“Is the white napkin OK, or should I bring a black one?” If there’s a Heaven, everything in it will be like lunch at the Polo Lounge. In this partially alfresco, entirely radiant destination dining spot at the heart of the Beverly Hills Hotel, God is in the details, from the waitress noting your penchant for noir apparel, to the conspicuously nonexistent lines on the faces of some of Hollywood’s most elegantly desiccated faces. There are real diamonds, big hats and theatrical Maybelline pouts. A Nancy Reagan-alike hobbles to a corner booth on what look like Bottega Veneta intrecciato leather crutches. Impossibly wealthy moguls in polo shirts sip iced tea in the shade. Double-chopped McCarthy salads, essentially a Cobb with attitude, are tossed tableside while the carb-avoidant try to resist the softest, most delicious bread in the basket – the one with the delicate blue cheese imbedded in it. This is a world of jam on jam, luxury on luxury, Elnett armour and big film business. Everybody is a “someone”. If you’re not in recovery (yet), it’s martinis all round.
While there are ongoing, nay never-ending, room refurbishments underway, there’s nothing aggressively contemporary about the milieu of the Beverly Hills Hotel. All that pink and those tropical fronds on the wallpaper are borderline kitsch. Still, it feels like Grand Old Hollywood rather than The Golden Girls. On our last visit, Jodie Foster rocked up for breakfast at the Fountain Coffee Room and hopped on a stool next to us. There’s a democracy here. No one’s star-spotting, because to do so would be to blow cover as an outsider. Down in that Coffee Room, with its decorous wrought-iron seating bolted into the floor around architect Paul Revere Williams’ curved counter, the filter coffee, fluorescent Key lime pie and eggs Benedict with candy-sweet ham keep coming. Squint, and it could be the early 1950s. American Graffiti, perhaps, with a supporting cast of pinstriped men with suspiciously dark hair, clutching copies of Variety. “It’s the only place like it in the world,” says Mr Chow, who brunches there with his family on many weekends. “They have the freshest of everything, the waiters know everyone and I usually meet people I know.” A customer once famously complained about his bill: “This is the most expensive coffee shop in the world!” The waiter raised an eyebrow and replied: “I should hope so, Sir.”
Outside, by the much-photographed pool, agents and assistants of assistants jabber into iPhones at battery-defying length, while the 1% of the 1% make their way to their bungalows along leafy winding pathways that whisper of illicit affairs. If these walls could talk… they’d whisper about Liz Taylor’s many honeymoons, Lord Snowdon and Princess Margaret’s secret getaway routes to go partying in the Hollywood Hills, and Marilyn Monroe’s affair with Yves Montand. Gore Vidal’s mother lived here for a spell, while Vidal himself drank through some of his final days in the bar. Howard Hughes, at the height of his insanity, took umpteen bungalows, suites and rooms for himself and his eight Mormon bodyguards. Barry Manilow insists on one particular piano being installed in whichever room he’s in, Morrissey is a regular in the Polo Lounge and announced his comeback here (he’s a fan of the pink T-shirts from the gift shop, apparently) and John Travolta may or may not like a happy ending with any on-site massage that he may or may not have been in town for at any given time.
Such is the power of LA’s PR machine that the truly good stories have probably never come to light, but there are a few gems in the public domain. When Watergate hit the fan in 1972, Nixon’s campaign manager, John N. Mitchell, heard the news mid-supper at the Polo Lounge and began shouting at the top of his voice: “Son of a bitch! They blew it! They blew it!” The next day he calmly stood in front of the world’s press and denied the Watergate burglar’s links to Nixon. According to Sandra Lee Stuart, author of The Pink Palace (1978), a long out-of-print exposé of goings-on at the hotel, Estée Lauder was humbled by a maid she’d been routinely rude to: “You sleep in this room with your husband and that room with your boyfriend!” screamed the maid, according to Stuart’s sources. When Halston turned up for the Academy Awards one year, to serve as actress Marisa Berenson’s walker, the hotel refused to check him in unless he used his first name. He couldn’t bring himself to announce himself as “Roy”, so Halston’s boyfriend, Victor Hugo, had to sign the register while the designer stropped off in his trademark dark glasses. The hotel has loosened up over the years. Single-named celebrities are welcome and the ban on women wearing trousers in the Polo Lounge has long been lifted.
Few people are better acquainted with the history of the hotel than Robert S. Anderson, whose great grandmother was its founder and first owner. Still very much a local businessman as well as architectural conservationist, he recently put together his family archives and stories into one giant coffee table book, The Beverly Hills Hotel The First 100 Years. He’s a very familiar face to regulars of the Polo Lounge, which is where we met him…
Civilian: You must have had so many memorable nights here at the hotel. What’s been the most extraordinary?
Robert S. Anderson: I always come here for The Night Before the Oscars Party, which Jeffrey [Katzenberg] and Steven [Spielberg] host to raise funds for the Motion Picture & Television Fund, which helps with health and social services for people in the entertainment industry. No actor in their right mind would turn down the invitation, even though it’s very expensive to go. Everybody goes – Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise. They all have their cell phones and cameras taken off them at the door. People kick the tyres and relax.
So it’s quite debauched?
It’s the most glamorous evening of the year. I remember seeing Harvey Weinstein sitting there, looking like he hadn’t shaved for three days. His shirt was hanging out of his pants and he had more gorgeous babes hanging all over him than you could possibly imagine. In my next life I’m coming back as a producer.
Do you know if anyone actually still lives here? We know people used to stay for long periods of time in the past.
There is one guy – who we can’t name – who has homes all over the world but still lives here. He has the run of the place. Takes his calls from the Polo Lounge in the morning. There are also people who take a bungalow for a year and refurbish it to their taste. There are people with a lot of money here.
I remember seeing Harvey Weinstein sitting there, looking like he hadn’t shaved for three days. His shirt was hanging out of his pants and he had more gorgeous babes hanging all over him than you could possibly imagine. In my next life I’m coming back as a producer.
As far as you know, was Howard Hughes the biggest spender?
I’d say so. You know, I shared some archive shots of the bungalows with Warren Beatty recently, because he’s doing a movie on Hughes, and he’s going to play him in his later years. The photographs have great detail, right down to the numbering on the telephones. Hughes lived here for years. He’d do things like book the main ballroom for a meeting, for just two people, and have two chairs in the middle of the huge space. He had different women stashed in different rooms all over the place. They were big time starlets around him who had no idea what was going on.
And was he quite mad?
He was never right after his plane crash at the LA Country Club in 1946. He was on a lot of pain medication and got out of control. He was doing goofy stuff and became very eccentric. He would have roast beef sandwiches sent to one of his bungalows and placed in the trees. He called Smitty, the valet, borrowed his car and then forgot where he put it. He had a Chevrolet in Crescent Drive that had flat tyres and weeds growing through it, but the police knew who it belonged to, so left it alone.
Did you know Liz Taylor?
I didn’t know her personally, but I met her and she knew who I was. We’d say hi to each other. One day I was in the lobby, and she was passing through, dressed to the nines, waving her arms yelling, “Charge it! Just charge it!” She was a beautiful woman and the hotel loved her.
With Soho House in LA now, is the Beverly Hills Hotel still a hub of the film business?
Absolutely. Jeffrey Katzenberg has said that in every actor’s life there’s a seminal moment involving the hotel, whether it’s a meeting or phone call, a power breakfast or late afternoon lunch. Everybody in the industry comes here. As Fran Lebowitz once wrote: “Los Angeles is a large city-like area surrounding the Beverly Hills Hotel.” It hasn’t changed.
There was nothing around here when the hotel was built, was there?
If you look at a picture of the hotel in 1912, there’s absolutely nothing else around it. Every tree you see now was planted since then, every road and home built. Beverly Hills would not have become a city in its own right without this place. In 1914 there were 75 people living in Beverly Hills and 90% gave the hotel as their address. In 1922 the likes of Rudolf Valentino and Mary Pickford went door to door, signing 10×8 glossies to persuade their neighbours that the city of Beverly Hills needed to be kept separate from the rest of LA. It’s because of them that the response time if you call the police is under three minutes here – in the rest of LA you might get an answering machine. Actors aren’t that involved in the community today. I’m trying to rebuild Beverly Gardens Park, and I’m trying to get everyone involved.
The big issue with building here was water – and who controlled it. As far as you know, was any of it the way Polanski portrayed it in Chinatown?
It’s absolutely the story of Chinatown! William Mulholland hijacked the Owens River, laid a pipeline and bought all the land around it to build the world’s largest garden hose. The people in the know were aware it was going through the desert, so the good old boys bought the grounds up on the route to build orchards. The Owens Aqueduct was what made everything happen.
There’s a great photograph in the book of the formal opening of the hotel and the dinner. It looks wonderfully opulent.
Everyone in that group looks quite sombre, and I’ve always wondered if it was because they had to sit still for a whole 30 seconds because of the length of exposure needed, or if it was for another reason. The hotel opened right after the Titanic sank, and that socio-economic group would have lots of friends who died in the disaster.
Elmer Grey was the architect who built the hotel for your great grandmother in 1911, but the construction of the Crescent Wing, at the end of the 1940s, by Paul Revere Williams, is at least as significant. Williams was an African-American architect who was incredibly successful and hugely fashionable, but he must still have faced phenomenal racism at that time.
Well, Grey’s architecture was hugely important. He’d built Henry Huntington’s home, and Huntington’s uncle owned the Pacific railroad and was one of the most powerful men in the US. His design for the hotel was in a T-shape so all guests got some sunlight at some point during the day. But Revere’s additions have a great bearing on the style of the hotel because of the curving aspects. And of course he created the logo for the hotel, which is totally iconic. Most people didn’t know he was black, and he learnt to draw perfectly upside down for those occasions when he had to meet clients, because they weren’t comfortable about being on the same side of a desk as him. Effectively he had to do everything better than anyone else. He was very special.
The hotel has passed through lots of owners, and is now looked after by the Dorchester Collection. What keeps you in LA?
You know, I came across a letter, dated 1911, and it was a letter that changed my life before I was born. It was inviting my great grandmother and great grandfather to come to Beverly Hills to open their dream hotel, with the offer of all the finance they needed. While the hotel was happening, my great grandfather bought up commercial real estate. You could buy a single lot for $1,100, with a 25% discount if you built on it in a couple of months. I own a lot of real estate. I own the block with Brooks Brothers. My great grandfather bought two lots for $1,500. As a result, I’ve made more than that figure in the time I’ve been talking to you today. C
The Beverly Hills Hotel, 9641 Sunset Boulevard, Beverly Hills, CA 90210 USA
(310) 276 2251; beverlyhillshotel.com
RECIPE: THE POLO LOUNGE MCCARTHY SALAD
230g Iceberg lettuce, finely chopped
55g Watercress, finely chopped
300g Hearts of romaine, finely chopped
230g Roasted red Beets, Finely diced
230g Aged cheddar cheese, finely diced
230g Applewood smoked bacon, finely chopped
Three hard boiled eggs, finely chopped
230g Grilled & chilled breast of chicken, finely diced
Two large vine ripened tomatoes, peel skin and seed, diced
115ml Balsamic vinaigrette
1. Combine the iceberg, watercress and romaine lettuce
2. Divide the lettuce into four large salad bowls
3. Artistically present the beets, cheese, bacon, eggs, chicken & tomatoes around the lettuce.
4. Serve with the balsamic vinaigrette… Enjoy!