On still, late summer days, the Happy Malaga Castle regally surveys its quiet residential street in central Hollywood, looking so virtuous in the glistening sun one can almost believe it isn’t hiding a past as sordid as that of any true Hollywood survivor.
My first introduction to the Castle was on a hot August morning in 1987, just after a man had stabbed his wife to death in the hallway of the east wing. When I arrived for a brunch, one of the tenants was hosing blood off the pitted stucco walls, but my friend called down from the third floor landing, “Come on up, the party’s still on.” This die-hard attitude has seen the building through seven decades of rumor, political turmoil and neglect.
Built in 1924 at Afton Place and El Centro by architect Leland Bryant, the 42-unit Afton Arms, as it was then called, was advertised as “something new in comfort and service.”
Chuck Vincent, a resident of 25 years, is the building’s longest-term tenant and resident archivist. He shows me the dumbwaiters that carried meals from the basement kitchen to residents, mostly supporting players and directors for nearby movie studios.
Vincent’s scrapbook is full of articles about the building’s several murders and particulars about movies that were filmed on the premises. But the building’s primary claim to fame is the legend that it contained a love nest for Joseph Kennedy and film star Gloria Swanson. The “Swanson Suite"--who knows if they ever trysted there--is a spectacular, two-story apartment at the back of the building, complete with an elegant, wrought-iron spiral staircase.
Artist Ynot Navillus is the Castle’s current manager, and has lived in the building for the last two decades with his lover of 25 years. He tells the story of an afternoon he happened to spend with Swanson at NBC in Burbank some time before her death in 1983. Wearing a floor-length mink coat on a sweltering summer day, Swanson rambled on about health food and the evils of tap water while popping delicate bits of a lovingly peeled banana into her mouth. Navillus was so enchanted by her that he almost forgot to ask about her connection to the building.
As Swanson reclined into her limousine, William Dufty, her last husband, informed Navillus that many buildings in Hollywood claim some connection to Swanson, but she never resided at the Afton Arms. While this may be true, some residents still believe the Castle was built with her in mind.
The building followed Hollywood out of its Golden Era into scandal and politics in 1947, when its Grand Ballroom was used as a meeting place by the Hollywood Ten, a group of screenwriters who were among the first members of the entertainment community to be called as unfriendly witnesses before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Their subsequent arrests for contempt of court ushered in the infamous period of blacklisting in Hollywood.
Forging ahead in the spirit of these famous Hollywood dissidents, Art Kunkin used the Grand Ballroom to publish the Los Angeles Free Press, a pivotal counterculture paper of the 1960s and ‘70s. In 1981, the FBI got a tip that Kunkin was storing explosives in the building’s basement. Vincent recalls, “People in what looked like spacesuits carried things out of there for a week.” The Times reported the materials were taken to a protected site and exploded. Kunkin, who had moved to Salt Lake City, said the chemicals had been donated to him by friends so that he could “indulge in the ancient art of alchemy” and that he had “no interest in building bombs.” Charges were never brought against him.
Perennial Hollywood character Gen. Hershey Bar became manager in 1972, and changed the building’s name to “The Happy Malaga Castle, “in honor of our sister province, Malaga, home of Malaga wine,” he explained. In the same memo to tenants he instructed “all lords and masters of the Castle . . . to prepare their coat of arms and display these from their balconies, windows or doors.”
The name stayed on the building’s sign, but Gen. Hershey Bar took off for the lights of Hollywood Boulevard, where he spent the next 10 years expounding to tourists on global destruction and alien abduction, his coat and hat covered with a dense layer of buttons and Cracker-Jack prizes.
Despite its jolly name, the Castle was plunged into a period of darkness in the late 1970s by a series of managers who, tenants say, showed no respect for the building or its tenants. Navillus and his lover joined forces with other residents in hosting a series of parties that brought tenants together and helped restore the Castle’s spirit. But when Navillus and his partner returned from a year abroad in 1987, the parties had gotten out of hand. Longtime tenants say drug use and dealing had become a problem in the building. “I like to consider myself part of the demimonde,” says Navillus, “and I’ve always lived on the edge, but this was over the edge.”
On June 27, 1988, Hillel Slovak of the Red Hot Chili Peppers was found dead of an overdose in his apartment, and though the Castle was listed as “Best Hollywood Apartment Building” in the L.A. Weekly, its major assets were “a plausible little garden” and “easiest place to buy cocaine.”
Realizing something had to be done to save the Castle, Navillus persuaded the owner to let him manage the building. When he first took over, the Castle was so notorious with local police that officers would show up two or three times a day, whether called or not, Navillus says.
Over the next year, he choreographed a rehabilitation of the building without having to serve eviction notices or engage in nasty scenes. “When you bring light and air into a situation in the form of service and cleanliness, those who need a dank environment depart,” he says. “Then there are those who respond to the change of the environment and they themselves change and end up staying. Those are the success stories.”
When he later had occasion to call the police over a domestic squabble in the building, he says he was pleased to find they needed directions on how to find the Castle.
As my boyfriend and I signed our lease last May, Navillus announced his one and only rule: “A person may do anything he likes in his own home as long as it does not negatively affect the quality of life of his neighbors.” This covers a multitude of sins, from skateboarding on your beautifully restored hardwood floor (that specific household is now gone) to leaving lint deposits in the clothes dryers, and Navillus will not hesitate to courteously point out your digressions.
As a result, the Castle is lively but peaceful. Says Navillus, “I’ve proven with this building that if you have a strict policy of non-discrimination with a minimum of government, you get an effective society, and I’ve been told that we’ve even affected our street positively.”
Owner Greg Silberg thinks the building is special and says Navillus has done a wonderful job of managing. “People regard the Castle as their home,” he says, “not just a place to live. And it’s one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen.”
Navillus contends the Castle, where apartments, except the “Swanson Suite,” rent for $450 to $750 a month, has a spirit of its own: “People move in and either stay a very short time or they stay forever. The building likes certain people, and nurtures them, and some people it just doesn’t like. It’s a great building to live in now.”
Most residents would agree. The “plausible little garden” has become the best in the area under Navillus’ care, and I feel completely safe in leaving the French doors to my balcony open at night so that the gurgle of the courtyard fountain can lull me to sleep. The Castle does seem to have a personality of its own--tough and savvy, but emotional, like a battered old movie queen. And now, after decades of debauchery, breakdowns and many face lifts, it is once again ready for its close-up, Mr. DeMille.