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The Cabana King

The Beverly Hills Hotel's Svend Petersen Reflects on Four-Plus Poolside Decades

May 16, 2004|Martin Booe | Martin Booe last wrote for the magazine about clothing for home chefs.

The hotel above is pink as a flamingo, with a gentle breeze tickling the surrounding palm trees and the pool water as deep blue as the cloudless Southern California sky. Two tiers of cabanas give the area the look of an inverted wedding cake, and the air is fragrant from nearby lemon trees. What could be closer to paradise than a cabana at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where Svend Petersen for nearly 45 years strove to put you in touch with your inner celebrity.

The colors seem almost preternaturally enhanced. The eyes must be protected. Read what you will into the fact that when Petersen dons sunglasses, the lenses are rose-colored.

Though Petersen retired nearly three years ago from active duty as the hotel's pool manager, he still can be found poolside several days a week. At 73, he's a living, breathing vessel of Hollywood history--barrel-chested, muscular and vigorous, his white shock of once-blond hair full as ever, his skin astonishingly undamaged by years of solar assault. More important, he retains the sort of sunny disposition necessary to survive and thrive in the orbit of those who assume themselves to be the sun itself. And, thus, his semiofficial title now is "Hotel Ambassador."

He grew up in the frigidity of Denmark, mentally escaping the Nazi occupation by watching American movies featuring such stars as Buster Crabbe, Esther Williams and Johnny Weissmuller. From his youth, Petersen was attracted to water and sunshine. At 17 he joined the Danish swimming team. He put in two years at the American Embassy in Copenhagen as a waiter in the ambassador's private residence, found an emigration sponsor, and in 1959 lit out for California, where he was hired as a lifeguard at the Beverly Hills Hotel pool. Three years later he was promoted to pool manager and made headmaster of a squad of white-clad cabana boys.

During the '60s, the hotel and the pool were the domain of the movie folk--actors and actresses and "starlets," a word whose passing from common usage Petersen rather laments. He made cameos in the movies "The Prize" and "Torn Curtain" and also nabbed roles in a few soap operas and commercials; he was not opposed to a career in Hollywood, though he eventually let go of that aspiration.

Over the years, the pool waters frothed with the grand celebrities, icons all: Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor. Petersen recalls a sweaty Katharine Hepburn, fresh from the tennis courts, doing a back flip into the pool, tennis clothes and all. The Beatles were sneaked in for a private dip. In the '70s, the pool's denizens were more likely to be from the music industry than the movie business, Michael Jackson and Dionne Warwick among them.

He encountered his share of eccentrics, such as the absent-minded movie mogul who walked into the pool area stark naked, so absorbed was he reading the trade papers. ("Mr. Schlafer, excuse me, but you're not wearing any clothes.") The '60s and '70s presented their own challenges, as Petersen was required to announce as diplomatically as possible that the smoking of marijuana around the pool could not be tolerated.

You spend that much time around the pool and you notice things, bodies not being the least of them. Petersen would rank Raquel Welch, who was discovered by the pool, as the finest specimen of feminine physique he ever beheld. "She had the most incredible body! She was just, like, incredible. Anita Ekberg! And Jane Russell! And in those days they were real!"

Silicone notwithstanding, a few other things have changed. Petersen, for one, reckons the cellphone has taken a lot of the fun out of things. Back then, it was more about being seen, that unending square dance of drawing the attention of cigar-chomping moguls and people more important than you. In those days, there was a lot of paging done. "Paging Elizabeth Taylor! Paging Cary Grant! Whether they were there or not. It made things more exciting." Now, the glitterati work their contacts over the cell while sipping their Fiji water in seclusion.

"Back then, you could talk to them like family, though you always respected their privacy," Petersen reflects. "Then in the past few years it changed. It's different now. You go to say hello and you've got three bodyguards saying, 'Hey, what do you want?' It used to be friendlier and more glamorous."

Ultimately, it always comes down to pleasing people, and this involves more than providing fluffy terrycloth towels, sun shields and the crackly frozen towels he began using to cool off guests a few years ago. Petersen recalls the day he learned this lesson, when he greeted a man with the standard, "How are you today?" only to be told that it was none of his business.

"So I said to myself, 'Svend, you've got to count to 10 before you blow your top! Every half hour, I asked him if I could get him anything. And after the day was over, he came over and said, 'I have to thank you because you were so nice and I was [a jerk] to you! And that made me happy! That I could make him happy! From that day on, I said, 'Svend, you've got to do nice to people because it benefits you in the long run.' "

"How did this happen? It's like a fairly tale," he says. "In Denmark I thought, 'Svend, one day you have to meet all these people.' And I did."

And there's one question begging to be asked: Does Petersen have a pool of his own? At this, he breaks out laughing. "Of course not! This is my pool!"

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