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Thelma Becker, 90; Longtime Resident of the Biltmore Hotel

March 20, 2004|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Thelma Becker, a businesswoman who checked into the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles in 1940 and checked out 53 years later, has died. She was 90.

Becker died March 8 at Kaiser Permanente Hospital in Los Angeles of natural causes, said her friend, Holly Barnhill, a former publicist at the hotel, now called the Millennium Biltmore. Becker, who had been in failing health in recent years, lived in a nursing home.

As an assistant sales manager for Barbizon lingerie in the early 1940s, Becker pioneered the career woman's lifestyle, traveling regularly and meeting with buyers in the downtown Los Angeles retail and garment districts. The hotel at 5th Street and Grand Avenue was convenient for her work.

"I'm a city girl; I like to be downtown, because you have access to everything," she said in an interview with The Times in 1990.

Through the 1950s she was one of a number of full-time residents at the hotel who stayed in small rooms with a Murphy bed and a tiny closet. Over the years she got to know all the employees, some of whom thought of her as family.

"She had a lot of personality; she was fun-loving and very talkative," said Barnhill, who visited Becker after she moved to the nursing home. "Thelma's no-nonsense manner was refreshing."

Becker's living arrangement attracted attention to both her and the hotel. Newspaper articles about her led guests to look her up. Some of them had their picture taken with her and kept in touch by letter. She was a prolific correspondent.

Occasionally, she led tours through the historic building, pointing out the Crystal Ball Room where the Academy Award Oscar statuette was designed on a hotel napkin during a Hollywood gathering in 1927, and naming the famous guests, including the Beatles and President John F. Kennedy.

The organizers of the Olympic Games stayed at the Biltmore in 1984 when the Summer Games were held in Los Angeles. "There were six security people on every floor," Becker said in a 1988 interview. "I never felt so safe."

New employees at the Biltmore were introduced to Becker as part of their orientation. She lived in a tiny room near the elevator on the fifth floor. It was cluttered with photographs and several rolling racks for clothes that didn't fit into her closet.

"Several different managers wanted to move Thelma to a bigger room," said Biltmore chauffeur Joe Gedeon in an interview with The Times on Monday. "She didn't want it; she liked the one she had."

They found other ways to show their appreciation. Bellhops went to the drugstore to pick up Becker's prescriptions and the maitre d' made sure she didn't have to wait for a seat in the restaurant. If she went out at night, the hotel provided limousine service.

More than once over the years Becker, who was small but spry, got mugged on downtown streets.

"Nothing stopped Thelma," Gedeon said. "She was a strong, independent woman."

Panhandlers who got to know her called her "Miss Biltmore."

When she retired in 1975, the hotel management fixed her nightly room rate at $33, with a $5 charge per meal in the Biltmore dining room. Rooms like hers now rent for $179 a night.

On her 80th birthday, one of the more luxurious suites was named "The Thelma Becker Suite" in her honor, but she never slept there.

"The hotel was Thelma's life," said Gedeon, who occasionally went to a movie with Thelma when he was off work. She often dined at the hotel with Barnhill when the publicist worked there. The staff invited her to its annual Christmas party.

A native of Indianapolis, Becker graduated from Ohio State University with a business degree before getting a job in fashion.

"I never had time to get married," she once said. "I'm not the homemaker type."

She is survived by two nieces.

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