By the mid-1910s, one of the most famous actresses on the silent screen was Russian-born Alla Nazimova.
In 1918, she landed in Los Angeles with a contract from Metro Studios paying her $13,000 a week – $3,000 more than Mary Pickford – along with the right to approve director, script, and leading man.
She took a look around and found a place she liked – a large mansion at 8152 Sunset Boulevard called “Hayvenhurst” which she acquired, and then promptly spent $65,000 remodeling both the interior and exterior, building a pool and landscaping the property’s three and a half acres. She named it The Garden of Alla and it became a popular gathering spot where the Hollywood intelligentsia would flock for Nazimova’s salons in which literature, art, philosophy, and theater was discussed at length. It attracted a largely lesbian following making it somewhat notorious.
By the mid-1920s however, things weren’t going so well for the dramatic actress with the violet eyes. Her films (by this point self-produced and self-financed) had largely failed and her finances were dwindling rapidly. Outside investors convinced her that her major asset – her movie star mansion – could be developed into a hotel thus providing her with a steady income.
It must have seemed like a sound idea because Nazimova proceeded to spend a small fortune, adding 25 two-story bungalows built throughout the grounds. Known initially as “The Garden of Alla” (no final “h”), a lavish 18-hour party was thrown for the hotel’s opening on January 9th, 1927.
Unfortunately for Nazimova, the investment proved to be her financial undoing. Within a year of the opening she was bankrupt and in 1928 she sold her shares in the property. The hotel however was a huge and instant success. It attracted many people lured by Hollywood’s promise of fame and fortune and quickly became one of the places people stayed when they first arrived in Hollywood before making their way up the ladder. And, in some cases, it became the place they retreated to when their Hollywood fortunes dwindled and they could no longer afford their extravagant mortgages.
The list people who stayed at or visited the Garden of Allah Hotel & Villas is a who’s who of Hollywood. Among them are (see note):
- Robert Benchley – famed wit, theater critic, and member of the original Algonquin Round Table
- Dorothy Parker – poet, short story writer, and satirist, best known for her wit, wisecracks, and eye for 20th century urban foibles. Also a member of the Algonquin Round Table and occasional screenwriter, most notably for the 1937 version of A Star is Born.
- John Barrymore – theater and motion picture actor. He kept a bicycle there so as not to waste drinking time by having to walk between the celebrations.
- Alexander Woollcott – critic and commentator for The New Yorker magazine and a member of the Algonquin Round Table. He was also the inspiration for Sheridan Whiteside, the main character in the play The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939)
- F. Scott Fitzgerald – author of, among other novels, The Great Gatsby, and considered among many as America’s literary voice of the 1920s.
- Ernest Hemingway – an author of considerable fame who produced notable fiction from the 1920s all the way through the 1950s. He was at the Garden of Allah during WWII with a documentary he’d made with Lillian Hellman & Joris March.
- Greta Garbo – one of MGM’s biggest stars and one of the greatest film stars of the 1930s.
- Fanny Brice – a popular comedienne, singer and actress of the stage, radio and film
- Errol Flynn – popular Australian-born film actor whose career peaked in the 1940s in a series of adventure movies produced at Warner Bros.
- David Niven – popular British-born film actor whose career spanned the 1930s to the 1980s
- Marlene Dietrich – German born actress who took Hollywood by storm in 1930. Rumor has it that Marlene enjoyed swimming in the Garden of Allah pool naked.
- Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall – the Warner Bros actors who were teamed on the screen in 1944’s To Have and Have Not and who teamed up in real life at the Garden of Allah
- Laurence Olivier – British born actor who came to Hollywood for 1939’s Wuthering Heights with his lover in tow: Vivien Leigh would would later be cast as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind (1939)
- Orson Welles – film director, actor, theater director, screenwriter, and producer, who worked extensively in film, theater, television and radio. He shot to national fame when he directed and narrated a 1938 radio adaptation of H. G. Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds after which he came to Hollywood and made 1941’s Citizen Kane.
- the Marx Brothers – Groucho, Harpo and Zeppo all lived at the Garden of Allah at various times in the early 1930s
- Gloria Stuart – the actress from Titanic (1997) was busy in Hollywood throughout the 1930s
- Sergei Rachmaninoff – the Russian composer, pianist, and conductor who was widely considered one of the finest pianists of his day.
- Francis X. Bushman – silent movie star who played Massala in the 1925 version of Ben-Hur. He didn’t live at the Garden of Allah but he attended both the opening night party in 1927 and the closing night party in 1959
- George S. Kaufman – playwright, theater director and producer, humorist, and drama critic.
- Ronald Reagan– After his marriage to Jane Wyman, future U.S. president stayed at the Garden of Allah – which just happened to have been built by the godmother of his future wife Nancy Davis: Alla Nazimova.
- Mercedes de Acosta – an American poet, playwright, costume designer, and socialite, best known for her numerous lesbian affairs with Hollywood personalities including Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Alla Nazimova, Eva Le Gallienne, Isadora Duncan, Katharine Cornell, and Tallulah Bankhead, among others, which she documented in her controversial autobiography Here Lies the Heart.
- Tallulah Bankhead – outrageous stage and film actress best remembered for her role in Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944) and her uncanny ability to drink everyone else under the table.
- Clara Bow – film actress made famous by the movie It (1927) after which she was known as ‘The It Girl.’
- Charlie Butterworth – well known actor of the 30s and 40s where he scored his biggest successes in roles casting him as the hero’s no-nonsense best friend.
- Louis Calhern – popular Hollywood actor of the 1930s, 40s and 50s who lived at the Garden of Allah with and between wives (his 3rd wife was actress Natalie Schafer who is remembered now as Mrs Howell from the TV show Gilligan’s Island.)
- John Carradine – well known actor whose career spanned from the 30s to the 80s
- Ronald Colman – British born actor with a distinctive way of speaking, his career peaked in the 1930s with movies such as Tale of Two Cities (1935) and Lost Horizon (1937)
- Marc Connelly – Oscar-nominated screenwriter (for Captain’s Courageous (1937)) and well-known playwright
- Ginger Rogers – actress most remembered for her on-screen pairings with Fred Astaire in nine musical films at RKO between 1933 and 1939. Rogers lived at the Garden of Allah in a two-bedroom bungalow with her mother after arriving in Hollywood in 1932. She once recalled that the cramped quarters “gave us the needed feeling of home.”
- Frank Sinatra – one of the most popular singers of all time. Sinatra shared a bungalow at the Garden of Allah in 1941 with his press agent George Evans, who had organized the screaming teens in New York which helped to land Sinatra on the cultural map.
- Ava Gardner – actress who came to stardom in the 1940s. She lived at the Garden of Allah for a while when she was married to Artie Shaw.
- Artie Shaw – jazz clarinetist, composer, and bandleader who led one of America’s most popular big bands of the late 1930s and early ’40s. He was widely regarded as one of jazz’s finest clarinetists.
- Dorothy Gish – With her sister, Lillian, Dorothy Gish was one of the first actresses to become famous via the ‘flickers’ in the 1910s. She lived at the Garden of Allah with Louis Calhern in the 1940s.
- Garson Kanin – well known playwright and screenwriter of movies such as the Hepburn/Tracy movie Adam’s Rib (1949) and Born Yesterday (1950)
- Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett – Husband and wife screenwriting team responsible for several of the Thin Man movies, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Easter Parade (1948), and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers(1954)
- Paul Ivano – Film camera man who designed the underwater lights for the Garden of Allah’s pool (made into the shape of the Black Sea located in Nazimova’s native Ukraine.) He also introduced Rudolph Valentino to Alla Nazimova after which she him cast as Armand Duval in her 1921 production of Camille. Ivano’s career as a cinematographer spanned from the 1920s through to the 1960s.
- Charles Laughton – British actor famous for his roles in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939). During the late summer of 1939 while filming Hunchback a 2-week heatwave roasted southern California. Laughton would come home for lunch and stand in the pool up to his chest so that his Quasimodo makeup wouldn’t be ruined.
- W. Somerset Maugham – British novelist, playwright, short-story writer and the highest-paid author in the world in the 1930s. He wrote the novels on which On Human Bondage (1934) and The Letter (1940) were based. He stayed at the Garden of Allah for the duration of his assignment at Paramount during the 1930s.
- Marshall (Mickey) Neilan– In the early days of silent pictures, Neilan was a top director for Goldwyn Pictures which which time he directed dozens and dozens of shorts and features.
- Kay Thompson – composer, musician, actress, singer, and author. In the 1940s she was MGM’s top vocal arranger and coach for producer Arthur Freed and his MGM musicals where she coached such stars as Judy Garland, Lena Horne, and Frank Sinatra. These days she is best known as the creator of the Eloise children books for children.
- Donald Ogden Stewart – Oscar-winning screenwriter for The Philadelphia Story (1940). He also wrote the screenplays for Marie Antoinette (1938), Life With Father (1947), and An Affair to Remember (1947)
- Leopold Stokowski – British-born orchestral conductor probably best known these days for his work on Disney’s Fantasia. (1940)
THE FINAL CURTAIN
The Garden of Allah survived various changes in management through the 1930s, 40s and into the 50s. However by the mid-to-late 1950s the proverbial writing was on the wall. It could not compete with other hotels – bigger, more lavish, more modern – and in 1959 the decision was made to sell the property. The owners decided to throw one last huge party in August of 1959. They asked guests to come dressed as the hotel’s previous guests. Over a thousand people turned up and the party lasted all night. As a tribute to Alla Nazimova, her 1923 silent film Salome was screened.
The Garden of Allah Hotel opened in 1927 just prior to the advent of the talkies and closed in 1959 at the end of the Hollywood studio era so it can quite truthfully be said that the Garden of Allah bore witness to the entire golden age of Hollywood.
In true Los Angeles fashion, the Garden of Allah hotel site became a mini mall, and in September 2013, a property development company called Townscape announced their plans to build a mixed-use project. A faithful rebuilding of the Garden of Allah Hotel would be too much to hope for, but the developers have gone out of their way to make the point that they’d like to incorporate into their plans some sort of tribute which acknowledges that upon this land once stood a unique Hollywood icon.
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The names on this list were compiled from many different sources, mainly accounts of Hollywood, memoirs, biographies and autobiographies. The fact that I’ve included any specific person on this list does not mean I’ve triple checked the veracity and should not be taken as hand-on-bible truth. However I have endeavored to omit from this list the more dubious or unlikely stories I came across. Given that, during this period (especially the 1920s and 1930s), Hollywood was a much smaller and closely-knit community that we in the 21st century would think, it is highly likely that the people I have listed here–and many others besides–visited the Garden of Allah at one time or other either as a registered guest, to attend a party, meet for dinner, lay by the pool or carry on an affair secure in the tacit understanding that what happened at the Garden of Allah stayed at the Garden of Allah.