Back in the days when celebrity was worn with the elegance and grace of diamonds and mink, the Beverly Hills Hotel was where the stars played. W.C. Fields, Humphrey Bogart and the Rat Pack tippled at the bar, Katharine Hepburn did a back flip into the pool in her tennis clothes, and Elizabeth Taylor honeymooned in the bungalows out back -- six times.
The Beverly Hills Hotel, known affectionately as "the pink palace," is as Old Hollywood as it gets. Joan Crawford regularly pulled up for lunch in a chauffeured Rolls Royce the color of money, the Beatles slipped in through the back door for an after-hours dip in the pool, and Sidney Poitier danced barefoot in the lobby after winning an Oscar for "Lilies of the Field."
Svend Petersen, who ran the pool for 42 years and still serves as the hotel's official ambassador, knew them all: Cary Grant, Lucille Ball, the Kennedys, Esther Williams, Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, Carol Burnett, Ingrid Bergman, Princess Grace, Marilyn Monroe.
"So many fabulous people have been here. We had them at the pool every day," said Petersen, 81, known as the Poolside Prince. "I taught Phyllis Diller how to swim, and it wasn't easy. She'd only kick with one foot."
He also used the pool to teach Faye Dunaway a 1940s-style crawl for her role in "Mommie Dearest" and led Taylor to a secluded upper cabana so she could avoid whispers during her zaftig years.
"She gave me a big hug," he recalled. "I'm still feeling that hug."
If the 1960s and '70s were a golden age in Hollywood, as Petersen believes, the Beverly Hills Hotel was at the center of it all. During Academy Awards season, poolside cabanas had to be reserved a year in advance. George Hamilton nurtured his famous tan by the pool, and Rex Harrison, of "My Fair Lady" fame, sunbathed in the nude in Cabana One. He'd answer the door wearing "just a handkerchief over his private parts," Petersen said, and it was always of a different color.
The signature green stripes and red carpet sweep guests into the grand entrance of the Beverly Hills Hotel.
Courtesy Beverly Hills Hotel
And then there was Fred Astaire, who enjoyed reading Daily Variety and the Hollywood Reporter by the pool.
"I loved Fred Astaire. He didn't just walk," Petersen said. "Fred Astaire danced when he walked."
They don't make movie stars like they used to, Petersen laments. "You can't compare the stars of today to Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. The glamour is gone now."
The hotel, which turns 100 next year, grew up with the film, television and music industries -- and with Beverly Hills itself, opening in 1912, two years before the city incorporated. It even indulged twice in that Beverly Hills standby, the facelift, first in the 1940s and again in the early 1990s.
Historian Marc Wanamaker says it all began with an oil bust. By 1903, speculators had given up on finding even a drop of oil within what would become the Beverly Hills city limits. They did find water, however, and decided to develop the bean fields as housing.
But by 1911, developers were still having trouble selling the lots. That's when they came up with the idea to market Beverly Hills as a resort. At the center would be a grand hotel. It would feature bungalows for guests with families. The Beverly Hills Hotel was built in a year, opening in 1912.
Within a decade, the first Hollywood stars -- led by Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford -- began to settle in Beverly Hills. Gloria Swanson stayed in the hotel bungalows during a divorce before moving into a mansion across the street.
Over the years, Hollywood learned that the hotel's original 21 bungalows made an ideal spot to write a screenplay (Neil Simon), have a secret affair (Warren Beatty, pre-Annette Benning), and recover from plastic surgery or a broken marriage (You know who you are).
Tucked away amid 12 acres of lush gardens of bougainvillea, banana plants, hibiscus and other exotic tropical flora, the bungalows are bigger than many people's houses and come with 24-hour room service and dog walking. Howard Hughes kept as many as six bungalows at a time from 1942 into the 1970s and had roast beef sandwiches delivered to a nook in a tree. A buck-naked Orson Welles, so the story goes, flashed a visitor when he opened the door to his suite in the building dubbed "Bachelor's Row."
Political rascals and Wall Street's masters of the universe also contributed colorful footnotes to history.
President Richard M. Nixon's chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, and domestic affairs counselor John Enrlichman were having breakfast in the hotel's famed Polo Lounge when they learned about the Watergate burglary in 1972. Hotel phone records were key to the obstruction of justice case that toppled Nixon's presidency and sent many of his aides to prison.
More than a decade later, Ivan Boesky, a prominent figure in the Wall Street insider trading scandal, turned government informant and wore an FBI wire during a meeting at the hotel with junk bond king Michael Milken. Boesky briefly owned the hotel before his financial house of cards collapsed. He sold to tycoon Marvin Davis, who in turn sold the hotel to the Sultan of Brunei. The hotel is now included in Dorchester Collection, a group of high-end hotels in London, Paris, Milan and Geneva run by Dorchester Group LTD, a subsidiary of Brunei Investment Agency.
But no other hotel, no matter how posh, has been so entwined with the entertainment industry, historian Wanamaker says.
Lushly landscaped gardens and pathways lead to the bungalows.
Courtesy Beverly Hills Hotel
"The Beverly Hills Hotel traditionally has been a home to the stars," he explained. "They either live there, or they eat there, or they do their business there, or they do their publicity there."
And, while the main hotel may be where "the peasants" stay, the bungalows belong to the players. Here's the inside scoop:
Bungalow 1: Secluded and large, it's the primo bungalow. Marilyn Monroe spent more time in this bungalow than in any other, and it was a favorite of former hotel owner Marvin Davis, his grandson, Jason, tells us.
Bungalow 2: Industrialist Norton Simon and actress Jennifer Jones got to know each other here before getting married and moving to Bungalow 9.
Bungalow 3: Elizabeth Taylor spent time here during her marriage to Eddie Fisher, and Robert F. Kennedy's kids were staying here when he was assassinated. David Frost was here when comedian Henry Gibson delivered his shirts while researching a role. Frost did not recognize him even though Gibson had been on his show.
Bungalow 4: Howard Hughes' fave. He left a Cadillac parked on the street below for more than two years but never used it. The ticket-happy Beverly Hills cops ignored the car, even after the tires went flat and weeds sprouted from it.
Bungalow 5: Liz Taylor and Richard Burton had a standing room service order for two bottles of vodka at breakfast, and two more at lunch. Not surprisingly, they'd get in huge fights during which plates and glasses would fly. Madonna and Mariah Carey also stayed at this bungalow, which features four bedrooms and a pool, put in at the request of publishing magnate Walter Annenberg. Clive Davis was partial to the piano.
Bungalow 6: Liza Minnelli is said to have liked this bungalow best, although it has otherwise been remarkably free of drama.
Bungalow 7: Another Marilyn Monroe favorite, it is known as the "Norma Jean."
Bungalow 8: Unmentionables hung from the chandeliers during disgraced financier Michael Milken's Thursday night "no wives" party, the kickoff of his annual Predator's balls during the 1980s.
Bungalow 9: Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi slept here.
Bungalow 10: Marlene Dietrich had a 7-by-8-foot bed specially made, and John and Yoko hid out in it for a week.
Bungalows 14-21: "Bachelor's Row." Past residents include Warren Beatty and Orson Welles.
Petersen has been asked many times to write a book about his experiences, but the deal always falls through at the last minute because he won't dish dirt. "I don't want no dirt book," he says.
A chilly, foggy October morning provided the backdrop for a pilgrimage to Bungalow 1, which is popular for its seclusion, working fireplace and generous proportions. The interior is creamy, lush and traditional, decorated in the manner of one's wealthy grandparents. The galley kitchen is rather small, but who comes to Beverly Hills to cook?
Certainly not Marilyn Monroe.
The Beverly Hills Hotel is not for someone on a budget. Rooms go for anywhere from $550 a night in the main hotel to upwards of $15,000 a night for one of the two new presidential bungalows, which opened earlier this year.
VIPs pay $13,610 to $15,380 a night for 5,500 square feet -- complete with a great room with a soaring ceiling, five limestone fireplaces and a personal pool with outdoor shower. Walls of windows and French doors seem to bring the gardens indoors. But alas, these bungalows were occupied and off limits. Asked who would hole up in such posh digs, hotel representative Jenna Duran was discreetly vague. Pressed, she offered a hypothetical: "Hollywood royalty."
The winding paths leading to the bungalows were hushed as a library. Even the birds seemed to observe a code of silence. Gardeners worked quietly, and indeed, there was nary a cigarette butt or patch of crabgrass to be found. The trees were free of stashes of roast beef sandwiches.
The Polo Lounge, here shown uncharacteristically empty, offers interior and outdoor power dining.
Courtesy Beverly Hills Hotel
For repast, there's the Polo Lounge in the main hotel building. It takes it name from polo-playing patrons of the 1940s, including Will Rogers, whose photo hangs over the bar.
Once upon a time, the Polo Lounge was the in spot with the power breakfast and "let's do lunch" crowd, and even now celebrity sightings are fairly commonplace. Charlie Chaplin reserved Booth No. 1 for years, and Booth No. 3 has long been considered the primo power spot, but on the day of our visit, the people seated there appeared to be well-heeled but not famous.
No worries; we brought our own celebrity -- Mackenzie Phillips -- who paused to chat up Sela Ward and Rosanna Arquette before heading to the patio to dig into a bowl of tortilla soup and a plate heaped with greens.
Many of the ladies who lunched that day wore pants, thanks to Marlene Dietrich, who in the 1940s convinced the hotel to loosen up its dress code.
Besides Oscar parties and movie junkets, the hotel also hosts corporate meetings -- a group of studio heads met earlier this year to discuss branding and social media strategies -- and weddings.
In early October, Kiss frontman and reality show star Gene Simmons exchanged marriage vows with longtime girlfriend Shannon Tweed in front of 400 guests, including Hugh Hefner and comedian Bill Maher, on the lawn of the Crystal Garden. They were the celebrity nuptials of the moment, but the former Playmate had waited 28 years for her dream wedding.