Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The Eloise of L.A. Revels in a Grand Past

Luxury surrounded Carlyn Benjamin in her childhood home, the Ambassador.

January 20, 2002|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"I am a city child. I live at The Plaza.... I spend an awful lot of time in the lobby. For instance every day I have to go to the Desk Clerk and see what's happening there..." --From Kay Thompson's "Eloise"

*

Almost 50 years ago, a fictional 6-year-old imp named Eloise first captivated children with her fanciful life at The Plaza in New York. Over the decades, little girls read of her escapades and imagined the excitement and adventure of living in a grand hotel. But one little girl didn't have to dream about it. She lived it.

As the daughter and granddaughter of the first general managers of the famed Ambassador in Los Angeles, Carlyn Frank Benjamin grew up in the once-luxurious hotel. And like Eloise, she knew every nook and cranny, every bell captain and desk clerk. Room service? A way of life.

Now "80 going on 39," widowed and living in Brentwood, Benjamin is working on a memoir about her days at the Ambassador--tentatively titled "Life With Reservations."

The Los Angeles Unified School District closed escrow on the hotel in December, and now its future is uncertain. While conservationists fight to save the building, which was designed by Myron Hunt, the architect of the Rose Bowl and Huntington Library, the school district is deciding on the best use of the site. Benjamin hopes that somehow the hotel will be saved. "It's part of Los Angeles history and ... my family's history," the place where she spent her childhood, from infancy to age 17.

Eloise lived on the top floor of The Plaza. Carlyn Frank, her parents and younger sister, Jackie, lived on the top floor of Rincon, a tile-roofed cottage on the grounds of the hotel, which was managed first by her grandfather Abe, later by her father, Ben, both of whom were hired in 1921 for the hotel's opening. It was Abe Frank who created the Cocoanut Grove, the hotel's fabled gathering place of the rich and famous.

On a recent day, Benjamin makes a bittersweet visit to the decaying 500-room hotel, which closed in 1989. Walking up the cracked concrete steps leading to Rincon, she recalls, "This is where I had my third birthday party. We sat on these steps and blew bubbles." The walkway in front is where silent screen star Pola Negri used to exercise her pet cheetah. Next door lived gossip king Walter Winchell and his family.

The Rincon, fallen into disrepair--with the added insult of having been once used by the Los Angeles Police Department SWAT team to practice raids on crack houses--is a forlorn sight with its tattered screens, punched-out walls, peeling paint and plaster. It is hard to imagine the living room as Benjamin remembers it, with a baby grand piano in one corner.

Entering the master bedroom, where a window is boarded up and a vine has pushed its way inside, it is apparent Benjamin is a bit shaken. For her, every room holds a memory. There was the sun-filled den--"This is where I was sitting during the 1933 earthquake." Surveying the state of the room, she adds, "It looks like it just happened." And there was her bedroom and her sister's, both with porches overlooking the hotel. Once, there were striped awnings, a swing and a caged myna bird. "From here you could see the neon sign on the Cocoanut Grove."

She peers through dirty windows to the bungalow's overgrown backyard. "I had a three-room playhouse down there, with running water, electricity, a little baby grand piano," built for her by the hotel's groundskeeper.

*

"Ooooooooo I absolutely love Room Service... Rene always says, 'Bonjour, Eloise, voici votre petit de'jeuner' ... and I always say, 'Bonjour, Rene,' merci and charge it please." --"Eloise"

*

For little Carlyn, room service was just the way people ate. No big deal. Indeed, her mother at one point tired of it and converted one of Rincon's baths into a tiny kitchen.

"When I was little," Benjamin remembers, "I'd sign checks in the coffee shop. I didn't know you paid money for food." Later, she and her friends would "all go to the Fountain Room and order chocolate sodas ... and turkey sandwiches with Russian dressing, made with real caviar, not lumpfish. I learned to love caviar when I was very young."

When a hotel is your home, there are other perks. For one, a housekeeper makes your bed. "I had three clean sheets every day," one just to cover the blanket. "That's the thing I missed most when we moved."

She had the run of the hotel, and she made the most of it, often hanging out with the doormen at the auto entrance "to see who was checking in and checking out." A who's who of old-time Hollywood were hotel guests or residents. Marion Davies and newspaper scion William Randolph Hearst lived there for a year. (It's said that Davies once rode a white horse through the hotel's vast lobby en route to a costume party. Lore also has it that F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald made a bonfire of the furniture in their room. Benjamin knows of neither account firsthand.)

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|