Beverly Hills Hotel marks 100 years as stars’ discreet retreat

The Beverly Hills Hotel outdoor pool.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

When he stayed at the Beverly Hills Hotel, the famously reclusive Howard Hughes would have roast beef sandwiches left for him in a crook of a tree, go on 2 a.m. treasure hunts for freshly baked pineapple upside-down cakes that were hidden on the grounds, and keep a phone booth inside his bungalow.

“They’d switch different booths in and out of different bungalows because he [Hughes] didn’t want to go through the hotel operator,” says producer Richard D. Zanuck, who was told about Hughes by his father, 20th Century Fox co-founder Darryl F. Zanuck, also a frequent visitor to the picturesque pink hotel.

Hughes was a regular at the hotel from 1942 until his death in 1976. His eccentricities are among countless stories that illustrate just how far the hotel was willing to go to sate the extravagant and sometimes clandestine appetites of its famous clientele — and why they continued to come back.

PHOTOS: The Beverly Hills Hotel: Past and present

As the hotel turns 100 this month, it remains at the center of Hollywood’s concept of itself, an idealized self-image in pink. And like the celebrities it serves, it has a public face and a private one.

If scandal has taken place inside its walls — and you can be sure that it has — the hotel isn’t telling. It has slept with more Oscars, movie icons, rock gods and moneyed glitterati than just about any hotel on the planet, often colluding with the stars to deny a gossip-hungry public. And privacy, as everyone knows, can be a rarity in a town obsessed with the minutiae of celebrity life.

“Every memory I have of the place that I want to share, I wouldn’t want to see in print,” says famed “Chinatown"producer and former Paramount head of production Robert Evans, who got his start as an actor after being discovered lounging by the hotel’s pool by actress Norma Shearer in 1956.

PHOTOS: A century of stars

Situated on 12 rambling acres off Sunset Boulevard, the 208-room hotel was designed by Pasadena architect Elmer Grey as a lush Mediterranean hideaway with staircases appearing out of nowhere and slender walkways leading in lazy circles to tucked-away bungalows. The secluded entrances to the 23 bungalows make them ideal for secret rendezvous.

Homegrown Hollywood star Laura Dern grew up going to the hotel with her mother, Diane Ladd, and her godmother, Shelley Winters. As a child, she says, arriving there felt like “entering a birthday cake.”

“The only time I ever saw Jimmy Stewart was at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and it meant the world to me,” recalls Dern, who still has breakfast at the hotel’s iconic Polo Lounge with director David Lynch every year on their birthdays.

“A friend of mine described it best,” says the hotel’s general manager, Ed Mady, while giving a tour of Bungalows 20 and 21, where Marilyn Monroe and Yves Montand were said to have cheated on their spouses while filming “Let’s Make Love” in 1960. “The Polo Lounge is like Hollywood’s commissary.”

If that’s true, then the Beverly Hills Hotel pool is Hollywood’s playground. Svend Petersen would know — beginning in 1959, he managed the pool for 43 years.

He remembers talking with Ingrid Bergman for hours; teaching Faye Dunaway to swim for her role in “Mommie Dearest”; being in awe of Princess Grace (“You didn’t dare to say hello because she was so elegant”); and sneaking the Beatles (who were disguised in fake beards and oversized clothes) into an upper cabana in 1964, after they performed on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” while a thousand kids screamed out front.

When Elizabeth Taylor was married toSen. John Warner in the late ‘70s, Petersen remembers her coming to the pool.

“She was very heavy, and bothered because she was so heavy, and women were walking by whispering about how she had let herself go,” notes Petersen. “I couldn’t take it anymore, and I said, ‘Ms. Taylor, why don’t you come with me. There’s a cabana where you can relax by yourself and feel comfortable.’”

It was this kind of special attention that Petersen says earned him a kiss on the lips from Whitney Houston, another hotel regular. Longtime Polo Lounge manager Pepe De Anda fondly remembers Houston playing the piano for nearly two hours in the restaurant in front of a rapt — and surprised — audience.

The hotel’s celebrity siren song continues to this day. On a recent weekend, Warren Beatty ate lunch in the Polo Lounge. Two weeks before that, singer Neil Diamond married music manager Katie McNeil in a hotel garden in front of 225 guests.

Mark Wahlberg, Reese Witherspooon, Russell Crowe, Heidi Klum, Katy Perry, Jimmy Fallon andMary J. Blige are among a newer generation of stars who have frequented the hotel.

For some, romance — forbidden or otherwise — seems to be at the heart of the appeal. Paul and Linda McCartneys’ relationship took off when Paul came home from a night of clubbing to find Linda sitting on the stoop of his bungalow. John Steinbeck was staying in a suite there when he met Ann Sothern, the actress who introduced him to his third wife, Elaine Scott, after a date with Ava Gardner fell through.

Then there are the tales from Hollywood’s golden age — before the era of TMZ, Twitter and smartphone cameras. Carole Lombard carried on an affair with Clark Gable in the hotel’s bungalows, as did Spencer Tracy with Katharine Hepburn. Elizabeth Taylor honeymooned there (several times).

It’s not surprising that Hollywood and the hotel came of age together — both Universal and Paramount studios are also turning 100 this year, says Robert S. Anderson, the great-grandson of the hotel’s original owner and its official historian. He also is the author of a coffee-table book “The Beverly Hills Hotel and Bungalows: The First 100 Years.”

“People used to be paged here or by the pool just to have their name in people’s ears,” Anderson says. “The deals that were made here …"

With the Valley studios just north over the hill and the tony industry homes of Bel-Air, Holmby Hills and Brentwood to the west, the hotel is well situated for power breakfasts and lunches at the Polo Lounge.

“It’s geographically convenient, and that’s a very big deal,” says former Paramount Pictures chief Sherry Lansing, who regularly lunches at the Polo Lounge (the chopped McCarthy salad is her singular obsession).

Like an architectural Dorian Gray, the hotel’s general look (including its signature pink-and-green color scheme) has remained consistent despite numerous changes in ownership. The sultan of Brunei bought it in 1987 and in 1996 it became part of the Dorchester Collection, the sultan’s group of international luxury hotels. A gentle restoration is currently underway, but Mady stresses that not much will change — even the iconic banana leaf wallpaper that lines the hallways is protected by the historical landmark status that the hotel is due to receive in September.

The hotel was built by a single divorced mother named Margaret Anderson with financial help from the Rodeo Land and Water Co. Anderson had previously owned what was then the ritzy (and now long gone) Hollywood Hotel near Hollywood and Highland. Her privileged clientele followed her to her new address, which she dubbed “midway between Los Angeles and the sea.”

When wealthy families from the East came to stay in the bungalows for the winter, the hotel became self-contained with its own school, Western Union office and stables from the teens through the mid-20s.

PHOTOS - The Beverly Hills Hotel: Past and present

By 1950, the population of Beverly Hills had ballooned from about 100 at the time of the city’s incorporation in 1914 to nearly 30,000.

Those years may have been the hotel’s most glamorous, remembers Norman Brokaw, a former chairman of the William Morris talent agency who once represented Marilyn Monroe, Kim Novak and Clint Eastwood, among others.

“I often went there to meet Marilyn with Joe DiMaggio,” says Brokaw, who claims he was responsible for introducing the two. “She had her own table. It was a good place to meet; you could go into a corner and do whatever you wanted.”

That’s not quite the case today, notes Zanuck, as social media is forcing celebrities who want privacy to take a much lower profile.

“Still, last time I was there a few months ago, I saw Al Pacino eating outside,” says Zanuck. “It’s just not where you’d go to meet your girlfriend because it’s public.... Although I’m sure those bungalows on the sides get plenty of action.”