The Hollywood History of Hotel Bel-Air

BY MICHAEL VENTRE | October 28, 2011 | Home Page

9 - The Hollywood History of Hotel Bel-AirThe courtyard outside the plush $13,500-a-night (and up) Presidential Suite.

When Hotel Bel-Air is mentioned, the mind suddenly becomes awash in ambrosial images of elegant seclusion and natural wonders. Nestled on Stone Canyon Road, just minutes from the bustling centers of Beverly Hills and Westwood, its quiet reputation has swelled over the years to almost mythic proportions, and there isn’t a celebrity or dignitary worth his or her Guccis who hasn’t graced its hallowed space.

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Marilyn Monroe in 1962, posing for her Bert Stern photo shoot.

Over the past couple of years, however, this idyllic portrait has been altered considerably. Although it is generally frowned upon to tinker with works of art, in this case the changes are embraced. Hotel Bel-Air, owned by the Sultan of Brunei’s Dorchester Collection, underwent a comprehensive multimillion-dollar renovation in which just about every aspect of the interior has been nipped, tucked, cleansed, and updated—in fact, it was closed for approximately two years, considered lunacy among the commoners of the hostelry world—leading to its grand reopening last month.

An Icon's New Look
Thanks to the design collaboration of Alexandra Champalimaud and the Rockwell Group—Champalimaud oversaw the rooms and suites for the most part, while Rockwell handled the dining and entertainment venues—the hotel maintains the dashing aesthetic of Spanish Colonial architecture that lured countless members of Hollywood royalty through its corridors for decades with a deft mixture of pleasing indooroutdoor experiences.

The revised furnishings and colors come from an eclectic palette, but follow a consistent theme of understated grace. Changes such as 12 new contemporary hillside guest rooms and three new loft guest rooms with sweeping canyon views; a complete restoration of the bar, restaurant, terrace, ballroom, and boardroom; a new reception area, boutique, and lobby lounge; the new La Prairie spa building; and the residency of Wolfgang Puck for all dining aspects, including the acclaimed Sunday brunch, all combine to push the refresh button on an already revered institution.

All told, the new version boasts a total of 103 guest rooms and suites, including the Presidential Suite, which is actually more of a 6,775-square-foot compound with private dining for 10, a chef’s kitchen, private pool, and grand piano. A one-night stay there begins at a tidy $13,500. The result is a warm feeling of staid familiarity, but with renewed panache.

For actor Robert Wagner—who practically grew up at the hotel—the dining, cocktails, plush accommodations, and glitzy clientele all compete on his personal nostalgia meter. But it always comes back to the horses. “My family moved to Bel-Air in the mid ’30s, when it was mostly stables there,” recalls the legendary Hollywood leading man. “My father had horses, and we used to ride out of there. I had a very good friend who ran a little tearoom. Her son and I and John Derek took care of the horses. I also worked as a pool boy. “Then my mother lived there. I think she was the longest resident of the hotel: 23 years,” says Wagner. “I was a regular and grew up at the stables. I go back [with the hotel] a long time, with a lot of wonderful people.”

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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.

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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.

Celebrity Love
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.

Few hideaways in Southern California offer such a blissful combination of pastoral charm and understated opulence, which is probably why this former horse stable has become quite the hitching post for high-profile couples. Among those who have either staged their weddings or spent wedding nights there are Sophia Loren and Carlo Ponti, Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore, and Britney Spears and Kevin Federline. Elizabeth Taylor and husband Conrad “Nicky” Hilton Jr. lived at the hotel for a spell when they were first married.

Perhaps the most celebrated guest in the hotel’s history—and obviously that’s a mouthful, considering the list of world leaders who have spent time there includes Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev, Margaret Thatcher, and Prince Charles—was Princess Grace of Monaco, who was such a fixture, she got a suite named after her.

Grace Kelly stayed at the hotel frequently during her movie-star days—she slept there the night she won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1955 for The Country Girl—and also after she became royalty of the official kind. She would show up in the dining room every day for breakfast rather than take room service, and when hubby Prince Rainier arrived for their first visit together, she made a point of introducing him to all the hotel’s employees.

Second on that list may be Marilyn Monroe, who lived at Hotel Bel-Air on and off for more than a decade during her marriages to Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller. Only six weeks before she died in 1962, Hotel Bel-Air served as the location for the famed three-day Bert Stern photo shoot; he prepared for the event by putting plenty of Dom Pérignon 1953 vintage Champagne on ice and spraying suite No. 261 with Chanel No. 5. Vogue magazine published eight pages of the shoot the day after Monroe died. In 2008 Stern and Lindsay Lohan paid homage by re-creating the sexy layout.

Meet at The Bar
Over the years, one room in particular has probably produced more pleasure than many of the others combined. That would be The Bar—a cozy and clubby lounge with a fireplace, leather chairs, and an air of warm sophistication. It was a gathering place where stars could relax and where everybody was somebody.

When it comes to somebodies on staff, Antonio Castillo de la Gala, who played piano there for 12-plus years leading up to the hotel’s closing for renovation in September 2009, is near the top of the list. Needless to say, his memory lane is crowded. “Paul McCartney was there once with his now former wife, Heather,” says Castillo de la Gala, who currently plays at The Peninsula Beverly Hills. “He said he loved my rendition of “Eleanor Rigby.” He told his friends, ‘I like to start my day playing Antonio’s CD.’

“Robert Goulet sang a song with me at the piano. One night Mike Connors and Robert Wagner sang “Strangers in the Night” together while holding hands across the piano as a joke,” he says. Another time, “this guy came over and asked if I minded if he joined me. It was Billy Joel. He sat down, and we played movie themes for an hour and a half. That was the night before the Oscars about four years ago. Another time Michael Jackson said to me, ‘Very lovely music,’ while he was having tea with a friend.”

Trysts, Swans and Business Deals
The hotel also developed a reputation over the years as a popular spot for romantic interludes of the clandestine variety. Because of the layout, it was possible for guests and visitors to reach rooms without having to pass through the lobby. An actress once was said to have approached longtime concierge Phil Landon Jr. and complained about her room, saying it wasn’t nearly as nice as the others she had occupied in the past. He reportedly replied: “But this is the first time you’ve been a registered guest.”

The white swans at Hotel Bel-Air don’t need to sneak around. They’re ensconced in the lovely “swan lake” in front of the building and have been for years—one of the hotel’s lasting symbols. Of course, there was that one unfortunate incident many years back in which an inebriated young woman thought it would be a good idea to snatch one away; later the same night her chagrined husband pulled up in his Rolls-Royce, apologized for her poor judgment, and pointed to the purloined bird, which was flailing in a sack on the backseat.

2 - The Hollywood History of Hotel Bel-Air 1 - The Hollywood History of Hotel Bel-AirAn unidentified guest at the pool unknowingly splashes Dean Martin

Aside from movie stars and waterfowl, the hotel has also hosted the elite of the business world. The magazine Institutional Investor has rated the property at or near the top of the list of the best hotels of North America for more than two decades. The Grove and The Americana at Brand developer and LA native Rick Caruso says he has been going there “for as long as I can remember” for business and social purposes. “The great thing about Hotel Bel-Air is it’s very residential in its feel,” he says. “It’s very much like going home, and being at home.” To him, it’s not about being seen. “I don’t even view it as a big celebrity place,” says Caruso. “I think it’s mostly a lot of business people and also those who live in the neighborhood who look at it as an extension of their home.”

Former CAA super-agent and founding head of the company’s corporate representation practice, Sandy Climan, now the president of Entertainment Media Ventures, lives on Stone Canyon Road and took his eldest son for his first meal out when he was just four days old at Hotel Bel-Air. He used to do business there regularly; sometimes he would meet then-client Robert De Niro and ask for him by his assumed name. “There’s a sense of celebrity, but also a sense of decorum there,” says Climan. “Going there for me was like joining family. I used to walk around the grounds, behind the buildings on the south side, to the herb garden, which a lot of people didn’t know was there. They used those herbs in their kitchen.”

Mitch Kupchak, general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers, goes to the hotel because—among other reasons—it’s both his and his wife’s favorite. “Just to think you’re in a place with that kind of history [is special]. There’s a touch of class there you don’t see much of anymore.”

Any hotel’s good name rests on its record; service is always paramount in the mission statement. If the memories of devotees are any indication, Hotel Bel-Air’s standing has remained lofty throughout the years and the changes. “They just take care of people,” says Wagner, “the very best way they can be taken care of.”

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