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?
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These days his act is limited to a pack of playing cards, a commemorative “Operation Iraqi Freedom” deck. We are sitting in a British pub in Santa Monica, his choice, drinking pints of ale. He pulls out the ace of spades. It features a picture of George W. Bush. I shrug, lost again. Elvis holds the card up to his face. It takes a moment, but then I see it, something goofily similar in their gray tufts and haft-baked smirks. “I’m the real McCoy,” says Elvis, pleased by my progress. “The real name and number. A streetwise celebrity. A look-alike. A natural. Or something like that.”

The Northridge earthquake put Elvis on the street. The Hastings was a loss. He had nowhere to go, except for a cot in the Hollywood High gym. Across L.A., the story was the same. With one violent shake, a city already rebuked for its lack of affordable housing found itself swamped by thousands of displaced renters, a population perilously close to joining the permanently homeless. It took an act of Congress to clear the tent cities; more than 11,000 emergency housing vouchers were eventually dispensed. On June 7, 1994, courtesy of Uncle Sam, Elvis became a resident of the Lido.

The Lido, once so sturdy and grand, had by then become a horror. Crack was now a staple of Hollywood, and the Lido’s corner, haled by the Yucca branch of the ubiquitous 18th Street gang, was the neighborhoods premier marketplace. Most of the old-timers, the final links to the Lido’s showbiz days, had either died or fled. Graffiti scarred every surface of the building. Its laundry room was a shooting gallery. At one point, 57 units were vacant. “I didn’t sleep for almost three years,” says Ana Townsend, a former manager, the first of seven to rent to Elvis. “It was a terrible place to live.”

The whole sordid collapse had occurred under the watch of one man, Craig Dennis, the Lido’s caretaker in one form or another since 1978. The fresh-faced son of a lauded film editor, Dennis was just 29 when he and a partner bought the building, in a $1.3 million deal. The Foxes had begun converting the hotel into unfurnished apartments, gutting its rooms and throwing a giant yard sale. Dennis arrived with big ideas—and, as most tenants recollect, good intentions—for continuing the overhaul. Financially, though, he was in over his head, mired in a money pit before he could even begin. Lawyers hounded him. Banks sued him. Liens mounted. During one four-year stretch, not a single water or tax bill was paid. If the building was not on the market, or in foreclosure, or assigned to a receiver, it was about to be. The Lido filed for bankruptcy—first in 1982, then in 1989, and again in 1993. The poor building seemed to be teetering atop a pyramid scheme, its encumbrances forever greater than its worth.

The chaos began to register at city hall. After several warnings, the Lido was charged in 1991 with 28 counts of fire and safety violations, from cockroach infestation to broken windows to missing smoke detectors. Dennis was labeled a slumlord. But he was also receptive and obliging, skilled at telling people what they wanted to hear. When newly elected councilwoman Jackie Goldberg put her muscle into the Yucca Corridor Coalition, a group of conscientious property owners that dubbed itself “Slumbusters,” Dennis volunteered to be secretary He even provided a room in the Lido for their regular Tuesday meetings. It mattered little that the Lido was part of the problem; Dennis was present, unlike so many of his absentee peers. “He put himself out there as a community leader, a good guy,” says Mirta Ocana, Goldberg’s former housing deputy. “I trusted Craig Dennis, and I’m not fooled easily.”

For his effort Dennis was rewarded with money, a lot of it, funneled his way by Goldberg’s staff. Between 1994 and 1996, the Los Angeles Housing Department made a series of no-interest, deferred-payment loans to the Lido. In all, more than $3 million in public funds were invested, a risk no commercial institution would have ever taken. Dennis was already a deadbeat. His primary lender, First Republic, was trying to collect on a delinquent multimillion-dollar mortgage and had for several years been threatening to seize the building. The city, however, had interests of its own, a political agenda that went beyond the Lido’s balance sheet. It was trying to resuscitate a neighborhood that had crashed and burned, yet still protect the most vulnerable renters. The loans funded a massive rehab: new paint, new roof, new furnace, new plumbing, a community room, a toddler’s play area, and 3,000 yards of carpeting. To make the Lido more inviting to families, dozens of bachelors and studios were converted into one- and two-bedroom apartments. Even the six-foot-tall green neon letters on the roof were restored. “I have … placed every dollar into a building [of] which the city can be very proud,” Dennis reported at the time. The city attached just one string to the money, a covenant that restricted the Lido to low- and moderate-income tenants. Whether or not Dennis repaid the loans, Los Angeles would at least be assured the preservation of a “safe and decent” property at “affordable levels,” as the chief of the Housing Department’s Neighborhood Revitalization Division saw it.

To complete the deal, Dennis agreed to a contract with the Los Angeles Housing Authority, which administers federal subsidies for the city’s poorest renters. Everyone living in the Lido was invited to apply for a Section 8 certificate. It would not only give officials a device for enforcing the covenant but also deliver Dennis a guaranteed base of income. “He needed the Section 8 tenants,” Ocana says. “At the time, they were quite welcome.” Nearly the entire building qualified—67 renters, among them Elvis. Section 8 encouraged, even induced, him to stay. At the Hastings he had paid $400 a month, more than half of his disability check. At the Lido he lived in a $570-a-month apartment but paid just $188. The government made up the difference. It would prove to be his most dependable home, the longest he had ever lived at a single address.

They were a package deal. One meant both. His was the only name on the rental agreement, but wherever Elvis went Jill was sure to follow. They met in Hollywood years ago, before Elvis had moved into the Lido. He calls it a rescue. He had been mugged, beaten on the sidewalk, an occurrence all too regular for the Boulevard’s frail. When Jill found him, he was bloodied and crying for help. She ran to a pay phone, dialed 911, then disappeared. “Like she was mysterious,” Elvis says. When he saw her again, he bought her dinner at the Early World, a greasy spoon on Vine. “She saved my life,” Elvis says, “in bits and pieces.”

Jill was a waif, 4 feet 11 and 94 pounds. Her hair was grizzled strawberry, her eyes metallic blue. A welt of broken blood vessels blazed from her nose. She signed her name Jill Fredrica Morrison. She might have been Polish, a Soviet refugee. She was a registered Republican. Officially her date of birth was April Fools’ Day 1933. If so, she would have looked unusually good for her age. More likely, as hard as she lived, the year was later, probably 1946. She told people she was John Wayne’s daughter—a sly conceit, given his true name, Marion Morrison. She grew up somewhere in the rural north, perhaps Montana, possibly Canada. Her handwriting was elegant. Elvis called her his secretary He thinks she might have served in the military, even trained as a nurse. There is a lot more he does not know. “She had, maybe, scars of the past, so to speak,” he says. “Like I do.”

I sometimes wonder if I have ever seen her. I suspect many of us have, without knowing it. Always a few steps behind Elvis, she was everywhere and nowhere, inhabiting that gray area between the colorfully queer and the darkly possessed. Hollywood is full of them—the weird and desperate and alienated and free—indeed, it is nearly as famous for them as for the movies. Jill and Elvis were too nutty to be considered bohemian, too cradled by the government’s safety net to be reduced to the gutter. They were classic oddballs, bit players in the freak show, by turns amusing and unnerving but ultimately easy to dismiss.

That they registered at all is a testament to their partnership, a remarkably stable bond for two such off-kilter beings. They would share a Grand Slam breakfast at Denny’s or split a lasagna at Stefano’s Two Guys from Italy, picking off the same plate like sweethearts. Emotionally steadier, Elvis carried a disposable camera, snapping portraits of Jill—and of other fixtures, such as Mike Andolini, the lounge singer at Miceli’s—wherever they happened to ramble. The more literate one, Jill was always inviting Niki Miller, the manager of the Green Room cafe, to join her and Elvis for a “dinner party,” whatever that might have entailed. At Saint Thomas the Apostle’s free Saturday breakfast, they kvetched like amiable grumps, rolling their eyes and bemoaning how much each was driving the other crazy. “They were quite a team, really funny, really involved with each other,” says Len Leatherwood, a Saint Thomas senior warden who remembers them often showing up late, a fact that Elvis attributed to the inordinate time Jill spent applying makeup. “There was a sense of longevity, almost like they had a joint persona.”

As Elvis and I re-created their circuit, it was hard not to develop some affection for him and Jill, to appreciate their elaborate if woeful commitments. In a neighborhood of glitz, they were ungentrifiable: too funky, too dated, too scarred to be anything but authentic. Once, when a barmaid served him an Irish coffee, Elvis said, “Thank you, love.” When his double bacon cheeseburger arrived, he added, “How quaint.” Yet a psychotic, chemical edge also cut through their lives; as long as the money held out, they might stay lit from morning to night. It is no accident that even their sympathizers—at watering holes as accommodating as Miceli’s and Boardner’s and the Frolic Room—had all, at one time or another, found it necessary to shoo Jill and Elvis out the door. I know: I was now Elvis’s babysitter. Wherever we went, I had to count drinks, cut him off, threaten to leave him behind if he insisted on ordering again. It never worked. He took advantage of every lapse, sucking down brandies until I had nothing left to write in my notebook. Extracting him was more of a scene. Elvis would veer toward any occupied table, leer at the startled party, then thrust a silent peace sign into their space. If we had not already been on our way out, we surely would have been booted. This continued even in the car; as I drove he would wave his two fingers at the world, a gesture now solitary, lost in the glare of night.

The same lunacy infected the Lido. Their apartment was a studio, made smaller by the labyrinth of refuse spread from wall to wall. It was an archive of their existence: empty bottles, yellowed papers, crumpled butts, rotting food. There was no phone, no clock. When they slept, it was on a soiled carpet, nestled in piles of secondhand clothes. On his own, Elvis might have survived, limping along, just under the Lido’s radar. Jill was not so subtle. A manager once found her tilting in the lobby and offered to help. “I don’t need any help,” she growled. “I own this fucking building.” She tripped down the hallways, lost her keys, sometimes even passed out in the stairwells. Unprovoked, she would spit at neighbors, unleashing torrents of vitriol, some of it racial. “She was just so hateful and hideous,” says Tequila Mockingbird, an underground musician and writer who endured Jill’s venom for years. But there was more to it. Two Christmases ago, Tequila got herself a dog, a Chihuahua named Ratt Fink. Something in Jill melted. “This poor woman, suddenly she was like, ‘Oh, it’s the most precious and beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life,’“ Tequila recalls. “It was completely Jekyll and Hyde. I let her pet my pup. It seemed like the only pleasure she was going to get in this world.”