The Garden’s House Mother
In the spring of 1943, more than a year into the war, the government began rationing meat and cheese. Everyone was issued a book of ration coupons. With the coupons, they could buy two pounds of meat and four ounces of cheese per week. Restaurant-goers used the coupons to pay for a portion of their meals. Going meatless was almost unheard of – it was considered a privation. But restaurants tried to accommodate wartime shortages with “meatless day” menus on Tuesdays and Fridays.
Longtime guests at the Garden of Allah avoided the hotel’s restaurant, opting to use their rations at A-list restaurants on the Strip or in Beverly Hills. The villas were equipped with kitchenettes, but most were rarely put to use. One kitchenette that was the exception was the always-busy kitchen in Villa 12, home to the actress Gloria Stuart, her husband, the writer Arthur Sheekman, and their young daughter Sylvia.
Gloria Stuart appeared in a dozen or more films at Universal in the 1930s, notably appearing opposite Claude Rains in “The Invisible Man.” She’s best remembered today, however, for being nominated for an Oscar at age 87 for her role in “Titanic.”
In November 2000, the Los Angeles Times published an essay about Gloria Stuart’s years as the Garden’s unofficial hostess written by her daughter Sylvia Sheekman Thompson, a cookbook author and food columnist for the Times.
If Robert Benchley was the Garden’s unofficial master of ceremonies, Sylvia Thompson wrote, Gloria Stuart was its house mother. “At martini time,” Sylvia wrote, “Robert Benchley (cherubic comedian and humorist), actor Charles Butterworth (his pal next door) and the actress would sit in Benchley’s living room with the door open and listen to Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw or Woody Herman noodling across the way.” Their neighbors – top acts in the music business – were in their villas rehearsing for gigs that night at Mocambo, the Cocoanut Grove and other nightspots.
Despite the food shortages, Gloria regularly put together surprisingly sumptuous feasts. She worked this wartime magic by collecting ration stamps from invitees in advance of the dinner party and then shopping creatively at the Farmer’s Market, recently opened on Fairfax Avenue.
“Ma’s dining table was on a dais at the end of the living room,” Thompson wrote, “and the kitchen next to it wasn’t much bigger than the table. It had a square four-burner stove, a sink and small refrigerator; two packages of Birds Eye Frosted Foods barely fit above the ice trays. When cooking something elaborate for a party Ma used all of her friends’ stoves and refrigerators, even if they weren’t invited.”
Stuart “loved to startle her guests, staggering in with great tubs of stews … a school of mountain trout in aspic … a 26-boy rijsttafel (an Indonesian feast) … flaming anything. The more flamboyant, the better.”
While her mother loved being the center of attention, Thompson said her father, Arthur Sheekman, was taciturn, and – despite the fact that his best friend Groucho Marx called him the “fastest wit in the West” – was happier spending time alone writing than socializing at dinner parties.
“Groucho was our social mentor,” Gloria Stuart recalled. Marx, who had brought Arthur Sheekman west to write for the Marx Brothers’ movies, preferred hanging out with writers over actors and yet had high praise for Stuart, whom he described as “a great broad.”
One of Gloria Stuart’s close friends was the food writer M.F.K. Fisher, who lived in Hemet, California, about 100 miles east of Hollywood. In one of her books, Fisher described Stuart as “a beautiful honey-colored actress” and wrote about dining with the Sheekmans at a table that was “crowded with flowers, glasses, dishes of nuts, bowls of Armenian jelly and Russian relishes and Indian chutney, and beer and wine and even water.”
According to Thompson, conversation at the dinner parties was for men only. Women, including her mother, Goodrich, a graduate of Vassar, and even Dorothy Parker, were expected to keep silent. The only exception was Lillian Hellman. “She was so prestigious, the men deferred to her,” Gloria Stuart recalled. After dinner, the guests, both men and women, would often play charades, which was referred to by one and all at the Garden of Allah as “The Game.”
Frequent dinner party guests included Groucho and Harpo Marx and actor John Carradine; lyricist E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, who wrote “Somewhere over the Rainbow”; writers Nunnally Johnson (“The Grapes of Wrath”), Julius Epstein (“Casablanca”), Dalton Trumbo (“Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo”) and Adrian Scott (“Murder, My Sweet”) and Albert Hackett and his wife Frances Goodrich, who co-wrote screenplays for “The Thin Man,” “It’s a Wonderful Life” and many other films.