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Martini Time In The Garden of Allah

Amid the Shortages of WWII, Gloria Stuart Treated Hollywood's Elite to the 'Most Exciting' Dinner Parties in Town

November 05, 2000|SYLVIA THOMPSON | Sylvia Thompson writes about food and the garden

In the early 1940s, an exquisite blond actress, her handsome writer-husband and their skinny daughter were living at the Garden of Allah on Sunset Boulevard. The creation of silent-screen star Alla Nazimova, the Garden--tropical fruit trees and whitewashed bungalows around a pool shaped like the Black Sea--was like a movie set of a Moroccan village. One half-expected Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall to come strolling along arm in arm--which, in fact, they often did.

The small apartments, called villas, were rented by the day, the week or the month to people in show business. Refugees from New York, lovers on trysts, artists in a dry spell or people on their way up or down found sanctuary. (Asked why he was staying there, George S. Kaufman once replied, "It reminds me of Hollywood.") Some of the guests, such as Clifford Odets and Frank Sinatra, kept to themselves. But the actress in Villa 12 pulled those around her into a lively compound.

Natalie Schafer (20 years later she'd portray Lovey Howell on "Gilligan's Island") was living in a villa next door to her former husband, the actor Louis Calhern, who was living with Dorothy Gish. (Calhern was working on "Heaven Can Wait" and Gish on "Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.") Schafer would traipse in, showing off half a dozen new hats from Bullock's Wilshire. John Carradine might stagger over for a cup of sugar, or was it sherry?

At martini time, Robert Benchley (cherubic comedian and humorist), actor Charles Butterworth (his pal next door) and the actress would sit in Benchley's living room with the door open and listen to Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw or Woody Herman noodling across the way.

The actress--the compound's den mother--was Gloria Stuart, and her husband was the writer Arthur Sheekman. The skinny kid was me.


BETWEEN 1932 AND 1939, MY MOTHER MADE 41 MOVIES and my father worked on 11. Exhausted, they stashed me with my grandmother in Santa Monica and went around the world for nine months, ending up in New York (where I rejoined them) for a fling in the theater. Returning to Hollywood in 1943, Ma called friends to come to dinner even before she had unpacked. A woman of extraordinary energy and gifts, the actress in her was anxious to see and be seen, the artist in her was frantic for self-expression, the wife in her aimed at reconnecting connections, and the friend in her was eager to be near those she loved. Ma was--and is--a tireless friend, making phone calls, scribbling mash notes, sending keepsakes and stewing up "Chicken in the Pot" for the sick. Cooking and entertaining filled her needs.

Gas, sugar, flour, meat, fish, cheese, fats and canned goods were rationed, but the war effort only heightened her resourcefulness. Guests' coupons in hand, off she'd go to the Farmers Market on Fairfax, where she cultivated her butcher, poultryman, produce lady, liquor guy and fancy grocers with plenty of smiles, inquiries after children and gifts at Christmas.

Dinner parties were my mother's bailiwick. My father, on the other hand, was a shy man, happiest in his bedroom with his pad of yellow paper, soft-lead pencil and books. His contribution to a party was showing up and being amusing--Groucho Marx, who brought Daddy to Hollywood and was his best friend, called him the "fastest wit in the West."

"Groucho was our social mentor," Ma says. He collected people and shared them generously. And although he didn't think much of actors, preferring the company of writers, he was nuts about my mother, calling her "a great broad."

Everyone contributed to conversation over drinks and dinner, but afterward it became a meritocracy of smarts where the fastest, funniest and brightest held sway. It was tough to compete with the likes of Groucho and Harpo Marx, comedy writers Irving Brecher ("Go West"), Don Hartman (Hope/Crosby/Lamour "Road" pictures), Nat Perrin ("Hellzapoppin' ") and Harry Tugend ("Let's Face It"), plus droll wits such as Nunnally Johnson ("The Grapes of Wrath"), Julius Epstein ("Casablanca") and Albert Hackett ("The Thin Man").

But the meritocracy was for men only. Most of them, born around the turn of the century, were raised with the notion that women had their place: Men talked, women listened. Once in a while, when someone was telling a story and his wife said, "Honey, I . . . ." she'd get a signal and hush.

The remarkable, Vassar-educated Frances Goodrich collaborated with her husband, Albert Hackett, but she spoke softly and rarely. Even the brilliant Dorothy Parker and Ethel Butterworth only zinged zingers at the end of stories, forgoing a full performance. Ma says the exception to the rule was Lillian Hellman: "She was so prestigious, the men deferred to her."


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