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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Another neighbor, a young Web designer for the House of Blues named David Kurtz, was so struck by his first meeting with Jill that he memorialized the encounter on his Internet diary. “When I stepped into the groaning, capacity-three elevator in the Lido this morning, I was greeted by the effluvium of stale alcohol and a disheveled older woman,” wrote Kurtz. She thought she was exiting on the first floor. He explained she had ridden up to the fifth.

“I’m so sorry. I’m blind. My name is Jill Morrison.”

“I’m David,” replied Kurtz, taking note of her “rosaceous cherry nose” and her breath, a “toxic eye-opening concoction.” The doors closed. The elevator lurched. For a moment there was silence. Then, a throaty sigh.

“You’re beautiful,” Jill said.

Neighbors regularly complained of shouting and banging, of epic brawls behind the walls of 426. A manager once forced her way in, fearing for Jill’s safety. Instead she found Jill leaning over Elvis, pummeling him with her fists; he sat motionless in a chair. The alternative offered little solace. Without Jill, Elvis would have been unbearably isolated, a basket case of dread and addiction. She cooked for him. She stitched him scarves. She cut his hair. Before bed, she rubbed the aches out of his crooked neck. “Platonic,” Elvis insists. “No hanky-panky. No money talk or anything. Like brothers and sisters. “The first time he told me that, I figured he was simply perpetuating their official fiction. Jill was a contract employee of California’s In-Home Supportive Services, a program that provides domestic help for the elderly and disabled. She earned $7.50 an hour to look after Elvis. Every time the Lido’s lawyers cited her as an unauthorized tenant, Elvis would remind them of his disability, insisting that Jill was a caregiver, not a roommate. The lawyers called that a ruse, an excuse “to allow his lover to live in the unit in violation of the lease.”

I had assumed the same, imagining that he and Jill were as intimate as their addled bodies allowed them to be. Elvis, doubtlessly was just sticking to the script. As time went on, though, I came to believe he was trying to tell me something else. It started with a handshake. He slipped his fingers into my palm, gauging my interest with a covert tickle.

“What’s that about, Elvis?” I asked.

“Touch me, feel me,” he said. “I’m deaf, dumb, and blind.”

I lied to myself, pretending the overture was just more of his delirium. But as I continued to meet with him, lavishing attention, I began to suspect I was filling a void. There were more clandestine touches, then attempted fondles and thwarted gropes, finally a mutually undignified altercation. It may be that Elvis was just an instinctive hustler, a cadger of drinks and whatever else. It may be that he hungered for nothing more basic than human warmth, not necessarily sex with a man. But if he was gay and Jill his cover, it made their relationship all the more tragic—two lonely souls, bound by fate, yet each incapable of pleasing the other.

When I pressed him on it, I got vintage Elvis. “Jill and I were each other’s security,” he conceded. “Homeland security.”

Even with the city’s help, the building was a sinkhole, hemorrhaging money faster than it could be pumped in. A year after the last of the loans was made, the Lido was back in bankruptcy court—trip number four—trying, once again, to fend off its creditors. For several months in 1997, First Republic actually took possession of the property; tenants were instructed to mail their rent directly to the bank. Dennis turned to the city, pleading for yet another bailout.

As long as First Republic had an interest in the building, Dennis would be at the bank’s mercy, and as the junior lender, so would the city. To protect its already shaky investment, the Housing Department agreed to buy out First Republic’s stake, by then about $2.5 million, and become the Lido’s sole lien holder. The city council approved a bond issue, even fronted the $50,000 application fee, but the deal was rejected by federal guarantors. A second loan package was similarly denied. In the end, officials had to rely on political pressure, urging the bankruptcy judge to stave off First Republic while Dennis tried to reorganize. A foreclosure, the city’s lawyers argued, would nullify the affordable-housing covenant and have “grave consequences” for the Lido’s low-income tenants.

It would be the last time the city stuck its neck out for the Lido. When it emerged from bankruptcy in 1998, the inn had a new keeper, one whose name, for housing advocates, was nearly synonymous with the devil’s: Lance Jay Robbins. Prosecuted more than any other apartment owner in town, even sentenced to jail time, Robbins was L.A.’s most vilified slumlord, renowned for taking over troubled buildings and squeezing out whatever he could. Nobody is sure exactly what percentage of the Lido he came to control. As the city would later allege in a massive tenant-abuse lawsuit, Robbins often relied on “sham corporations” to evade prosecution and perpetuate his “pattern of fraud.” (Robbins settled that case for $1 million.) Dennis remained the Lido’s owner of record, but he retreated to a ranch house, on one and a half acres, in northern San Diego County. One day, while checking up on the Lido, Goldberg’s staff was shocked to find Robbins working from an office in the community room—a space created with funds from the rehab loan. “I was like, ‘Oh no! This is impossible! It just cannot be happening!’“ says Ocana, who believes now that Robbins had always been lurking in the Lido’s wings, using Dennis as a front. “I had been fooled.”

Once more, conditions in the Lido began to erode. Despite millions of dollars in improvements, the building was a sieve, riddled with leaks and knitted with patches. The elevators were perpetually on the fritz. The refit neon sign, noted with great fanfare in the Yucca Corridor Coalition newsletter, was dark again. The playground had become a litter box, The swimming pool—the last remnant of the halcyon days—was filled in, paved over, and rented out for parking. With most of the building occupied by Section 8 tenants, it fell to the L.A. Housing Authority to investigate. Dismayed by the lackadaisical maintenance, the agency began abating its share of the rent, ultimately docking the Lido more than $30,000 in government subsidies. The Lido retaliated. In 1999, a letter was sent to all of the building’s Section 8 tenants, including Elvis, informing them that their vouchers had expired. They would have to pay full rent or get out.

The mass eviction was more than a betrayal. It was the worst kind of poverty-pimping game. When he wanted the city’s money, Dennis was a champion of the poor, declaring in court papers that he had “permanently set aside” his reconditioned building for the benefit of low-income tenants. Now that the money was spent, the program had become a hassle. To continue with it, he declared in another set of court papers, “would not be a prudent business decision.” Former assistant city attorney Julie Downey, who monitored the Lido’s finances, put it this way: “Compared to Lance, Craig Dennis looks like a choirboy. But he’s still just as much of a weasel.” It took the intervention of a crusading public interest attorney, a Harvard Law graduate named Lauren Saunders, to halt the evictions. Working for Bet Tzedek, the Jewish legal services center, she won her first five cases. “A desire to avoid vigorous enforcement of habitability requirements,” she told the court, “is not a legitimate business or economic reason.” The Lido dropped the rest. She also won attorney’s fees, more than $23,000. When the Lido refused to honor the debt, the Housing Authority again withheld funds, paying Saunders out of the Lido’s monthly allotment.

It was a reprieve, but none of the Section 8 renters had any illusion about their long-term welcome. In spite of its own dysfunction, the Lido was on the rebound, a comeback that could not have been more bittersweet. By the end of the ’90s, all of Hollywood had begun to emerge from its years of tarnish, buoyed by a wave of redevelopment, both corporate and civic, sweeping from the flashy new Kodak Theater to the refurbished Pantages. The Boulevard was now home to national retailers such as Tommy Hilfiger and Banana Republic, trendy bars such as Star Shoes and Deep—all protected by a private security force. Crowds were streaming in, and not just tourists but a modern generation of L.A. dreamers, young, beautiful, and ambitious. “A different grade of Disneyland,” says Tequila Mockingbird. “Eventually, everybody looks like TV.” With rents soaring, most of the Lido’s Section 8 tenants simply gave up, cowed into leaving without a fight. A couple dozen dug in their heels, but theirs has been a war of attrition. As apartments became available, the management ripped out the carpeting and tore off the drywall, quickie makeovers designed to appeal to a mostly single, hip, and affluent clientele. The Lido was soon selling itself as a “1920s, New York-style” building with hardwood floors and exposed brick, site of the iconic Hotel California photo.