The Hollywood History of Hotel Bel-Air
BY MICHAEL VENTRE
|The hotel pool was as popular in 1954 as it is today|
Today Wagner’s mom would likely still love the hotel while appreciating the modern nods to technology and eco-friendly touches. Green plumbing and infrastructure have been installed. Guests can use their in-room iPad to remotely operate their rooms’ temperature and lights. Even the renowned swans will enjoy a newfangled filtering and recycling system in their watery digs outside the hotel.
A Storied Past
Yet in this rare instance, what’s new is still not as important as what’s old. Hotel Bel-Air built a legacy similar to one of those murals you see along a Hollywood side street, filled with the faces of celluloid heroes, music icons, and other luminaries who distinguished themselves in their fields over decades. In the case of this venerable lodge, it served as a sanctuary to which they could fl ee for discreet leisure and pressure-free mingling. The hotel’s entire history is one long golden era.
|A street view of the back of the hotel.|
Alphonzo Bell was a wealthy oil tycoon and Los Angeles native, who in the 1920s bought a large parcel of land in the area and named it Bel-Air Estates; the original stables were part of his estate. Bell also happened to be a former gospel minister and stern moralist who once famously stiffed newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst by refusing to sell him a Bel-Air lot because Hearst was having a very public affair with actress Marion Davies.
In 1946 Bell did, however, sell the stables and the area around it to Joseph Drown, a Texan who was in the hotel business. Along with architect Burton Schutt, Drown set out to build something special. Although he had ownership stakes in such landmarks as the Sir Francis Drake in San Francisco and The Waldorf-Astoria in New York City, he had a different vision for Hotel Bel-Air: a bucolic getaway for esteemed visitors, protected from the noise and clutter of city life, but near enough to all of it for convenience sake.
Over the years, many among the glitterati became regulars, including Judy Garland, Bette Davis, David Niven, Jackie Gleason, Lauren Bacall, Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, Audrey Hepburn, Gary Cooper, and Jimmy Stewart. Tom Cruise has been a frequent visitor, as has Robert Redford, Elton John, Brooke Shields, Julia Roberts, Russell Crowe, and Warren Beatty. Once Marlene Dietrich sat next to Alphonzo E. Bell Jr. at a party, and in the course of chitchatting, she told him in detail about the room she was staying in. “I hate to say this,” he reportedly said, “but that’s where we used to pile the manure.”
Oprah Winfrey has stopped by, most notably for her 50th birthday bash and for her 50 Most Influential Women luncheon. Richard Nixon checked into the Swan Lake Suite for a couple of months to write his memoirs. Truman Capote stayed for a few days of rest in 1966 before jetting off to host his nowfamous masked ball in New York City to celebrate the success of In Cold Blood. At one time, the then-three remaining members of The Beatles—Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and George Harrison—stayed at the hotel without any of them knowing the others were there because the staff remained so mum about their presence.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY © REX USA LTD (MONROE); © MARC WANNAMAKER/BISON ARCHIVES (TERRACE, AERIAL, POOL, MARTIN); JENNIFER BOGGS (GRACE KELLY SUITE); JOE SCHMELZER (ROOM SHOTS)
Fashion shoot: December 2013 issue of Los Angeles Confidential magazine.