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Forgotten Hollywood: The Garden of Allah

In 1918, silent movie star Alla Nazimova leased an estate called Hayvenhurst for $50,000 from real estate developer William H. Hay, located at 8152 Sunset Boulevard between Crescent Heights Boulevard and Hayvenhurst Drive. She bought it the 3 ½-acre property outright in 1919 for $65,000 at a time when she was earning $13,000 a week. She renamed it the Garden of Alla, installed a pool shaped like the Black Sea on the grounds, and invited the Hollywood A-list to her pool parties.

After Nazimova lost her fortune in the mid-1920s, she converted the estate into a resort-type hotel, building 25 villas for rent around the main house. The Garden of Allah Hotel opened in 1927 with a grand party that lasted almost 18 hours, attended by Marlene Dietrich, Francis X. Bushman, John Barrymore, boxer Jack Dempsey, Clara Bow, Gilbert Roland and Sam Goldwyn, among other celebrities.


George Oppenheimer, drama critic, screenwriter, and playwright, and a frequent guest at the Garden writing in American Heritage magazine of August 1977 described the opening night party.

“The grand opening of the new hotel on January 9, 1927, was in the gaudy tradition of the Hollywood première. Greeters in swallowtail coats and striped pants ushered thousands of unabashed gawkers through the rooms and bungalows, while a string quartet played in the lobby of the main building and a platoon of Japanese butlers served tea, punch, and sandwiches. When darkness fell, visitors gasped with wonder as colored lights lit up the grounds, and strolling troubadours in Spanish costumes sang and played beneath the night-blooming jasmine. The theatricality of the opening suggested the make-believe world of the movies, and it was assumed by most visitors—and reported by the newspapers the next day—that the new establishment would appeal most to movie makers.”

The first guest to register at the hotel, reported by Photoplay magazine in February 1927, was a Mack Sennett Girl, Madeleine Hurlock, one of the pin-ups for the GIs in WWI. The rent for the villas was $200-400 per month depending on their location.


1927 was the year that the first sound film, The Jazz Singer was released; Clara Bow, Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chaplin still ruled the box office; the AMPAS was founded with 36 members with its president Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.; Grauman’s Chinese Theatre opened on Hollywood Boulevard; the Hays Office Production Code was established, and the average movie ticket price was 25¢.

To Nazimova’s chagrin, her Garden of Alla was now spelled with an ‘h’ at the end of Alla. But no matter the name, it attracted droves of Hollywood stars and literati, drawn by the freewheeling lifestyle, daily parties, hijinks in the pool, and the endless alcohol despite Prohibition.

Even when Nazimova moved back to New York after selling out her interest in the hotel in 1928, the stars continued to come for another twenty years. Actors like Ginger Rogers, Frank Sinatra, Charles Laughton, all the Marx brothers, Fanny Brice, Ramon Navarro, Maureen O’Sullivan, David Niven, and Marlene Dietrich were all residents at some point.

Other famous residents included John Barrymore and Errol Flynn, especially between marriages. Gloria Swanson lived there with a lover whose name she claimed to have forgotten. Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh rented a villa till they became disenchanted with Hollywood and returned home. Sergei Rachmaninoff, Leopold Stokowski, and Raymond Chandler also rented villas, as did Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, and Alexander Woolcott of the Algonquin Club fame, all hired by the studios to write for the movies. Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman lived there for a time. (His second wife, Nancy Davis, was Nazimova’s goddaughter.) Clara Bow held court poolside, occasionally diving in in full evening dress and holding a martini.

Charles Laughton would lie face down in the pool with his The Hunchback of Notre Dame hump to cool off in the heat wave that prevailed when he was shooting the film. His wife, Elsa Lanchester, would hold his ankles to keep him afloat. Greta Garbo swam in it practically every day when she resided there while Ronald Colman ran poolside poker games.

A pink neon sign spelled out the name of the hotel, and according to Oppenheimer, sometimes the ‘gar’ part of the word garden did not light up – ‘THE DEN OF ALLAH’ was a fitting description of the place. The villas had red tile roofs, and palm and cedar trees and bougainvillea were ubiquitous. The interior of the main house, Alla’s residence, was dark and gloomy with eight guest rooms that were rarely rented. The house had heavy Spanish-style furniture and teak floors with a restaurant that was rarely patronized. The furniture and service were described as ‘atrocious.’ There was a ping-pong table by the side of the pool and a poolside telephone which was claimed to have the longest extension cord in the world.

Sheilah Graham was a gossip columnist in competition with Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper from 1936, and she was also F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lover. She stayed with him at the hotel while he wrote “The Last Tycoon” during his residence. In 1970, she published a book of her reminiscences called “The Garden of Allah.” She had many stories to tell about the denizens of the hotel.

She wrote about how Norma Talmadge who was married to Joe Schenck, president of UA, would use the hotel for trysts with her lovers. One of these was a writer called Edwin Justus Mayer whom she threatened, “If you tell anyone, I’ll ruin you. My husband is more important than you are.” Graham also wrote about the stud poker games at the house of Jed Harris, a Broadway producer, with Irving Berlin, Joe Schenck, Darryl Zanuck, and Sid Grauman.

Here’s another of Graham’s stories told to her by Bill O’Bryan, an agent and manager who lived at the hotel. He was woken up by screaming at 5 am one morning and ran to his window. “The scene was straight from a Hollywood movie. A group of people in full evening dress had obviously had one hell of a party, and two of them, Tallulah and Johnny Weissmuller, proceeded to dive off the top board, fully clad, into the pool. Tallulah was weighted down with a heavily beaded dress and diamonds, and she dropped to the bottom like a stone. Having an instinct for survival, she shed her clothes and jewels while weaving at the bottom of the Black Sea, emerging completely naked. “Everyone’s been dying to see my body,” she croaked. “Now they can see it.” … Dredging operations to recover Miss Bankhead’s jewelry took some time.”

“There were no rules,” one early resident told Oppenheimer. “Nearly everybody drank and drank hard. It was the thing to do at the Garden. You would come back late at night and look around for a lighted window. That meant a party, where you’d be welcome.”

Oppenheimer continued, “The informality took many forms. If a stark-naked lady of acting fame, her head crowned by a chattering monkey, chose to open the door to Western Union, no one was abashed, least of all the lady and the monkey. But the informality was not for strangers and voyeurs. The hotel management posted a guard at the front gate and maintained a discreet patrol of the grounds after dark, one of the watchmen leading a formidable dog that residents fondly called the Hound of the Baskervilles. The private police were strictly for security; they had orders not to harass the guests or interfere with their personal foibles and pleasures.”

When Bogart was hiding from his third wife Mayo Methot at the Garden while carrying on an affair with Lauren Bacall, he hired a guard to protect them from the famously violent Methot. According to Graham, “When she discovered Bogey with Baby, as her adoring Humphrey called her, the dialogue was as good as the toughest Bogart film. Bottles flew, furniture crashed, and while Baby escaped out the back door, the man who loved her was being chased out front by his irate wife, who was armed with a kitchen knife and brandished it while she tried to keep up with her terrified mate.” When Bogart died, the party at the Garden for his passing lasted three days, with food supplied by David Chasen and drinks contributed by Mike Romanoff. Both Chasen and Romanoff had eponymous restaurants fraternized by all the stars.

Another good story from Graham was about Orson Welles who was working on a screenplay with two other writers when he lived at the Garden. “They reached a sequence where Orson would recite the Lord’s Prayer. Orson read it, mumbling and grumbling. Then he rewrote it. The two writers were outraged … Orson replied, ‘But my version is so much better.’”

The screenplay for Katharine Hepburn’s first film with Spencer Tracy, Woman of the Year, was sold to MGM for $111,000, the highest-priced screenplay to date. It was Hepburn who made out the invoice – $100,000 for the script which went to writers Ring Lardner, Garson, and Michael Kanin (who locked themselves in Garson’s villa for five days and banged out the script), $10,000 to her for putting the deal together, and $1,000 for the bill at the Garden of Allah.

Servants came and went but Ben the Bellboy was famous. Ben knew everybody’s business and was the go-to guy to get anything done, including procuring alcohol. He represented a laundry and a car-renting agency. Ben would deliver the mail to the villas and probably steamed it open to read as he would sometimes say, “You don’t want this one,” according to Graham. “He was credited with taking one drink from every bungalow where he had a business, and he had business in them all. It was his recognized tip.”

Another resident quoted Graham: “Ben was the most amazing man. He supplied everything, for the men and for the women. He had four or five girls that he could bring to the parties for the men – married men, some of them – who get in a fast frolic when the wife was out shopping.”

The Garden also had a Dr. Feelgood, a woman they called ‘Doc.’ Graham again: “She carried a black leather bag like a doctor. It contained her vibrator, ostensibly for massaging the entire bodies of her patients. She had an office near Paramount and was always being called by the producers. She did more to ruin Paramount than Paramount pictures.” When one female resident complaining of tiredness asked David Niven if she could hire her for a massage, Niven “choked a bit then said crisply, “Darling, I don’t think she’s for you.”

The golden age of the hotel was from 1935 to 1945, but by the 1950s, things started going downhill. The hotel stopped getting famous guests who preferred the Hotel Alexandria, the Ambassador Hotel, or the Chateau Marmont up the street. Management changes didn’t help, and there were several. Now the residents were mostly tourists, conmen, and wannabes in the film business, with prostitutes visiting daily and drunken brawling a regular event with the police being called. There were petty thefts and even a murder when armed men robbed the hotel after shooting the night clerk.

In 1959, the hotel had its last gasp. A closing night party was announced after the property was sold to the Lytton Savings and Loan Association which would raze the estate and build a strip mall. The furnishings were auctioned. On August 22, 1959, some one thousand partygoers thronged the Garden of Allah one last time, dressed as the old-timers who lived at the hotel. Francis X. Bushman who had been at the opening night party also attended the closing night. He was the most famous person there.