Everything Was Shaking

Museum Without Walls
Crescent Heights market, with Schwab's on the right
Crescent Heights market, with Schwab’s on the right – note florist’s Rolls-Royce delivery truck at curb

Schwab’s, the Garden’s ‘Supply Ship’

Schwab’s Drug Store opened in 1932. With its prime location a block east of the Garden, it has been described as “a sort of supply ship for the Garden’s crew.” A former resident said, “It gave one a sense of security to know that you could wake up at the Garden about 10 a.m., phone Schwab’s and be certain that a bottle of Jack Daniels would arrive at your villa by the time you hung up.”

Within a very few years, Schwab’s would become the most famous drug store in the world – based on one of Hollywood’s most durable myths. According to legend, Lana Turner, one of the biggest stars of the forties and fifties, was discovered hanging out at the Schwab’s soda fountain while cutting class at Hollywood High School. She was 17 and supposedly was wearing a tight sweater and sipping a coke when a famous director approached her and offered her a movie contract. This widely circulated story made Schwab’s a favorite stop for young women hoping to be discovered in Hollywood.  But it wasn’t true.

In fact, Turner was discovered a few miles east on Sunset at a soda fountain near Hollywood High School. Her discoverer was not a director but William Wilkerson, founder and publisher of “The Hollywood Reporter.” He didn’t offer her a contract but suggested he could introduce her to the agent, Zeppo Marx. Lana’s response was, “I’ll have to ask my mother.”


After the earthquake at Third and Pine streets in Long Beach
After the earthquake at Third and Pine streets in Long Beach

The Long Beach earthquake struck at around six p.m. on March 10, 1933. With a magnitude 6.4, it caused extensive damage in the port city and across Southern California and as many as 120 fatalities. Thirty years later, Sheilah Graham interviewed people who were living at the Garden at the time.

Ward Morehouse was living at the Garden while working as a screenwriter. He was on hiatus from his daily newspaper column in New York, “Broadway after Dark.” He was asleep when the quake struck that evening. “Everything was shaking and I was knocked all over the place,” he recalled, “I thought the roof was going to fall at any minute. All the pots of geranium smashed to the ground.” He’d had enough. He called his wife and told he was coming home. She encouraged him to stay for the money, but he returned to New York as soon as he could.

At her home in Beverly Hills, Ouida Bergère, the actress, screenwriter and wife of Basil Rathbone, was also thrown from her bed. She remembered that in her startled, half-awake state, she’d believed her husband – who would later portray Sherlock Holmes in 13 films – had pushed her onto the floor.

Actress Liz Allan was also at work on a soundstage at MGM. “The scenery on the set fell all over us, and I was shoved under a table,” she told Sheilah Graham. “The lights went out and the big doors wouldn’t open. You can imagine how panicky everyone was. They finally got the doors open and told us to go home.”

Allan’s husband, film agent Wilfred “Bill” O’Bryen had been walking back to the Garden. As sometimes happened, O’Bryen didn’t feel the impact of a quake outdoors. “I thought it was a little strange that so many people seemed to be running out of their houses,” he said, “I climbed up to our first-story apartment and opened the window and noticed that the pool was lapping backwards and forwards and overlapping.”

When Liz Allan got back to the Garden, she found Bill calmly reading a book. “Didn’t you feel the earthquake?” she asked, incredulously.

“Oh, it was an earthquake?” he said. There were small tremors for the next two months. “It was rather uncanny to be lying in bed and awakened by a rolling motion,” Bill recalled.

The agent Willard Keefe was having drinks with Robert Benchley’s great friend, the actor Charlie Butterworth. “There was a sort of rippling movement of the floor, and a dousing of lights,” Keefe remembered. “Presently there were cries of panic from outside, and guests charged out of their homes and made quite a crowd. When the danger had a passed, all the guests joined in one big party. It was not a relaxed party. It was an excuse to find comfort in a crowd.” Among those huddled outside with Keefe and Butterworth were Benchley, actor Louis Calhern, Ward Morehouse, screenwriter Eddie Mayer, and Lela Rogers, whose daughter, Ginger, was still at work at RKO Studios.

The Pool

View of the Garden of Allah pool looking southeast
View of the Garden of Allah pool looking southeast

The Garden of Allah’s swimming pool was its most famous feature. It was legendary because of the frequency in which famous people fell in it. Among the hotel guests its odd shape was the subject of a never-ending debate. According to some, when Alla Nazimova had the pool built in 1918, she designed it in the shape of the Black Sea, in honor of her homeland, the city of Yalta on the Crimean peninsula.

If so, it was a very abstract impression of the shape of the sea – and most tellingly, there’s nothing in the design that represents the peninsula. Alla’s young lover, the cinematographer Paul Ivano, who designed the pool’s underwater lights, did not believe the design referenced the Black Sea. “It was more like an elongated figure eight,” Ivano told Sheilah Graham. There is another story that the pool was designed by Alla’s astrologer to conform to her horoscope.

What was certain is that when construction was complete, before the cement dried, Alla carved her initials, A.N., on the side, just below the watermark.
The pool was large, 65 by 45 feet, which may account for some of the falls into it. “The pool, for instance, is so situated as to be a menace to those who return late and tired from parties,” wrote Amy Porter, a frequent guest in the 1940s.”The residents are not much alarmed if along about 3 a.m. they hear the smack of a body against the water. They just turn over and go back to sleep.”

The columnist Lucius Beebe agreed. “It is conventional to fall into the pool,” he wrote. “All the best people do it. It wakes one up.”

One often-told story about the pool is that it was after dunking there one night that Robert Benchley dryly observed, “Get me out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini.” That line made its way into the script of the 1937 Mae West movie, “Every Day’s a Holiday,” when Benchley’s friend, the actor Charles Butterworth, told Charles Winniger, “You ought to get out of those wet clothes and into a dry martini.” Benchley himself used the line in 1942 in the “Major and the Minor,” when he suggested to Ginger Rogers, “Why don’t you get out of that wet coat and into a dry martini.”

Tallulah Bankhead fell into the pool late one night wearing a heavily beaded evening gown. After struggling under the weight of the gown, she shucked it off, swam to the top and emerged from the water wearing nothing but diamond jewelry. “Everyone’s been dying to see my body,” she said. “Now they can see it.” Tallulah was also likely the “throaty Broadway actress” who, according to Time Magazine, answered a knock at the door of her villa wearing nothing but her pet monkey perched on her shoulder. Stunned speechless, her caller, a Western Union delivery man, handed the telegram to the monkey and fled the scene.

Tallulah’s Sexcapades

Tallulah Bankhead
Tallulah Bankhead

Tallulah Bankhead was one of a handful of actors among the writers at the Algonquin Round Table. She had also been a big fan of Nazimova. When she was 13, Tallulah skipped school – Holy Cross Academy outside Washington, DC – to see Nazimova in a live performance of “War Brides.” She later said her “only theatrical training” had been watching Nazimova perform. So, naturally, when she arrived in Hollywood from New York in the summer 1933, she made the Garden of Allah her first home.

Tallulah was unusually open about her sexuality for her era and notoriously fluid. During her time at the Garden she was rumored to have had affairs with Joan Crawford, Delores Del Rio and Barbara Stanwyck, as well as Gary Cooper and George Raft, who she later said gave her the clap.

Laughton and Lanchester

Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester
Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester

In November 1934, a writer for the movie magazine Screenland visited British actor Charles Laughton and wife Elsa Lanchester at their villa at the Garden. He wrote that the husband and wife actors “are comfortably settled in a charming bungalow at the swanky Garden of Allah. From the wide casement windows in their living room we watched the afternoon shadows lengthen across the blue swimming pool, their favorite rendezvous, for both are expert swimmers and take a plunge at least twice a day.”
Laughton had won the Best Actor Oscar a year earlies for playing the title role in “Henry VIII.” He would film “The Barretts of Wimpole Street” (with Garden neighbor Maureen O’Sullivan in a supporting role), “Ruggles of Red Gap” and “Les Misérables” that year. Elsa Lanchester was a year away from playing the title role in “The Bride of Frankenstein,” the role for which she is most famous, despite having appeared in more than 50 films, most of which were studio A-list project.

Flynn, Damita and David Niven

Left: Lili Damita and Errol Flynn; right: David Niven
Left: Lili Damita and Errol Flynn; right: David Niven

The Garden of Allah was Errol Flynn’s first home when he moved to the United States from Britain 1935. He’d just been signed to a contract at Warner Brothers, and seemed to living a charmed existence. He was cast in the title role in the pirate film “Captain Blood” that year – his first lead role in an A-list feature. It was a big hit, and it made him a star overnight.
At the Garden he met David Niven, a British actor who would become a lifelong friend. He also met a woman there who would become his first wife, French actress Lili Damita. A decade earlier Damita had been a frequent guest at the women-only Sunday after pool parties at Alla Nazimova’s estate before it became the Garden of Allah hotel.

Errol Flynn was born in Tasmania in 1909. He spent part of his childhood in boarding schools, one in London and one in Australia, where he was expelled for having sex with a laundress. He enjoyed acting and eventually returned to London and landed a role in a repertory theatre. He was fired after a physical altercation with a woman stage manager, but soon landed the lead in a movie titled “Murder in Monte Carlo.” The film is now lost but it was that role that earned him a contract with Warner Brothers.

Flynn’s career would continue its ascent for the next decade and a half. His specialty was playing swashbucklers (“The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “The Sea Hawk”) but he had a string of successes playing leads in historical dramas (“The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex,” “They Died with Their Boots on”) and even a few comedies (“Four’s a Crowd”). He starred with the top actresses of the era – Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Ava Gardner and in eight pictures with Olivia de Havilland. He made millions for Warner Brothers, but he was never nominated for an Academy Award.

The ascent came to an abrupt halt in 1950, and soon Flynn returned to the Garden to live in what prove to be his final years. Read about that HERE.

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