It is possible to trace the periods of your life by the demolition of landmarks. I read a couple of days ago in the L.A. Times about a new development at the corner of Sunset and La Cienega boulevards that will add hotels and residences along with stores and restaurants to what has been an admittedly bland intersection. The Times breathlessly called it “part of the city’s plan to boost its appeal.” I don’t mean to be surly about progress, honest, but every time I hear about the gentrification of another place in the city where I grew up, I suspect that some spot I love is going to disappear. And it always reminds of how little the Entertainment Capital of the World loves its historic places.
There was the Garden of Allah, for starters. If you are not a student of Hollywood history you may not even know the Garden existed. The Garden of Allah was a hotel on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Crescent Heights in what is now West Hollywood. It had once been the sprawling mansion of silent movie superstar Alla Nazimova, who earned $13,000 a week in 1913—the equivalent of nearly $300,000 a week in today’s dollars—before there was income tax. She was openly lesbian and notorious for her parties at the mansion. Unfortunately, her career went into steep decline when talkies arrived and audiences discovered her thick, nearly unintelligible Russian accent. No longer in demand for movies and needing a new source of income, she turned her home into a hotel in 1927.
The Garden of Allah had a good restaurant and a dark, secretive bar where you could have an intimate drink with someone you should not be seen with. In addition to the rooms in the main building, it featured stand-alone bungalows of different architectural styles, each connected by winding paths discretely masked with thick tropical shrubbery. It was a home away from home for stars like Errol Flynn, the Marx brothers, Humphrey Bogart, W.C. Fields, Orson Wells, and Marlene Dietrich, who skinny dipped in the pool. Writers Robert Benchley, Earnest Hemingway, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Dorothy Parker all stayed there. I used to meet Howard Hughes at the Garden of Allah when I was sixteen. It was a Los Angeles landmark and party central for Hollywood until it was torn down in 1959 and replaced by a bank and a strip mall.
Just a short walk east on Sunset, another landmark was wrecking-balled into oblivion—the famous Schwabs Pharmacy. Lana Turner was allegedly discovered the lunch counter (she was actually discovered down the street). Schwabs was home to the legendary Hollywood columnist Sidney Skolsky, who maintained an office with a curtain for a door on the pharmacy’s second floor. Sidney did most of his work sitting at the lunch counter, where it was de rigueur for movie stars to chat with Sidney over coffee and ice cream sodas to promote their upcoming movies.
Sidney befriended me when I became a contract player at Universal. We shared a special friend—Marilyn Monroe. Sidney would share our exploits with each other, and, in the early days of my career, Marilyn and I often communicated with each other through Sidney. Since Sidney used the telephone at Schwabs for all his business, he gave code names to each of us so no one would know who was calling. “Just tell them you’re Miss Orleans,” he said. With a little persuading he told me Marilyn’s name was Miss Dunhill. Because Sidney did not drive, it was commonplace for him to hitch rides with Marilyn, me, or whomever saw him walking along Sunset. In fact, Sidney did his first interview with me while I drove us around Universal’s back lot in my Jaguar.
With typical Hollywood indifference to history, Schwabs and the entire 8000 block of Sunset was demolished in 1988 to make way for a shopping center and theater complex.
In every other country I have been in over the years, there is a kind of respect, even reverence for historic buildings and places. Some other parts of the U.S., notably the northeast and south, show some appreciation for their landmarks, but here in Hollywood, more often than not, there is a kind of scorn for what is old—be it architectural or human.