Alas, I never had the opportunity to visit the Garden of Allah. By the time I moved here 50 years ago, the garden was gone and the Lytton Savings building was on the grounds of Sunset Blvd. between Crescent Heights and Havenhurst. I have always been fascinated by the legend of the Garden and I wish I could have spent a night there, or at least have a party by the pool.
The garden belonged to famous silent movie star Alla Nazimova, an exotic Russian import who is said to have had affairs with Rudolf Valentino’s two wives. In 1919, the actress acquired the property at 8152 Sunset from real estate developer William Hay, who had built the estate in 1913. The lavish house stood on what was to be a secluded plot of land several miles from the movie studios, which makes her ideal for keeping her meetings private.
Sadly, Nazimova’s career took a dip in the 1920s, so she added 25 “villas” and a swimming pool to the estate in hopes of turning it into an income-generating hotel. More sadly still, the partners who financed the expansion proved to be untrustworthy and less than a year after the hotel opened in January 1927, the actress sold her share of the property and made a new Broadway essay. In 1930, the new owners officially named the hotel the Garden of Allah.
Maybe the fun was over for Nazimova, but for the people of Hollywood it was just beginning. The Garden of Allah has become the place where famous and infamous people have hidden their escapades from the prying eyes of the public. Novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, who had had a hard time after his early success as a columnist in the Roaring Twenties, resided at the Garden while working hard as a screenwriter to keep his wife Zelda at a private mental institution in the East. . Ideally, his beloved, gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, lived on an adjacent street.
From the 1930s to the 1950s, a long list of luminaries made their home in the Garden during their time in Hollywood. Humphrey Bogart and Errol Flynn both preferred Villa 8, while Greta Garbo, Ronald Reagan and Frank Sinatra all checked in for short periods. The pool was a regular gathering place for celebrity parties, especially since the hotel was incidentally located just outside of the Los Angeles city limits and LAPD jurisdiction. Even literary giants like Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker, who had been lured west by movie studios offering big bucks for their writing skills, let their hair down after a few drinks. Any party that John Barrymore, Tallulah Bankhead, John Carradine, and Ava Gardner attended had to be wilder than anything happening on the Strip these days.
Good things don’t last forever and over the decades the garden has fallen into disrepair as newer, more luxurious accommodations have taken business away from the hotel. The curtain finally fell for the Garden of Allah in 1959, after new owner Bart Lytton bought the property as a location for his last bank. After a lavish farewell party and auction to liquidate furniture and fixtures, the buildings were razed and the 1950s-style Lytton Savings Bank took over. All that was left of the legendary celebrity hangout was a detailed miniature version of the Garden in a kiosk behind the bank.
Later, a boring but convenient mall was added to the back of the field behind Lytton Savings. This mall had ample parking and was home to several fast food outlets, including a McDonalds with the most dangerous drive-thru in LA County. The walls were decorated with different colors of paint, testimony of the drivers who had not correctly estimated the narrowness of the passage. I could barely squeak in my vintage Mustang, but I quickly decided to play it safe by parking in front and stepping inside to grab my Big Mac and fries.
Another reason to park in this mall was to visit my dentist periodically, a gorgeous German lady known as the “Bond Girl Dentist” for her long hair and habit of coming to work every day in makeup. Good dentist too – I still have my crowns from 20 years ago.
Now, with the exception of the McDonalds drive-thru, the site is vacant pending the arrival of a multistory monstrosity guaranteed to rumble traffic on Laurel Canyon Blvd. to Studio City. The proposed monolith will include 203 residential units and 57,300 square feet of retail and residential space. Yeah, more mixed in an area that already has too many. WeHo residents just aren’t keen on anything “mixed-use,” probably because most people who can afford to drop $ 1 million on a condo don’t want to live above it. ‘a pizzeria all night long.
While it is certain that anything that occupies this sacred ground in the future will be less interesting than the Garden of Allah, one can always pass this section of Sunset Blvd. and imagine legendary movie stars lounging poolside or entertaining friends in their own private villas. There is no way the idyllic decadence of the Garden of Allah could exist today, with TMZ and the paparazzi lurking outside every cafe and medical building, but we can dream, right?