In the Golden Age of Hollywood, there was a place that became synonymous with booze, sex, drugs, and lavish parties overflowing with decadence. This place, called The Garden of Allah Hotel would be home to many celebrities over the years the walls of which would be privy to stories that would be forever remembered.
“I’ll be damned if I’ll believe anyone lives in a place called the Garden of Allah.” Thomas Wolfe, novelist
This was a place where Hollywood players could engage in any hedonistic proclivities they wished without any repercussions. It was a safe haven.
“Through the intoxicating Twenties and Thirties, the Garden of Allah was more house party than hotel. Robert Benchley was resident clown; John Barrymore kept a bicycle there so as not to waste drinking time walking between the separate celebrations in the sprawling, Spanish villas. Woollcott, Hemingway, Brice, Flynn, Olivier, Welles, Bogart, Dietrich all lived at the Garden during its green years.” – TIME Magazine 1959
Star-studded tales at the Garden will be featured in the latter part of the article but first, let’s begin with-
A Brief History of the Garden
The hotel, located at the east end of the Sunset Strip at 8152 Sunset Boulevard was previously the location of a 2.5-acre estate called Havenhurst, which was completed in 1913.
The property was built by real estate tycoon William Hay for him and his wife Katharine to live in. The 40 room mansion contained 12 bedrooms, 4 bathrooms, and a 2 car garage with a servant’s quarters above it. After 3 years Hay became bored with this house and moved a few blocks east to a new one at 7920 Sunset (which now houses the Director’s Guild of America).
In 1918 a Russian actress, Alla Nazimova, one of the highest-paid actresses in Hollywood at the time, leased the property from Hay for $50,000 and bought it the following year. She called her new home “The Garden of Alla”, which was a reference to her own name and the best-selling British novel The Garden of Allah.
The main change she made to the property after purchasing it was the installation of a swimming pool with underwater lights in the shape of the Black Sea. Over the years it became known that Marlene Dietrich enjoyed swimming in this pool naked and that when Charles Laughton was filming The Hunchback of Notre Dame he would float on his back in the pool during his lunchbreak still wearing the face makeup for his role as Quasimodo.
Nazimova, who was bi-sexual and it is widely believed that she coined the phrase “sewing circles” as code to refer to the lesbian or bisexual actresses of her day who concealed their true sexuality. Her home became a place for lesbians in Tinseltown to congregate away from the prying eyes of the world. Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich were said to be frequent visitors of Nazimova’s.
When her star faded in the mid-1920s Nazimova decided to convert the property into a hotel. It opened on January 9, 1927, and featured over 2 dozen villas. The night it opened Marlene Dietrich, John Barrymore, Francis X Bushman, and Jack Dempsey were in attendance.
“There were no rules. Nearly everybody partied – and partied hard. You would come back late at night and look around for a lit window. That meant a party, where, of course, you’d be welcome.” An early resident of the Garden of Allah
Upon opening, the Garden sent a brochure to the studios that read:
“California’s finest summer hotel in Hollywood: In the Garden of Allah there are 30 individual bungalows, exquisitely furnished and offering you a delightful home, with complete hotel service. A magnificent swimming pool, surrounded by a semi-tropical paradise, transforms your bungalow into a delightful beach home in the centre of Hollywood. In this alluring atmosphere of the tropics, you may dine under the stars. Just the place for that breakfast by the pool, bridge at lunch and a dinner party. You will appreciate the atmosphere of exclusive refinement in this garden of wonderful homes. It is truly a gem of comfort in a setting of romance.”
In 1928 Nazimova, who was broke, sold her interests in the hotel and moved to New York City. In 1938, she returned to the Garden where she rented villa 24 until her death in 1945.
In the late 1950s, things began to change and the atmosphere around the Garden became less glamorous and seedier. Drugs became more prevalent, villas were frequently robbed and the Mafia was rumored to be sending in prostitutes to seduce, trap and blackmail celebrities.
“Nothing interrupted the continual tumult that was life at the Garden of Allah. Now and then the men in white came with a van and took somebody away, or bankruptcy or divorce or even jail claimed a participant in its strictly unstately sarabands. Nobody paid any mind.” – Lucius Beebe, Columnist
In April 1959, Lytton Savings and Loan purchased the Garden of Allah for $755,000 for the purpose of turning it into the main branch of their bank. On August 29th, a lavish farewell party was thrown by bank president Bart Lytton at the Garden featuring guests dressed up as old-time movie stars, and Nazimova’s 1923 movie Salome was shown on a poolside screen. By November 2nd, the building was razed and all traces of it were only a memory.
Errol Flynn spent a great deal of time basically living at the Garden from 1935 until 1957 (he stayed there between marriages during this time as well as using it for his extramarital affairs while married). While living there in 1935 he was offered the lead role in Captain Blood that made him a star.
He shared a villa with David Niven and writer Bill Lipscomb at the Garden before hooking up with and marrying French actress Lili Damita, who also had a villa there. The pair would participate in Martini fueled rough sex sessions in her villa. They married shortly thereafter.
In 1937, while married to Damita, Flynn began an affair at the Garden with Mexican actress Lupe Velez. She introduced Flynn to cocaine but not in the way one would expect; she would cover his penis with the narcotic in order to dull the sensitivity of nerves so it would take longer for him to have an orgasm. Flynn reported used cocaine in this way until his death in 1959.
Former Garden owner Frank Ehrhart recalled that Errol had a strict regimen while staying at their in his later years:
“At 12:30 p.m., his secretary would set up a bottle of champagne and two glasses on a table among the chaise lounges by the pool.
An hour later, Flynn would appear wearing a blue blazer with white or grey pants and an ascot and mingle with his friends and neighbors who were lounging by the pool.
Before too long, he would approach a beautiful young woman and ask, “My child, will you have a glass of champagne?”
By then all eyes were on them wondering how long it would take Errol to get the girl into his villa.”
Hollywood’s It Girl was a fixture at the Garden during its early years. Bow was notorious for her wild playfulness at the Garden. Her favorite activities included pushing tuxedo-clad men into the pool and jumping off the diving board in an evening gown with a Martini in her hand.
When the Marx Brothers came to Hollywood, Harpo moved into the Garden. Late one night one of the residents began playing the piano loudly, which prevented him from getting a good night’s rest.
Harpo set his alarm for 5 am and rose to play the first 64 bars of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No1 (as loudly as possible with the windows open) until he heard this neighbor scream in agony and resulting in him changing bungalows that very morning.
“The nightlife in and around the miniature Black Sea kept the scandal writers supplied with more juicy items than they could use. But… my little bungalow in the Garden of Allah was a peaceful retreat… once the pianist had been moved.” – Harpo Marx
A few days later Harpo was told that his neighbor was Rachmaninoff, who had become so disgusted by his own music after Marx’s antics he wished he never had written it.
Ava Gardner, Artie Shaw and Frank Sinatra
Ava Gardner moved into villa 24 with her husband bandleader Artie Shaw in October of 1945 just a few months after Nazimova’s death. She lived there for 12 months before leaving him due to his egotistical and uncaring behavior.
It was at the Garden that Garner first met Frank Sinatra, who was staying in the villa next door.
Sinatra had moved into the Garden in 1941 with his press agent George Evans, who had organized the screaming teens in New York which helped launch Sinatra onto the cultural landscape.
Cole Porter wrote the lyrics to Night and Day while lying in bed in his villa at the Garden one night. An original lyric to the song “I get no kick from cocaine…” was forced to be changed to “I Get A Kick Out of You” as the original lyric was deemed unacceptable by the Powers That Be.
Tallulah Bankhead was a notorious deviant who was said to have seduced Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, Gary Cooper, and Dolores Del Rio at the Garden of Allah.
Once fellow guests were awoken in the early morning by the sound of Bankhead and Weissmuller, evidently back from a party, jumping the pool in off the diving board. Bankhead, who was weighed down in a heavily beaded dress and diamonds, dropped like a stone to the bottom of the pool, where she managed to shed all her clothes, emerging completely naked.
“Everyone’s been dying to see my body, now they can.”
Weissmuller and Bankhead then proceeded to have sex in the pool.
After his marriage to Jane Wyman failed, Ronald Reagan moved into the Garden in 1948. During his stay, he bedded so many women that he told a friend:
“I woke up one morning and I couldn’t remember the name of the gal I was in bed with.”
Interestingly, his next wife Nancy Davis was the goddaughter of Alla Nazimova.
Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall
Humphrey Bogart stayed at the Garden with various lovers, including Lauren Bacall. Bogart and Bacall were once attacked in their villa by his drunken and deranged third wife, the actress Mayo Methot. Other guests rushed out to watch the craziness as bottles flew and furniture was smashed. Bacall escaped out the back door, while Methot chased old Humphrey around the villa with a kitchen knife.
After the Garden Fell
So the Garden fell in 1959 and was replaced by a bank. The bank didn’t last either.
What replaced the bank? The only thing that lasts forever in this great society of ours – McDonald’s.