Happy birthday, Hotel Babylon!
Hollywood's home to the A-list celebrates 100 years of discreet luxury
She has been part of the Hollywood scene for as long as anyone can remember, known and loved by everyone from Howard Hughes and Charlie Chaplin to Gregory Peck, Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra and Steven Spielberg. Thanks to the occasional facelift, and in defiance of old age, she still looks as resplendent as ever. And, this month, she celebrates a major landmark: her 100th birthday.
The Beverly Hills Hotel, stomping ground of the world's rich and famous since before the term "A-list" existed, will mark the occasion with parties and commemorative events, along with the publication of a coffee-table memoir chronicling her life and times. Celebrations will culminate, in mid-June, with three days of charity breakfasts, dinners and cocktail parties, hosted by such local heroes as Brett Ratner, Warren Beatty and the movie mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg.
Outsiders may feel baffled by this outpouring of affection for what is, on paper, nothing more than a 12-acre, 208-room playground for the 1 per cent. But it takes only a cursory glance at the history books to get a taste of the unique place that the so-called "Pink Palace" now occupies in the world's cultural heritage.
Howard Hughes lived there, on and off, for 30 years. Marilyn Monroe, who at the time was married to Arthur Miller, conducted an affair with her Let's Make Love co-star Yves Montand in between its well-pressed bedsheets. John Lennon and Yoko Ono spent a week in bed in one of the hotel's luxurious bungalows. And generations of stars, movers and shakers have cut deals and socialised in its bars and Polo Lounge restaurant.
"There's so much mystique about the place," said Robert S Anderson, the author of a commemorative history of the property titled The Beverly Hills Hotel and Bungalows: the First 100 Years. "I'm not exaggerating when I say that there is no one in Hollywood who hasn't done a major transaction either by the pool or in the Polo Lounge. Everyone in the industry, from Spielberg downwards, is in and out of there. It's their commissary."
A glance through Anderson's book, along with a tour of the exhibition of historic photos currently adorning the hotel's lobby, offers a glimpse of life as it might exist in a gossip columnist's febrile imagination. Here is Princess Grace, sunning herself by the swimming pool (where, as it happens, Faye Dunaway learned to swim). There is Elizabeth Taylor, enjoying one of the six (count 'em!) honeymoons she spent there, or Whitney Houston, tickling the ivories of the Polo Lounge's piano during an impromptu after-dinner concert.
Staff talk in hushed tones about the surreal footnotes to their workplace's history: the time Katharine Hepburn leapt into the pool fully clothed; the afternoon The Beatles were sneaked across into an outdoor cabana in fake beards and disguises as fans shrieked outside; or the scene that ensued – in an era when they still had a dress code – after Mia Farrow was turned away from the restaurant for wearing trousers.
Most conversations begin with Howard Hughes, the eccentric and reclusive billionaire who spent much of his three decades there in the company of Mormon bodyguards, and would instruct the hotel's chef to leave a beef sandwich for him on the branch of a tree in the garden, at 2am each morning.
"Hughes would would take between six and eight bungalows and suites at any one time, and have different starlets in each one to sleep with," says Anderson, the great-grandson of the hotel's founder, Margaret Anderson. "Boeing were trying to sue him at the time, but with all those rooms in his name, it made it impossible for them to find him and serve legal papers."
Other A-listers whose romantic endeavours were furthered in its bungalows include Paul McCartney, whose relationship with his future wife Linda is said to have ignited when he returned from a nightclub to find her sitting on his doorstep. Clark Gable pursued an affair with Carole Lombard in one of the small and discreet buildings, as did Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.
The history of the Beverly Hills Hotel mirrors that of its neighbourhood, which was a patch of untamed countryside when a real estate company offered Margaret Anderson a parcel of land to build a luxury resort. She described her new property as being "midway between Los Angeles and the sea".
In the early years, wealthy residents of the east coast and Canada would install themselves for months during the winter, riding horses from the hotel's stables in the nearby hills, and on at least one occasion staging a fox hunt there. Soon, they began buying up local houses. As money from the film industry started to pour into the region, turning LA into one of the world's fastest-growing cities, Beverly Hills became one of the world's wealthiest postcodes.
Today, having passed through the hands of a string of owners, the hotel is the property of the Sultan of Brunei. Rooms start at about $600; dinner will set you back roughly half that, and a silk tie at the in-house clothes shop is a snip at $500.
The management has become expert at maintaining the privacy that famous residents cherish, despite the preponderance of camera phones and the rise of the internet. And the biggest threat to the ambience, Anderson ventures, is vulgar rich patrons who "order a $300 shot of whisky and then mix it with Coca-Cola".
In a promotional film to mark the centenary, Michael Douglas attempted to explain its enduring appeal: "I've been going to the Beverly Hills Hotel for over half of its life. You feel timeless. There's a thoughtfulness that makes you feel like you're coming home. It could be 50 years ago, except, of course, for the cellphones."
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