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Tawdry Tales of the Sunset Tower

“It not true that John Wayne kept a cow in his penthouse,” the publicist tells me.

“He didn’t. We verified it with the Wayne estate,” Dan Hoye of the Los Angeles Conservancy later confirms.

No cow? My heart sinks. What about the horse? If the Duke didn’t get fresh milk from a cow in his Sunset Tower apartment, didn’t he at least take a horse up the elevator?

“It would be pretty hard to get a horse or a cow in those elevators,” says former Sunset Tower resident Jackie Gray.

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Another Sunset Tower myth debunked. Still, there are plenty of other tales of the Tower to tell. Glamour is nothing new to the Deco-style building that now houses St. James’s Club. The place was built as a haven for Hollywood’s elite: “Faultless in Appointment--The Ultimate in Privacy . . . Hollywood’s Most Distinguished Address.” read one ad that appeared in the February 1938 issue of the Screen Actors Guild magazine. Marilyn Monroe, Preston Sturges, Zasu Pitts and Billie Burke are just some of the early stars who made the ad true. Howard Hughes reportedly kept several mistresses in the building when he lived there. Later, Frank Sinatra, Michael Caine, Roger Moore, Quincy Jones, Michael Emil, Carol Kane, Jerry Buss and Stacy Keach (who used to practice fencing on his balcony) called the Sunset Tower home.

The building even had a star appearance in the movies. Dick Powell’s Philip Marlowe is taken to one of the lavish Tower apartments in “Murder My Sweet” and shown a magnificent view of the city. “On clear days, Mr. Marlowe,” says the suave and scheming Amthor (Otto Kruger), “you can see the ships in the harbor at San Pedro.” Amthorextends his hospitality further by having his thug Moose Malloy rough Marlowe up.

Such antics weren’t uncommon in real life. Hollywood “sports figures” (as they were dubbed in the papers) Benjamin (Bugsy) Siegel and Allan Smiley were arrested on felony bookmaking charges in 1944 for placing bets from Smiley’s Sunset Tower apartment. “It’s a bum rap,” Siegel told the press while witnesses testified in court that Siegel and his friends were only playing “a friendly game of gin rummy.” (Siegel and Smiley later pleaded guilty and were fined $250 each.) Several sources report that Siegel also lived in the Tower but was “asked” to leave by the management.

Siegel’s “associate” Smiley was also involved in what papers at the time called “one of Hollywood’s wildest off-the-screen slugfests,” at the Sunset Tower. A jealous Tommy Dorsey reportedly pummeled husky film hero (“Hurricane”) Jon Hall after the actor, according to a Los Angeles Times story, “paid undue attention to (the bandleader’s) actress-wife Pat Dane” at a raucous nightcap party at the Dorsey apartment. The Times reported that actor Eddie Norris (former husband of actress Ann Sheridan) “darn near got killed . . . during the celebrity-infested brawl . . . when he tried to act as peacemaker” between Dorsey and Hall, who “came out of the fracas with his classic nose almost severed from his suntanned face.” None of the articles specifically mention the Sunset Tower (“Sunset Plaza apartment” or “swank Sunset Strip apartment” is written) but Smiley is mentioned as Dorsey’s next-door neighbor and was said to have been the knife-man in the incident. Unless Smiley moved between the time he was arrested with Siegel in June of 1944 and the August ’44 brawl, the Tower is the site what came to be known as the Battle of the Balcony.

Another dicey tidbit about the building: “It was notorious for having the best-kept call girls in Hollywood,” says actress Sondra Currie, who was one of the building’s last residents. “Even my father looked at me funny when I first moved in. It took some convincing to ease his mind.”


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