The Garden of Allah villas

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The Garden of Allah Hotel, villas and pool
Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA

From 1927 when the private residence of Alla Nasimova, silent screen siren, was converted into apartments until 1959 when the villas were sold to a bank and bulldozed into history, the Garden of Allah villas hosted Hollywood luminaries, gangsters, bohemians and barflies. Its expansive pool was the private playpen for studio heads, stars and starlets in the 1950’s, hedonists whose late night celebrations were the bane to the more staid patrons of their Sunset Blvd. neighbor, the Chateau Marmont.

The Gardens of Allah were famously the subject of Joni Mitchell’s iconic, “Big Yellow Taxi.” The Eagles’ Don Henley penned a song about the villas, “Garden of Allah,” as well. For the Laurel Canyon collective of the 1970’s, including Mitchell and her beau, Steve Stills, the hotel, villas and their 64 X 45 pool represented a lost bohemian’s paradise sprawled in the pre-war wastelands between LA and Beverly Hills. Some of the best known guests at the Marmont slummed it in the Garden of Allah’s cosy bungalows. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Erroll Flynn, Dorothy Parker, and Humphrey Bogart. When Richard Harris was tossed from the Marmont, where did he go? The Garden of Allah, of course.

The Garden of Allah was specially popular during the Prohibition; the villas’ pool parties never wanted for high spirits. John Barrymore kept a bicycle at his suite so as not to waste time traveling between parties scattered throughout the complex. Wives were kept at the Chateau, mistresses at the villas. Even Jean Harlow cross-crossed the street to keep her husband and lover apart.

By the mid-fifties as the Hollywood studio system was dismantled and more pictures were shot on location, the villas were in decline. Their guests were likely to be hustlers and transients. The bungalows were in disrepair and sorely in need of attention. The land was worth more than the hotel. In 1959 it was sold and demolished. There was a closing party at the Garden just before it was destroyed. Its contents were sold and the walls came down. They built a savings and loan on the sites with a sprawling parking lot.

Don’t it always seem we don’t know what we got ’til it’s gone?

For many years, the bank building that replaced the Garden of Allah displayed a miniature replica of Nasimova’s original home and pool in its lobby. Visitors could imagine the high times of Hollywood’s golden era on the expansive lawn overlooking Sunset Boulevard. But since 2007, even the miniature is gone. What became of the scale model of the villas so long on view? Are they misplaced, like the crate holding the ark of the covenant, per Indiana Jones? Or long discarded, lost in some mountain of unrecyclable detritus? Does some unlikely character have them squirreled away in his (or her) illicit collection?

Who knows where the model went?

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Hollywood’s legendary Chateau Marmont

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I’m reading “Life at the Marmont: The Inside Story of Hollywood’s Legendary Hotel of the Stars, Chateau Marmont,” by Raymond Sarlot, the hotel’s owner from 1975 – 1991, and Fred Basten, an accomplished chronicler of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Together, Sarlot and Basten explore its history, dispel its myths, and flesh out the legends of the incomparable Marmont Hotel. The book was originally published in 1987. In the 2013 Penguin Books edition, Basten provides an afterword that brings the Marmont Hotel’s elite guest list up to date.

As you might expect, the book contains a treasure trove of celebrity stories and gossip, from the 1930’s through the 21st century. Hundreds of people were interviewed for the book, including former guests Lauren Bacall, Yul Brynner, Richard Chamberlain, Glenn Ford, Louis Malle, Robert Osborne, Lynn Redgrave, Ginger Rogers, and Donald Sutherland. The authors also share stories about the hotel itself, its renowned decor, long-tenured staff, and less well known, private playpens that existed outside of public view. Chateau Marmont overlooks Sunset Boulevard, but the views that these authors reveal are much more intriguing than the Los Angeles skyline.

The story of the Marmont parallels the evolution of early Hollywood, through its heydays in the 40’s and 50’s, and the studios’ challenges from radio, television and digital media. The book links the past with the present in a steady stream of intriguing episodes. Yes, it’s gossipy but the authors are respectful; for example, they handle to unfortunate death of John Belushi with care and compassion. Its stories aren’t limited to actors, either. Sarlot and Basten include events that featured writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, studio chiefs like Harry Cohn and Louis B. Mayer, and musicians like Edith Piaf, Mick Jagger, and John Lennon.

This book contains all of the glamour, the fantasy, and the dishy-ness that any Hollywood Babylon junkie could want. It’s a fun read and I recommend it whole-heatedly.