In a continuing series looking at Hollywood restaurants where some of the scenes in my ‘Garden of Allah’ novels take place:
Only in a town built on the wispy foundations of ballyhoo, baloney and bull could a man like Michael Romanoff open a restaurant like Romanoff’s and actually get away with it for over twenty years.
In December of 1940, Prince Michael Romanoff opened his restaurant on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. The problem was that his name wasn’t Michael Romanoff, he wasn’t a prince, and he wasn’t from Russia. Evidently, though, that wasn’t much of a problem.
When he landed in Brooklyn from Lithuania around the turn of the century, the ten-year-old’s name was Hershel Geguzin. Somewhere along the way–specific details are so tedious, don’t you find?—he became a pants presser. (Really…? A ‘pants presser’…? Was that an actual occupation? I thought that was just something you–or your valet–did in the morning before you went to work.) By the time he moved to Cincinnati, he’d changed his name to Harry Gerguson, and he was still Harry Gerguson when he arrived in Hollywood in 1927.
One can only suppose that, in a town like Hollywood, a guy named Harry Gerguson isn’t likely to get very far…BUT…if his name was Prince Michael Dimitri Alexandrovich Obolensky-Romanoff and told anyone with a pair of ears that he was the nephew of Tsar Nicholas II, well now, that’s altogether something different.
Evidently Harry Gerguson positively reeked of Old World manners. He became known for his trademark spats, moustache and walking stick, and an impeccable (albeit faux) Oxford accent all of which helped to charm his way into Tinseltown society, and became much sought after for fancy soirees and polo matches. When Hollywood filmmakers needed a technical adviser for a movie set in Europe, Romanoff claimed to be an expert and drew a comfortable salary. Not that he was getting away with anything: everyone was in on the gag–most of the locals were self-invented, although perhaps not on quite such a grand scale–so they let him get away with it because they loved keeping company with a man of such bottomless chutzpah.
Such was his incomparable personal skills that it was probably inevitable he open a restaurant. With his sterling connections, he was able to get backing from the likes of Cary Grant, Darryl Zanuck, Jack Warner, Joseph Schenck, Jock Whitney, Caesar Romero, and Robert Benchley. Not surprisingly, he opened to capacity crowds virtually from day one. But not literally from Day One. In her book, Hollywood Revisited, gossip columnist Sheila Graham (who, at the time, was going out with Garden of Allah resident F. Scott Fitzgerald) said that she was there with Fitzgerald on the opening night, and at the end of the evening there was not enough money to pay the waiters, so there was a hasty whip around for cash.
If Geguzin a.k.a. Gerguson a.k.a. Romanoff was worried about his venture, he needn’t have. Not only did Romanoff’s become the premier restaurant of choice for Garden of Allah residents, but the likes of only-one-name-necessary types like Zanuck, Mayer, Cohn, Gable, Cooper, Sinatra, soon became regulars, along with a endless roster of famous faces. Picture it: it’s 1947, you’re all glammed up in your sparkling Bullock’s Wilshire best, and as the maitre d’ walks you to your see-and-be-seen booth in the far corner, you pass Lana Turner, Groucho Marx, Jack Benny, Sir Cedric Hardwick, Clifton Webb, Robert Morley, Cole Porter, Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, and Otto Preminger. And even then you’d just be scratching the tip of the celebrity iceberg.
Humphrey Bogart was one of its most famous and frequent diners and took a liking to the second booth from the left off the entryway, and occupied it daily when he wasn’t working. Romanoff’s had a strict rule that customers must wear ties, but Bogart insisted on coming in tieless. Romanoff finally had a showdown with Bogart and he agreed to don a cravat. The next day Bogart and Maltese Falcon co-star, Peter Lorre, showed up sporting half-inch-long bow ties in protest. Romanoff conceded; they were in the clear.
The Prince may have been a phoney-baloney, but it’s hard to fake genuine good taste and Romanoff had it in spades. The French cuisine he developed was the finest in the city, and drew all the local gourmands, who tolerated Mike’s insults and his habit of having his bulldogs dine with him at his table. They happily paid his high prices, but were treated to high quality food. For ten years he ran a packed house.
As the 1940s gave way to the ’50s, Romanoff looked at extending his business so he moved the restaurant from 325 North Rodeo Drive (i.e. north of Wilshire Blvd.) to 240 South Rodeo (south of Wilshire). On paper it probably seemed like a smart move–the new location had a roof garden, a ballroom for private parties, small private dining room and a much larger dining room designed to accommodate 24 equally-desirable booths–but it was never quite the same. Although the new location did okay at first, as the early ’50s became the late ’50s, it became harder to fill the room. A new generation of Hollywood talent wasn’t impressed with the old rogue who, among other things, had become a very vocal ultra-conservative. Even his most loyal patrons were offended by his friendship with J. Edgar Hoover and his handing out right-wing literature along with the menus. By the early ’60s the indelible writing was on the inevitable wall, and Romanoff’s closed its doors on New Year’s Eve, 1962.