Visiting family and friends in L.A. for a few days, we decided to stay at The Charlie, cottage-suites in the heart of old Hollywood once owned by Charles Chaplin. Came Sunday morning, out of eggs, we were directed to a Trader Joe’s nearby on Sunset Boulevard. The errand became anguish for me when I discovered the market was atop a grotesque concrete maze of businesses perched on cherished ground: Schwab’s Pharmacy had been there. The drug store is not where, fable has it, Lana Turner was discovered, but where I spent a portion of my childhood Saturdays reading “Batman,” “Superman,” and “Archie” comics at the magazine rack by the front door, then cadging illicit bubblegum from Leon Schwab at his prescription counter in the back.
Schwab’s was directly across the street from the Garden of Allah where we lived.
The Garden was a three-and-a-half-acre compound at the eastern edge of the Sunset Strip. Its public face was a two-story mansion on Sunset Boulevard which functioned as gatehouse for residents and hotel for transient guests. Secluded behind the hotel amidst fluffy cedars and majestic palms were dozens of spacious villas and apartments, each unique but all warm with the rosy tiles, creamy stucco, and dark beams of Cabo, La Palma, Marbella. Fieldstone paths interspersed with raised lily ponds were bordered with birds of paradise, hibiscus, mimosas, and fecund orange, banana, and loquat trees. In the middle was a giant’s pool, bluegreen water shimmering like malachite. Around the pool flagstone decking was studded with umbrella-shaded tables and chairs for schmoozing, reading, sunbathing, napping, drinking.
The Garden began as Yalta-born actress/writer/director/film editor/designer/producer Alla Nazimova’s private estate. When, around 1925, her income began to flag, she cannily enhanced the landscaping and added the villas, apartments, and pool (the pool was ostensibly in the shape of the Black Sea, but the designer didn’t look at a map). On January 9, 1927, Nazimova welcomed everyone she knew to The Garden of Alla’s (‘h’ was added later) gala opening party.
Interesting how magnetism works. The Garden quickly acquired a storied aura. For example, did Marlene Dietrich really swim naked in the pool—or was that Tallulah Bankhead? After too much drink, was John Barrymore really trundled from party to party in a wheelbarrow? While filming The Hunchback of Notre Dame, on hot days did Charles Laughton really come home for lunch and stand in the shallow end of the pool so he wouldn’t muss his Quasimodo makeup? Other luminous names dropped like pearls into The Garden’s legendary cup were Greta Garbo…Orson Welles…Somerset Maugham…Ernest Hemingway…Igor Stravinsky…Sergei Rachmaninoff… The Garden was home or home away from home to the elite of Broadway’s and Hollywood’s actors, actresses, playwrights, screenwriters, directors, singers, instrumentalists, bandleaders, radio personalities. (Yes, occasionally a producer squeaked in…)
We arrived in 1943 after my father had two flop plays in New York and Daddy wanted to get back to writing screenplays. We were assigned to Villa 12, ideally situated at the bottom—southwest corner–of the compound. All around us was a cast of characters as quintessentially The Hollywood Scene as Scott Fitzgerald could have created. As a matter of fact, Scotty had stayed there not long before.
At eight, nine, and ten, I was The Garden of Allah’s resident child. In the years we lived there, few other children came and went. Elliott Nugent’s Nancy stayed briefly and we’d sit on the tiled roof outside their second story apartment and picnic—and I think we threw a few spitballs down on passersby. The John Carradines lived next door to us in Villa 11 and David and I often played tag and hide-and-go-seek. But those two were the extent of my playmates. No matter. I would say nearly everyone in The Garden was my friend. Because I was an only child and spent a lot of time with my parents and their friends, I was used to grown-up conversation. I also was inquisitive and gregarious. I guess I’d say The Garden was a club and I was the club mascot. By the pool, where I spent most of my non-school hours, there was almost always someone killing time between writing or memorizing scenes or waiting for their agent to call. In such a tough business, The Garden offered respite. If you wanted to work in peace, you had as much as you wanted, just keep your door closed. If you wanted a sociable drink, just head for the pool or knock on any door. Everybody knew everybody…lives and careers were intertwined.
For example, up the path from us in villa 7, as Louis Calhern was learning his lines for the musical comedy, Up In Arms, down the path, around the corner, and upstairs in his apartment, the film’s director, Nancy’s father Elliott was preparing the shooting script. I was especially fond of Mr. Calhern. My screenwriter father dressed in rumpled slacks and shirt, Mr. Calhern’s slacks were pressed, his shirt starched, he wore a jacket or slung it debonairly over one shoulder, always a crisp handkerchief in its pocket. Mr. Calhern lived with Dorothy Gish. I knew they weren’t married and that Mr. Calhern had been married to my parents’ close friend, Natalie Schafer, who lived in the villa above his and Miss Gish’s. I usually saw Miss Schafer in the company of the New York Post’s Hollywood correspondent/movie critic, Thornton Delehanty (isn’t that a great name?), who lived next door to her. Miss Schafer had recently worked on Reunion in France with John Carradine, who, as I mentioned, for a time lived next to us. I love the memory of the Sunday morning I heard screaming sirens up on Sunset Boulevard, opened our door, and found all the Carradines in their pajamas running around on the grass, making a racket as they were preparing to chase after the sirens. Mrs. Carradine, Sonia Sorel, had her baby in her arms*, and as they tore off up the path, Mr. Carradine stopped, turned around, and called out to me in his booming bass, “Come on, Sylvia, let’s go!” and so I did, in my pajamas.
As I said, lives at the Garden were intertwined. My parents’ old friend Dorothy Peterson, leading lady in my father’s ill-fated play, Franklin Street, stayed with us while filming the musical This Is The Army. In that cast list, Dorothy Peterson came before Ronald Reagan but after our neighbor three doors over, droll comic actor, Charles Butterworth. Mr. Butterworth lived next door to his best friend, Robert Benchley, a much-loved Garden fixture. Mr. Benchley was both writer (brilliant pieces for The New Yorker) and actor (Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent). On the other side of Mr. Benchley was another New Yorker, playwright Clifford Odets. Odets’ Waiting for Lefty and Golden Boy were already classics. Presently he was adapting None but the Lonely Heart for the screen and would direct it as well. After that, Mr. Odets would work on the script for Rhapsody in Blue. Garden regular Paul Whiteman was in that movie and likely stayed in his customary Villa 1.
Xavier Cugat also stayed in Villa 1. Whereas actors, writers, and directors were dispersed throughout, for some reason, musicians were given either Villa 1 or 17. Villa 1, at the top of The Garden with windows on Sunset Boulevard, had a grand piano—I loved listening to Jose Iturbi practice. Villa 17 was down at our end and was for younger musicians. Villa 17’s front door opened onto a raised terrace across the path and it was the first place I checked for sightings in the morning. Jazz great Benny Goodman stayed there a couple of times. When he made Sweet and Low-Down, I doubt my mother was aware that his director was Archie Mayo, her first director (Street of Women). Ma was very interested when I told her Artie Shaw was across the way—Ma warmed to rascals. Mr. Butterworth lived kitty-cornered from Villa 17 and Shaw and Butterworth appeared together in Second Chorus. Woody Herman also stayed in Villa 17 and he and Mr. Butterworth were both in What’s Cookin’. I wonder, gasoline being rationed (this was in the thick of World War II), whether they car-pooled to the studio.
Another Villa 17 guest was Harry James whose Music Makers appeared in Two Girls and a Sailor with Iturbi and Cugat. Also working on Two Girls and a Sailor was actress/writer/singer/vocal coach Kay Thompson, who lived around the corner from Villa 17 with her writer/producer/director husband, William Spier. Kay Thompson’s biographer, Sam Irvin, writes that she also worked “…with her Garden of Allah neighbor Perry Como for his debut in Irving Starr’s Something for the Boys. No doubt Como was in villa 17 but I hadn’t yet heard of him so I don’t remember him. But I vividly remember seeing one of Miss Thompson’s most enthusiastic appreciators, Frank Sinatra, going in and out of Villa 17. According to Sam Irvin, Miss Thompson coached young Frank evenings in her living room. Mr. Spier, producing CBS’s superb radio drama, Suspense, cast actors against type—I read he was the first to engage Sinatra as a dramatic actor, pairing him with Agnes Moorhead in a segment as a psychotic killer.
Sunny whirligig Kay Thompson was uncommonly dear to me. When I had my tonsils out, she wrote me A Tonsils Song, recorded it, and gave me the 78 record. It began with her calling out from a distance, as though I was coming out from under the ether, “Syllllviiaaa…. Syllvvviiiaaaa…” I can still hear her throaty voice. What an amazingly kind thing to do for a child. Sometime later I came home from school to find two orange kittens in a box in the kitchen. My mother said, “They’re from Miss Thompson. Their names are Roger and Wilco.” Now when I watch Kay Thompson in Funny Face singing Gershwin’s “Clap Yo’ Hands!” and dancing with Fred Astaire, I again feel thrilled at the memory of her friendship.
Radio was in its Golden Age and one of its most gifted artists was Ed Gardner, appearing in his classic comedy Duffy’s Tavern. I loved radio and was thrilled when I saw Miss Duffy–Shirley Booth—coming in and out of Gardner’s villa by the pool. (I didn’t know it, but at the time my future husband, a very young Gene Thompson, was writing the show with Gardner and Abe Burrows.) Al Jarvis, Los Angeles’s premier disc jockey, stayed briefly at The Garden and I remember seeing him by the pool with a bubbly young blonde—someone told me her name was Betty White. Amazing.
I especially treasure the memory of coming out our door one afternoon, seeing it was raining but the sun was out, and to my surprise saw Mr. Benchley perched on the stone steps of the path in front of our villa. He was a puckish man, but still I was astonished to find him dripping wet. He called to me, “Come look, Sylvia, a rainbow!” and there was a big beautiful rainbow arched over our heads. I sat down next to him and we sat for what seemed a very long time silently admiring the rainbow, the gentle drizzle, and finally the sweet after-the-rain scents.
One thing. I said, “Nearly everyone…was my friend.” The nearly hurts. Recently reading about Nazimova, I was thunderstruck to discover she was living in Villa 24 when we were there. Apparently she gave orders to the staff not to betray her presence. I would imagine I saw her around the pool but likely she gave off an aura of Don’t Bother me, kid! and Chatterbox Sylvia did not. What a pity.
Well, her Garden is gone. Schwab’s is gone. But Chaplin’s Charlie thrives. Ha. No chance of becoming a mascot there…
*I firmly remember a baby in the family, but Keith was born much later. Anyone have a clue who the baby was?