BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. – Stand on the Beverly Hills Hotel’s red carpet, leading into its chandeliered lobby, and you can’t help but visualize a century’s worth of celebrities, royalty, politicians, musicians and actors who have stayed there, from Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor to Madonna, Reese Witherspoon and Katy Perry.
The luxury hotel on Sunset Boulevard marks 100 years since it opened May 12, 1912, two years before the city of Beverly Hills itself was built around it. It remains one of the swankiest destinations in Southern California, home to Oscar and Grammy parties and star-filled lunches.
Its breezy, old Hollywood air comes from an incomparable list of superstar guests that has ranged over the decades from Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant and Clark Gable, to John Lennon and Jack Nicholson, to the androgynously elegant Marlene Dietrich, who convinced the hotel’s Polo Lounge restaurant to change its “no slacks for women” dress code in the 1940s.
In his new book The Beverly Hills Hotel and Bungalows – The First 100 Years, Robert S. Anderson, the hotel’s official historian and great-grandson of its founder, tells the hotel’s story, from its beginnings amid acres of bean fields, to the present day, when celebs such as director Sofia Coppola think nothing of stopping by the coffee shop for a bite with friends.
Anderson’s great-grandmother Margaret Anderson – who managed a hotel on the site of what’s now the Hollywood & Highland Center, where the Academy Awards are held – built the Beverly Hills Hotel for $500,000 with architect Elmer Grey.
“Elmer Grey designed the hotel in such a way so that every room got sunlight in one point of the day or another,” said Robert S. Anderson during lunch in late April in the Polo Lounge, beneath its green-and-white striped patio ceiling. “An acre of land was set aside for the guests to grow vegetables and flowers while staying here, so they would feel at home. That acre of land now is probably worth $25 million.”
Making its famous guests feel at home, and giving them privacy, have always been part of the hotel’s mission, beginning with silent film-era stars such as Chaplin and Buster Keaton, who shot movies at the hotel. The 1920s Hollywood power couple Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks met at the hotel, then renovated a palatial house above the property. Liz Taylor honeymooned in the hotel’s lavish bungalows with six of her husbands, including Richard Burton. Bungalow Five was one of their favorite hangouts.
Lennon and Yoko Ono stayed in bed for a week in another bungalow. “She was well-behaved, and he wasn’t,” said Anderson, laughing. “Lennon would sing loud, Irish songs. One night Prince was up here singing to some girl in a suite upstairs, in the ’80s. People yelled to him, ‘Knock it off!”’
Reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes not only lived in the bungalows on and off for 30 years, but starting in 1942, he parked his Cadillac in front of the hotel for so long that plants started growing out of it. He also had hotel staff members leave late-night meals, including roast beef sandwiches, in a nearby tree. Monroe stayed in bungalows 20 and 21 in 1960 while reportedly having an affair with her “Let’s Make Love” co-star Yves Montand.
The hotel remains a place where celebrities can let down their hair, attracting the East Coast elite as well as Hollywood locals. But paparazzi, beware. “Stars felt safe here, as they do today,” said Anderson. “For example, even getting through the front door. If you’re wielding a heavy-duty camera, they ask you what the hell you’re doing.”
Four stories high, surrounded by acres of gardens and flowers, the hotel evokes a lush Mediterranean fantasy island, decorated with banana leaves, palm fronds and fuchsia azaleas. In the 1940s, African-American architect Paul Williams designed the hotel’s looping handwritten script logo and redesigned the Polo Lounge, which had previously been called El Jardin. Williams also designed the more casual Fountain Coffee Room below the lobby, which still has a curved dark counter and green banana leaf wallpaper. The hotel was nicknamed the “Pink Palace” after being painted a salmon hue in 1948 to reflect light shades of the sunset.
Some things have changed, of course. Gone are stables for guests’ horses; the school, movie theater, billiard room and bowling alley that were once downstairs; and fox hunts that were staged in nearby barren hills. There have also been financial ups and downs. The Great Depression forced the hotel to close in 1933 and reopen 10 months later under the ownership of Bank of America before being sold again later, according to Anderson’s book. The hotel was bought by the Brunei Investment Agency in 1987 and is now part of the agency’s Dorchester Collection of luxury hotel properties.
In 1992, the hotel closed for a $100 million restoration, reopening in 1995. Today, it has more than 200 rooms and suites, including 23 private bungalows big enough to accommodate staffs and families. Five bungalows date to 1915, while new presidential bungalows unveiled last year include outdoor rain showers. Rooms, decorated with peachy marble bathroom floors and green granite countertops, now run upward of $500 a night. Cocktails at the Polo Lounge, 15 cents in 1944, now start at $17. But spotting A-listers at the hotel remains a regular occurrence, whether in the Polo Lounge, the Cabana Cafe, Bar Nineteen12 overlooking the hotel’s citrus garden, or down a winding staircase to the enormous art deco Crystal Ballroom.
A celebration of the centennial is planned for June 15-17 to benefit the Motion Picture Television Fund, with a filmmaker panel, an evening party hosted by director Brett Ratner and a Polo Lounge brunch hosted by Warren Beatty and DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg.
Regular folks who want a taste of the anniversary can try drinks from “These Walls Are Talking” cocktail menus featuring drinks such as “100 Year Sidecar,” “The Rat Pack” and “The Norma Jean.”
In a new film timed to the anniversary celebration, directed by Chuck Workman, Michael Douglas mused about the hotel’s nostalgic appeal to both celebs and those without Hollywood ties.
“I’ve been going to the Beverly Hills Hotel for over half of its life. You feel timeless,” said the actor. “There’s a thoughtfulness that makes you feel like you’re coming home. It could be 50 years ago, except of course for the cellphones.