The Sunset Strip: 1860-1959
1860: Henry Hancock Acquires Rancho La Brea
Henry Hancock, a New Hampshire-born, Harvard-trained lawyer and surveyor, arrived in Los Angeles in 1852, two years after California was admitted into the union. After working for the federal government to survey the area for several years, he went into private practice and acquired several large parcels of land, including, in 1860, Rancho La Brea, a 650-acre tract anchored along its southern boundary by the La Brea Tar Pits.
The rancho’s footprint today comprises the city of West Hollywood and the city of Los Angeles districts of Hollywood, Hancock Park, Museum Row and the La Brea Tar Pits.
During the Civil War, Henry Hancock briefly served as the commandant at Camp Drum, south of Los Angeles at Wilmington. Camp Drum held the distinction of being home to a few dozen camels that had been imported by the U.S. Army in 1856 and 1857 as part of an experiment to use them o use them for military transport across the western desert territories the United States had acquired as a result of the Mexican War.
In 1863, the Army ordered the camels moved to Benicia, four-hundred miles north in the Bay Area, where they were to be put up for auction. Major Hancock acquired several of the camels with the intention of starting a dromedary transport line between Los Angeles and St. Louis. Hancock commissioned the construction of an adobe cabin in the northwest corner of Rancho La Brea, in present-day West Hollywood, to house the camels and their driver, “Greek George” Caralambo. Hancock likely met Caralambo at Camp Drum where he was tending the camels.
Caralambo – Georgias (or Yiorgos) Xaralampo – a native of Turkey, had been brought over with the camels when they were shipped from the Mediterranean to the United States. He is likely the first non-native resident of West Hollywood, and his adobe cabin, which he apparently occupied by 1864, was likely the first dwelling built in the city. Its exact location is unknown. Some sources say it stood near today’s Kings Road and Santa Monica Boulevard. Other accounts place it a few blocks farther south, around present-day Melrose Place. This location seems more likely, given the relation of the cabin to the hills in the distance in the only surviving photo of it.
Henry Hancock’s plan to establish a dromedary transport line fell through not long after George and the camels moved to the adobe. Greek George is said to have set the camels free. They happily wandered off and were spotted foraging in the Hollywood Hills for the next 30 years.
1874: The Capture of Tiburcio Vasquez
In May 1874, a sheriff’s posse descended on a remote, rough-hewn adobe cabin in Rancho La Brea, six miles west of Los Angeles, and captured the West’s most-wanted bandit, Tiburcio Vasquez, in a hail of bullets. In his twenty-year career, Vasquez is said to have stolen the equivalent today of millions of dollars, much of it he spent in pursuit of his insatiable compulsion for seduction – in fact, it was a sordid sex scandal that led to his betrayal. News of the famous gang leader’s arrest became the first national story reported out of the future Sunset Strip. In a quirk of history, Vasquez’ career as a celebrity gang boss foreshadowed those of twentieth-century Sunset Strip mobsters Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Cohen.
1890s: Farms and Estates
The transcontinental railroads reached Los Angeles in the 1880s, transforming it practically overnight from a dusty pueblo at the end of the trail to a bustling, prosperous town on its way to being one of America’s great metropolises. Neighborhoods grew up around the old pueblo, including the town of Hollywood, about six miles west of Los Angeles. A vast interurban railroad was also constructed across the region, including westward lines to Hollywood and the beach town of Santa Monica.
At the intersection of Santa Monica and San Vicente Boulevards, railroad entrepreneur Moses Sherman built a train yard that served as the service stop for the trolleys and as his corporate headquarters. A small town grew up around the yards which came to be known as Sherman, now known as West Hollywood. Family farms dotted the rolling hills north of Sherman, where the principal crops were avocados, poinsettias and melons. Today, the Sunset Strip cuts through that former farmland.
Two of the farms were quite large — big enough to be called country estates. One of these was due north of Sherman and straddled the present-day site of the Sunset Plaza commercial district midway along the Strip between Hollywood and Beverly Hills. The estate was owned by Victor Ponet, an emigrant from Belgian who became a wealthy banker, real-estate investor and developer. In the 1920s, Ponet’s heirs, the Montgomery family, developed Sunset Plaza which they still own and operate today. The original Ponet mansion, which was demolished long ago, sat in the northeast corner of Sunset and Sunset Plaza Drive.
The second estate occupied a tract north of Sunset Boulevard at Laurel Canyon Boulevard, about a mile east of the Ponet estate. Built in the late 19th century by Charles F. Harper, a Mississippian who moved to Los Angeles after the Civil War and made a fortune selling hardware, the family called the estate Cioela Vista but is generally remembered today as the Harper Ranch.
Charles Harper’s son, Arthur Cyprian Harper, who later inherited Cioela Vista, was elected mayor of Los Angeles in 1906. He was forced to resign in 1909, however, when he was threatened with a recall over corruption charges, including allegations he speculated on sugar and that he spent too much time in brothels.
1918: Alla Nazmova, ‘Tremendously Happy’
In 1918, Alla Nazimova, the famed Broadway actress, was lured to Hollywood by Metro Pictures, one of the studios that later became MGM. A few years earlier, Nazimova had had such a successful run on Broadway for the Shubert Organization — sales of tickets to her sold-out performances had generated $4 million ($400 million today) in revenue over three years–that the Shuberts named one of their Broadway houses “the Alla Nazimova 39th Street Theatre.” So it was not surprising that under her contract with Metro, Nazimova became the highest paid actress in Hollywood, receiving a weekly salary of $13,000 a week, equivalent to $20,500 today.
Nazimova chose as her home Hayvenhurst, a luxurious estate that occupied 2.5 park-like acres at 8152 Sunset Blvd. [map showing approximate location], at what is today the eastern border of the Sunset Strip. At the time, it was so remote that the Sunset Boulevard trolley from Hollywood made its last stop where the pavement ended, just at the estate’s northeastern corner. The extension of Sunset Boulevard west toward Beverly Hills was a gravel road.
Today, the property stands at the eastern gateway to the Sunset Strip, and the neighborhoods around it are some of the most densely populated in the West. Then, however, the area was quite rustic, its rolling hills covered in melon farms, poinsettias fields and avocado and orange groves.
Nazimova leased the estate from real-estate developer, William H. Hay, who had built it as his private residence in 1913 only to vacate it for an even larger house down the street a few years later. Immediately after she moved in, Nazimova commissioned what would become its defining feature: a swimming pool, 65 feet by 45 feet. After living in the estate for a year, Nazimova purchased it outright for $65,000, which would be just $1 million today–a steal, it seems–perhaps because the remote house had been on the market for a while.
1922: Love Pirates
Nazimova’s neighbor, oilman George Paddleford, became the talk of Hollywood when he divorced his wife Genevieve, who’d proved to be a world-class grifter and gold-digger and whom he called “an International love pirate.” A few years later, thrice-married Hersee Gross set her sights on George Carson, a never-married, lifelong desert miner in his fifties who just won $20 million ($270 million today) in a lawsuit against the Anaconda Mining Company. The newlyweds set up housekeeping at Hersee’s house on the Sunset Strip, but there was trouble from the start. Before they divorced, Hersee built a castle called Mt. Kalmia on the Strip, which is still standing and was recently owned by Johnny Depp.
1923 Drugs kill Paramount Star Wallace Reid
Wallace Reid and his wife, the former child star Dorothy Davenport, were a power couple in their day. Wally was a bona fide all-American–a Princeton graduate–who could play action roles as well as romantic leads. His box office draw earned him the title, “King of Paramount.”
Dorothy got her start acting for D.W. Griffith and was a popular Universal player by age 17. They were both multi-talented–proficient as writers, directors and producers–and both came from multi-generational theatrical families. They met on the set of “His Only Son,” in 1912, and were married October 13, 1913.
In 1920, The Reids purchased two lots at 8327 DeLongpre Ave.[map], in Hacienda Park, as the neighborhood along the eastern section of the Strip was known originally, where they built this exotic Italianate mansion with a red tile roof, stunning views toward the ocean, and a swimming pool.
By the time the Reids had built this idyllic house, however, the seeds of Wally’s destruction had been sewn. Months earlier, he had been injured on location in Oregon for “The Valley of the Giants.” A doctor on the set administered morphine so that Wally could continue working and keep the production on schedule.
Later, back in Hollywood, the studio kept Wally supplied with drugs in order to maintain the viability of their biggest star. When that supply was cut off, he found others. At first, he hid his addiction to morphine from Dorothy, but she found out in 1921.
When he was between films, Dorothy checked Wally into a sanitarium for rehab. He apparently kicked the morphine habit in 1922, but his resistance was compromised. As his health worsened, Dorothy educated herself about drug abuse, having decided not to hush up Wally’s problems. She went public, and thereby, she found her own calling.
On January 18, 1923, Dorothy was with Wally in the sanitarium, holding him in her arms when he took his final breath. Afterwards, she went outside to the bank of waiting microphones from many nationwide radio networks. Composed and calm, she introduced herself to the radio audience in a firm, unflinching tone: “This is Mrs. Wallace Reid.”
On Jan. 29, the Los Angeles Times published a letter from Dorothy to Wally’s fans:
Through no fault of my own, through circumstances that are tragic enough, God knows, I have been placed in a position to carry the banner in the drug war. It has been flung to me, as Wally’s wife, and for his sake and for the sake of the thousands like him who are suffering from this hideous disease, I cannot–I dare not lay it down.
And she didn’t. For the rest of her life, Dorothy Davenport devoted herself to educating the public about the realities of drug addiction, and she never stopped referring to herself as Mrs. Wallace Reid.
1927: Garden of Alla
In 1926, Alla Nazimova spent $1.5 million (about $20 million today) to convert her estate at 8152 Sunset Blvd. [map showing approximate location] into a residential hotel catering to the movie crowd. Most of the money went into the construction of 23 one- and two-bedroom “villas” to be rented by the day, week or month.
In early January, she threw a party to launch the Garden of Alla Hotel. “There was joy afoot, caviar at hand and bubbles in the air—-for 18 hours,” a writer remembered years later in an article in the Times. “By midnight, the waiters were harmonizing with the guests and wandering troubadours played madrigals from the middle of the pool.”
In the end, however, the Garden of Alla Hotel was not profitable, and Nazimova ended up selling the estate back to its original owner, William H. Hay, who brought in professional management and continued to operate it as the “Garden of Alla.” Eventually Hay sold it to a corporation, and it was they who changed the name, finally, to the Garden of Allah Hotel, and it was under that name that the hotel became, like it’s original owner, an international sensation.
Nazimova had spotted a trend, however. Upscale apartments sprang up on the Strip. The Chateau Marmont Apartments (8221 Sunset Blvd.) and Hacienda Park Apartments (8435 Sunset Blvd.) both opened in 1927 and the Sunset Tower Apartments (8351 Sunset Blvd.) opened in 1931.
But Nazimova was first.
1929: Chateau Marmont Opens
“If you must get into trouble,” Harry Cohn, the founder of Columbia Pictures, advised his stars, “do it at the Marmont.”
The Marmont, at 8221 Sunset Blvd. [map ], has been a famous hotel for so long that it is hard to believe that it was an apartment building when it opened in 1929. An ad promoting apartments at the Marmont said that it featured, “1 to 6 room furnished apartments including complete 24-hour service. Garage in basement. Large rooms and private balconies. Distinctively furnished and decorated. View of Mt. Baldy, Catalina Island and the lights of the city from private balconies and patios. Finest steel and concrete construction (class AA) fire and earthquake proof.”
Famous residents in Hollywood’s Golden Age included Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Carol Lombard, Montgomery Clift, and Howard Hughes.
Although the architectural style refers to French chateaux, the building took its name from its location on Marmont Lane. But where did Marmont Lane get it’s name? For reasons now obscure, Marmont Lane was named after Percy Marmont, the British silent film actor who lived in Los Angeles in the silent era.
1931: Sunset Tower Opens
Like the Chateau Marmont, its ancient rival down the street, the Sunset Tower was originally conceived as an apartment building that catered to the Hollywood elite. The Marmont opened in 1927, the Sunset Tower opened in 1931. It advertised itself in the early days as “Hollywood’s most distinguished address.” And like the Marmont, the Sunset Tower, at 8358 Sunset Blvd. [map], is a hotel today.
During its career as an apartment building, famous residents included Marilyn Monroe, Errol Flynn, Elizabeth Taylor, Preston Sturges, Frank Sinatra, Zsa-Zsa Gabor, and others.
“I am living in a very posh establishment, the Sunset Tower,” Truman Capote wrote in a letter to a friend back east in 1947, “which, or so the local gentry tell me, is where every scandal that ever happened happened.” (If the “local gentry” told Capote this–and there is a better than even chance it’s something he made up–they were wrong. The best venue for scandals in that era was the Garden of Allah Hotel down the street.)
Like all places where celebrities gather, the Sunset Tower has its legends. For example, it is true that Bugsy Siegel, one of the most powerful mobsters in the country, was arrested there in May 1944 on a penny ante bookmaking charge.
It is also true that Howard Hughes rented the penthouse for a time, as well as about 30 other apartments, where he housed women he was seeing. Less certain is whether it was the favored address of Hollywood’s top call girls.
But here’s one that’s false. It is not true that John Wayne kept a milk cow on his balcony. Practical considerations about the hauling of hay up 10 floors and the commensurate disposal of manure aside, the Los Angeles Conservancy contacted the Wayne estate who confirmed that there is no truth to the rumor.
1932: Drag Star ‘Fashion Plate’
On Sept. 21, 1932, Karyl Norman (né: George Paduzzi), a cross-dressing performer who billed himself as “the Creole Fashion Plate”, opened at Club La Boheme, at 8614 Sunset Blvd., in the Sunset Plaza section of the Strip. Norman was one of the stars of what was then called “the Pansy Craze,” which referred mostly to cross-dressing–known as “drag” today — and also included singers who specialized in ribald lyrics and biting repartee — now called “camp”.
Norman’s signature act was an impersonation of Joan Crawford in the movie “Rain”–a performance given the seal of approval by Crawford herself, after having seen it accompanied by her friend, former MGM star Billy Haines, according to Billy Wilkerson’s Hollywood Reporter. Variety called Norman’s show “the smartest and most entertaining floor review seen in these parts in a long time,” and said it stood out among the proliferation of “female impersonator shows flourishing in this neck of the woods.” There were other acts on the bill, according to the Times, including “a moonkist chorus of beautiful girls.”
After performing at Club Boheme, Karyl Norman returned to vaudeville and reportedly opened his own club. In January 1934, Club La Boheme and two other nightclubs on the Strip that were popular with celebrities–the Old Colony Club, 1131 North Alta Loma Drive, and the Clover Club, 8477 Sunset Blvd.–were raided in a round-up of illegal gambling.
Club La Boheme closed, but in June the proprietor, Joe Borgia, a former singer with the Metropolitan Opera, reopened it as Club Trianon, which closed almost immediately. The space was not vacant long, however. It was acquired by Hollywood Reporter publisher Billy Wilkerson, who remodeled the building and opened it as Cafe Trocadero, which would soon become one of the most famous nightclubs in the world.
(Read about the opening of Cafe Trocadero here.)
1934: The Strip’s Style Setter
William R. Wilkerson wore many hats. He was publisher of the Hollywood Reporter, of course, which, along with Variety, has been the go-to trade paper for the movie industry for decades. He was also a nightclub and restaurant visionary who had a genius for articulating Hollywood glamor through the decor and ambiance of his nightspots. But perhaps most of all, Billy Wilkerson was a gambler. It was the gambling, more than anything, that drove him.
Billy Wilkerson arrived in Los Angeles from New York in 1930. He immediately went into business publishing the Hollywood Reporter. Later, he opened Vendome, a lunchtime restaurant, in Hollywood near the Hollywood Reporter offices. In 1934, after Prohibition ended, he launched his first venture on the Sunset Strip, the Cafe Trocadero–named for the Trocadero Plaza near the Eiffel Tower in Paris–at 8610 Sunset Blvd., in Sunset Plaza.
The Troc soon became the top A-list place to be seen in the city and one of the most famous night clubs in the world. Wilkerson went on to be the creative force behind two other top Sunset Strip venues, Ciro’s and Cafe La Rue. He also was also the originator of the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, which he lost to fellow Sunset Strip denizen, the gangster, Bugsy Siegel.
1934: Cafe Trocadero Opens
La Boheme, at 8614 Sunset in Sunset Plaza, was closed when Billy Wilkerson acquired and remodeled it with what would become his trademark Hollywood style. He named the new club after the Trocadero Plaza at the Eiffel Tower in Paris. It opened on Sept. 17, 1934, just nine months after Prohibition ended. Wilkerson was an inveterate gambler and provided high stakes gaming in private rooms below the main floor.
The Troc soon became the top A-list place to be seen in the city and one of the most famous night clubs in the world. Wilkerson went on to be the creative force behind two other top Sunset Strip venues, Ciro’s and Cafe La Rue. He also was also the originator of the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, which he lost to fellow Sunset Strip denizen, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel.
1935: Bruz Fletcher’s Camp Style
Bruz Fletcher was a society piano man in the 1930s who was known for lyrics that were laden with gay subtext, a style that would be known later as camp. He was bona fide society, the son of a wealthy family in Indianapolis, said to have been Boothe Tarkington’s model for “The Magnificent Ambersons.”
Bruz, popular with the sophisticated set, played a record-breaking four-year run at Club Bali, 8804 Sunset Blvd. [map]. The gig had been originally booked for just two weeks in 1935, but was so popular that it ran until early 1940. In 1938, Los Angeles Times columinst Hedda Hopper wrote that Bruz had the longest local run in nightclubs of anyone she could remember, and that was two years before it closed.
He was so closely associated with the nightspot that Club Bali was commonly referred to as “Bruz Fletcher’s.'” Waiters, wearing red sarongs, served Balinese cuisine to diners seated on coral red couches.
Hedda and her competitors regularly reported on celebrities who frequented the Hollywood nightspot. Silent era star Louise Brooks was noticed in the crowd for Bruz’ show five times in 1937 and 1938. Other names in the columns included Humprhey Bogart, David Niven, Monty Woolley, Beatrice Lillie, Laura Hope Crews, Norma Talmadge, Ronald Reagan, Howard Hughes, Gypsy Rose Lee, Margaret Hamilton, Jack Haley and Frank Morgan. Bruz was mentioned in the Los Angeles Times nearly two hundred times during his Club Bail run.
In addition to his recordings, Bruz Fletcher wrote two books and several plays. He is all but forgotten today, which is at least in part due to the fact that he committed suicide at the age of 34, in 1941. One of Bruz Fletcher’s records is included in Ernest Hemingway’s collection at his residence museum in Cuba.
1936: Upscale Lesbian Nightclub
Bars catering to gay women were rare in the first half of the 20th century, but there were at least two on the Sunset Strip that were open in tandem for a while — Jane Jones’ Little Club, at 8730 Sunset Blvd. [map showing approximate site], which operated from 1936 to 1939, and Cafe Internationale, across the street at 8711 Sunset [map], which opened around 1936 and closed in 1942. (Read more about Cafe Internationale and its owner, Tess Wheeler, here.) Both clubs were shut down by the state liquor board, although for different reasons.
According to GAY LA: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians, by Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons, “The eponymous Jane Jones was a big woman with a basso profundo voice who’d been a singer in movie musicals.” (See Jones’ performance acting and singing in “The Port of Missing Girls, from 1938, here.)
Jane Jones was born in Pennsylvania, made her singing debut at age five in Colorado, and moved to Los Angeles in 1916, at age 27. The next year, she married Lloyd A. MacBeth. She later joined the Orpheum Circuit and was soon a popular vaudeville act. In the 1920s, Jones left the circuit and began appearing nightly at the famous Vernon Country Club, south of Downtown Los Angeles. Jones, a large woman, appeared on the same bill with two male comic singers, advertised collectively as “the half ton of melody.” A news release from the club read, “In keeping with [club manager] Bill Paine’s theory of gaiety that entertainment should carry some ‘weight,’ Miss Jones tops the scales at 235 pounds of personality and harmony…”
After Jane Jones’s Little Club opened on the Strip in May 1936, an item in the Times noted that “Jane Jones’ new night spot is getting a big play from the film colonites.” Although there’s no online record of her divorce from Lloyd MacBeth, around this time, if not before, Jane apparently married the club’s co-owner, Raymond P. Babcock.
In September 1939, the club was raided by the sheriff’s vice squad. According to the Times, “Quietly entering the cafe with five deputies, Capt. George Contreras, head of the sheriff’s vice squad, dispersed the orchestra and 50 well-dressed guests before making the arrests. Capt. Contreras reported that liquor assertedly was being sold after legal hours.” The club’s liquor license was revoked two months later.
Jones never ventured into the nightclub business again. Throughout the 1930s and ’40s, she appeared in 12 films, according to IMDB.com, including the 1938 “Port of Missing Girls,” which can be viewed here online. Jones also continued to perform in nightclubs, including the Melody Room on the Strip and many other venues around town.
When she died in January 1962 at age 73, the Times identified her as Jane Jones Babcock and said she “sang for many years on the Orpheum and Pantages vaudeville circuits and appeared in a number of motion picture musicals”–and that she had been the proprietor of Jane Jones’ Little Club on the Sunset Strip. The obituary said she had been ill for five months and died at the home she shared with her aunt, Mrs. Sally Hadler, at 327 N. Sycamore Ave.
1938: Reagan Moves to the Strip
It seems counterintuitive and yet it’s true. Ronald Reagan, future 40th president of the United States, was a longtime resident of the Sunset Strip. Reagan moved to the Strip in 1938 and remained there throughout his nine-year marriage to Jane Wyman and then for five years after their divorce, until 1952 when he married Nancy Davis.
Reagan met Wyman on the set of the film “Brother Rat” in 1938, when he was a B-list actor with a promising career and she was a relative unknown. They started dating even though Wyman was very much married at the time, to Martin Futterman, a dress manufacturer, her second husband. Late that year, he moved from an apartment in Hollywood to a house at 1128 Cory Ave., which is still standing [map].
Wyman lived a few blocks west in an apartment at 1326 Londonderry View, which is also still standing [map]. Reagan soon moved into a studio apartment in the same building. Reagan and Wyman were married in January 1940. The couple soon built a home above the Strip at 9137 Cordell Drive [map]. (The house is standing but has been significantly altered.) Reagan lived there with Wyman until their divorce in 1948.
He briefly lived at the Garden of Allah Hotel before returning to live in the Londonderry View apartment, and was living there when he met Nancy Davis — the goddaughter, as it happened, of Broadway superstar, Alla Nazimova, whose estate the Garden of Allah once had been. After Ronnie and Nancy were married, on March 4, 1952, they moved west to the Palisades.
1940: Ciro’s Opens
Louis Adlon, son of the proprietor of Berlin’s Hotel Adlon, opened Hollywood’s first iteration of Ciro’s in 1934. Located on Hollywood Boulevard, the club was informally part of a chain with locations in London, Paris and Berlin. The Hollywood Ciro’s was not a success, apparently, because it soon folded.
In 1935, the building at 8433 Sunset Blvd. [map] that would later house the Sunset Strip’s Ciro’s was completed. The first tenant was Al De Freitas’ Club Seville, where the gimmick was a dance floor made from sheets of glass over a giant aquarium. But dancing on fish proved not to be popular, and the club closed within a year.
In 1940, six years after he successfully launched Cafe Trocadero down the street in Sunset Plaza, Hollywood Reporter publisher Billy Wilkerson acquired the former Club Seville building, redesigned the interior in his trademark Hollywood style and opened a new Ciro’s in the space on January 31.
Wilkerson created Ciro’s as a “celebrities only” club, but by the summer of 1942 he had lost interest in it. In November, he leased it to Herman Hover, who reconfigured the layout and opened it up to the public as well as the stars. In June, the building was nearly destroyed by fire. It was closed for four months, after which Hover purchased the building from Wilkerson.
In the post-war era, Ciro’s became notorious as a venue for celebrity brawling. There were so many fights that Hover said he was considering replacing the dance floor with a boxing ring. He also declared a limit of three brawls per customer. One of the most infamous of these was in 1951, when famed actor Franchot Tone approached gossip columnist Florabel Muir at her table and spat in her face.
That same year, as a publicity stunt, Hover put high-class stripper Lili St. Cyr on the bill. The stunt worked. As she was doing her act one night, sheriff’s deputies emerged from the crowd, stopped the act and arrested St. Cyr and Hover. The story became front-page news for weeks afterwards.
Hover was forced into bankruptcy in late 1957, and eventually lost the club. The venue became a rock club in the 1960s, and in 1972 opened as the Comedy Store, which is there today and thriving.
1940: Death of F. Scott Fitzgerald
On Dec. 21, 1940, the winter solstice, Scott Fitzgerald suffered a fatal heart attack in the apartment of the British-born gossip columnist, Sheilah Graham, at 1443 N. Hayworth Ave. [map], just south of Sunset Blvd.
In his prime, Scott and his wife Zelda were part of the Lost Generation of literary set and spent time in Paris in the 1920s, along with with Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. He died in Hollywood, however, in Graham’s apartment, a fact which proved to be awkward because he was still married to Zelda.
Scott and Sheilah had been in love and sharing digs for three years, although Scott also maintained an apartment a block east, at 1403 N. Laurel Ave. [map] (where his next-door neighbors was another couple living in sin, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz).
Fitzgerald had a history of heart problems. In November 1940, Scott suffered a nonfatal heart attack earlier at Schwab’s, reportedly while he was standing in line to buy cigarettes. He died a month later in Sheilah’s living room.
1941: Mocambo Opens
Like Cafe Trocadero and Ciro’s, the Mocambo was a world-famous nightclub on the Sunset Strip catering to celebrities. Located at 8588 Sunset Blvd. [map], it opened on January 3, 1941, featuring Mexican-themed decor said to have cost over $100,000 (about $1.6 million today) and dominated by glass-walled aviaries that housed live macaws, cockatoos, parrots and other birds. (And, yes, the ASPCA objected to this arrangement.)
During its 17-year run, the Mocambo was the scene of a number of celebrity brawls. In 1941, a movie agent named William Burnside cold-cocked restaurateur Michael Romanoff there, for reasons now forgotten. “I wish they had let me go just for a minute and I would have annihilated him,” Romanoff said later. In October that year, Errol Flynn punched Los Angeles Times columnist Jimmy Fidler at Mocambo in retaliation for purported derogatory comments Fidler had made in his column.
After Frank Sinatra left the Tommy Dorsey orchestra in 1943, he made his debut as a solo act at Mocambo. The club was also at the forefront of breaking the color line during the Jim Crow era. Eartha Kitt, Lena Horne and Ella Fitzgerald all played there in the 1940s and 1950s. Ella’s appearance in March 1955 was given a boost by her superstar fangirl, Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn promised Mocambo owner Charlie Morrison that if he would book Ella, she would make sure the booking received worldwide publicity. True to her word, Marilyn was in the house every time Ella performed, and where Marilyn went, reporters followed. Ella later said that because of Marilyn’s support, after she played the Mocambo, “I never had to play a small jazz club again. She was an unusual woman — a little ahead of her times. And she didn’t know it.”
Charlie Morrison died in 1957. The Mocambo closed a year later, on June 30, 1958. Another club called the Cloister opened in the space briefly. The building was later demolished, and a retail plaza occupies the lot today.
1942: Navy Bans Gay Clubs
During World War II, thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen on their way to the Pacific theater were granted their last stateside leaves in Los Angeles. Many of them headed out to the local bars to blow off steam, of course. But in June 1942, the Navy took the unusual action of placing about 30 bars and nightclubs across the city off limits to sailors.
“These taverns and bars are not safe or proper places for servicemen to patronize,” a Naval commander told the Times. “Firm handling is necessary to eliminate that undesirable fringe of the industry.” The precise nature of the unsafe and improper activities going on in these night spots was left unstated — but it must have been pretty bad if the Navy felt the need to protect sailors from it, especially since the Navy was sending these same men off to risk their lives in the Midway, Guadalcanal and other death traps in the Pacific.
There is one possible clue, however. Two of the clubs were on the Sunset Strip — Chez Boheme at 8950 Sunset Blvd. [map] and Cafe Internationale at 8711 Sunset Blvd. [map] — both of which were, using today’s term, “gay friendly.” (Gay bars as we know them today — clubs that cater to gay men or women — were a post-war phenomenon.)
The star attraction at Chez Boheme that summer was Rae Bourbon, a female impersonator and one of the last big stars of the Prohibition era “Pansy Craze.” Cafe Internationale, on the other hand, was owned and operated by Elmer and Tess Wheeler and catered to women. As the 1940 guidebook, “How to Sin in Hollywood” put it:
When Your Urge’s Mauve, [go to] the Café International on Sunset Boulevard. The location offered supper, drinks, and the ability to watch boy-girls who necked and sulked and little girl customers who… look like boys.
Like Chez Boheme, Cafe Internationale offered cross-dressing performers, but these singers were women dressed in male drag — two who were quite well-known then were billed as Tommy Williams and Jimmy Renard. According to historian Lillian Faderman, co-author with Stuart Timmons of Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics and Lipstick Lesbians, Marlene Dietrich was in the crowd at Cafe Internationale when Tommy Williams performed one night.
As a result of the Navy ban, state authorities revoked the liquor licenses for Chez Boheme and Cafe Internationale. A new club, the Starlit Room, opened in the Chez Boheme space three years later, and Rae Bourbon returned there for a six-month run. Cafe Internationale owner Elmer Wheeler sued in 1942 to have the license reinstated, but he died that December and the club closed for good. His widow Tess opened another club later and became a fixture, along with her partner Sylvia Reiff (who was said to look like Radclyffe Hall), in the burgeoning Los Angeles lesbian scene after the war.
1948: Hollywood Agog
On the morning of May 5, 1948, dozens of powerful Angelenos — movie stars, moguls and other high muckamucks — must have done spit takes with their coffee upon opening the Los Angeles Times and seeing this headline: “Names Found in Vice Raid Set Hollywood Agog.” The report that followed contained potentially career-killing news: During a raid on the bordello Hollywood madam Brenda Allen operated at 8436 Harold Way above the Sunset Strip [map], police had confiscated a box of index cards containing the names, contact info and sexual predilections of about 250 men whom the Times article described as “notables of the film colony.” And it got worse: A photo, captioned “Lots of names,” showed a uniformed LAPD officer pawing through the files, which appeared to be casually spread across a desk.
This was not the first time a Hollywood madam’s client list had fallen into the hands of the LAPD, nor would it be the last, and all these incidents tend to follow a similar arc: Initial, barely suppressed panic among the marquee names on the madam’s list followed by secret machinations among lawyers, agents and studio executives leading to quiet, behind-the-scenes negotiations among lawyers and police, as well as, presumably, an exchange of cash in return for assurances that the names will never see the light of day.
We will never know whether a scenario like that played out in the Brenda Allen matter over the summer of 1948. We do know what the outcome was, however. During Allen’s trial on the charge of running a “house of ill fame,” after reviewing the names on the cards, Judge Joseph L. Call issued his decision:
JUDGE CALL: In the box are names of dignitaries of the screen and radio and executives of responsible positions in many great industries. Publication of their names would be ruinous to their careers and cause them great public disgrace. I order the exhibit sealed.
Judge Call found Brenda Allen guilty, and the matter appeared to be settled. But it wasn’t. Like other madams before her, Brenda Allen had been paying corrupt officers inside the LAPD for protection. In fact, Detective Sgt. Elmer “Jack” Jackson, a member of the elite Administrative Vice Squad, which reported directly to Chief Clemence B. Horrall, was both her lover and de facto business partner. Separately, Sgt. Jackson and his boss, Lt. Rudy Wellpott, had been shaking down the mobster Mickey Cohen for several years, or so Cohen will claim.
All of this corruption and much more exploded into public view exactly a year to the day after Brenda Allen was busted. It was then, on May 5, 1949, that Mickey Cohen announced during a trial on an unrelated matter that he had in his possession recordings of telephone conversations between Brenda Allen and Sgt. Jackson — calls made to and by Jackson in his office at LAPD headquarters. Before the summer was over, Chief Horrall had resigned and he and five other top LAPD officials, including Sgt. Jackson and Lt. Wellpott, had been charged with lying to the grand jury — Jackson and Wellpott were also charged with taking bribes from Brenda Allen.
But now, dear reader, here is a test of your insight into how these sorts of things worked in Los Angeles back then. Among the people accused of criminal acts in the Brenda Allen case only one person was convicted and sent to jail. Among the five top LAPD officials, Brenda’s 250 clients and Brenda herself, can you guess who it was who took the fall?
Hint: The jailbird was a woman.
1948: Mickey Cohen Moves Up
Mickey Cohen assumed Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel’s prime interests in Southern California after Siegel’s assassination in June 1947. Later that year he moved the headquarters of his underworld empire into a storefront building on the Strip at 8804 Sunset Blvd. [map]. He installed three of his legit businesses in the building’s street-level storefronts: Michael’s Haberdashery, Courtley Jewelers and a tailor’s shop.
Cohen had many enemies, of course, including rival local gangsters as well as officers inside the LAPD, a few of whom were corrupt and had been shaking him down for years. He was targeted for assassination twice during his years on the Strip. The first attack came in August 1948 when a gunmen entered his deluxe private office suite on a lower floor in the storefont building and opened fire. Cohen survived by hiding in the men’s room but one of his bodyguards, Hooky Rothman, had his head blown off.
The second attack came almost year later, in July 1949, when two men with shotguns opened fire from across the street when Mickey and his entourage were leaving Sherry’s night club on the Strip at 9039 Sunset Blvd. [map], around 4 a.m. Cohen and three others were wounded and required hospitalization but another bodyguard, Neddie Herbert, later died from his wounds. The gossip columnist Florabel Muir, a friend of Cohen, was slightly wounded by shotgun pelt that grazed her derriere.
Not long after the shotgun ambush at Sherry’s, Cohen’s home in Brentwood was bombed several times. But if these and other attacks were meant to drive Mickey Cohen out of business, they were efforts in futility. However, what did eventually drive him out was an investigation by the IRS, which forced him to sell his legitimate businesses and eventually resulted in conviction and sentencing to a lengthy term in federal prison.
No one was ever arrested in connection with any of the attacks on Mickey Cohen. Years later, however, Jimmy “The Weasel” Fratianno [Wiki] revealed that he had arranged the attempted hit in 1948 at the behest of Cohen’s gangster rival Jack Dragna — he also said that the triggerman who killed Hooky Rothman was longtime Dragna associate Frank “the Bomp” Bompensiero [Wiki]. But the source of the shotgun ambush outside Sherry’s in July 1949 along with the identities of the two gunmen remains a mystery. Many experts in mid-century Los Angeles crime history believe the most likely suspects were officials inside the LAPD.
1951: Best-Dressed Undressed
In 1951, Ciro’s owner Herman Hover booked Lili St. Cyr, a high-class stripper, to perform in his world-renown venue, making St. Cyr the first stripper to headline on the Sunset Strip.
Part of St. Cyr’s act was to come out onto the stage–which featured a giant, ornately designed bathtub–wearing a mink coat and little else. She would take off the coat, revealing herself to be completely nude, and then step into the bathtub. But one night not long after she opened at Ciro’s–a night when the audience was packed with movie stars–before she could step into the bathtub and finish her act, West Hollywood sheriff’s deputies swarmed the stage. St. Cyr and Hover were arrested, hauled out of Ciro’s and booked.
The arrests made the front pages of the newspapers the next day, which was apparently Hover’s objective all along. Later, when St. Cyr’s case came to trial, prosecutors abruptly dropped the charges when her lawyers prevailed in their request to let her perform the act in the courtroom for the jury.
1954: Wrong Door Raid
In November 1954, Marilyn Monroe was living along the Sunset Strip in the Brandon Arms Apartments at 8338 DeLongpre Ave. [map], recovering from her tumultuous divorce from baseball legend Joe DiMaggio. The marriage ended because DiMaggio had been physically abusive–the worst instance had happened earlier that year in New York after Marilyn filmed the iconic scene in “Seven Year Itch,” in which her skirt billowed up while she stood on a subway grate. After they divorced in October, DiMaggio remained so jealous that he hired Sunset Strip private detective Barney Ruditsky to keep tabs on her.
On the evening of Friday, Nov. 5, Marilyn drove her white Cadillac convertible to visit a friend who lived about eight blocks south in a three-unit apartment building in the southeast corner of Waring Avenue and Kilkea Drive. A little later, one of Ruditsky’s men spotted Marilyn’s Caddy parked on Waring and phoned it in. Ruditsky contacted DiMaggio who happened to be out drinking with Frank Sinatra. It seemed obvious to DiMaggio that his ex-wife was visiting one of her many lovers. He and Sinatra quickly hatched a cockamamie scheme to catch Marilyn in the arms of her paramour. Within the hour, they met Ruditsky and his men, one of whom was armed with a camera equipped with a large spotlight, at Waring and Kilkea.
On a signal, a half dozen or so of the men stormed the ground floor apartment, crashing through the kitchen door, stomping through the dark house to a back bedroom where they surrounded the bed. Ruditsky’s man with the camera turned on his spotlight and exposed–Florence Kotz, a 39-year-old secretary, awakened in her curlers from a deep sleep and now screaming bloody murder. The men realized that they had entered the wrong apartment and hastily retreated, breaking more of Kotz’s belongings on the way out. Kotz had been blinded by the spotlight and couldn’t identify her assailants, so the police report she filed that night was vague on details. The incident was filed as an attempted home-invasion robbery.
The story went dark for nearly a year, and then, seemingly out of nowhere, it exploded into a firestorm of unwanted publicity in the form of a cover story in the September 1955 edition of Confidential Magazine depicting DiMaggio and Sinatra as bungling fools. Over the next two years, the “Wrong Door Raid” became one of many stories reported by Confidential that Hollywood stars found objectionable. In August 1957, California Attorney General Pat Brown, a future governor and father of Gov. Jerry Brown, took Confidential to trial in Los Angeles based on allegations made in the “Wrong Door Raid” articles, among many other salacious stories in the popular magazine. The trial, which the public followed with rapt attention, was one of the 20th century’s many “trials of the century,” and like many of them, it ended in a whimper not a bang. The jury was hung on whether Confidential had committed libel, but rather than face a retrial, the magazine’s publisher opted to stop reporting on the personal lives of Hollywood stars.
(Read the complete story here: “Wrong Door Raid: The Celebrity Scandal That Irked Sinatra, Made a Fool of DiMaggio – All at Marilyn Monroe’s Expense.”)
1955: Rock Hudson Gets Married
After his breakthrough performance in “Magnificent Obsession,” in 1954, Rock Hudson purchased his first home, a sweet California cottage at 9151 Warbler Place [map] above the Sunset Strip in a neighborhood known as the Bird Streets, because the streets were named for birds-—Blue Jay Way, Sky Lark Lane, Oriole Lane, etc. But in Rock’s case, the neighborhood could well have been called the “Beard Streets,” because as his fame increased, so did speculation that he was gay, which was not only a career-killer then, it was a crime. Rock desperately needed a wife in order to quiet the whispering and to kill off stories he and his agent Henry Willson knew to be in the works at Confidential Magazine and elsewhere.
They had the perfect candidate for marriage — Phyllis Gates. She was not only Willson’s secretary and Rock’s longtime pal, she was also gay. Phyllis readily agreed to the ruse. She and Rock were married in Santa Barbara in November 1955. They “honeymooned” by moving her belongings into the honeymoon cottage on Warbler Place. Not surprisingly, however, the marriage soon became rocky as Phyllis became increasingly worried that Rock’s affairs with men would wreck his career and kill her cash cow. She even hired Sunset Strip private detective Fred Otash (who often worked for Confidential Magazine) to bug the Warbler house and record her conversations with Rock about his affairs.
Divorce was inevitable, and during negotiations for the split in 1958, the recordings seemed to have played a role. Phyllis got the house, valued at $32,000 then (the equivalent of about $250,000 today, although the house sold recently for $1.8 million), a car and a settlement of $250,000 (about $2 million today) over 10 years.
A year or so after Hudson’s death from HIV disease in October 1985, Gates wrote a book, My Husband, Rock Hudson, in which she portrayed herself as too naive to know that she had married a gay man and claimed that the marriage fell apart after that shocking truth was revealed to her. Hudson’s friends disputed this. In his autobiography, Rock Hudson: His Story, (which he wrote with Sara Davison, who finished it after his death), members of Hudson’s tightknit inner circle said Gates was fully aware that Rock had sex with men. It neither concerned nor alarmed her, they said, because Phyllis herself was gay.
After Phyllis Gates died on January 6, 2006, Robert Hofler, author of The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson: The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson, wrote in the Advocate Magazine that Rock Hudson’s contemporaries told him uniformly that Phyllis Gates was a lesbian:
“[Every] person I met who knew Gates called her a lesbian,” Hofler wrote. “Not straight, not bisexual, but lesbian.”
1958: Howard Hughes Cracks Up
One night in the spring of 1958, Howard Hughes, mid-century America’s most famous and flamboyant millionaire, moved into Nosseck’s screening room in the basement of the building at 9102 Sunset Blvd. on the Strip [map]. He occupied the screening room, never venturing outside, for the rest of the summer, consuming nothing but milk, Hershey bars, pecans and Poland water. It is likely Hughes suffered from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, which is treatable today. Whatever the diagnosis might have been, the summer he spent at Nosseck’s was the first vivid presentment of the insanity that marked his final years. As the summer wound down, Hughes regained a semblance of himself and returned to his bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
1959: Midnight at the Garden
By the late 1950s, the Garden of Allah Hotel had fallen into a decline, overrun by call girls and cockroaches. The lot at 8152 Sunset was eventually purchased by Lytton Savings & Loan which had developed a plan to rip out the 2.5 park-like campus and convert the property into the shopping center that is there now. In August 1959, the outgoing management threw one last party before the bulldozers came. Booze flowed, Alla Nazimova’s surviving films were projected onto walls and people fell into the pool, a Garden of Allah tradition since 1929.