The Garbo Question
On Graham’s list were a number of silent-film era “immortals,” meaning stars who are not entirely forgotten today. First among them was Greta Garbo, the Swedish actress who found instant fame in Hollywood with star turns in “Flesh and the Devil,” “Torrent” and “The Temptress” (all released in 1921). “Guests remember seeing her in the pool,” Graham wrote. “She has always loved swimming, and the pool at the Garden was the biggest in Hollywood. In the early years it was crowded with famous people from the film world.”
It is certainly possible that Garbo swam at the Garden, but it’s unlikely she lived at the hotel, even briefly, in 1927. By 1926, she was cohabitating with her “Flesh and the Devil” co-star, John Gilbert, at his home on Tower Grove Drive in Beverly Hills. There was a swimming pool and a tennis court on Gilbert’s estate where the famously solitary Garbo could swim in private. Even after standing him up at the altar in April 1927 – a public humiliation in front of his friends, colleagues and MGM bosses – they continued to live together. She left him in early 1928, traveled to Sweden on vacation. Upon her return, she settled in at the Beverly Hills Hotel and then lived in a series of houses on the Westside.
In her book, The Garden of Allah, Sheilah Graham names some of the movie stars who lived at the hotel during its first year. Writing in the 1960s, 40 years later – and not having been on hand in 1927 – Graham relied on hotel lore and the memories of others who were there during the inaugural year. Among those she interviewed was Bessie Love, an Oscar-nominated actress who achieved fame in the silent era and who was living in London in the sixties. Love told her that in its heyday, the Garden was the “in” place – a sixties term – in Hollywood. “With its beautiful pool, it was the place to go,” she recalled. “I lived there in the early years.” Among her neighbors, she said, were Edmund Lowe, his wife Lilyan Tashman and Jean Acker Valentino.
Another big star of the era on the list was Ronald Colman, a British actor whose handsome dark looks gave his studio hope that he would become the next Rudolph Valentino, after Valentino’s death in 1926. In The Garden of Allah, Sheilah Graham wrote, “Ronald Colman rented one of the new villas. Ronnie’s first marriage had been violently unhappy, and he was glad of the privacy afforded by the Garden. It was a good time.” But Colman had recently purchased a home on Mound Street in the hills north of Downtown Hollywood. It seems unlikely he would also need to rent a villa at the Garden three miles away.
H.B. Warner began his acting career on stage in London. He moved to Broadway in 1912 and began appearing in films two years later. He’s best remembered for playing Jesus Christ in Cecil B. DeMille’s silent epic, “King of Kings,” which opened in 1927, the year the hotel opened. Sheila Graham wrote that while he lived at the Garden that year, “H.B. was ordered to lead a Christlike life. No smoking, no drinking and no public appearances. He relaxed by the pool after the late working hours those days.” After sound came in, Warner had a long career playing character parts, frequently in movies directed by Frank Capra like “Lost Horizon” (1937), “You Can’t Take It with You” (1938) and “It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).
Nita Naldi, another noted silent-era actress, also lived at the Garden during this period. Naldi achieved fame as a screen vamp following in the footsteps of Alla Nazimova. More recently, Nita Naldi had appeared opposite Valentino in “Blood and Sand” (1924) and in a supporting role in Cecil B. DeMille’s silent version of “The Ten Commandments” (1923). Her career was on the down swing by 1927, however, and she would soon retire from moviemaking, performing instead on stage and on television into the 1950s.
The novelist Louis Bromfield lived in a villa next to Naldi’s. Along with F. Scott Fitzgerald and others, he was among the established writers from the East Coast who were lured to Hollywood during the silent era. By the late nineteen-twenties, Bromfield had written six novels – the third of these, Early Autumn, had won the Pulitzer Prize in 1927. Two of his later novels, The Rains Came and Mrs. Parkington, were made into popular movies.
Louis Bromfield’s first novel, The Green Bay Tree, was produced on Broadway in 1933 by Jed Harris, one of the most successful producers of the era. Harris also stayed at the Garden when he visited Hollywood. Speaking to Sheilah Graham many years later he recalled hosting high-stakes stud poker games in his villa. Players included songwriter Irving Berlin, studio executives Joe Schenck and Darryl Zanuck, and Sid Grauman, owner of the Chinese and Egyptian movie palaces in Hollywood, among many others.
The Busters – Keaton and Collier
Sheilah Graham also mentioned a couple of friends who she says lived at the Garden during its first year, both of whom were named Buster – Buster Keaton, one of the great silent-era screen comedians, and Buster Collier, a busy actor both before and after the advent of sound. “Where the two Busters were, you would see Constance Talmadge,” Sheilah Graham wrote. Constance was the sister of Norma who, with her husband Joe Schenck, had been among the regular attendees at Nazimova’s 8080 Club salons.
Constance and Norma were among the most popular stars of the era, each appearing in more than 70 films before they retired soon after the silent era ended. Norma was married to Joe Schenck, the head of United Artists and brother of Nick Schenck, the C.E.O. of Loew’s, which owned MGM. Buster Collier, Keaton’s close friend, dated Constance Talmadge for a while, and Buster Keaton was married to the third Talmadge sister, Natalie, with whom he had two sons. In 1926, Buster Keaton built an estate for his family in Beverly Hills. Although his marriage wasn’t a happy one, it seems unlikely he lived at Garden of Alla in 1927. Perhaps Buster Collier lived there and Buster Keaton and Constance Talmadge were frequent visitors.
Another memorable film from 1927 was “The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg,” which starred Ramon Novarro and was directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Sheilah Graham said that they were both living at the Garden that year. Novarro was a popular leading man. A native of Mexico, he was handsome, with dark hair and eyes, and frequently cast as a Latin lover like Rudolph Valentino. Oddly, while Valentino was dogged with baseless rumors that he was gay, Novarro, who was gay, was rarely targeted publicly. At twenty-eight years old, he was still living at home, however, so he rented a villa at the Garden where he could entertain in private. Filming “The Student Prince” was not a good experience for either the actor or the director, so it was likely an unhappy coincidence that they were neighbors at the Garden. Ramon Novarro’s career faltered in the sound era, in part because he never quite lost his Mexican accent. His life ended in 1968, in what became a notorious Hollywood scandal. He was beaten to death in his home by a pair of young male prostitutes.
“The Student Prince” was not among the hits directed by Ernst Lubitsch. He continued to thrive in Hollywood, directing a series of popular, often quirky comedies. He did some of his best work after the advent of sound, perfecting a comedic style in prestige pictures that became known as “the Lubitsch touch.” One of the first sound films he made was a musical. “Lubitsch was still at the Garden in 1929 when he was making Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier international film stars,” Sheilah Graham wrote. But his most noteworthy works were screwball comedies like “Design for Living” (1933), “Ninotchka” (1939) and “Heaven Can Wait” (1943).
One of the biggest stars in residence at the Garden that year was Clara Bow. She was at the top of her game in 1927, appearing in six films for Paramount that year, including “Wings”– winner of the first-ever best-picture Oscar – and “It,” which featured Bow as a shop girl who makes good. She was so identified with the role that she became known as the “It” Girl.
Clara and her boyfriend, the handsome Mexican-American actor Gilbert Roland, were on hand for the Garden’s grand opening in January, but she didn’t lease her villa until the fall. She owned a house in Beverly Hills, which, at age twenty-two, she shared with her father. He didn’t approve of her friends and didn’t like her occasional wild parties, so she took a villa at the Garden where she’d be free to do whatever she wanted.
Clara’s bungalow soon became a gathering place for Young Hollywood – among them were Lina Basquette, Joan Crawford, Buddy Rogers and Carole Lombard. Musicians from the Biltmore Hotel orchestra would drop by after their final sets and perform jazz tunes until dawn. One of Clara’s neighbors objected to the noise. Songwriter Nacio Herb Brown – who would one day write “All I Do Is Dream of You,” “Good Morning,” Singin’ in the Rain,” “You Are My Lucky Star” and other hits from movie musicals – often complained about the noise, but the party never stopped.
Until It Did
At the end of 1927, less than a year after its glamorous opening, the good times came to an end. For reasons that were never fully explained, the Garden of Alla was facing bankruptcy.