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Vintage photos of the Garden of Allah Hotel Part 3

WELCOME TO WALDEN POND” Although the Garden had easygoing management, often times forsaking rent and bills for months on end, that didn’t mean that they extended their goodwill to everyone. In fact, one group of tenants was denied credit altogether. These were the Hallroom Boys, an assemblage of English actors who had flocked to Hollywood and who found occasional work as bit players in British Empire epics such as The Lives of a Bengal Lancer. These Englishmen, generally down-at-the-heels, inhabited the former servants’ rooms in the hotel’s main building. Their main occupation, it seemed, was to serve as stooges and jesters to the affluent residents of the bungalows. Wearing totally unwarranted Old Etonian ties, and blazers with the armorial emblems of Oxford and Cambridge colleges, with which they had no connection whatsoever, they amused their patrons with prattle about the English Empire, and often had tea on the vicarage lawn. According to John McClain, a New York drama critic and frequent Garden guest, “the Hallroom Boys lived on tequila and nibblings from the cocktail buffet.” Then one day, according to McClain, “the boys just disappeared.”

A year later, though, mismanagement put the hotel on the brink of insolvency. Hay bought it back at auction, installed 25 Spanish-style bungalows on the property around the pool, and planted exotic palm, orange and hibiscus trees around the grounds—and brought back Madame Nazimova who was granted a permanent residence, resuming her notorious soirees with Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo and other sexual nymphs. By now, Lucius Beebe had become one of the most active residents the place had ever seen. A columnist for the New York Herald Tribune, Beebe was an expert on railroading as well as good living, and had been hired by director Cecil B. DeMiIIe as a technical adviser for the film Union Pacific. DeMiIIe did not require Beebe’s constant attendance at the studio, and so he had plenty of time to participate in—and lead—”The Life” at the Garden. He would stand near the door of his bungalow as guests assembled and greet them with a cordial shout of “Welcome to Walden Pond.” The Garden’s room service especially impressed Beebe. The staff, he noted, could put a six-bartender private bar into operation on a minute’s notice before lunch, so that those persons whom Beebe called “the maimed and dying from the previous night’s party” could be given succor.

THE VILLAGE DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE Sequestered exclusivity and its bucolic grounds made the Garden an attractive place for visiting East Coast literati. When Hollywood beckoned, writers like Dorothy Parker (an off-andon resident for almost two decades), F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the Harvard Lampoon, New Yorker and Vanity Fair humorist Robert Benchley worked at the studios by day and lived high at the Garden at night. Prohibition hung heavy over the Depression years of the early 1930s, yet bootleg liquor was, of course, available. Twenty dollars slipped to a Garden bellboy might send him over to North Broadway in downtown Los Angeles, where a venerable Italian woman supplied ready hooch. Two fisted drinkers, like Benchley, imbibed to their satisfaction at the Garden. Once warned that alcohol consumption was slow poison, Benchley pulled his head out of a martini by the pool long enough to reply, “That’s all right. I’m in no hurry.”

Another time, he tried to phone New York at night but was unable to rouse the hotel operator. He finally went to the main house, upended some furniture, and left a note on the switchboard, reading, “Let this be a lesson to you. I might have been having a baby.” One of the best-remembered Benchley anecdotes concerned a new doorman at the Garden. As Benchley brushed past him, the doorman stretched out his hand for a tip and asked, “Aren’t you going to remember me, sir?” “Why, of course,” Benchley replied. “I’ll write you every day.” Nevertheless, everyone at the Garden liked to be near Benchley, to hear his booming laugh and bask in his razor wit.

Like many guests, Benchley was an out-of-place New Yorker, somewhat uneasy with the close-to-nature California life. He got along well enough with the Garden’s cats and dogs, but waged a celebrated war against the large number of birds that flew around the grounds. One rainy Sunday, Benchley was peering out the living room window when McClain heard him explode with laughter. “You know the bird who keeps me awake all night,” Benchley asked, “the one who sits outside my window and keeps saying, ‘Chicago, Chicago?” McClain said he knew of this bird. Benchley went on, “Well, he just came in through the rain for a landing. The tile around the pool was so wet his feet went right out from under him and he slid three or four yards on his tail, coming up against the edge of the pool. Then he looked over and saw me watching him, and I swear he shrugged his wings and his expression was, ‘All right, you know me and I know you and this time you have the last laugh.’”

Benchley was part of New York’s fabled Algonquin Round Table, a collection of scalding literary wits. Dorothy Parker, another Algonquin, in particular, detested her Hollywood bosses, though, like Benchley, she made a fabulous salary when other segments of America stood in breadlines. The one woman who could hold her own with the lacerating men of the Garden, Parker was a morose drunk. Conversely, the perpetually lubricated humorist Benchley was the Prince of Good Cheer at the Garden; always up for a party no matter the hour. When another fellow Algonquinite, Alexander Woolcott, visited, he immediately proclaimed the Garden “the kind of village you might look for down the rabbit hole.”

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