In 1912, New Mexico and Arizona officially became states. The unsinkable Titanic sank. The Girl Scouts of America were founded and Boston’s famed Fenway Park knocked baseball’s Sox off. And in May of that year, out in the still-wilds of Southern California, The Beverly Hills Hotel opened on a plot of land that had previously been fertile lima bean fields.
Over the century that followed, The Beverly Hills Hotel has become not only an important landmark but also an integral part of the industry that is Hollywood. (It also literally helped put Beverly Hills on the map; the city was incorporated two years after the hotel opened.) And the hotel’s allure goes well beyond its 90210 ZIP code and famed Martinique wallpaper featuring bright banana palm leaves. As writer Fran Lebowitz once quipped, “Los Angeles is a large city like area surrounding The Beverly Hills Hotel.”
From the start, the “Pink Palace” was a magnet for the rich and powerful. The first guests who stayed at the hotel had their names in the Los Angeles Times, and over the next 100 years, a steady stream of bold-faced names regularly stayed, dined, celebrated and romanced there—from Charlie Chaplin to Marilyn Monroe to Jack Nicholson to Brad Pitt. “It’s the epicenter of the town and has been for so long,” says Linda Bell Blue, executive producer of Entertainment Tonight and The Insider. “Celebrities have gone there for years to see and be seen. It sits right in the center of Beverly Hills, at the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Benedict Canyon. Anybody who does business in Beverly Hills, Hollywood or Century City has to drive past The Beverly Hills Hotel daily. It’s a place for friends to go. It’s a place for deals to be made. It’s where the action is.”
The origins of the hotel are the stuff movies are made of, and also the basis for a 7-pound book, The Beverly Hills Hotel and Bungalows—The First 100 Years by Robert Anderson, whose family built the place. The book is filled with photograph after photograph of luminous guests of the hotel—Rita Hayworth hanging off the hotel’s diving board! Audrey Hepburn and Sophia Loren in bejeweled and feathered finery! Errol Flynn dancing in the Crystal Room!—and delves into the early years of the hotel’s history when it was owned and run by Anderson’s great-grandmother, Margaret Anderson, and later his grandfather.
“This was a divorced woman with two kids and she couldn’t stand behind the counters of the hotel she owned because it was inappropriate,” says Anderson.
It was the Andersons who realized that capitalizing on the hotel’s proximity to the surrounding countryside might be a good idea. Horseback riding was available from the very start—something that early hotel guests like cowboy and Beverly Hills Mayor Will Rogers took advantage of—and when Paul Williams took over in the 1940s, he came up with not just the distinctive pink of the hotel but the famed Polo Lounge, forever linking his regular riders to the hotel.
In postwar Los Angeles, the Polo Lounge was the place to be—whether it was Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, Paul Newman, Harry Truman or Elizabeth Taylor in her regular spot at Booth 2. Taylor, who honeymooned at the hotel in 1964 with Richard Burton, was just one guest who managed to find romance within the hotel walls. Carole Lombard carried out her illicit affair with Clark Gable there; it was where Paul McCartney and Linda Eastman spent the early days of their relationship. Karen Carpenter married there in 1980. Shaquille O’Neal did the same, more than 20 years later.
Battling for prime hot spot within the hotel is its pool, with every luxury imaginable accounted for—freezer-chilled towels, for example—and easy access to the more-private bungalows that the famous favored. Svend Petersen, a former Olympic swimmer from Denmark, started working as a lifeguard at the hotel in 1959 two days after emigrating from Copenhagen. “I was here a week before I met Marilyn Monroe,” says Petersen, who went on to be in charge of the hotel until 2003, when he took on a job as hotel ambassador. (He still goes for lunch at the pool once a week. “It’s hard to watch people wait for things, like a menu or a towel, after so many years. But I try not to put my nose in too much,” he says.)
Petersen probably knows more than his fair share of lurid stories, but is far too discreet to dish any real dirt on the celebrities he got to know over the years. “In those days you could just talk to them—I’d sit at the pool and talk to Ingrid Bergman, Phyllis Diller, Johnny Carson—they all came down.”
He does allow a few stories: the time he helped Faye Dunaway learn how to do a 1940s crawl in preparation for Mommie Dearest; bringing the Beatles down to the pool after hours; allowing Katharine Hepburn to jump off the high board. (“She went up there and did a perfect somersault.”)
Then, there was the time Rex Harrison and his wife stayed for a week and Petersen was summoned daily to their bungalow to open a bottle of wine. “He said, ‘OK, come in,’ and inside, his wife was lying stark naked,” chuckles Petersen. “And he was there naked except he held a handkerchief over his privates. Every day the handkerchief was a different color.”
Petersen says that if he had to name his best and worst days, it’d be easy to answer. “The worst day was Nov. 22, 1963, when President Kennedy was killed,” he says. “The best day was the day I started working at The Beverly Hills Hotel.”
Today the bright lights of A-listers who stay or play at the hotel certainly haven’t dimmed. The traditional night-before-the-Oscars party still takes place there, and if you look closely, you can see press-shy regulars such as Warren Beatty or Jeffrey Katzenberg lunching at the Polo Lounge. But luckily for them, you’ll probably never hear about what they’re talking about—or eating. “[Stars] feel safe there,” says Anderson. “They know they can have breakfast and lunch there and not be hassled.” There’s plenty of security, seen and unseen, and the staff takes great pains to keep prying eyes and paparazzi at bay. Plus, Anderson adds, there’s the level of service and food that keeps all the guests happy, whether you’re a celebrity or a guest in town for business. “It’s the quality that keeps them going back,” he says. “If it’s not top of the line, they’re not coming back.”
Bell Blue, who had her bridal shower at the hotel, agrees that there aren’t many institutions that have managed to stay at the top, regardless of changing times and fads. “I think there are few restaurants you can say it about—Mr. Chow, Spago, La Scala—but these are places that have such standards and style that people keep going back.” And, she adds, glamour aside, the hotel provides the best service of all: comfort. “For the working entities of Hollywood,” she says, “this is a comfortable place.”
It’s a photo that still stands up today, even though it was taken in 1977: The morning after Faye Dunaway won an Academy Award as Best Actress for her role in the film Network (made even more famous by Peter Finch’s “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” meltdown), photographer Terry O’Neill captured this image of the temptress, sitting poolside at The Beverly Hills Hotel.
“I wanted to capture the look of dazed confusion,” the photographer told the U.K.’s Guardian, “to capture that state of utter shock that Oscar winners enter, where they go to bed thrilled, then overnight, it dawns on them that they’ve changed, that they’ve just become a star. And not just a star, a millionaire.”
Watch! set out to re-create that photo with another fabulous blonde—Entertainment Tonight host Nancy O’Dell, who lounged in the exact space that Dunaway had 35 years earlier. CBS photographer Cliff Lipson and a team of set stylists worked painstakingly to re-create the scene, even finding the same day’s newspapers.
“I waited for [Dunaway] to look away from the camera, and I got the shot,” remembered O’Neill, who would go on to marry (and divorce) the starlet. “I look at this picture often, and I’m still so proud of it. It’s still the best Oscar picture ever taken. And modern photographers should take that as a challenge.”