Newsletter: Essential California: The secret literature of the Beverly Hills City Council files

Beverly Gardens Park near Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills in July 2018.
(Gabriel S. Scarlett / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Thursday, May 23, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

Great literature has often taken on the lives of the wealthy, but even a “Bonfire of the Vanities”-era Tom Wolfe would be hard-pressed to rival the contents of the Beverly Hills City Council files. Or, more specifically, the council files regarding a proposed tobacco ban that could have potentially also targeted a cigar club frequented by the rich and famous.

On Tuesday, Beverly Hills took a strident stand against smoking, voting to ban virtually all tobacco sales in the city.

The proposed law has, as L.A. Times reporter Sonja Sharp put it in her story, “one very Beverly Hills exception”: an exemption was made for the three private cigar lounges in the city.


An elite group of cigar aficionados, “hundreds of whom swamped committee meetings and wrote the city in protest,” according to Sharp, were responsible for that carveout. And write they did. Their letters —many of which are penned on the letterhead of the writer’s respective high-powered businesses — plead for a cigar club exemption in exquisitely baroque, name-dropping detail.

The letters describe the members-only Grand Havana Room as a “discrete luxury haven” and smoke-filled oasis for connoisseurs — of cigars, but also power and influence, more generally speaking. (There are three cigar clubs in Beverly Hills, but the exclusive Grand Havana Room on North Canon Drive dominated this sub-genre of literature.)

Being a part of the Grand Havana Room is, as the owner of one film finance company put it, like “being a member of an exclusive country club.” A senior partner at the powerful Hollywood agency UTA wrote that the Grand Havana Room was his “true second office and home away from home.” A philanthropist and developer marveled at how he was able to enjoy the company of people from “all walks of life” at the cigar club, including ambassadors, political dignitaries, and business and entertainment professionals. Even his wife joined him “from time to time.”

A cigar burns in Buena Vista Cigar Club in Beverly Hills, California, May 21, 2019.
(KYLE GRILLOT / AFP / Getty Images)


Individuals went to great lengths to impress upon the City Council not just their own personal power but also their patronage of the Beverly Hills economy. (One man explained that not only are his “main medical doctor” and dentist located on Beverly Drive, but he also regularly shops in the area, including “recent large purchases made at Tumi and Armani.” He was not the only letter-writer to note that his doctor and dentist were located in Beverly Hills.)

Another letter elucidated that cigars “serve as an important conduit to bond friendships and business partnerships.” In fact, the letter writer himself landed a job lead at the club that “catapulted” his career to “what it is now, managing billions of dollars for private equity and venture capital firms in the area.”

The contents of the letters are enough to make Jay Gatsby salivate, or impel your local Democratic Socialists of America chapter member to reach for the nearest guillotine meme. But I digress.

I asked Sonja, who serves as the L.A. Times Westside beat reporter, a few questions about the ban and what it means for California.

Beverly Hills was the first city in California to ban smoking inside restaurants back in 1987. Are they generally progressive?

It’s a small city that’s progressive on health issues. They can push forward legislation that then becomes sort of a national model. So, you see places like New York City take up things that Beverly Hills has done in the past, because Beverly Hills has proved it possible.

What’s covered in the ban?

Everything. Basically anything containing nicotine that is not approved by the FDA to help you quit smoking (like the patch or Nicorette gum or lozenges). But anything else that contains nicotine, or is made from or derived from tobacco and is intended for human use, will be banned for sale in Beverly Hills by this ordinance.


Except one very notable exception.

The big, big exception here that was written in almost immediately and has stayed basically untouched is the exception for cigars in cigar lounges. So, that doesn’t mean you can go to the store and buy a little cigarillo or a low-end cigar. This is only your big, stinking stogies. And specifically ones that you would buy or smoke in a lounge dedicated for that purpose.

Banning the sale of almost all tobacco products is a pretty radical stand. Do you think other cities could follow Beverly Hills’ lead?

Everybody says it’s the most stringent potential ban in existence. And yes, I think both the idea in Beverly Hills, and for a lot of people who are looking at Beverly Hills, is that other municipalities will at least try to copy this ordinance.

[Read “Beverly Hills votes to ban tobacco sales, but exempts Schwarzenegger’s favorite cigar club” by Sonja Sharp]

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:


A long-awaited state audit of Los Angeles County’s troubled Department of Children and Family Services has uncovered shortcomings that often place vulnerable children in harm’s way. Los Angeles Times


Los Angeles lawyer Peter Schey has long been a trailblazing courtroom defender of immigrant youth. When he opened Casa Libre, a shelter for homeless migrant youths, he intended the shelter to be a model for caring for “the most vulnerable” children. But Casa Libre has frequently failed to meet basic requirements for state-licensed group homes, a months-long Times investigation found. Los Angeles Times

Get the Essential California newsletter »


Popular West Adams taco cart L.A. Birria temporarily closed this week after its van and everything in it were apparently stolen. L.A. Taco

Mass shooting insurance? It doesn’t really exist, but in the fight against gun violence, San Fernando Valley, Harbor and South LA students turn to tools of Madison Avenue in hopes of changing hearts and minds. Los Angeles Daily News

How director Ava DuVernay is creating a modern Hollywood empire while taking on complex issues. The Hollywood Reporter

The streets of L.A. can seem scary, but we need to separate fact from fear. This self-defense expert teaches people in downtown L.A. to observe and build street smarts. Los Angeles Times

An oral history of Elton John’s career-making 1970 shows at L.A.’s Troubadour club, famously reviewed in the Los Angeles Times, and centrally featured in the biopic “Rocketman.” Los Angeles Times

Your support helps us deliver the news that matters most. Subscribe to the Los Angeles Times.


As border detention fills up, asylum seekers are being dropped off in the Inland Empire. Orange County Register


Revenge of the suburbs: Why did Senate Bill 50 fail? Liam Dillon (who briefed us on the politics of this very situation last Friday) goes deep on why California’s effort to build more densely in single-family-home neighborhoods stalled out. Los Angeles Times

A controversial vaccine bill to tighten California’s already strict immunization law has cleared the state Senate, despite opposition from some parents. It still must pass the Assembly. Los Angeles Times

San Francisco’s supervisors are getting a 12% pay bump this year, which is more than three times the size of the raise being given to other elected officials and city employees. San Francisco Chronicle


The Sacramento Police Department is again facing accusations of police brutality after the forceful arrest of a 12-year-old boy was caught on video. The boy’s family is demanding an apology. Los Angeles Times

Lawyer Michael Avenatti was indicted on charges of stealing money from Stormy Daniels. Los Angeles Times

Wrongfully convicted in California? Despite courts overturning their convictions, some exonerated people in California are denied restitution by the state because they can’t prove innocence. Los Angeles Times


There is a wildflower hotline you can call to identify current flower bloom hotspots around the state. Atlas Obscura


Money leis (which are exactly what they sound like) began appearing in Southern California in the early 1990s, likely spurred by a connection with Hawaiian culture. Their increasing popularity at graduation ceremonies has helped fuel a side hustle business for the women who make them. The Salinas Californian

Attendance growth this year at SeaWorld San Diego outpaced that of the Disney and Universal theme parks. San Diego Union-Tribune

From edibles to pot-packed human waste, Bay Area dogs keep ingesting marijuana. KQED

Finally, some good news for USC: A rocket built by students reached space for the first time, and it was created by a USC team. Wired

Quentin Tarantino got testy over a question about women’s roles in his films at the Cannes premiere of “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.” Los Angeles Times

You’ll need a federally compliant driver’s license to board a domestic flight starting Oct. 1, 2020. California has has had trouble with its rollout, thanks to backtracking on the part of the federal government. Here is a fix that will help early adopters of the California Real ID be in complete compliance. Los Angeles Times


Los Angeles: cloudy, 65. San Diego: rain, 65. San Francisco: partly sunny, 67. San Jose: sunny, 75. Sacramento: sunny, 79. More weather is here.


Today’s California memory comes from Craig D. Bell:

“As I drove through the downtown interchange last week and looked up at the numerous skyscrapers that now dot the land around the Civic Center I recall a time when the City Hall was the tallest building there. For my entire childhood, City Hall represented what L.A. was about. It was a backdrop for Jack Webb and ‘Emergency!’ It towered high above the May Co. and Broadway and Bullocks. It was the symbol of our city. Then the Arco Towers came along and everything started to change, maybe for the better, but Chicago and New York were the skyscraper cities, not Los Angeles. I miss our low skyline and trolleys and the Red Car and a more bohemian Venice.”

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.