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Lady With a Past: Hotel Del Celebrates 100 Years of Tradition, Tales and Glitterati

Times Staff Writer

For Bud O’Brien, the big hotel loomed as a world all its own. He worked in that world from 1938 until 1985 and loved everything about it--meeting Marilyn Monroe and Richard Nixon, even dropping off bags at The Haunted Room--No. 502.

O’Brien loved the way the hotel looked, gleaming at sunrise--a giant gingerbread castle with red turrets and a poet’s view of the blue Pacific.

One writer, L. Frank Baum, was so moved by the hotel--nicknamed “the castle” by employees--that Baumian cultists believe he modeled the Emerald City in “The Wizard of Oz” after not only the Hotel del Coronado but the seaside village that inspired it.

The Hotel Del and Coronado are inextricably woven together and always will be, in the view of Gerry MacCartee, past president of the Coronado Historical Assn.

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“The town grew up around the hotel, rather than vice versa,” MacCartee said. “It was really the promise and plan of the hotel that encouraged people to come over and buy lots and begin a town here.

“The first lot sale was November, 1886. The first sale was held under a tent. The hotel depended on the sale of the lots; the lot sale depended on the promise of the hotel.”

The hotel was built in 1888 at a cost of about $1 million, and this weekend, a full century later, the Hotel del Coronado is in the midst of a lavish centennial celebration. A $3-million, three-day party, paid for by current owner M. Larry Lawrence, began Friday night. Some call it the party of this or any season. One local dignitary even went so far as to comment on the irony of having such a party hosted by a Democrat.

Lawrence, a fund-raising kingpin of the Democratic Party for years, took umbrage with such an assessment.

“I consider that quite usual,” he said. “Most Republicans are not quite so generous in their giving. Republicans have always been people whose interests are predominantly self-motivated. Are Republicans selfish? Yes.”

Many Republicans have visited and will once again come calling at Lawrence’s “castle.” He has owned the hotel since 1963, having succeeded a long line of owners. Lawrence has never shied from candor, whether the targets were the Grand Old Party or Coronado neighbors who he says stifle his every breath.

“Oh, I don’t want to spoil the weekend by talking about my neighbors,” he said the other day. “But if I must, I must . . . “

When asked about the future of the old hotel, about his dreams and goals, Lawrence got angry.

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“I hope it’s able to remain the queen of the resort hotels, but some of that depends to a great extent on the small-minded little community that surrounds it,” he said. “It’s primarily retired military who live here, and they are not so comfortable with change. Their ideas run counter not just to Coronado but to the world. We pay 60% of the taxes in Coronado, but they don’t care. Their whole philosophy is not wanting anything to change.”

Irresistible Lure

Lawrence owns the 33 acres that contain the hotel and a crop of high-rise condominiums nearby. He developed the land years ago, doing so over the outrage of neighbors. He said he bought the hotel, lured by its potential for development and expansion; it was an offer he couldn’t refuse.

Lawrence said he has spent $80 million on new construction and renovation of the complex, which had fallen prey to termites and neglect by the time he acquired it from a consortium headed by John Allessio 25 years ago.

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“The responsibility of running such a place is, for me, exciting,” Lawrence said. “It always was a question of saving it from derelict status and restoring it as the queen of resort hotels. I now feel I’ve done that.”

And so the big party commemorates such a feat, in Lawrence’s mind. He has looked forward to the weekend with “pride, great pride.” He’s happy that the proceeds of the gathering will go to charity, to the arts and civic groups. The guests--movie stars, world leaders as well as local VIPs--are paying $5,000 a couple for the thrill of dancing in the Crown Room.

That’s the room that once feted a state dinner attended by outgoing President Lyndon B. Johnson, incoming President Richard M. Nixon and Mexican President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz. The same room once played host to Mary Pickford, Marilyn Monroe, silent-screen star Anita Paige, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, mail-order catalogue tycoon Montgomery Ward, and in more recent times, tennis star Chris Evert.

Such a room is one of the reasons that the hotel has been designated a national monument. Other reasons include more than 80 movies having been filmed there--most recently “The Stunt Man"--as well as a man named Thomas Alva Edison having served as hotel lighting consultant.

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Asked to elaborate on the storied past of his Victorian palace, Lawrence said: “I think it’s unique in the history of the American West. It’s entirely possible that in the East--in, say, Washington or Philadelphia--you would have such a place, but I don’t know what it is. Even there you don’t have hotels that have played host to so many presidents. We’ve had 12 U.S. presidents stay here and many world leaders.”

MacCartee said the Hotel del Coronado is the kind of place that “oozes” history, even if the history is sometimes arguable. She speculated that the biggest night in the hotel’s past had to be the ball in 1920 honoring the Prince of Wales, who later became King Edward VIII of England.

On said night in 1920--this is MacCartee’s version, one supported by the hotel’s public relations staff--the prince met a woman by the name of Wallis Spencer. Spencer was then married to her first husband, U.S. Navy Lt. Winfield Spencer, who at the time was the commanding officer of North Island Naval Air Station.

By 1936, King Edward was willing to abdicate his throne to marry Wallis Simpson, who had left Spencer. He did so, becoming the Duke of Windsor to her Duchess.

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(Other sources, including the Encyclopedia Britannica and the Duchess’ own memoirs say the couple didn’t even meet until at least a decade later--in the early 1930s--and that the meeting took place in England.)

Veteran Elevator Operator

Bud O’Brien, 70, who joined the hotel as an elevator operator in 1938, has met many world leaders. O’Brien worked his way up to bellman, then bell captain. He said Richard Nixon was the best tipper he ever knew and a “hell of a nice guy.”

O’Brien has exchanged many hellos in his days at the Hotel Del. He shared pleasantries on more than one occasion with President Franklin Roosevelt and his little dog, Scottie. He shook hands with Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan but said neither matched the warmth and sincerity of Nixon.

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“I don’t care what his reputation was,” O’Brien scoffed. “He was the best in my book.”

O’Brien said he learned “a peculiar truth” working at the castle.

“The richer they are, the better they are,” he said. “I don’t mean these get-rich-quick types, I mean the ones who worked for it. The ones who worked themselves up.”

Likes Lawrence the Best

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O’Brien visited Coronado from his home in Vermont and “fell in love” with the place. He worked for four different owners--the Spreckels Co., Barney Goodman, Allessio and Lawrence--and said Lawrence was the best by far.

“Every year he gave all the workers a Christmas bonus,” O’Brien said. “None of the others did that. He’s a self-made man. A lot of people don’t like him. He’s a little abrupt but a real good man in my book. He always treated us right. In many ways, he’s one of us. He didn’t come from rich stock.”

O’Brien saw many funny things in the course of his work but said the funniest was the night a guest got so drunk he made a trail of toilet paper from his room to the elevator to keep from getting lost on the route from the bar. The guest was famous; O’Brien keeps the name a secret.

O’Brien waited on Monroe, Nixon, Reagan and F.D.R. and even John Wayne, once taking a silver dollar from the Duke when the big man had nothing else to tip with.

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“I kept telling him I didn’t want to take it, but he forced me,” O’Brien said. “He was like that . . . . He said maybe it would bring me good luck.”

O’Brien has been in The Haunted Room many times and said he “never saw anything strange” in 502. Many guests swear an apparition appears late at night and that noises creak until dawn.

“Supposedly, a guest murdered a maid, and she comes out at night,” O’Brien said. “But I never even felt scared in there.”

He was there when the hotel bar caught fire--that was back in the 1950s--but the “hook and ladder boys” put it out so fast, you hardly knew it had happened.

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Al Laing, 78, worked at the hotel from 1927 until 1959, and has a story that may top anything in O’Brien’s repertoire--he once did Marilyn Monroe’s laundry.

“Yep,” Laing said. “Even her undergarments.”

Monroe came to the hotel for the making of the movie “Some Like It Hot” with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis.

He remembers scores of other stars, many of whom were, in his words, forgotten long ago. He met Charlie Chaplin, who once lived near the hotel. He remembered high rollers and fast action, especially during Prohibition, when the castle flourished.

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“In those days, there was no Vegas, no flying to Hawaii,” Laing said. “There was Prohibition but plenty of booze in Tijuana. You could gamble over there and drink, and wow, all sorts of people came to the Del.”

Like O’Brien, Laing remembers it as a world that drew him in, turned his days into nights. He often worked from 6:45 a.m. past midnight. He found the place “magical, special,” loving not the aloof celebrities as much as the “little people” like O’Brien who made it not just a fun place to work, but a family.

“I miss it,” he said. “It’s a world that fills my memories even now. It’s like one of those places that was somehow blessed. It will always be special, not just to me but to folks all over the world. Even if they tear it down, it will never disappear.”


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