William Hay is a name not heard too often these days, but this year marks the 100th anniversary of the construction of what became one of the most iconic watering holes in Los Angeles history.
Hay was a Los Angeles developer who did much to shape the landscape of West Hollywood. In 1905, he developed an area he called Crescent Heights whose boundaries were Sunset Boulevard, Fairfax Avenue, (then known as Crescent Drive,) Santa Monica Blvd, and Hayvenhurst Drive. (Originally, Havenhurst Dr. was spelled with a “y.”)
By 1913, Hay had divorced his first wife and married Katherine, his second. He built an estate on a still-unpaved Sunset Boulevard for them, which he dubbed “Hayvenhurst.” Around 1915, and for reasons lost in the mists of time, Hay built a second mansion where the Director’s Guild now stands and left Hayvenhurst to stand empty until the arrival of one of the most famous and highest-paid actresses of the era.
By the time she moved to Hollywood in 1918, Russian-born Alla Nazimova was a highly successful leading lady on Broadway, heralded for her definitive interpretations of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and A Doll’s House. Based on the success of her first movie, War Brides in 1916, Nazimova was offered a five-year, $13,000-a-week contract with Metro Studios, working for future MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer. Such was her power that not only did her contract pay her $3,000 a week more than Mary Pickford, but it awarded her the right to approve director, script, and leading man. Following the success of Revelation and Toys of Fate (both 1918) Nazimova moved to Los Angeles to begin production on her third film, Eye for Eye.
A grand movie star needs a grand movie star mansion, so when she came across the unoccupied Hayvenhurst mansion, she leased it from Hay, and spent $65,000 remodeling the place inside and out, building a pool, and landscaping the property’s three and a half acres. She named it the “Garden of Alla” referring to an enormously popular 1904 novel The Garden of Allah by Robert Smythe Hichens (made in a movie by David O. Selznick starring Marlene Dietrich in the mid-1930s.)
To keep this in historical perspective, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks purchased a remote hunting lodge they would rename Pickfair in 1919, and then spent five years remodeling it into a mock-Tudor four-story, 25-room mansion. So during this time, Nazimova’s “Garden of Alla” was probably the westernmost fine movie star home in all of Los Angeles. Beverly Hills didn’t start attracting its share of celebrities until after Pickfair was completed in 1924.
The completion of Alla’s renovations saw the beginnings of the house’s rise to prominence. When Nazimova arrived in Hollywood, she found a worrying dearth of culture. So she started up a weekly salon along the lines of Gertrude Stein’s Paris salons, and gathered together fellow European ex-patriots and other well-educated intellectuals around silent-era Hollywood to discuss all manner of subjects: philosophy, literature, art, history and, no doubt, sock away copious amounts of illicit booze in the process.
Being an intelligent, ambitious and talented woman, Nazimova liked to surround herself with like-minded folk, and her salons often included people like playwright and screenwriter Mercedes de Acosta (a close friend of Greta Garbo), stage actress Eva la Gallienne (one-time lover of Tallulah Bankhead . . . but then again, who wasn’t?), actress Jean Acker (married to Valentino), actress Lilyan Tashman (famous for her million-dollar wardrobe), and Natacha Rambova, costume designer on Nazimova’s 1923 movie Salome, and the second wife of Valentino.
Unfortunately, being a highly paid movie actress doesn’t guarantee you have the smarts when it comes to money. By the mid-1920s, Nazimova had suffered a number of disastrous films and found herself facing bankruptcy. A couple by the name of Jean & John Adams approached her with a plan to turn her property into a hotel. On the surface of it, the plan seemed sound. It would ensure an on-going income as Nazimova slid towards the unemployable middle age that actresses understandably fear. Nazimova readily agreed, left them with what was probably most of her dough to clear the land and build 25 two-story villas (later expanded to 30), and hit the road to revive her once-illustrious theater career.
Leaving Los Angeles was probably Nazimova’s big mistake. Had she stuck around and kept an eye on what the Adamses were up to, she might have caught onto the fact that they were shysters out to bilk her for every last penny they could squeeze. By the time the hotel opened in January of 1927, Nazimova was back in Los Angeles but the project had drained her of nearly all her money and the Adamses were nowhere to be found. The hotel opened and, thanks to the house’s reputation of being an interesting place where interesting people gathered to talk about interesting things, quickly became a popular place to stay. However, Nazimova was broke and reduced to living in one of the villas now standing in what used to be her own backyard.
On July 17, 1928, Nazimova sold the Garden of Alla back to Hay. He paid her $80,000 but deducted debts accrued by the Adamses. Nazimova ended up with $7,500 after having sunk $250,000 into the hotel. Hay installed a management company and he continued to run it until June of 1930 when he sold his interest in the Garden of Allah to the Central Holding Corporation. By this stage, the hotel was now known as the Garden of Allah (with an “h”—something that Nazimova frowned on) and the hotel’s glory years began.
From the late 1920s, through the Depression, the war years and into the ‘50s, the Garden of Allah could always provide hopeful Hollywood arrivals with a pillow, a pal, and a party. Over those years, a virtual who’s who of Hollywood checked in: Bogie and Bacall, Errol Flynn, David Niven, Harpo Marx, Tallulah Bankhead, Artie Shaw, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Ronald Reagan, Ronald Colman, Louis Calhern, John Carradine, Dorothy Gish, Kay Thompson, Jackie Gleason, Leopold Stokowski, Orson Welles, Gloria Stuart, Ava Gardner, and Frank Sinatra are just some of the people who called the Garden of Allah home.
At the same time, the Garden of Allah became an extension of the Algonquin Round Table. Humorist and theater critic Robert Benchley was one of the first to take up residence. So when Dorothy Parker was offered the Hollywood carrot, she too checked in. Fellow scribes and Algonquinites followed, including Donald Ogden Stewart (“Marie Antoinette”, “The Women”, “The Philadelphia Story”) Alexander Woollcott, Marc Connelly (“Captains Courageous”, “I Married a Witch”, “Merton of the Movies”), George S. Kaufman (“Dinner at Eight”, “A Night at the Opera”, “A Day at the Races”, “The Man Who Came To Dinner”)
A tightly knit community evolved among the Garden of Allah residents, creatives for whom the motion picture was an art form. Outside the Garden’s walls were the control-freaky front office suits requiring them to start tapping away at their typewriters at 9 a.m. and stop at 5 p.m. as though they were simply taking dictation and happy to fit in with the carpenters and scenery painters. The Garden of Allah’s writers and actors found themselves among kindred spirits who understood the pressures and frustrations that went along with a successful Hollywood career. Being the outgoing, sharp-witted and articulate types, they spent a lot of time socializing together. There was always some sort of party going on, especially if the unofficially self-appointed host of the Garden of Allah, Robert Benchley, was in town.
Attracting an ongoing flow of actors, writers, musicians, directors, and technicians, it could be said that the Garden of Allah evolved into a microcosm of Hollywood itself. Opening at the dawn of the talkies in 1927, and closing at the dusk of the studio system in 1959, the residents of the Garden of Allah saw the unfolding of what we now fondly call the golden years of Hollywood. They witnessed—and not insignificantly contributed to—the advent of sound, the development of Technicolor, the rise and subsequent decline of the power and popularity of radio, the propaganda war machine years of World War II, and the battle against the onslaught of television with widescreen epics through the 1950s. No other hotel in Hollywood’s fabled history—not the neighboring Chateau Marmont, the glamorous Beverly Hills Hotel, or the recently lamented Ambassador Hotel—could lay claim to such a central role in the evolution of the art form that, it could well be argued, came to define the century.
Like the studio system itself, the writing began to appear on the stuccoed walls of the Garden of Allah by the late 1950s. A series of ever-more apathetic management buyouts saw the Garden decline in popularity. By that time, the population of Hollywood (and by extension Los Angeles) was more stable and had less need for the sort of long-term residency that the Garden offered. And so in 1959, it fell to its knees before the great Angelean harbinger: the God of Progress, and was sold to yet another developer who tore it down and converted the site into a mini mall that looks like any other mini mall between San Pedro and Rancho Cucamonga.
In September 2013, a property development company called Townscape announced their plans to build a mixed-use project on the site of the Garden of Allah. The plans for “8150 Sunset” include a 9-story tower alongside a 16-story tower, together with various restaurants, bars, stores, a market, and seven levels of parking. Pretty much everybody agrees that something must be done with the mini mall eyesore that has stood in the Garden of Allah’s place for the past 50 years, and at this point there’s no telling what the final project will look like.
A faithful rebuilding of the Garden of Allah Hotel would be too much to hope for, but the developers have gone out of their way to make the point that they’d like to incorporate into their plans some sort of tribute which acknowledges that upon this land once stood a unique Hollywood icon.