An Oasis in the Stucco Desert

Museum Without Walls

Early Guests

The Dietrich Question
Marlene Dietrich
Marlene Dietrich

“Marlene Dietrich, fat and fresh from Germany and ‘The Blue Angel,’ landed in the Garden of Allah,” Sheilah Graham wrote in her book on the Garden. “It was recommended to her by her monocle-wearing friend and director, Joseph Von Sternberg.”

But Dietrich did not stay at the Garden upon her arrival – and Von Sternberg did not wear a monocle. Graham may have confused the German-born director with the Austria-born director, Erich von Stroheim, for whom a monocle was one of his several affectations.

Dietrich had come to Hollywood in mid-1930 under contract with Paramount. It was a two picture deal and Dietrich, who had been reluctant to leave home, expected to return to Berlin in time for her daughter Maria’s sixth birthday in December. 

“I am in a pretty house that [Von Sternberg] rented for me in Beverly Hills,” Dietrich wrote in a letter to her daughter. They had gone directly to the house after Von Sternberg picked her up at the train station in Pasadena, she said. Filming on “Morocco,” her first film for Paramount, began right away.  (It was true that Von Sternberg lived two blocks from the Garden on Fountain Avenue, in the Romanesque Villa apartments at  1305 Harper Avenue.)

The German-language version of “The Blue Angel” (“Der blaue Engel”) had been released just before she left  Berlin for the United States. Her portrayal in it of the steamy cabaret singer Lola-Lola  had made her an overnight star in Europe. The English version was released in the fall, at the same time as “Morocco,” which costarred Gary Cooper. Her rendition in the film of “Falling in Love Again (Never Wanted to)” made an indelible impression in the public imagination.

That success led to a series of provocative roles: the notorious Shanghai Lily in “Shanghai Express”; a cabaret singer who performs “Hot Voodoo” in ape suit in ”Blonde Venus” (1932); and the mythically sexual Russian queen, Catherine the Great, in “Scarlet Empress” (1934).

She appeared in a series of hits, making her for a time the highest paid actress in Hollywood. An exception was “The Garden of Allah” (1936), in which she played a mysterious woman who has an affair in the North African desert, the “Garden of Allah,” with a defrocked priest, played by Charles Boyer. It was the third movie based on the Robert Smythe Hichens novel, and the only version filmed with sound. Produced by David O. Selznick, the production values were top-notch, much like the quality of Selznick’s 1939 film, “Gone with the Wind.” The movie bombed, and the most people blamed the screenplay. Dietrich famously remarked, with her trademark lisp, “The script was trash.”

Maureen O’Sullivan
Maureen O'Sullivan
Maureen O’Sullivan

Maureen O’Sullivan moved to the Garden upon her arrival from Ireland in September [24] 1930. Best known for playing Jane in the first five Tarzan movies, her career spanned more than six decades. She usually played supporting roles – a woman in distress in “The Thin Man” (1934), with William Powell and Myrna Loy; the sister of poet Elizabeth Barret Browning, played by Norma Shearer, in “The Barretts of Wimpole Street” (1934); and the loyal wife of a man wrongly accused of murder (Ray Milland) by his wealthy employer (Charles Laughton) in “The Big Clock” (1948). O’Sullivan’s stay at the Garden lasted for several years. She she met her future husband there, Australian film director John Farrow, who lived nearby. They had seven children, including the actress Mia Farrow, whose son is the investigative reporter, Ronan Farrow.

Harpo Plays Rachmaninoff
From left: Harpo Marx and Sergei Rachmaninoff
From left: Harpo Marx and Sergei Rachmaninoff

In 1931, the Marx Brothers arrived in Hollywood to make movies for Paramount. Harpo, the silent member of the troupe, was an associate member of the Algonquin Round Table and became the first member of the group to move into the Garden of Allah. Decades later, he described the Garden in his memoir, Harpo Speaks: “On arriving in Los Angeles, I checked into the Garden of Allah … a collection of palm trees, bungalows and apartments grouped around a swimming pool built in the shape of the Black Sea. It was at the time the most famous oasis in the stucco desert of the movie colony.”

He remembered it as “a hangout for Hollywood bachelors, actresses between marriages and transients from the East.” He considered himself to be one of those transients. “After a picture or two I’d be back where I belonged, in friendly Algonquin territory,” he recalled. But like thousands of others before and since, he put down roots in California and lived there until he died in 1964.

The Marx Brothers: from left, Chico, Groucho, Harpo and Zeppo
The Marx Brothers: from left, Chico, Groucho, Harpo and Zeppo

The Marx Brothers were cigar-chomping Groucho; the faux paison Chico; Zeppo, the straight man in the act, who left the act and set up shop as a talent agent, and Harpo. His signature style was a curly blond wig, top hat, trench coat and heavy boots. His schtick was that he was mute. Instead of talking he communicated by whistling or honking a horn he kept in his pocket. In contrast to the character’s seemingly imbecilic behavior, he was a virtuoso harpist. (Thus, his stage name; his real name was Adolph.) 

He remembered his villa at the Garden as a great place to practice, which he did several hours a day. It was all fine until a pianist moved into the next villa over. “I was looking forward to a solid weekend of practice, without interruptions,” Harpo wrote, “when my new neighbor started to bang away. I couldn’t hear anything below a forte on the harp.” He soon realized that the neighbor intended to practice all weekend. So Harpo went to the office to complain.

“One of us has to go,” Harpo told the manager. “And it isn’t going to be me because I was here first.” But he soon learned that new neighbor was a celebrity far more famous than he. Sergei Rachmaninoff was, and is, one of the most important composers of classical music in the twentieth century. The hotel manager had no intention of asking him to move.

Harpo wasn’t stymied for long, however. He figured out a way to force the great Rachmaninoff to move. “I opened the door and all the windows in my place and began to play the first four bars of Rachmaninoff’s ‘Prelude in C sharp Minor,’ over and over, fortissimo,” Harpo wrote. “Two hours later my fingers were getting numb. But I didn’t let up, not until I heard a thunderous crash of notes from across the way, like the keyboard had been attacked with a pair of sledgehammers. Then there was silence.“

Harpo later learned that Rachmaninoff had gone to the office to complain. He also asked to be moved to a new villa, as far away from the harpist as possible. “Peace returned to the Garden,” Harpo wrote. It was only later that he learned that Rachmaninoff hated his “Prelude in C-sharp Minor.” “After playing the damn thing nonstop for two hours,” Harpo recalled, “I knew exactly how he felt. “

Lillian Hellman 1931
Lillian Hellman
Lillian Hellman

Harpo doesn’t mention it but Lillian Hellman was living in a nearby villa with her husband, Arthur Kober, around the time he lived at the Garden. Hellman would become one of the most successful, socially conscious playwrights of the 20th century. At this point in her life, however, she was 26 and working as a manuscript reader for MGM. She hadn’t written anything of note professionally. She was married to Arthur Kober, a former Broadway publicist who’d had success writing fiction for The New Yorker. He was in Hollywood writing screenplays for Paramount.

“Lillian was a sexy dish in those days,” Sheilah Graham wrote. “Ginger Rogers, who lived [at the Garden] with her mother, remembers Lillian lounging around the pool in what was then considered a skimpy swim suit, ready and eager for conversation. ‘Anything,’ Lillian confessed, ‘to delay the work.’”

It was at the Garden, according to Sheilah Graham, that Lillian Hellman informed Kober that she wanted a divorce. She had begun an affair with Dashiell Hammett, author of The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man and many other detective novels. Kober agreed to the divorce, and Hellman and Hammett left Hollywood for New York. They would live together until his death in 1961. Lillian and Arthur remained friendly. He even wrote a draft of the screenplay based on her Broadway hit, “The Little Foxes,” which starred Bette Davis.

Ginger Rogers
Ginger Rogers in costume for Were in the Money costume
Ginger Rogers in costume for ‘We’re in the Money’ costume

Ginger Rogers and her mother Lela shared a two-bedroom villa at the Garden when they arrived in Hollywood from New York in the summer of 1931. The cramped quarters “gave us the needed feeling of home,” she said years later. Rogers made three films at the RKO Studios in Hollywood that year, and she would make four pictures at other studios over the next year before making an indelible mark singing “We’re in the Money” in “42nd Street.” The song became a theme song for the Great Depression, and her performance, which showcased her triple-threat talents as a singer, dancer and actor, led to her paring with Fred Astaire in ten movies. Those dance-themed movies along with her many fine dramatic roles – including “Kitty Foyle,” for which she won the Best Actress Oscar in 1941 – secured her place among Hollywood’s immortals. Ginger and her mother lived at the Garden of Allah for at least a year.

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