Hollywood dream factories: LA’s legendary hotels

Places

Hollywood dream factories: LA’s legendary hotels

The Sunset Tower and the Georgian hotels are a duo of headline-grabbing acts

Kate Weir

BY Kate Weir19 January 2024

Los Angeles’ volume of high-wattage personalities makes it flashier than a premiere’s photography pen. However, some places are so legendary – even in this showbiz hub – that they’re positively galactic with stars. But there’s much more to La-La Land’s all-time-great hotels than mere celebrity.

These are sanctuaries that are high-profile yet discreet as can be; have quite the past, but a bright future too; all shun velvet ropes; and in some cases remain wilfully oblivious to trends, embracing a more lived-in look. And yet, they’ll make you feel like you’ve truly made it.

Bestowing a history filled with both spectacle and scandal, we look at two stays that loom large on LA’s landscape, how they’ve risen through the heights, the stories that made them, and the secret to their staying power…

SUNSET TOWER HOTEL

Dubbed simply ‘lady’ by its proud hands-on owner Jeff Klein, the tall white art deco tower (designed by Leland A Bryant in 1929) that came to be the Sunset Tower Hotel must be known by lived experience. Its privacy policy is so ironclad that photos are entirely banned (at the behest of regular Jennifer Aniston), paparazzi are shooed away by umbrellas, and VIPs are guaranteed not to have their night interrupted by autograph requests – although they may well find themselves being intro’d to an eclectic guest list in the famed Tower Bar.

This coolly throwback drinking spot was once the apartment of gangster Bugsy Siegel, who helped to make Las Vegas’s strip into what it is today after pouring money into the still operational Flamingo Hotel (although he didn’t have much time to enjoy the spoils, being shot at 41 for skimming money off the top). Despite his abandoned home’s wood-panelled look being slightly passé at the time Klein renovated it, it now contributes to the feeling that you’ve stepped through a screen into a Technicolor talkie to hang out with gents in tuxes and sparkling ingenues. A stylistic decision built on by late designer Paul Fortune, who previously dressed homes for Sofia Coppolla and Marc Jacobs.

In this low-lit space there’s no preferred table policy and the vintage headshots of unknown actors and actresses who passed through Hollywood a long time ago are something of an insider joke, considering the likes of Julia Roberts, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, or Steven Speilberg might waltz in on any given night. It’s been the scene of Vanity Fair’s Oscars party and the Creative Artists Agency’s Golden Globes bash; but Klein and his team like to mix things up a bit, so over the years you might have seen the cast of Saturday Night Live dining alongside Nancy Reagan, socialite Betsey Bloomingdale swapping fashion tips with Kate Mara; or Tom Ford, Sean Spicer and Elon Musk in various covert corners.

While the hotel can’t quite claim the level of debauchery some LA hotels have witnessed, behind the scenes snippets have drifted out over the years, and the hotel can claim stardom in its own right, having been in the background of The Italian Job, Get Shorty and Strange Days; and in its early days as a luxury apartment building it hosted Howard Hughes, John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, Errol Flynn, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Truman Capote, and more luminaries, all of whom were surprisingly well-behaved (or perhaps kept their antics under wraps), with the exception of Wayne, who supposedly kept a cow on his balcony for fresh milk (the logistics of hauling the beast up to his residence makes this somewhat spurious).

Some more modern stars have tried to amp things up a touch, with rumours whispering about Iggy Pop jumping from his window into the swimming pool; Bill Murray turning up with jazz musicians for an impromptu show, and on a second occasion blanking Lance Armstrong after the biker’s controversial break up with Sheryl Crow; Jennifer Lawrence hoverboarding through the bar; and a woman supposedly scandalising some guests with her ‘Valley’ style of dress was then revealed to be – after she had been joined by Jeff Koons, David Geffen, Tom Ford, and Karl Lagerfeld – Carine Roitfeld, superlatively svelte editor of French Vogue.

But, while there’s silver service and impeccable white tablecloths, there’s no haughtiness here – the day Klein was mooting a dress code of no baseball caps or t-shirts was the evening George Lucas walked in wearing exactly that, and staff make insider knowledge of guests’ needs their business. So, yes, celebs come for the lack of prying eyes and the ‘you wouldn’t believe it…’ company. But, also for the rooms’ large windows like cameras that just love LA’s cityscape, the becoming-cult lobster tacos, cookies and milk served at bedtime, and a cocooning sense of hip hospitality.

THE GEORGIAN

Established in 1933, the Georgian hotel is technically the baby of this stalwart bunch, and keeps a dignified distance from Sunset, preferring instead the ink-spill sunsets of Santa Monica Beach, being just across the PCH from the sand. It has taller neighbours now, but back in the day its eight-storey height made it one of the tallest in the ‘hood. It still swivels heads with its bright turquoise-hued façade and elegant Havana deco and Renaissance Revival features.

The hotel was a labour of love by Mrs Rosamund Borde, who earned her stripes as the grand dame of grand dames, running the popular Hotel Windermere, and whose well-connectedness and stylish demeanour made her a mainstay in LA’s society pages (for the right reasons, namely her well-attended and well-dressed parties). But beyond her role as an ‘interesting hostess’, she was canny to what guests with celebrity and clout wanted, but also those simply looking for a lively night and welcoming bed.

Within the building she commissioned from celebrated architect Mr M Eugene Durfee, the Red Griffin Restaurant (named after a 17th-century eatery along London’s River Thames somewhat randomly) and the Georgian Room bar lured in an impressively starry roster: Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable, Fatty Arbuckle, Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe (as rumours go, with JFK in tow), and his mother Rose Kennedy (one assumes not all at once). And gangster Bugsy Siegel was also a fan. But when the war effort ramped up and the Douglas Aircraft Factory opened close by, you could add factory workers and servicemen into the mix. And the likes of Dick Van Dyke would keep guests entertained alongside lost-to-history characters. You might find yourself being served a $1.85 pan-fried chicken dinner or $4 sirloin by a waitress who’s just done time after being caught in the Rosarito Beach gambling raid, to the sounds of ‘piano wizard’ Al Monazi, Freddie Fisher’s ‘schnickel bop’ or Dick Kesner’s ‘somber, deadpan and magical Stradivarius’ recitals, all while rubbing shoulders with TV gunslingers, musical stars, missile executives, or the winner of the Bay Area Restaurant Association’s Miss Cuisine contest.

And the hotel’s refresh by BLVD Hospitality and Fettle Design has ensured it stays just as fabulously characterful, even if the Red Griffin is now the Restaurant at the Georgian and has a more Italian flavour. Otherwise, here lies a time-warp between past and present, where rooms have a mid-century look and Victrola record players, but also polaroid cameras to borrow and a vinyl edit by Cali’s Ubiquity Records; the Sunset Terrace and halls are bedecked with modern florals from local nursery Rolling Greens and florist Jean Pascal; arts space Gallery 33 has been added, where Sharon Stone’s paintings were the inaugural show; and a library has modern and vintage books selected by Culver City’s Arcana. And yet, there are still rows of tasselled keys, buttons for ‘champagne’, ‘dessert’ or ‘the usual’ (a guest-tailored treat) by your bed, a pink-ostrich-feather-flanked marble horseshoe bar for that ‘I’ve made it’ drink, and a 1918 Steinway & Sons piano in the still hush-hush Georgian Room, with the promise of ‘surprise musical guests’ (surely ‘schnickel bop’ is due a comeback…). And, close ties to the Santa Monica History Museum and the Santa Monica Conservancy foster a true sense of community – we think Mrs Borde would absolutely be on board.

And, if these legends have piqued your interest, why not add more storied luxury and boutique hotels in LA to the head of your call sheet?

Imagery for the Sunset Tower Hotel by Alice Zielasko and by Michaela Watkinson for the Georgian.