The Japanese air bombardment of the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor began at five minutes after ten, Los Angeles Time, on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941. The next day, President Roosevelt declared war on Japan. Three days later, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. Roosevelt and Congress responded in kind. In less than a week after the attack – and two years after Hitler had invaded Poland – the United States officially entered World War II.
The Sunset Strip did its bit. It was inside the ten-mile zone along the Pacific coast that deemed vulnerable to air bombardment. Nightclubs doused exterior lights and put black-out curtains in their windows. The Chateau Marmont’s basement garage was designated an air raid shelter. Humphrey Bogart served as air raid warden above Sunset in Shoreham Heights.
Wartime movie production kept the inmates at the Garden of Allah busy. In 1942 alone, Robert Benchley appeared in “The Major and the Minor” and “I Married a Witch” and made four of his short films. Dorothy Parker worked on the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s war-at-home thriller, “Saboteur.”
An exception was Alla Nazimova. “Blood and Sand,” her second outing since returning from New York four years earlier, was not a success, and she had declined offers she’d received since then as unsuitable. She devoted herself to her autobiography, often writing outside on her deck overlooking the pool.
When Frank Sinatra, then a singer with Tommy Dorsey’s band, moved into the villa next door, Alla came to enjoy listening to him rehearse. “What a sexy voice,” she remarked to Glesca. “Listen to his phrasing.” It may have been at the Garden that Sinatra met Ava Gardner, the North Carolina beauty who would break his heart one day. She was living in a villa near his with her second husband, the bandleader Arte Shaw.
Orson Welles, the wunderkind director of “Citizen Kane” (1941), rented the ground floor apartment below Alla. She listened through the air vent as he rehearsed for his live dramatic radio series for CBS. One show he produced that year was an adaptation of Robert Hichens’ novel, The Garden of Allah. Around that time he directed his follow up to “Citizen Kane.” “The Magnificent Ambersons” was an adaption of Booth Tarkington’s novel about a Midwestern family and their declining fortunes.
The story was said to be based on people Tarkington knew, the Fletcher family of Indianapolis. Stoughton Fletcher I made millions from banking, a fortune his son, Stoughton Fletcher II, managed to lose. Reeling from the reversal in fortune, his wife committed suicide by drinking poison. When her mother found the body, she drank what was left of the poison. Stoughton II wound up working as an elevator operator. His son, Stoughton J. Fletcher III, known as Bruz, became a popular nightclub entertainer – a singer and songwriter of songs filled with gay innuendo and double entendres. His nightly appearances at Club Bali, an intimate nightspot 12 blocks west of the Garden of Allah, had one of the longest runs on Strip in the 1930s. Gossip columnists frequently listed celebrities who saw the show, among them were Humphrey Bogart and Mayo Methot, Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman.
Front Desk Murder
In July, an early morning holdup attempt at the front desk turned tragic when the night clerk, 50-year-old Carl Aldinger, was shot and killed. Hotel guests alerted by the gunfire rushed to the lobby but by the time they arrived Aldinger was dying behind the front desk. He’d been shot three times in the chest and twice in the back. The hotel manager, Albert Smith, estimated that there was only about three dollars in the till.
A suspect was arrested in late August. Farrington Hill, age 29, a cowboy and paroled convict, had been identified as the killer of a clerk in a nightclub in Las Vegas. During questioning, he confessed to killing Aldinger at the Garden. He also admitted he had kidnapped taxi driver in San Bernardino, whom he forced into driving him to Los Angeles.
Hill was jailed in Las Vegas but managed to escape two months later. He was arrested in El Paso and returned to Las Vegas, where he escaped a second time, on New Year’s Eve. He was arrested for a third time in Bakersfield, but not before pulling a gun on the deputy sheriff and having to be subdued by the deputy’s partner.
Hill was returned to Los Angeles, where police had uncovered other crimes that resulted in nine indictments. In May he pleaded guilty to killing Aldinger and avoided a jury trial. He was sentenced to death at San Quentin. When his time came, in January 1944, he made a strange request to the warden.
“Have you got “Tales from the Vienna Woods?” He’d first heard the classical waltz by Johann Straus while hiding near a bandstand in a park after a robbery.
The prison library didn’t have a copy, and the record shops were all closed. With no other recourse, the warden improvised. He assembled the prison band in the mess hall and recorded their attempt to play from memory. Hill listened to the recording over and over on his last night. The warden set up the record player in the gas chamber so he could hear the waltz as he died.
The murder at the hotel’s front desk was the worst crime in the Garden’s history, but it wasn’t the only crime. Amy Porter’s list of incidents at the Garden started with the death of the desk clerk: “A stick-up man murdered a night clerk,” she wrote, and a “beautiful Garden waitress was arrested for peddling narcotics — they said she carried the stuff in her pompadour. A jealous husband broke into his wife’s villa and put all her clothes in the bathtub and set them on fire.”