Vivid memories of the Ambassador Hotel, RFK and Donald Trump

Ambassador_Hotel_main_entrance-lapl.jpgMain entrance of the former Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard. Los Angeles Public Library photo by Gary Leonard.

By Stephen Sachs

Tuesday marks the 50th anniversary of the shooting of Robert Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. I was nine years old on June 4th, 1968. The morning RFK died two days later, the teachers and staff of my elementary school ushered all students out of our classrooms and lined us up to stand before the flag pole in our school courtyard, the flag at half-mast, in his honor.

Even so, another day twenty years later is more vivid for me.

On a sunny afternoon in 1989, I was a young actor in LA driving eastbound on Wilshire Blvd. As my beat-up blue Camaro crossed Normandie Avenue, I glanced to my right. The old Ambassador Hotel loomed ahead, its once glamorous sheen long faded and worn down like a relic from a distant age. The hotel once glistened as a crown on 23 acres of lawn lined with palm trees, the sweeping driveway curving toward the fabled entranceway where legendary movie stars once stepped out of long black limousines to drink, dine and dance at the Coconut Grove. Now, the stately Ambassador Hotel was closed to the public and empty. The property had just been purchased by Donald J. Trump, a brash hotel and casino magnate from Manhattan, who planned to demolish the historic Ambassador and construct a 125-story Trump office tower.

Although I had never seen it, the Ambassador Hotel was imprinted in my imagination and part of my family conversation at the dinner table for years. My father had reported on the Sirhan trial as a CBS newsman in 1969. I had closely studied dozens of photographs with my father of The Embassy Ballroom where Kennedy gave his final speech, and the kitchen pantry where the fatal shots were fired. I knew the ground plan of the Ambassador like the back of my hand. But I had never been inside.

I yanked the steering wheel of my Camaro to the right and pulled into the long curving driveway bending up toward the storied hotel. I quickly parked, cut off the engine and hopped out. Eyeing the front entrance, the enormous landmark seemed empty. Pickup trucks and construction equipment stood outside, but not one soul in sight. The front doors were open.

Even with the afternoon sun streaming in, the old lobby was dark and musty. The ornate front desk curved to my left, crystal light fixtures laced with dust hung above. A beefy workman in a white hard hat strode toward me, a load of metal piping hoisted on his shoulder. I strutted by him with purpose. He ignored me, assuming I belonged there. I did belong there. And knew exactly where I was going.

The heavy wood doors of the Embassy Ballroom groaned with a weathered ache as I pushed them open. The large hall was empty. Quiet. Three stately chandeliers still hung from the curved ceiling. The surrounding walls still curtained, masking the dull mirrors behind.

My footsteps echoed as I crossed the cavernous ballroom toward the stage where Kennedy gave his final speech. I stepped onto the platform, walking to the front of the stage to the spot where Bobby stood at the podium in the glare of TV cameras after winning the California primary ("And now it's on to Chicago, and let's win there"). From the stage, even peering out into a dark, empty ballroom, it was easy to see the hall packed with hundreds of jubilant campaign workers with balloons, waving signs, cheering with shouts of hope.

That night, in what would be his final public words, Bobby said, "What I think is quite clear is that we can work together. And that what has been going on in the United States over the period of the last three years -- the division, the violence, the disenchantment with our society, the division, whether it's between black and white, between the poor and the more affluent or between age groups or over the war in Vietnam -- we can start to work together. We are a great country and a selfless country and a compassionate country. And I intend to make that my basis for running in the next few months."

I then turned from the stage, as he did, and walked to the rear of the stage and out the door on the right to the kitchen. I passed through the door and stepped down a narrow ramp into the pantry. The kitchen was vacant, dirty and dilapidated like the galley of a sunken ocean liner. But there, to the right, was the row of ice machines and the spot where Bobby fell. The pantry, once exploding with terrified shrieks of pandemonium, was now as silent as a tomb.

LAPL photo by Tom Zimmerman.

Shortly after my pilgrimage to the Ambassador, Donald Trump announced his scheme to tear down the hotel and build, he boasted to the press, "the biggest building in the world." The world-record skyscraper would overshadow everything else in the neighborhood, a towering testament to Trump's ambition.

Trump's plan for the property was opposed by the Los Angeles Board of Education and the Los Angeles Unified School District, who wanted to build a much-needed school on the site. Harkening back to the militant 1960's, protesters outside the Ambassador in the 1990's chanted "Dump Trump" and carried signs saying, "Public need over private greed." After a decade of legal and financial battling, the District got the land and Los Angeles got its school. Today Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools, a kindergarten-through-12th-grade campus, is there. Not a towering shrine to Donald Trump.

Fifty years is a long time ago. But 1968 and 2018 seem much the same. We are still a divided nation, ensnared in an endless war overseas we can't seem to escape. Racism, poverty, and the environmental issues are more urgent than ever. And the man who wanted to turn the place of Robert Kennedy's death into a colossal skyscraper named after himself is now President of the United States.

"If there is one overriding reality in this country, it is the danger that we have an erosion of a sense of national decency," Kennedy said. "Make no mistake. Decency is at the heart of the matter.... Poverty in this country is indecent. Illiteracy is indecent. The death or maiming of brave young men in the swamps of Asia, that is also indecent." Our nation lost more than a candidate in that hotel pantry fifty years ago. Its voice of youthful moral conscience and hope for change was silenced.

Today, decency and compassion are hard to find in Washington. Civility in government has gone missing. Hate-speak replaced eloquence on the campaign trail long ago. What would Robert Kennedy make of our world of politics today?

From the ashes of Bobby's murder site, a campus giving hope to our city's children has risen. From evil, can come good. The truth is simple but not always easy.

"What we need in the United States is not division, "Bobby Kennedy said two months before he died. "What we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country."

"This, in my judgment, in the year 1968, is a time to create, not to destroy. And that is why I run for President of the United States."

The time to create, not to destroy, is now.

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