Sonny Whitney with his prize-winning racehorse, Mahmoud
Sonny Whitney with his prize-winning racehorse, Mahmoud

Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Buys the hotel

There’s a gap in what’s known about ownership of the Garden of Allah after Central Holding Corporation bought it in 1930. It’s possible the company owned the property for decades, but what is known is that the hotel was put up for sale in 1955.

Sheilah Graham reports in her book, The Garden of Allah, that a prospective buyer was Dr. Frank Nolan, best known for treating Garden residents’ hangovers in his offices above Schwab’s Drug Store across the street. Dr. Nolan’s plans to convert the hotel into a hospital were thwarted, however, when he was outbid by Cornelius Vanderbilt “Sonny” Whitney, an heir to the Vanderbilt fortune.

Sonny and his cousin, John Jay “Jock” Whitney, were also money men behind Selznick International, David O. Selznick’s production company. They had provided principal funding for Selznick’s original production of “A Star Is Born” as well as ”Gone with the Wind” and other films.

Sonny Whitney had been a pilot in World War I and later co-founded Pan American Airlines. He had served as Under Secretary of Commerce and former Assistant Secretary of the Air Force in the Truman administration. He was considered one of the top owners and breeders in thoroughbred racing. Sonny, Jock and Sonny’s nephew, the sportswriter Whitney Tower, often stayed at the Garden during racing season at Hollywood Park, Santa Anita and other western tracks.

Sonny Whitney also owned a majority stake in Holiday House, an upscale hotel and restaurant in Malibu designed by Richard Neutra, a master of modernist architecture. He got the idea to buy the Garden from the Malibu hotel’s proprietor, his friend Dudley Murphy, a producer and director of art films. Murphy’s idea was to rebrand the Garden of Allah as a Hollywood’s Holiday House. Whitney completed the $500,000 transaction in early June 1955.

Whitney gave Murphy a part ownership of the Garden in return for managing the property. Murphy then made a side deal with Lee Hotels, and with them he redecorated the hotel in a style a columnist called “Moroccan-modern.” They also updated the villas, improved the private patios and doubled the seating in the restaurant by building an extension off the back of the main house overlooking the pool. There were plans to double the number of villas.

Selznick International was producing “The Prisoner of Zenda” around this time, and Sonny Whitney opted to live at the Garden during production. He told Sheilah Graham that he never stayed there again. “The place somehow looked even more run-down after it had been renovated by Murphy and Lee,” Graham said.

The new villas were never built, and the name was not changed to Hollywood Holiday House. Murphy’s deal with Lee soon fell through. With the assent of Sonny Whitney, the partners sold their shares.