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?

City prosecutors considered taking legal action, believing the low-income covenant was being flouted. But when they reviewed the fine print, they found it open to interpretation, applying perhaps only to the initial occupants, not to future tenants. Now featured on the “A-List” of Artiste Apartments, a Hollywood rental agency, the Lido fetches as much as $900 for a studio and $1,300 for two bedrooms.

I once asked Elvis how he felt about the Eagles, about the album, about the whole glorified metaphor. He was puzzled. “Hotel what?” he asked. In the new Lido—the Lido catering to “the artistic and entertainment-focused individual”—there was no place for him, much less for Jill. Three times already, in 1998, in 1999, and in 2001, they had weathered eviction notices. As 2003 arrived, they were resisting yet another order to vacate, one that was almost certain to be their last stand.

The Lido’s seventh manager in Elvis’s nine years was an aspiring actor from New York named Christian Jones, the man whose voice had spurned me at the gate. Of them all, he would become the nemesis, the one most determined to free the building of Elvis and Jill’s sour fixations. “This Jones guy, six feet two, he comes all the way from New York to tell me about me,” Elvis says. “He’s like a phantom. He says to me, ‘It’s been nice knowing you.’ How does he know me? He tells me I’m hanging by a thread. For what? It’s like I’m a political hostage. A bargaining chip. A sitting duck. Domestic terrorism, in other words.”

It would not be an enviable task, as a manager, to have to navigate Elvis’s brain, to try to balance the welfare of the building with the rights of an unhinged renter. But Jones was so put out that he often overreached, pushing Elvis closer to the edge. Intent on proving that Jill’s presence was unauthorized, Jones sometimes snapped photographs of her with his cell phone—just the sort of technological encroachment that sets Elvis off. Later, Jones moved to the fourth floor, to an apartment directly across the hall from them, fueling the perception that their every move was being watched. Elvis wrote to the Housing Authority, complaining about the surveillance. He sought help at meetings of the Hollywood Community Action Network, a coalition of homeless advocates. He covered his outside doorknob with a security lock, making it impossible for anyone to inspect or repair his apartment. Finally, he filled up a steno pad with wobbly black letters. “To whom it may concern,” Elvis’s statement began. “This person known as Lido Apts manager … told me to count my days.”

The Lido’s other longtime tenants were only scarcely more tolerant of Elvis and Jill’s mania. But like Elvis and Jill, almost all were Section 8 recipients and as such, shared a similar distrust of the management. They have been pressured, provoked, even offered cash to relinquish their units to higher-paying tenants. Rather than look for another place to live, most have responded just as Elvis and Jill did. “Even if I win the lottery, I’m not going to leave,” says Townsend, the former manager, now a tenant organizer. “Not because I love it here but because I’m not going to give them the satisfaction of forcing me out.” Another Section 8 renter, Roy Powers, puts it this way: “If I have to, I’ll stay here until I die.”

The fire came at 10:30, on a warm and windless Tuesday night, the kind Jill and Elvis often spent in front of the tube, wallowing in Taaka. The next thing anyone knows for sure, the room had gone black, swallowed by a cloud of carbon and tar. Ash rained from the ceiling. Sparks blew across the rug. Elvis staggered, groping for an exit. His eyes burned, his lungs throbbed. He dropped in the hallway. Sprinklers soaked his clothes. Adrift in the darkness, Jill headed for the window. Directly above was the Lido’s sign, its script rising like a bygone Hollywood marquee. Directly below, four stories down, was the wrought iron. She pressed herself against the sill. It was an unfathomable predicament, a grossly unfair choice: For 56 years, maybe 70 depending on which of her birth dates you believed, she had stayed afloat, clinging to the fringes. Across the street, a crowd began to gather. Neighbors could see the silhouette of a woman, framed and backlit. They shouted at her not to jump. Los Angeles Fire Department Station 27 was en route, barreling across the Boulevard, sirens howling, ladders poised for rescue. Maybe she made a decision. Maybe the heat made it for her. Maybe it helped knowing that, soon enough, the Lido would no longer be hers to lose.

Down she went, straight and true, her wisp of a frame hugging the beveled edge of the Lido’s southeastern corner. The fence exists because of the parking lot. (A sign there still warns swimmers that no lifeguard is on duty.) It is fortified with spearheads and topped with concertina wire. The barbed coils wrapped themselves around her neck, tearing flesh from bone. Her arms broke, her skull cracked. A metal prong, as tall as a double shot glass and shaped like a teardrop, gored her left side. It entered near her armpit and exited the top of her shoulder. That is how fire fighters found her, face down, skewered, underneath the Lido’s extinguished signature. “As we were turning down the street, we heard a gasp, in unison, from the crowd,” says Don Austin, the battalion chief. “If she had managed to hold on, honestly, for another minute.” His crew used a rotary saw to cut out a section of fence and lower Jill, still stuck, to the sidewalk.

Elvis got the news a day later at the V.A. He was wearing an oxygen mask, being treated for smoke inhalation. “Where’s Jill at?” he began to ask. “Why? How? Where? She’s a part of my life. I want to know.” After three days he was released. He took a bus back to Hollywood, to revisit the Lido, to see for himself. He snapped a picture of the missing fence. Another of the charred window. He carries them now, wrapped in plastic, wherever he goes.

The fire never spread. It started in Elvis and Jill’s apartment and there it ended. Yet the question of how it began—the who and the why—has continued to haunt the Lido, adding another chapter to its long and extravagant folklore. The most popular theory, widely held among tenants, is that Jill and Elvis conspired to burn the apartment themselves: an act of revenge. Their latest eviction case was wending through the courts; there had been a hearing a month before, and another was set for a month later. By the end of the year, quite likely, they would have been gone. “They probably wanted to go down in flames and take everybody with them,” says Denise Lockard, whose apartment, two floors below, suffered water damage. “When you have no hope and you have nowhere to go, what can you expect?”

Needless to say, Elvis rejects any version that omits him and Jill as victims. In his mind, the fire was the logical extension of their persecution, the only way the manager could be sure of getting them out. “There’s more to it than meets the eye, and all that stuff,” Elvis says. “I could give you a story, wall to wall.” It is a self-serving and outlandish story, but then so is much of the Lido’s past. As Elvis tells it, he was sitting in the lone chair of their apartment. Jill was rubbing his back. He believes the door burst open and several large men—”two or three of them, like six feet two”— stormed the room. He is sure that one clubbed him over the back of his head. He rubs it now. It still hurts. He remembers the men wore ski masks. Before he lost consciousness, he thinks he heard the manager’s voice. He awoke to find the apartment engulfed. He is, in short, describing an eviction by murder. “I was in a daze,” Elvis says, “but I’m not slow on the downtake, or the uptake, or the middletake.”

Elvis’s story requires some extraordinary leaps, not the least being his failure to account for his own survival. That he was able to escape and Jill was not—despite being in the same small room—is, indeed, one of the fire’s mysteries. It has given rise to a third and apocalyptic theory, a version that has been circulating on the streets. Elvis, the speculation goes, had finally reached his limit with Jill, maybe even blamed her for undermining his lease. By setting the fire and sealing her in, he was able to free himself of her misery and avenge his eviction all in one hellish stroke. Although just as wild as the other scenarios, this one is buttressed by a premonition, a disquieting vision that Jill is said to have had in the months before the fire. It was first shared with me in front of Pla-Boy Liquor, in the neon shadows of midnight, by an acquaintance of theirs, an occasionally homeless, occasionally employed musician. “Jill would often ask me, if something were to happen and she had to escape out that window, could I be there to catch her?” he said, speaking only on the condition that I shield him, if necessary; from a homicide interrogation. He continued: “I said I would try, I would do that for her, but it wasn’t really possible for me to just happen to be there. I told her she was going to fall right onto that fence, that she was going to be impaled.” Jill was supposedly doing exercises to strengthen her hands and wrists, to give her more time to cling to the ledge. When her would-be rescuer asked why she did not simply flee the Lido, Jill spoke of a death foretold. “She said that it was already going to happen, that it was her time—almost like she wanted to die,” he told me. “Maybe this old dude took it upon himself to do God’s work.”

I must say, I found it entirely plausible that Jill could have become obsessed with the window, with falling, with any escape from the putrid cell she and Elvis had constructed for themselves. I found it entirely plausible, too, that in the burst of flames she could have seen prophecy and reacted accordingly, that she did not so much choose the window as the window chose her. But that is not to say Elvis set the fire, or Jill, or anyone else. At least not on purpose. The evidence, somewhat less dramatic than the conjecture, all points to an accident. There were no signs of an accelerant—no gas, no chemicals, no torches—nor of a forced entry. The smoke detector was disconnected. A crack pipe was discovered in the coals. Jill’s pocket contained a lighter and a bag of tobacco. Her blood-alcohol level was 0.19 percent, more than double the legal definition of impairment. Most likely they got loaded, passed out, and left something—a cigarette? an ember? a match?—smoldering in their mounds of debris. “We found nothing suspicious,” says Terry Depackh, an LAFD arson investigator. The cause might be mundane, but its implications are no less terrible. Either the careless smoker was Elvis, in which case he really did kill Jill, or Jill was the negligent one, in which case she sabotaged them both.

One way or another, the Lido became their very own Hotel California, a place that first indulged and then doomed them. That is, in a way, the eternal tension of Hollywood, both as a neighborhood and as an industry. Stars become prisoners of fame, condemned to gilded cages. Talent gets typecast, success reprised as formula. The Boulevard cleans up, but scrubs away some of its narrative, its intricacies and secret meanings. Or at least it tries: You can check out any time you like / But you can never leave. Jill and Elvis are still a Hollywood story and, fittingly, have been granted a Hollywood ending—a perverse one, but no less redemptive. Their tale, after all, did not die in the ashes; it was born there and continues here on these pages. The Lido may have destroyed them, but it also immortalized them, made them as mythic as the old hotel itself.

This feature appears in the March 2004 issue of Los Angeles magazine