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HEARTS OF THE CITY / Where dilemmas are aired and unsung heroes and resiliency are celebrated : Midnight in the Garden of Allah

Over time, every city acquires its symbols of loss. Hundreds of buildings, even whole neighborhoods, get mowed down and replaced by something infinitely cheaper and more tawdry. We watch them go and pretty soon, for the most part, we forget. But occasionally a lost corner of the city sticks in our minds, like an old regret, and refuses to budge from memory.

Why do we choose these particular places for immortality and not others? Nobody knows. But in our generation we seem to have settled on the southwest corner of Sunset and Crescent Heights as the prime symbol of all that’s been lost in Los Angeles. On that corner, for 40 years, sat the Garden of Allah Hotel.

If you’ve been listening to any of the Top 40 stations on the radio this week, you may have heard the most recent lament about the Garden. It comes on the new song by ex-Eagle Don Henley that Times critic Robert Hilburn says might serve as the sequel to the Eagle’s “Hotel California.” The new song is titled “The Garden of Allah” and tells a tale of the Devil reflecting acidly on modern-day Los Angeles as opposed to the old days. The symbol of the old days, of course, is the Garden.

It’s the same Garden that made an appearance in a short-lived comic strip starring a sad gorilla named Rudy. Rudy and his friends, including a parrot, lived at the Garden and also reflected on modern-day Los Angeles, also unfavorably.

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If you go back a bit more you will find a famous line from a Joni Mitchell song about Los Angeles in which she sings, “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” The “paradise” of that line refers to the Garden.

Anyway, it goes on and on. Of the dozens of references to the Garden in this newspaper over the past 10 years, virtually all of them use it as an emblem of the lost past. We seem to have agreed, collectively, that whatever cultural crimes we have committed in Los Angeles since World War II, whatever degradations we have created for ourselves can be summed up by the bulldozing of the Garden of Allah.

Of course, its very name suggests another age. The Garden began its life as a private estate in the 1920s, a pleasant but hardly inspired example of the Moorish fad that swept architecture during that decade. In 1927, it was purchased by Russian actress Alla Nazimova--thus the “Allah"--and converted to a hotel. With an instinctive burst of genius, Nazimova added a series of bungalows and a huge pool with lounging area, thus creating two of Hollywood’s prime archetypes.

For the next three decades the Garden served as the residence for a nearly definitive list of celebrities. The complete list would fill the rest of this article but includes Robert Benchley, John Barrymore, Humphrey Bogart, Greta Garbo, Laurence Olivier, Dorothy Parker, Orson Welles, Leopold Stowkowski, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Marlene Dietrich. Every night, in the ‘30s and ‘40s, the party would begin at the bar, move to the bungalows for dinner, and end up around the pool.

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This was the pool where Robert Benchley, or perhaps his friend Charles Butterworth, got tossed in and came up sputtering to say, “get me out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini.” The pool where Marlene Dietrich regularly swam nude at 5 a.m. The pool around which Errol Flynn was chased by two furious women at the same time. On one night, when the nearby Mocambo nightclub closed, a group of Garden residents put the nightclub band in a couple of cars and deposited them at the Garden so the party would keep going. On other nights, teams of celebrities would gather for something they called The Game, an elaborate version of charades in which a team might be given the task of pantomiming “Picasso’s blue period” or “the Dow Jones report.”

All of this took place in a remarkably unfettered atmosphere. The press had not yet begun its relentless harassment of celebrities and neither they nor the general public bothered much with the goings-on at the Garden. According to Benchley, Hollywood at that time resembled a village at the edge of civilization, and the Garden served as one of its outposts.

But the same could be said of half a dozen other spots in Hollywood of that time. Just down the street was the Normandie Village apartment building that attracted Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda and Myrna Loy. The Mocambo and Ciro’s, another nightclub of the era, were within walking distance.

All of them have vanished, but they have not stuck in our minds. Only the Garden has managed that. The difference comes not from the Garden’s architecture or its contribution to Hollywood pool culture. It seems to come from its role as the nurturing place of a community. The famous ghosts of the Garden had a good time, and they had a good time together.

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Understand, those people lived at the Garden for months or years at a time, they were not nightly guests. Today, celebrities either buy or rent a five-bedroom in Bel-Air or the Palisades. It is hard to imagine any of the present-day crowd accepting the small apartments at the Garden. Yet Bogart and Barrymore and the others did just that.

They did it because of the fun, I suspect, both innocent and wicked. They did it because they wanted a place to hang out, to be easy with their friends. For 30 years or so, the Garden offered them all those things, and they wisely accepted.

That’s the Hollywood we miss when we miss the Garden. The people and the stories and the shared times, and the knowledge that our modern L.A. cannot repeat those times. That’s why the Garden’s loss hurts, why it won’t leave our memory. As Henley says, “the clock strikes midnight at the Garden of Allah.” And all the sweet dreams die.


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