Sole survivor of Hollywood’s golden age? The hotel that has seen it all

The hotel’s swimming pool, seen here in 1938, was ringed by golden sand shipped in especially from Arizona and has seen its fair share of sensational activity (Beverly Hills Hotel)
The hotel’s swimming pool, seen here in 1938, was ringed by golden sand shipped in especially from Arizona and has seen its fair share of sensational activity (Beverly Hills Hotel)

When James Caan’s death was announced last month, the movie legend’s favourite table at the Polo Lounge – the Beverly Hills Hotel’s storied in-house restaurant and bar – was roped off. On tucked-away Table One, which was also Charlie Chaplin’s preferred booth, was placed a candle and a photo of the star, as well as Caan’s most-loved meal; the house special of a chopped “McCarthy” salad, featuring chicken, bacon, beetroot and avocado, and an extremely dirty martini with extra olive brine. “When one of our really great, well-known regulars passes, we always put aside their favourite table and leave it all day and all night,” says Steven Boggs, director of global guest relations at the hotel and veritable font of Hollywood history. “We call it ‘setting a final place’.”

Carrie Fisher, James Garner and Burt Reynolds are just some of the other dearly departed regulars to have received this same honour. As you might have noticed, the regulars at the Beverly Hills Hotel aren’t like other regulars. They’re Rita Hayworth, Katharine Hepburn, Paul McCartney and – going by the past week’s posts from celebrity gossip Instagram account Deux Moi – Kim Kardashian, Megan Fox and rapper Machine Gun Kelly. While other spots fall in and out of favour with the cream of the celebrity crop, no other venue in Los Angeles boasts quite the same sustained level of star power as the Beverly Hills Hotel.

“We’re also sitting where Al Pacino likes to sit,” says Boggs, who has roped off Caan and Chaplin’s table for our conversation, a cosy corner seat with sage green velvet banquettes. “I can show you where Frank Sinatra sat, where Marilyn Monroe sat, where Elizabeth Taylor sat and so on,” he adds, pointing to the table where Sinatra celebrated Dean Martin’s 49th birthday complete with subsequent bar brawl, which ended with a well-known art collector suffering a fractured skull.

“But I can also show you the table where Steven Spielberg likes to write, and the table Leonardo DiCaprio likes to have. Dinner is still interesting, too. Jimmy Fallon will come in and sit at the piano and play some tunes. People still come here – deals are made constantly. It’s still the powerhouse.”

Los Angeles is a town that likes to play fast and loose with its history. Though it’s been the world-famous hub of the movie industry for little more than a century, many of its architectural treasures and buildings bursting with pop cultural folklore have been razed to the ground. Despite their legendary status, the Garden of Allah hotel (adored by Greta Garbo, Clara Bow and Errol Flynn), the stately Ambassador Hotel – complete with the Rat Pack-friendly Cocoanut Grove nightclub – and sleazy rock’n’roll haven The Tropicana Motel have all fallen victim to the wrecking ball. More recently, Hollywood Boulevard’s majestic Egyptian Theatre was bought out by Netflix, leaving many concerned over the future of the 100-year-old movie palace, which was built during a period of Egyptomania.

Yet the Beverly Hills Hotel still stands tall. Built in 1912 across 12 acres in the untouched foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains, to the west of Los Angeles, the hotel was originally intended to create a land rush, so the owners could sell off plots of adjacent land. Almost as soon as it went up, it attracted the first wave of Hollywood, with stars such as Chaplin, Gloria Swanson, WC Fields and Harold Lloyd all swinging by. The silent screen’s golden couple, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, followed in the hotel’s wake and bought a lodge next door, which they remodelled in a mock Tudor style into the lavish “Pickfair” – one of the most famous private residences in America.

Marilyn Monroe was a regular at the hotel (Beverly Hills Hotel)
Marilyn Monroe was a regular at the hotel (Beverly Hills Hotel)

In the 1930s, with the dawn of the talkies, a new wave of actors made the hotel their playground. Among them was Marlene Dietrich, who defied the rules of the Polo Lounge bar – no unaccompanied women, and no women wearing trousers – by turning up alone in a sleek pair of slacks. An extension in the 1940s by renowned Black architect Paul Revere Williams made the hotel even more attractive to Hollywood’s ever-expanding celebrity community. The exterior was painted its trademark pink – check out its peachy turrets on the cover of The Eagles’ seminal 1976 album Hotel California – and the property’s famous green and powder pink colour scheme was minted.

It’s not the main building of the hotel that has the most star power, however: that claim belongs to the bungalows just behind it. These self-contained boltholes – 23 of them, the first five of which were built in 1915 – had direct access from the street and were perfect for residents who wanted more privacy. One such guest was Elizabeth Taylor, who stayed in various bungalows after six of her eight weddings. The British-born icon’s preferred bungalow was Number 5 and, after her death in 2011, her family hosted a private memorial service within its walls.

The bungalows also saw one of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s lengthy bed-ins (on a divan ordered by Dietrich for the suite) while Paul McCartney and Linda Eastman spent a week sequestered in another one not long after meeting. Marilyn Monroe was also a big bungalow fan, often staying in Number 1 and 7 – where she spent Christmas with her second husband, baseball star Joe DiMaggio – and having an affair with her Let’s Make Love co-star Yves Montand in adjoining rooms, 20 and 21. Reclusive director and businessman Howard Hughes would often stay in Number 4, booking out a number of the rooms at a time so that nobody knew quite where he was staying. “The only person in the hotel who knew exactly where he was, was the executive chef,” explains Boggs. “Because Howard Hughes loved his roast beef sandwiches.” Even then, the chef wouldn’t deliver the snack directly to Hughes, but instead leave it in the crook of a tree outside his bungalow for the insomniac director to retrieve in the middle of the night.

Then there’s Bungalow One, where Gore Vidal’s socialite mother Nina had an affair with Clark Gable. “I’ve got to the point where I don’t say anything is definitely true unless I saw it with my own eyes, or someone who saw it themselves was drunk enough to tell me,” Boggs assures me. So who told you about the affair, I ask? “Gore Vidal!” he says with a chuckle. The US writer and intellectual was a long-time lover of the hotel, spending his final days in 2012 in the lobby by a roaring fire, singing to himself after another martini-heavy lunch. “Gore, bless his heart, towards the end of his life spent every day in the Polo Lounge,” explains Boggs. “He’d bring his own sheet music and have the piano man play. He had a tremendous ear for music but a horrible voice – people who didn’t realise who he was were very upset!”

Marlene Dietrich in 1940: she defied the rules – no unaccompanied women – of the Polo Lounge bar (Beverly Hills Hotel)
Marlene Dietrich in 1940: she defied the rules – no unaccompanied women – of the Polo Lounge bar (Beverly Hills Hotel)

It’s not just entertainment lore that’s buried deep within the bungalows, but political history too. Bungalow Three is where Robert Kennedy’s young children tragically found out that their presidential hopeful father had been assassinated after watching it on the news.

The Beverly Hills Hotel’s swimming pool – which was once ringed by golden sand shipped in specially from Arizona – has also seen its fair share of sensational activity. British actor Rex Harrison had a fondness for sunbathing nude, with nothing but a handkerchief covering his Doctor Doolittle, in the private cabanas, which is where composer Leonard Bernstein came up with the idea for West Side Story. When The Beatles stayed at the hotel, they had to be snuck in via the pool exit, to avoid the hordes of screaming fans. Their manager Brian Epstein even met Colonel Tom Parker in the Polo Lounge to arrange a meeting between the band and Elvis, which sadly didn’t come to fruition on that occasion.

The pool is also the location of one of the most iconic Oscars photos of all time – that of Faye Dunaway dramatically reclining the morning after winning the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1977. Newspapers are scattered on the floor, one announcing Peter Finch’s posthumous Best Actor win for the same movie. Finch was indelibly linked to the hotel too, dying of a heart attack in the lobby just two months previously.

Celebrating 110 years since it opened, the Beverly Hills Hotel remains as popular as ever, with Oscar and Grammy weekends seeing it awash with the biggest celebrities in the world. “It’s still relevant,” says Boggs, proudly. “We are literally the last of our kind.”

Rare photos of Elizabeth Taylor by Bert Stern will be on show in the lobby of the Beverly Hills Hotel from 1 August until 30 September