Past and Present in Pink 011/016
WORDS: Katherine Price
PHOTOS: Viviana Lira

The menu of the Fountain Coffee Room at the Beverly Hills Hotel seems dated at first glance. Cottage cheese; egg salad sandwich; steak on toast; prune juice; orange freeze... but there it is, near the bottom of the right hand corner: “Almond Milk $8.” The diner is covered with a banana-leaf-print wallpaper, the same wallpaper that covers the sideboards by the pool cabanas, the entryways of the bathrooms, the nooks in the lobby, and the length of the hallways where it power-clashes with the diamond patterned carpets. The banana leaf is a recurring motif throughout the hotel, both in its live and illustrated incarnations. Its dominance is only challenged by the pink that gives the place its adopted name, “The Pink Palace.”

The Beverly Hills Hotel existed before the city itself. Just as the film industry was taking off, an oil tycoon teamed up with a socialite and joined directors, producers, actors and actresses in turning the hills into real estate. Because of this history, the hotel has found its tune with Hollywood; they continue to exist codependently. The stories are countless and date back to the 1930s when white sand was imported to turn the pool into a beach where the likes of Fred Astaire and Carole Lombard sunned themselves. Mia Farrow was banned from wearing pants at the Polo Lounge, where the Rat Pack used to go on benders and politicos made key Watergate calls. The hotel’s bungalows have provided both temporary and long-term homes for generations of stars, housing Howard Hughes and his bizarre room service requests, Elizabeth Taylor through two marriages, a custom-made bed for Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe in hiding, and enough affairs for seven of the bungalows to be known as “Bachelor’s Row.” Katharine Hepburn used to play tennis on the hotel courts and jump into the pool, still in her tennis clothes, as soon as she finished a game.

But there are no more tennis games, and no more diving from high or low. The entire hotel was renovated when it changed ownership in the 1990s. The courts were paved over and replaced with new “Presidential Bungalows” in 2011. The diving boards were taken away. The hotel and its owner—the Sultan of Brunei—have been boycotted by activists and prominent public figures due to the Sultan’s stance on gay rights. The past is being entombed and replaced. Los Angeles is no longer defined by Hollywood, and neither is the hotel. Those with influence have decided that what used to be a haven, a keeper of secrets, a mystery, is now just a business.

The building is still pink—not aggressively pink, but a passive blush. Amongst the assertive buildings of Sunset Boulevard it is relatively subdued, although it sits elevated above the main road like a monument. Its most prominent feature is the foliage that surrounds it. The walls of greenery and the precariously tall palm trees have grown over time to become a fortress that shrouds the hotel from the outside world. The green and white stripes that cover the awning are framed by bright pink flowers, and gardens of hibiscus and banana plants continue the botanical scene. Wrought-iron balconies placed next to a massive green panel call out their own age with their intricate art deco style. “The Beverly Hills,” the panel reads, with no “hotel.” The Polo Lounge has dark green booths, each with its own plug-in phone. It has the feel of a smoky, dark, men’s club: the aura of West Coast dealmakers miming East Coast mad men. In sharp contrast with the mood are the flowers and lamps at each booth. It is obvious that they, along with the lack of hostility towards women, are a recent addition. No one picked up a phone. Everyone has their own now.

The former residents are remembered almost as though they are star athletes at a high school. Photographs of fan favorites decorate the walls. Cary Grant’s headshot is hung next to an outfit that he forgot in his bungalow closet. Grace Kelly and her royal family smile through their sunglasses. The walls are scattered with portraits of Marilyn Monroe in a variety of candid moments as banal as drinking a glass of milk. The Beverly Hills Hotel is said to be haunted by the spirits of guests past. It seems as though the ghosts of stars live on through film; like photographs, their work endures because it is material and unchanging.

It is ironic that the capture and conservation of the ephemeral formed the foundation for a place so untamed. Hollywood was the last frontier. There the sun shone on the American Dream and gave it a final chance to flourish. Storytellers gave the open land definition with their words and their pictures and their performances. These pioneers constructed a narrative based on the absurd: to found a city built of fairy tales. Hollywood became not only a place and an industry, but also a religion. Its deities had a special intangible quality that allowed them to captivate audiences on screen. Hollywood became the place to go to find out if you could be a god.

The Beverly Hills Hotel, like Hollywood itself, was a child’s dream. Never in New York or Chicago would a massive pink beacon serve as a monument. For many years it was a mirror of Hollywood itself: full of contradictions: at once outrageously popular, insulated from the outside world, and a stage for the performance of lives. Those who were canonized in its hallowed halls were frozen in a character constructed by others for them; their public images were another script, with no opportunity for a cut. The stars were bound not only by the interactions amongst themselves but by their places in an entity bound by vision and creativity—Hollywood. They were differentiated from society at large not only by their lifestyle and the nature of their work but by the isolation that is an inherent part of the role that designation requires them to play. The hotel served as an escape from the perpetual narratives of their lives: a trapdoor to a place of total novelty and freedom. The bungalows of the stars were like a colony for the independent: people being alone together. It was an opportunity for a royal to shrug off his or her robe and be the little person that was inside.

The age of Hollywood as a state of mind is over. No longer do we idolize celebrities. We elevate them and revere them, but we want them to be “just like us.” The public has no desire for mystery or imagination. We demand the unvarnished truth about our celebrities’ lives. We want to see unlimited banality. Marilyn Monroe drinking milk is not enough. How can films remain a tonic for the imagination, an escape from reality, an opportunity to be lifted out of our ordinary lives into something greater if we are watching our best friends on screen?

The Beverly Hills Hotel is no longer a castle. Its royalty have been dethroned, its kingdom devalued. It is still for the rich and famous but now in a soulless way. The walls have grown heavy with the idea and reality of the sparseness of drama, the trappings of real estate development and its sprawl, the pretense and takeover by those trying to prove their wealth, and the sell-out that is the luxury hotel operator.

However powerful these forces may be, they cannot completely eclipse a place loaded with emotions and brimming with memories. The joy, sadness, arguments and laughter of those that came before all settle into the bones of the place. The Beverly Hills Hotel still holds a glimmer of something magical. The hotel, as with all of Los Angeles, still holds in the air the hope for a last shot at the American Dream. That magical feeling doesn’t have a name. That’s the point. It cannot be conveyed through words. It can only be conveyed through film.

On a post out front—overshadowed by the red carpet that serves as an entryway, blocked by one of the ubiquitous banana plants, hidden behind gold bellman’s carts—is an inscription that reads, “Vayan Con Dios.” “Go With God.”