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Vintage photos of the Garden of Allah Hotel Part 4

LOVE IS A DOG FROM HELL When actress Talullah Bankhead arrived in the summer of 1933, sexual antics at the Garden increased exponentially. As a child she idolized Nazimova and, appropriately, Bankhead grew into a sexual omnivore. While at the Garden, her conquests included actresses Barbara Stanwyck, Dolores Del Rio and Joan Crawford. Olympic swimmer-turned-Tarzan, Johnny Weissmuller, made Talullah “a very satisfied Jane” in the pool. Even the young Gary Cooper was spotted one night with Bankhead, scampering nude from the pool to her bungalow. (She returned to New York with a raging case of gonorrhea, a burning gift, she claimed, from Some Like it Hot star George Raft.)

The Marx Brothers came west in 1929 to make Animal Crackers, and Harpo, a notorious womanizer, took up residence at the Garden. One night after a neighbor was playing piano loudly at midnight, he set his alarm for 5AM and played the first 64 bars of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto #1” until he heard his neighbor scream in agony—and, subsequently, move bungalows that very morning. (Reportedly, somebody later told Harpo that his neighbor was Rachmaninoff, who had become so repulsed by his prelude he wished he never had written it.) In his entertaining autobiography, Harpo Speaks, he wistfully remembers: “The nightlife in and around the miniature Black Sea kept the scandal writers supplied with more juicy items than they could use. But… my little bungalow in the Garden of Allah was a peaceful retreat…once the pianist had been moved.”

The noted playwright and philandering ladies’ man George Kaufmann moved into the Garden in the mid-30s as he was adapting his Broadway plays to the silver-screen. Kaufman found himself in the center of a scandal in 1936 when, in the midst of a child custody suit, the former husband of actress Mary Astor threatened to publish one of Astor’s diaries purportedly containing extremely explicit details of an affair between Kaufman and the actress. The diary was eventually destroyed, unread by the courts, but details of the supposed contents were published in Confidential magazine and various other scandal sheets. (According to legend, Kaufmann would stuff himself in the back of a laundry truck to get from the Garden of Allah to the railroad station at the height of the Astor affair, to avoid a subpoena.) Songwriter Cole Porter, no stranger to the Garden (the words for “Night and Day” came to him while lying in bed one night) had now added “I get no kick from cocaine…” to “I Get a Kick Out of You” and would constantly have his lovers sneak into the Garden for late night trysts.

Around the same time, during the filming of the remake of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Charles Laughton would reportedly return home to The Garden for lunch, still in full character as Quasimodo, and float in the pool on his back with his face aimed skyward, to avoid ruining his complex makeup. Nothing was out of bounds at Allah.

NOIR NIGHTS Flamboyant behavior was always in vogue at the Garden, but music publicist Bernie Woods waited until 1994 to disclose a story from the early ‘40s. In his memoir, When the Music Stopped, he recalls when bandleaders Tommy Dorsey and Kay Kyser happened to be at the Garden at the same time. Each had a healthy ego— but the surly trombonist Dorsey was never to be outdone on any count. At breakfast one morning, Dorsey steered the conversation in his villa as to who had the most devoted audience. “When the argument waxed real hot,” Woods wrote, “T.D. said, ‘I’ll show you some real fans.’ With that two tall gals came out of the bedroom; they stood side by side naked as jaybirds while Kyser stared. The pubic hair on one was cut to spell a T while the other was cut to form a D.”

World War II brought societal changes but the revelry at the Garden carried on. Call girls—hurrying to their assignations or sunning at the pool—were a common sight. (One soggy night, a pack of Prohibition-era drunkards tried—and ultimately failed—to fill the 65 by 45 foot pool with empty liquor bottles.) Bandleader Les Brown moved his family in until they could find a house. Les Brown Jr. was five and the family was situated between the villas of hell-raisers Benchley and actor Louis Calhern. “Those guys would get roaring drunk,” Les Jr. says, “day and night. They kind of adopted me and it drove my mother crazy. There were all these girls out by the pool with their boobs out on display. Sometimes they were topless and sometimes all the way nude. It was an experience I never forgot!” 

Nazimova, by now forgotten and near penniless, died quietly in her upstairs room in July of 1945. Bandleader Artie Shaw, already a frequent Garden guest, installed himself and his new bride, actress Ava Gardner, into her old bungalow in October. The next month Benchley developed a persistent nosebleed back in New York; four days later he was dead from a cerebral hemorrhage at 56. The world was changing and the Garden, having lost its clown prince and sultry hostess, would never be the same. Shaw loved the place, later calling it “one of the few places that was so absurd that people could be themselves.” But it was, he added, “always a little run down. You almost expected the rats to come. No one was polishing the tops of the palm trees.”


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