Hotel Bel-Air

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Hotel Bel-Air

WORDS BY Samuel Muston

Hotel Bel Air's roll-call of former patrons is pure old Hollywood. Judy Garland, Bette Davis, Lauren Bacall, Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Audrey Hepburn. Marilyn Monroe shot her last Vogue magazine shoot there, six weeks before her death, photographed by the icon Bert Stern; there is a suite named after the late Grace Kelly. If the names of its suites are a litmus test for a hotel’s character, then the Bel Air’s fares well. Kelly is a byword for elegance.

The boutique hotel is one of a portfolio of ten luxury hotels operated by the Dorchester Collection. It is situated in Bel-Air, in Los Angeles, a mile north of Sunset Boulevard. It has 103 rooms, including 45 suites. It was built in 1946, positioned just outside Beverly Hills and Westwood, which partly explains its popularity with sirens of stage and screen. The high ratio of suites to rooms is part of its great talent as an innovator. As many hoteliers of the time wanted to build high and pack them in, the Bel Air, said no: luxury isn’t just the beautiful pool and restaurant with a Michelin Star, it is about space, and about privacy, the room to breathe.

Outside Hotel Bel Air

It sits in the most discreet locations: in wooded hills, in 12 acres of lush, landscaped gardens, with rare flowering plants. Guests must cross a small footbridge over its Swan Lake to access the hotel. The buildings – cut from that distinctive pink Californian stone – serve a little like castle walls, like fortifications that keep interlopers, or prurient observers, out. Many suites have private patios. It all feels worlds away from the antic hustle of LA. It is the polar opposite of the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Pink Palace, just down the road which reclines on a hill like a dowager at a party wanting always to be the centre of attention. That is old world luxury, the Bel Air has always been about looking beyond the now and looking to the future. To know what people will want in the future.

All this likely explains its popularity with heads of state, too: Richard Nixon wrote his memoirs there, Prince Charles has visited. And Truman Capote hid there before he threw his infamous masked ball in New York, to celebrate In Cold Blood; it was his calm before the storm. Its layout is contrived so that guests can reach rooms without passing through the hotel’s lobby; Monroe and JFK reportedly used this to their advantage, arriving via limousine and moving through the hotel without being spied by other guests or staff.

The staff are discreet, as you would suspect. One story goes that Beatles members Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and George Harrison all stayed there at the same time without knowing that their bandmates were also in residence: the staff were obediently schtum. It was built as a haven for old Hollywood, but this attention to privacy was inadvertently prescient: with prurient smartphones and tireless paparazzi, new Hollywood needs its protection more than ever – and it gets it here.

Some legends liked it so much they stayed for for a long time. Kelly’s suite was a thank you for her loyal patronage. The actress slept there the night that she won the Oscar for Best Actress for The Country Girl, and had long-since become an active member of the hotel’s life: she dined in the restaurant instead of taking room service, and introduced her husband, Prince Rainier of Monaco, to every member of the hotel’s staff during the couple’s first visit.

Monroe also lived at the hotel on-and-off for almost a decade, which she saw as her safe, reliable bolt-hole during volatile marriages to Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller. Her Vogue shoot was reportedly one of those intoxicating, mythic Hollywood nights: endless Dom Perignon on ice, the suite – number 261 – sprayed with Monroe’s favourite Chanel No. 5. The images are sensual, playful and relaxed; Monroe looks like she’s at home.

"Luxury isn’t just the beautiful pool and restaurant with a Michelin Star, it is about space, and about privacy, the room to breathe."

LA is a transient city, one that feels often like a passage not a destination: it is fitting that the hotel stands in as a home for so many celebrities. Most of them have a favourite room, one in which they stay every time they visit. Joan Collins’ favourite is 166. A refit in 2011, when the hotel came under its new proprietorship, re-nosed its old glamour a little: a few more spare lines here, sculptural touches there. It introduced 12 new rooms and There is a new spa, and a fitness centre, and there are Bang & Olufsen televisions and iPads in every room. Refuge from reality needn’t mean a total digital detox.

Wolfgang Puck at Hotel Bel-Air

Of course, a hotel’s bar is its burning heart: it’s where the flirtations and conversations happen. The Bel-Air has The Bar, whose leather chairs, piano and low lighting gives it the feel of an upmarket speak-easy, with leather chairs, a piano, low lighting. The cosiness encourages confessional conversations: guests sit for hours, swirling their high ball glasses, deep in intense conversations.  But it’s not too serious: Antonio Castillo de la Gala, the bar’s former pianist, once spent an evening playing movie soundtracks with Billy Joel, and Paul McCartney once wryly complimented his rendition of Eleanor Rigby. Sophia Loren married at the hotel, and had drinks there afterwards. What this does is give you a sample of that other thing that makes it in the vanguard of the new luxury.

It’s a romantic, nostalgic portrait of a golden age, but the hotel’s modern life is just as vital. It still hosts contemporary Oscar winners – like Hillary Swank and Nicole Kidman – and plays the setting for fashion shoots. Interviewers from glossy compendiums like Vanity Fair and Vogue meet their interview subjects on its famous patio, or cloistered away at the private tables in its restaurant, which is presided over by the veteran chef Wolfgang Puck. Robert De Niro, Kenneth Branagh, Julia Roberts, Tom Cruise and Brooke Shields are regular guests. Reece Witherspoon has stayed there, as has Milla Jovovich. In 2008, Stern returned to the hotel to create his homage to the Monroe shoot with actress Lindsay Lohan. Celebrities visit The Bar for night caps after awards ceremonies. The Bel-Air is one of a small roster of elite hotels that hosts Oscar nominees, make-up artists and stylists in the feverish days before the Academy Awards.

But its character prevails. La La Land is an easy place to lose your head, but the Bel-Air keeps its firmly screwed on, which is why it is so popular with those who live inside a constant circus. It’s LA without the flinty, hard edged, high octane modern celebrity. It’s classic, elegant and will leap over mountains to accommodate its guests. Bette Davis reportedly once told a chauffeur who was taking her to a different hotel: “Take me to the Bel-Air. That’s my home, even if I have to sleep in the lobby. They’ll find me a bed.”

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