Some observations on the Ambassador

Ambassador HotelIn 1984, when Hennessey & Ingalls published a study of architect Myron Hunt's best work edited by the respected critic David Gebhard, the Ambassador Hotel wasn't included. His Huntington Hotel in Pasadena, the Rose Bowl, Occidental College, the Huntington Library, even the Wattles mansion and the old marble I. Magnin palace on Wilshire (now a Korean department store) are all thought to be important Hunt examples; not so the Ambassador. The hotel's value is its special place in Los Angeles' cultural history since opening on a lonely hill west of town in 1921, and by that measure the Ambassador has no rivals.

An excerpt from a certain pending book:

Ads proclaimed the Ambassador to be the first country resort within an easy drive of Los Angeles, a haven for visiting socialites. To ensure they would not become bored, the hotel grounds offered a pitch-and-putt golf course, bowling alley, riding stables, semi-enclosed auditorium for major events such as the annual Los Angeles Horse Show, a First National Pictures movie theatre, and reputable shops like I. Magnin and the original Earl Stendahl art gallery. A large swimming pool behind the hotel later featured a sand beach. For a time the hotel also maintained a menagerie of bears, camels and other exotic creatures. Guests who demanded more entertainment could use the hotel’s private Rancho Golf Club on Pico Boulevard or ask to be driven three miles west to one of the rival airfields operated by DeMille and Syd Chaplin, the brother of Charles Chaplin, at the junction of Wilshire and Fairfax Avenue.

The first guest to check in was a Briton who had sailed to Los Angeles from London. His room almost wasn’t ready. Two days before opening, no carpets had been installed and the beds lacked mattresses and linens. In fact, not much about creating the Ambassador had gone smoothly. Originally to be called The California, the hotel had been eagerly anticipated. “Completion of this hotel and its magnificent grounds to be in the heart of the fashionable Wilshire district… [will] make Los Angeles the ‘Paris of America,’” the Examiner enthused before the first shovel was turned. When the money ran out, lawyer Henry O’Melveny stepped in to rescue the project. He arranged for the hotel’s absorption into the Ambassador chain and took charge of preparations. The Ambassador was to be the home for Los Angeles society and O’Melveny saw that everything had to be just right. After the gala ball christening the Ambassador, the Examiner observed that “never has a society event in the [city] seen so many dinner parties gathered under one roof.” In his private journal, O’Melveny gave himself a terse pat on the back: “Probably two thousand people present – wonderfully well managed – good dinner – the dancing presented an interesting sight.”

The two spheres of moneyed Los Angeles, the socials listed in the Blue Book and the movie stars whose names blazed on marquees, usually avoided each other, but they found common ground at the Ambassador. The New York Telegraph described a banquet for the newly formed Screen Writers Guild as “the greatest single social gathering of literary and professional celebrities ever staged.” The Ambassador later became the place for big Hollywood events such as the Academy Awards (presented there six times) and for the grandest civic celebrations. Los Angeles welcomed Lindbergh after his triumphant solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927 with a packed ball thrown by the city’s elite. William Randolph Hearst and the comedic actress Marion Davies, not-so-secretly in the midst of an extra-marital affair that lasted thirty years, acted as co-hosts.

Frequent habitues of the hotel’s ballrooms and lounges, Hearst and Davies once occupied the entire second floor of the east wing for a year. They probably also participated in the 1929 banquet thrown at the Ambassador in honor of the Graf Zeppelin, the world’s largest passenger airship, which caused a citywide sensation when it landed in Los Angeles during a round-the-globe tour. Everyone from the governor and mayor to Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, Hollywood’s It couple, attended... It was there that General MacArthur suggested in his farewell speech that “old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev took refuge at the Ambassador when he was forbidden to visit Disneyland in 1959. Three years later, a defeated candidate for governor temporarily retired from public life, vowing bitterly in a hotel news conference that the press “would not have Richard Nixon to kick around any more.” When Nixon moved into the White House in 1969, he became the sixth president to have slept at the Ambassador...

The writer F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda, according to legend, ran out on a bill by piling their furniture and papers in their room and lighting the pyre. While Albert Einstein was in residence, he investigated a hallway ruckus and found the heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey grappling with his girl friend. Dempsey reportedly stopped and introduced himself, pleased to make the great man’s acquaintance. Actress Tallulah Bankhead supposedly accepted a telegram in the nude, then apologized to the delivery boy that “I don’t have a tip on me.” When Davies rode a white horse through the lobby to amuse Hearst, he was asked later if he was surprised. “Yes,” he quipped. “She hates horses.”

The Cocoanut Grove nightclub and discreet bungalows hidden away from the main hotel, served by dark tunnels, made the hotel a celebrity hangout; the Brown Derby opened across the street so the stars and the Grove's partiers would have somewhere to grab a late-night snack. All of this, plus the Robert Kennedy assassination and other milestones, secures for the Ambassador an elite entry in the city's story, even in its current status as a fenced-off relic overrun by feral cats and film location crews. The last time I was inside, after a rainstorm last year, water dripped into buckets set all over the once-grand Embassy Ballroom and the legendary Grove.

History deserves to be honored, especially in Los Angeles where so much has been allowed to slip into obscurity. A much-needed school is a more satisfying use of the Ambassador land — and a better tribute to the legacy — than the ghastly 125-story office tower that Donald Trump wanted to build. Wilshire doesn't need more offices; some of those it already has are being converted into apartments. The city desperately needs classrooms. But it's easy to see in the Romer plan for the acreage why neither the L.A. Conservancy and its followers nor the community are satisfied.

School's in
Clock ticking on the Ambassador
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