In 1926, Broadway star Alla Nazimova transformed her West Hollywood estate into the Garden of Allah Hotel, which also drew the likes of Greta Garbo, Laurence Olivier and the Marx brothers.
Nearly a century ago, long before The Abbey established itself as the sexually jumbled center of L.A. nightlife, another WeHo hotspot with an "anything goes" attitude was blurring lines amid flowing booze. In 1917, Alla Nazimova was a Broadway star — and an unapologetic lesbian — who successfully made the leap to Hollywood, signing a $14,000-a-week contract with Metro Pictures, a precursor to MGM. She grew confident enough to produce her own vehicles, adaptations of works by such playwrights as Oscar Wilde and Henrik Ibsen.
But those films bombed. Facing bankruptcy in 1926, she decided to transform her 2.5-acre estate at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Crescent Heights into an Ace Hotel-style party destination, featuring 25 villas surrounding an always-hopping swimming pool. The Garden of Allah Hotel opened its doors Jan. 27, 1927. It took its name from the 1904 Robert Smythe Hichens novel about an artisanal-liqueur-making monk who abandons his vows to rescue an heiress in North Africa; Charles Boyer and Marlene Dietrich played the star-crossed lovers in a 1936 movie adaptation, the first shot in Technicolor.
At the last party in August 1959, a man helped a woman, who was wearing an evening gown, out of the pool.
Over the next decade, the Garden became Hollywood's living room: Humphrey Bogart, Laurence Olivier, John Barrymore, Charlie Chaplin, Vivien Leigh, Gloria Swanson, the Marx brothers, Errol Flynn, Greta Garbo, Lillian Gish and Dietrich all either lived there or partied there so often, it felt as if they did. On Sundays, Nazimova hosted "girls only" parties that catered to fresh-off-the-bus ingenues. (The boys, meanwhile, were welcome to show off their talents at afternoon mixers held at the nearby home of George Cukor. "George would be very angry if anything untoward occurred," recalls one attendee. "If Cole Porter fancied a guy, he would very gradually take him aside and give him a phone number to call.")
Partygoers at the closing-night bash sat below silent-film posters.
Nazimova sold the place by 1930 and headed back to Broadway, just as the East Coast literati began making their way westward. George S. Kaufman, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and Dorothy Parker all flocked to the Garden for its permissive (read: alcohol-soaked) atmosphere and smart, starry clientele. When Nazimova returned to Hollywood in 1938, she rented Villa 24 and lived there until her death in 1945.
By 1959, the once-resplendent Garden had grown seedy and neglected. The Lytton Savings and Loan Co. bought the property for $775,000. But before it razed the spot to make room for a bank and parking lot, the seller, nightclub impresario Morris Markowitz, threw one final costume party. His wife dressed up as Nazimova, he came as Cecil B. DeMille, and a thousand revelers showed up as silent-era stars like Rudolph Valentino, Chaplin and Mae West. Nazimova's Salome — "a hothouse orchid of decadent passion!" — was projected on a screen; by midnight, the pool was filled with empty liquor bottles. A McDonald's stands on the spot today.
A couple sat outside in June 1951.
This story first appeared in the June 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.