Welcome to the Hotel California

A Hollywood landmark. A mysterious fire. An oddball couple. For years, the Lido Apartments had been trying to evict the people in 426. Did gentrification drive out Elvis and Jill? Or was it their own demons?

For decades to come, the Lido’s address would be posted on the Actors’ Equity board in Manhattan, the Broadway equivalent of a Good Housekeeping seal. “For show people, it was the place to stay in Hollywood,” says Joe McArdle, a scenic and costume designer who left New York in 1971 to work on the Bonanza set and ended up living in the Lido for the next dozen years. The headliners usually sought fancier accommodations, but the cast and crew of every major traveling production, from the Ice Capades to Hello, Dolly!, camped out at the Lido when their show rolled into town. The bar hummed. The pool had a phone. Hordes of beautiful young singers and dancers spent hours soaking and sunning, waiting on their calls. “Guys were meeting girls, guys were meeting guys,” says McArdle, who always compared notes with the Lido’s unofficial bouncer, Isabel Williams, a former erotic acrobat on the riverboats of Al Capone’s Chicago. “I’m telling you, it was not a dull place.”

Little by little, the Lido inched toward decadence, a sad flower in what was becoming a tawdry stretch of town. By the mid ’70s, its residents included octogenarian actor Victor Kilian, the “Fernwood Flasher” on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman; a notorious prowler of the Boulevard’s gay bars, he was bludgeoned to death in his apartment, an unsolved crime thought to have been committed by one of his pickups. In the cheesy thriller St. Ives, Charles Bronson played a hard-luck reporter turned novelist, trailed by bookies, divorce lawyers, and homicide detectives. His home was a Lido studio. “Oh my God, we had some weird characters staying there,” says Helen Fox, who along with her husband, a Malibu developer, owned the Lido during that time. “Prostitutes used to sit on the window ledges. Our guests couldn’t go to the store without getting propositioned. There was a Greek restaurant on Cahuenga, the Athenian Gardens, with a nightclub—their acts all came from Greece and stayed at the Lido. One tenant, a Vietnam vet, blacked out all his windows, took out all the lights except for one bulb in his closet, then flooded the floor. We found his bathtub filled with unused tubes of toothpaste. The one night I spent in the building, my Mercedes was stolen out of the parking lot.”

From the seaminess of that decade, though, emerged a timeless memento, a photograph that would cement the Lido’s place in pop culture. The quintessential L.A. rock band of the day, the Eagles, was preparing to release its sixth and most acclaimed album, Hotel California. The tide track spoke of a beguiling Spanish inn, at once comforting and corrupt, a place that entraps as much as it shelters: We are all just prisoners here / Of our own device. The song was an allegory—of “faded glory” and “loss of innocence,” as Don Henley once told an interviewer—not an ode to an actual hotel. But for the purpose of the album jacket, the Eagles still needed a face to put to the name. “My studio in those days was on Vine, just north of Hollywood, so of course I had seen the Lido,” says David Alexander, who shot the pictures. “It just had the perfect feel, a place you could photograph and make a statement.”

The Lido, photographed for the jacket of the Eagles album Hotel California

The cover of Hotel California would end up featuring a more recognizable property, the pink facade of the Beverly Hills Hotel. But the inside of the jacket was pure Lido: a panoramic centerfold of the lobby filled with a cast of post-hippie, pre-disco swingers and poseurs and seekers—and at the center, the members of the Eagles themselves. The photo is infused with an otherworldly voyeurism, a party frozen just as the margaritas are beginning to melt. There is an ingenue in a boa and a dandy in a jumpsuit, a pimp in a fedora and a little old man in a brass-buttoned bellhop’s uniform. The mood is clinched by a shadowy figure on the lobby’s second-floor balcony. Like a gargoyle, it is bent over a wrought-iron railing, arms spread wide, as if poised to swan dive into the crowd. In that wishful and oddly persistent way that urban legends are born, the creature’s pasty face has long been rumored to belong to the fanciful Anton LaVey, high priest of the Church of Satan. Still debated on Internet sites, LaVey’s appearance is supposedly a symbol of the band’s surrender to the occult—hidden proof that Hotel California was, in fact, a paean to devil worship: They stab it with their steely knives / But they just can’t kill the beast.

As it turns out, the mystery guest was just a model, a pale, slender beauty who had strayed into the shoot. Alexander suggested that she head up to the balcony, then proceeded to forget she was there. “I didn’t look at her once,” he says. “I wasn’t aware that she was leaning over, extending her arms in that amazing wag casting a spirit over the room, if you will.” He is glad she was moved to do it, even if that means still being asked about the “ghost” haunting the Lido. “She was just expressing herself,” Alexander says. “Fortunately, she didn’t fall.”

WHEN I FIND HIM, ELVIS IS LYING ON A HOSPITAL BED, gaunt and sallow. He is wearing roguish Hunter S. Thompson aviator shades, minus the left temple. A cap with a USA logo superimposed on an American flag gives way to shaggy gray sideburns. An oval I VOTED sticker is taped to the bill. His cheeks are red. His teeth are brown. His eyes are hazel, the lashes long and pretty. Everything he owns is either in plastic shopping bags, which he carries in hand, or in sandwich Baggies, which he stuffs into the pockets of his safari vest. Since the fire, he has lived this way, in a residential care facility not far from the Veterans Administration in West L.A. He shares a room with a man who has his diaper changed four times a day. Norman Rockwell prints line the corridors.

“Why am I here?” he asks.

To decode Elvis is to wade through a lifetime of hurt, infirmity, humiliation, and booze, tempered by wry flourishes and flickers of grace. He is part idiot savant and part conspiracy theorist, a mix of Forrest Gump and Dale Gribble, the twitchy exterminator on King of the Hill. He remembers details—names, faces, numbers—with impressive clarity but seems to forget his own words the minute they leave his tongue. Every visit, he recognized me and understood my purpose but launched into his stories as if we had never talked. Ten, twenty, a hundred times I heard the same harangues, loops of self-absorption that would repeat, around and back, until they had spooled into a tangle he was powerless to undo. When I could no longer follow, I would nod and offer murmurs of assent. He would respond by mimicking me, his mouth twisted into an exasperated pucker. “I’m Elvis of Hollywood,” he would snort.

In his lyrical mutter, he can be clever or at least comical, sometimes by aim, sometimes by accident. His sentences are peppered with cornball expressions, “yesteryear” and “heyday,” “in other words” and “et cetera, et cetera.” He mixes metaphors, jumbles cliches, overplays puns. It as always Elvis and Jill, E and J, so to speak—”and I’m not talking brandy,” he might say. Or, “North, south, east, west—the west of your life.” With little provocation, though, his speech can grow cryptic and vexing, riffs of sound and association: “Christ, in a crisis? Jew, what d’you want? Kuwait, can you wait? Say what? What said?” (The psychiatric term is “clanging,” a disorder in which rhyme takes the place of meaning.) He would imagine lip-readers behind mirrored walls. He would crumple sheets of paper to thwart planted microphones. He insisted some combination of satellites and cell phones was tracking our every movement, which probably it is. His wiring just never lets him forget. “I’m speaking in layman’s terms,” he would say, “to make it easy for you.” When the liquor kicks in, Elvis grimaces and goes mute. He resorts to hand signals, to taps and flutters and twirls and snaps. He becomes a conductor, an undercover agent, a student of Braille. He points at his eyes. He zips his lips. Then he strokes the curved handle of his cane. Again and again. The shape of a question mark. He draws one in my notebook to make sure I understand. “I’m not an alcoholic, “he says, finally, “I’m an earthling.”

Elvis had been threatened with eviction at least four times. Photograph by Dan Winters.

Elvis was born 51 years ago, in San Francisco, as Samuel Joseph Marsh. His father, Daniel, was a merchant marine; he lost his toes to frostbite and wore steel-tipped boots, which is about all that Elvis can remember of him. Elvis’s mother, Myra, was an evangelist; she took the kids to L.A. and fell in with the mesmerizing O. Lee and Velma Jaggers, founders of the Universal World Church. (Preoccupied with eternal youth and the laying on of hands, Dr. Jaggers and Miss Velma are so over the top—part Vegas stage show, part Trekkie convention—that their sermons have come to attract an ironic following.) “When you’re a preacher’s son, you’re automatically a preacher, a holy rock and roller, fire and brimstone an all that,” says Elvis, who hawked newspapers around MacArthur Park after classes at Virgil Junior High. Instead of heeding his mother’s call, he enlisted in an ROTC program and, in 1971, entered the army. There Elvis earned two lifelong quirks. One was his nickname. The other, as he tells it, came during basic training at Fort Polk, Louisiana: A concussion grenade, carelessly tossed, exploded too close to his head. The inside of his mouth was shattered. His ears never stopped ringing. He went on to serve with a team of combat engineers, mostly in West Germany—”spy games, in other words”—but after being honorably discharged in 1973, he was placed on permanent disability. “Sammy’s just Sammy,” says Daniel Marsh Jr., the eldest of Elvis’s eight siblings, none of whom is in contact with him.

Harmless but hopelessly afflicted, Elvis slipped between the cracks. He was plagued by chills and sweats and toothaches and, later, a stroke. It was hard to work, impossible to sleep. His afternoons became his mornings, his nights his afternoons. He never obtained a driver’s license, never even sat behind a wheel. He shared a name with the King but found himself captivated by orchestras. They soothed. “Mozart,” says Elvis, when I ask of his favorite artist. Seeking an identity, he went from the army to Hollywood, a place where even the unsound can drop in on TV tapings and movie shoots. The list of notables with whom he claims to have shaken hands extends from Jerry Lewis and Kirk Douglas to Jay Leno and Bill Clinton. They were vicarious thrills, validation by proxy. Something in Elvis told him he had a style all his own. In 1989, he registered with Central Casting, the old-school agency for extras and day players, which still has offices in Burbank. “He was a wanna-be, sort-of actor type,” says Barbara Vasquez, who with her husband, Mike, had welcomed Elvis into Children of the Shepherd, which ministers to the homeless and outcast. “You’re in Hollywood, after all.”

His break came in a blockbuster, Pretty Woman, the Cinderella-in-whores-clothing fable that landed Julia Roberts atop a pedestal. The beginning is shot on the Boulevard. Roberts is strutting over Bob Hope’s star in a platinum wig and sapphire miniskirt. “It’s looking really slow tonight,” Roberts laments. “Yeah, well, maybe we should get a pimp,” says her streetwalking friend, Laura San Giacomo. Just then, a hunched little man with a sunken chin shuffles by. He is wearing a denim jacket, his thumbs tucked into the front pockets of black jeans. He scowls and cranes his neck, brooding over the two ladies. They ignore him. He keeps walking. It lasts, perhaps, three seconds.

A few years later, Elvis stumbled into another role, one that even earned him a credit. He was living a short walk from the Lido, at another venerable Hollywood fleabag, the Hastings. As it happens, the hotel had become a source of fascination for Taiwanese-born filmmaker Mei-Juin Chen, “my rite of passage into another America,” as she put it in her 1994 documentary, Hollywood Hotel. In one scene, Chen finds Elvis in the lobby He is dressed in a black leather biker’s jacket and matching cap, smoking a cigarette and studying a TV preacher. “Why don’t you become a Christian?” a fellow tenant asks him, a taunt more than an invitation. “It will turn your life around. You can get off all the dope you’re on, the hookers and all that. Get into the word of God.”

“A sheep needs a leader,” Elvis responds.