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A Soft Rain Falling

A soft rain was falling the day the Old Lady died. It misted the windshields of the cars on Wilshire and dampened the walkways used by those who had come to say goodby. Reporters and photographers were still there when I arrived because this was an event of significance in Los Angeles, the death of a queen called the Ambassador Hotel, a part of our past that danced all night.

I had not intended to witness its final closing because the affair promised to be exactly what it was, a story on every front page, a segment on every television news show, a report on every radio station. It seemed to me everyone would have had enough of the Ambassador by the time I got around to saying anything.

There was another reason to avoid the whole thing. You can talk all you want about who occupied the celebrity suites and who played the Cocoanut Grove, but the image of the Ambassador that haunts the memory is that of Bobby Kennedy lying on the kitchen floor, staring brain-dead at the ceiling.

I recall with terrible clarity the night he died. I sat alone in a darkened room of my home in the Berkeley hills watching the televised news reports, seeing the same scenes over and over again, thinking that this couldn’t be happening to us, all this horror, and watching it finally without sound, as the murder played in pantomime until dawn.

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This was on my mind Tuesday when the Ambassador checked out its last guest, shut down its gift shop and began carting away the accouterments of commerce. But then I heard someone in the city room refer to the hotel as “the Old Lady,” and the phrase evoked a different kind of imagery, the one I was talking about earlier, when the Lady was young and wore rhinestones. It couldn’t hurt to stop by. I was on my way to Beaufait Avenue in Granada Hills to look at the homes that had been destroyed in last December’s brush fires because the idea of caprice, of random selection, has always fascinated me. What spared one home and burned the other? Why hadn’t it rained sooner? By whose hand are we nudged along the road to Armageddon?

The Ambassador isn’t exactly on the route to Beaufait, but I’d compromise. A quick look at the grand dame in her dated finery (one imagines sequins and flowing gowns) and then off to areas of more compelling attention, the fire-bombed homes that lay like skeletons in the rain along the charred northern rim of the San Fernando Valley.

I had only been in the hotel a little while when I met A. Lester Rosichan, a dapper little man of 72 who danced with the Lady when she was in her 20s and he in his 30s, during the war years, when music was the last refuge of festivity. I’m speaking metaphorically, of course, because Lester didn’t actually dance with the hotel but at it, far into the hours of the morning.

I don’t know what the “A” in his name stands for because he wouldn’t say, but he did say he was in an Army artillery unit stationed at San Pedro from 1942 to 1946 and the Ambassador was his headquarters.

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Lester was making his way down the hotel’s main corridor when I saw him. He wore slacks, a yellow leather jacket and a Greek fisherman’s cap cocked rakishly on his head. The walk was slow, almost laborious, assisted by a cane. Several strokes had slowed his pace. There would be no dancing till dawn for Lester anymore.

“The memories this place holds,” he said, when I asked what had brought him out on this rainy day. “I used to come here maybe three or four times a week for dinner or a drink and then dancing.” He hesitated for a moment, remembering, and then said with the satisfaction of one who has touched elusive feathers of the past, “I drank Glenlivet Scotch in those days.”

He met his wife 39 years ago not far from the hotel on Berendo Street where they both had apartments. They dated in the Cocoanut Grove. “We had such good times,” Lester said. “I wanted to buy a trinket or something today to help me remember. Not anything expensive, a small thing, but the store was closed.” He looked around and shook his head. “Well, that’s it, I guess.”

I watched him shuffle slowly down the corridor past Taffy’s and the London Shop and tried to re-create what Lester had been and what the Lady had been when the music played and the dancers whirled and we thought the party would never end.

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Then I left too and went to those fire-black homes in Granada Hills and stood in the softly falling rain, thinking about caprice, an Old Lady dying and about A. Lester Rosichan walking painfully down that corridor of time.


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