Museum Without Walls
A photograph promoting poolside life at the Garden of Allah, 1950s
A photograph promoting poolside life at the Garden of Allah , 1950s

A Succession of Owners

In 1930, after Central Holding Corporation bought the Garden of Allah Hotel from William Hay, the new owners upfitted the villas and made improvements throughout the hotel. Afterward, however, there were no known improvements to the hotel until 1955. After the war, the lack of upkeep began to show.

Writing for Collier’s magazine in 1947, Amy Porter, a frequent Garden resident, explained the hotel’s decline. “In its early days it was the very center of things social,” Porter wrote, “the spot where all the major movie functions took place. Then, as the movie colony grew to a point where the Garden’s party room (with the antlered deerskin rug growing dangerously out of the floor) could not accommodate the crowds, the big functions shifted to the larger hotels farther out.”

In the mid-1950s the Garden would be put up for sale. Afterward a succession of owners bought the hotel, two of them oversaw upgrades to the villas and the main building, but nothing seemed to help. The final owner had a different plan – one that would bring the story of the Garden of Allah to an end.

‘Gotta Get a Grip’

Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman
Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman

Despite the hotel’s incipient tawdriness, Hollywood still checked in, usually ready to play. It was a favorite retreat for husbands who’d separated from their wives. Humphrey Bogart did it in 1945 – and so did future president Ronald Reagan when his marriage to Jane Wyman fell apart in 1948.

Reagan apparently spent a lot of time in the hotel bar drowning his sorrows and chatting up young actresses- “playing the field,” as he put it. It impressed them to learn that he was president of the actors’ union, the Screen Actors Guild.

“A series of women passed through Ronald Reagan’s bedroom in those years,” celebrity biographer Kitty Kelley wrote, “so many, in fact, that he later told Joe Santley, a publicist, that he once found himself in the Garden of Allah Hotel with a woman he didn’t know. ‘I woke up one morning and I couldn’t remember the name of the gal I was in bed with. I said, ‘Hey, I gotta get a grip here.’”

Ronald Reagan and Nancy Davis, goddaughter of Alla Nazimova, 1950s
Ronald Reagan and Nancy Davis, goddaughter of Alla Nazimova, 1950s

Reagan eventually moved into an apartment down the Strip at 1326B Londonderry View Drive. He continued to play the field, dating a series of Nordic blondes, including Doris Day. He lived in the apartment until he met his second wife, Nancy Davis – the goddaughter of Garden of Allah founder Alla Nazimova.

Ronnie and Nancy were married on March 4, 1952, and soon afterward they moved to the Westside of Los Angeles. Reagan’s film career went into a slide in the 1950s – he played opposite a chimpanzee in “Bedtime for “Bonzo” in 1951, for example. He went on to work a lot in television, with recurring roles in several series. In the mid-1960s, however, he abandoned acting for politics, serving two terms as governor of California before being elected president in 1980.

Abandoning the Garden

Otto and Ruth Goetz
Otto and Ruth Goetz

Declining conditions at the Garden began to take a toll. The social scene around Benchley and Butterworth dissipated after their deaths. Dorothy Parker was staying at the Chateau Marmont. Robert Benchley’s son Nat, who was also a writer, often visited his father at the Garden in the early years. He returned to the hotel years later and found that nothing was the same. “I didn’t stay there,” he told Sheilah Graham. “I was at the Chateau Marmont, but I went over the Garden and took a lonesome sad walk around it. There were drunks at the bar and no sign of the old joy.”

Broadway playwrights August and Ruth Goetz stayed at the Garden in 1948 when Warner Brothers brought them in from New York to write the screen adaptation of their hit play, “The Heiress.” Ruth Goetz later told Sheilah Graham that having heard so many stories about the Garden she was eager to stay there, but the actual experience was disappointing.

“It was all so tatty,” Goetz said. “The walls were dirty, the furniture was spotty, and there was a dead mouse in the pool floating upside down in a fetal position. I stayed a week and left. It was too much like the film ‘Sunset Boulevard.’” (Which came out in 1950.) The Goetzes’ stay in Hollywood turned out well for the best. The film version of “The Heiress starred Olivia de Havilland and Montgomery Clift. It was a box-office success, and they won an Oscar for the screenplay.

Sonny Whitney with his prize-winning racehorse, Mahmoud
Sonny Whitney with his prize-winning racehorse, Mahmoud

Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Buys the Garden

There’s a gap in what’s known about ownership of the Garden of Allah after Central Holding Corporation bought it in 1930. It’s possible the company owned the property for decades, but what is known is that the hotel was put up for sale in 1955.

Sheilah Graham reports in her book, The Garden of Allah, that a prospective buyer was Dr. Frank Nolan, best known for treating Garden residents’ hangovers in his offices above Schwab’s Drug Store across the street. Dr. Nolan’s plans to convert the hotel into a hospital were thwarted, however, when he was outbid by Cornelius Vanderbilt “Sonny” Whitney, an heir to the Vanderbilt fortune.

Sonny and his cousin, John Jay “Jock” Whitney, were also money men behind Selznick International, David O. Selznick’s production company. They had provided principal funding for Selznick’s original production of “A Star Is Born” as well as ”Gone with the Wind” and other films.

Sonny Whitney had been a pilot in World War I and later co-founded Pan American Airlines. He had served as Under Secretary of Commerce and former Assistant Secretary of the Air Force in the Truman administration. He was considered one of the top owners and breeders in thoroughbred racing. Sonny, Jock and Sonny’s nephew, the sportswriter Whitney Tower, often stayed at the Garden during racing season at Hollywood Park, Santa Anita and other western tracks.

Sonny Whitney also owned a majority stake in Holiday House, an upscale hotel and restaurant in Malibu designed by Richard Neutra, a master of modernist architecture. He got the idea to buy the Garden from the Malibu hotel’s proprietor, his friend Dudley Murphy, a producer and director of art films. Murphy’s idea was to rebrand the Garden of Allah as a Hollywood’s Holiday House. Whitney completed the $500,000 transaction in early June 1955.

Whitney gave Murphy a part ownership of the Garden in return for managing the property. Murphy then made a side deal with Lee Hotels, and with them he redecorated the hotel in a style a columnist called “Moroccan-modern.” They also updated the villas, improved the private patios and doubled the seating in the restaurant by building an extension off the back of the main house overlooking the pool. There were plans to double the number of villas.

Selznick International was producing “The Prisoner of Zenda” around this time, and Sonny Whitney opted to live at the Garden during production. He told Sheilah Graham that he never stayed there again. “The place somehow looked even more run-down after it had been renovated by Murphy and Lee,” Graham said.

The new villas were never built, and the name was not changed to Hollywood Holiday House. Murphy’s deal with Lee soon fell through. With the assent of Sonny Whitney, the partners sold their shares.

The hotel’s tiny, dark bar was replaced with a larger, noisier and more modern room
The hotel’s tiny, dark bar was replaced with a larger, noisier and more modern room

‘All the Hookers in Town’

The buyer was Frank Ehrhart. He’d been the general manager of Mocambo, an A-list nightclub nearby on the Sunset Strip, and was a familiar face on the Hollywood scene. Ehrhart brought in William Door, another familiar face on the Sunset Strip, who was charged with running day-to-day operations.

Door was the owner of record (meaning he was likely a front for underworld interests) of the building at 8572 Sunset on the Strip that housed two popular nightspots, the Crescendo, a jazz club that booked top artists like Billie Holliday, Louis Armstrong and Count Basie – and the Interlude, a comedy club where young comics like Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce and Redd Fox performed. What Ehrhart didn’t know was that Bill Door also had a secret illegal side hustle distributing risqué records and pornographic publications.

Ehrhart followed through on the previous owners’ plans to double the number of villas. He rebuilt the 25 bungalows and reconfigured them into 50 units. He also upgraded the guest rooms in the main house by adding new paneling and replacing the carpet and appliances. He revamped the main building’s front entrance and made further upgrades to the restaurant by taking down a wall and building an open kitchen in all brick. He replaced the cramped, tiny bar with a much larger space fronted by a glass slider that opened onto the pool area. Outside he removed a ping-pong table that was popular with the guests, redid the landscaping and added colored lighting around the pool.

Ehrhart knew something about selling drinks, and the bar was soon doing big business. But while it generated more revenue than ever before, instead of drawing the high-end patrons as it might have done in the past, the bar’s happy hour attracted what Sheilah Graham referred to as “bums and deviates.”

The Garden had become a sort of caricature of itself. Eventually it became a bit of a flea bag – a place where hookers met their johns. Harold Ross, one-time editor of “The New Yorker,” labeled the Garden, “a pesthole of pettifogging vaudeville actors and fallen women.”

“All the hookers in town were there,” recalled sportswriter Whitney Tower, Sonny Whitney’s nephew. “It had a steel combo band. The bloody noise was awful until three in the morning. It was the kind of place where you would not want to stay for more than one night.”

At some point after Murphy and Lee sold their minority share to Frank Ehrhart, Sonny Whitney sold the rest, presumably also to Ehrhart. There’s nothing in the record about when this happened, but Whitney Tower told Sheilah Graham that his uncle had cashed out on his investment in the Garden before it hit bottom.

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