Los Angeles has changed a lot in recent decades. Reinventing itself for each new generation, it’s a place constantly giving itself a face-lift. So if you’re planning on visiting the City of Angels this year, there’s a chance you’ll choose a hip new hotel or a trendy Airbnb in neighborhoods like Venice Beach or Los Feliz over LA’s more traditional haunts.
But you’d be missing out on a slice of Hollywood history if you didn’t take a second look at some of its classic hotels. There’s something very special about the old-style glitz and glamour of Los Angeles. And something alluring about being reminded of the scandal and infamy that helped build LA in the first place.
Nestled on the eastern end of the Sunset Strip, the iconic Chateau Marmont has for many years been Hollywood’s most notorious boutique hotel. If you’re after the go-to hideaway for celebrities after a long night of partying on Sunset Boulevard then this place is for you. But long before Lindsey Lohan or James Franco were residents partying into the early hours, the British actress Vivien Leigh was living on a third floor suite with Larry Olivier whilst she filmed Gone with the Wind. Greta Garbo had several paramours come visit her penthouse and Glenn Ford and William Holden used to be regulars. Yes, even in the ‘30s and ‘40s, the Marmont was renowned for its late night debauchery and wild parties. But it was also known for its discretion. Everything was very hush hush. Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures, used to tell his actors, “If you are going to get in trouble, do it at the Chateau Marmont.”
Maybe your tastes are a little more refined. Perhaps you want to stay somewhere a little more sophisticated. Well, drive west down Sunset Boulevard and you’ll soon find yourself at the luxury Beverly Hills Hotel, less than a mile from upscale shopping on Rodeo Drive. The distinctively painted “Pink Palace” is the haven in the hills where Hollywood stars and studio moguls have played and parlayed for almost a century. As glamorous and extravagant as it sounds, the Beverly Hills Hotel is still the place to be seen laughing and lunching with the Hollywood elite.
What many people don’t know, however, was that back in the Golden Age mobsters and movie stars mingled freely. Organized crime was allowed to operate on the Strip almost unchecked and gangsters like Mickey Cohen and Vegas founder Bugsy Siegel rubbed shoulders with celebrities all the time. Actress Jean Harlow was a friend of Siegel and even godmother to his daughter.
Less than a mile away from the hotel, Bugsy Siegel was assassinated at his house in Beverly Hills after dining out with movie star George Raft in 1947. So as you drive past the multi-million mansions that pepper this upmarket neighborhood, remember these streets hide a few dark secrets of their own.
The Georgian Hotel could be the go-to choice if you’re a beach-goer. These days you’ll see Hollywood stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Robert De Niro staring out over the Pacific Ocean sipping cocktails. But this Santa Monica art deco hotel was infamous during Prohibition for hosting a celebrity-filled Speakeasy in the basement restaurant, where film stars Clark Gable and Carole Lombard supped cocktails with mob friends like Bugsy Siegel.
Maybe you’ll like the newly renovated Culver Hotel, once owned by Charlie Chaplin and now a 4-star boutique hotel offering 46 guest rooms. As you order dinner in the chic restaurant downstairs, remember that this hotel was frequented by Judy Garland and over a hundred “munchkins” during the filming of The Wizard of Oz in 1938.
Downtown Los Angeles doesn’t have the beaches or palm trees most people hope to find in Los Angeles but it’s a treasure trove of classic architecture and art deco landmarks. For my new thriller The Syndicate I had the opportunity to use some classic locations like Clinton’s Cafeteria and the Bradbury Building, whose skylit atrium and distinctive stairways are featured in Hollywood films like The Artist, Blade Runner and 500 Days of Summer. Photos of it simply don’t do it justice.
A short cab ride will whisk you to Downtown LA’s Millennium Biltmore Hotel, the hotel you haven’t heard of but you’ve seen a hundred times. One of the oldest and grandest hotels in LA, it has appeared on screen in more movies than almost any other location in Los Angeles. Walking through these glitzy halls, you might recognise the lobby from Ghostbusters, the rear entrance from Chinatown, and the Crystal Ballroom as where Jamie Lee Curtis and Arnold Schwarzenegger famously tango at the end of True Lies.
The hotel has five elegant ballrooms and these days it’s the ideal setting for major private and corporate events. But in the Golden Age, MGM movie mogul Louis Mayer decided to create an awards ceremony to appease his actors and the opulent Crystal Ballroom would go on to host eight Academy Award ceremonies. It’s even said that the Oscar statuette was drawn on a Biltmore napkin during their founding banquet.
But what many don’t know is that during Prohibition, there was a hidden speakeasy inside the Gold Room downstairs. With its gold-coffered ceilings, crystal chandeliers and wood-paneled walls, the Gold Room may seem grand and ostentatious. But back then it was a secret drinking den for well-to-do Hollywood socialites and gangsters who wanted to dance the night away without being photographed or arrested. It even had a hidden door to help revellers escape onto Olive Street without being seen.
So before you check yourself in somewhere else, remember to consider these classic LA hotels from the Hollywood Golden Age. And as you sit at the cocktail bar ordering that well-deserved Martini, think of the movie stars and mobsters that helped build the dreamscape that is Los Angeles.