. Greta Garbo settled into the Beverly Hills Hotel, where she had a huge custom-made bed installed. Howard Hughes held onto a number of that hotel’s bungalows, even when he wasn’t in town. Paranoid that people would discover which of the bungalows he was staying in, Hughes would order roast beef sandwiches to be delivered in the middle of the night and placed beside a tree located between the structures. He also used the men’s room in the hotel lobby as his office. Top that, Lohan.
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Los Angeles may have changed—the studio system has withered, the orange groves have been replaced by a matrix of freeways—but the sense that there are still places that can make the city feel a little less impersonal is what keeps actor Anil Kapoor (Slumdog Millionaire, Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol) a permanent hotel resident. “I’m a family member there. I’m a part of the staff!” he says of the Beverly Wilshire, where he has lived in “the Pretty Woman suite” for more than three years. (During that time, the staff has surprised him with an enormous Teuscher chocolate sculpture in honor of Slumdog’s Oscar win and regularly feeds him authentic chicken curry dishes reminiscent of his “real” home in India.) “From the time I entered, they were all my friends,” Kapoor says of the staff. “I keep on hugging them, they keep on hugging me.”
The hotel-as-family illusion (these are paid employees, after all) does reveal a darker reality: It’s lonely at the top. One famous actress chose hotel life because she was “scared of being alone,” according to someone close to her. “Living in a hotel meant there were always people around. And not just people—either famous people or people who would take care of her and get her whatever she wanted. It was like a big, expensive security blanket.”
In some cases hotels operate like safe houses. When Sunset Marquis habitués Angelina Jolie and Billy Bob Thornton broke up, Thornton stayed behind to lick his wounds. In recent months beleaguered former Dodgers owner Frank McCourt has sought refuge at the Montage, where he’s reportedly paid $30,000 a month for his suite.
Piers Morgan is happily married, but judging by his Twitter feed, staff changes at the Beverly Wilshire upset him almost as much as an actual family feud. Specifically, when general manager Radha Arora left for another job, Morgan tweeted, “Nooo! RT @BeverlyWilshire Very bittersweet, our wonderful GM & Regional VP Radha Arora appointed Pres and CEO of Rosewood Hotels & Resorts.”
“I watched him transform the hotel into the best in the world while I was there,” Morgan says. “Everyone loved him. He’d fix it for me to watch cricket on my TV when nobody else could get it; he’d throw extravagant dinner parties on my terrace for all my friends—spectacular affairs, with amazing food, wine, brandies, and cigars. They’d always end with Radha and I having a Monte Cristo No. 2 and talking nonsense.”
After hanging his hat there for more than two years, Morgan recently moved out of the hotel, but he clearly misses his old digs. He’s not alone: Warren Beatty spent a decade in that suite in the ’70s. Morgan recalls that when he last ran into Beatty at a dinner, the actor announced to the crowd, “Piers sleeps in my old bed!” Waking up in the same hotel bed as Warren Beatty? It doesn’t get more Hollywood than that.