Seeking Old Hollywood’s Pool Party Glamour

Where have all the glamorous poolside parties of Old Hollywood gone? Sarah Amandolare dips into a number of Los Angeles pools searching for remnants of the star-studded, Martini-fueled fêtes of another era.

hollywood famous pool pool parties

Poolside gatherings in and around Los Angeles in the 1920s and ‘30s seem to have shared an aura of possibility. Gin-drunk actresses in evening gowns dove into the Black Sea-shaped pool at the Garden of Allah on Sunset Boulevard. Costumed guests drank on the marble pool deck at actress Marion Davies’ oceanfront estate. Silent film stars plucked cocktails from silver trays at production designer Cedric Gibbons’ backyard pool in the Santa Monica Mountains.

When swimming pools were still a novelty, drinking beside them was an event. But today, drinking by the pool conjures clichés: moms clutching frozen Margaritas, beefy bros ordering bottle service, Mimosa-buzzed girlfriends with golden tans. The goal is to see and be seen. The drinks are overpriced and weak. The pool itself is mostly empty. Even the rough and tumble rock star days of the 1960s-era Riot Hyatt (now the Andaz West Hollywood) seem romantic, comparatively.

With LA’s evolved cocktail culture, I suspected that the one-dimensional poolside revelry of recent decades was finally fading away, and wondered: Has the pool culture pendulum begun to swing back in Old Hollywood’s direction? Marion Davies’ estate on the Pacific Coast Highway seemed a natural point to begin investgating.

“This was party central,” said architectural historian and Santa Monica Landmarks Commissioner Ruthann Lehrer, as we looked through old photos of the mansion built for Davies by her lover William Randolph Hearst. The main building was torn down decades ago, but its centerpiece remains: a 100-foot pool with decorative tiling evoking a tropical seafloor.

Today, the property is known as the Annenberg Community Beach House, and the pool is open to the public and favored by families. But a stroll through one of the original guesthouses hints at the debauchery of another era. There are cedar closets where guests once hung their furs, and photos of seersucker-clad actors lounging beside the pool’s Venetian-style bridge, since removed. The formal dress and semi-contrived architecture wouldn’t fly today, but I thought I might find a hint of Davies’ panache living at the downtown Ace Hotel, home to the restored 1920s-era United Artists Theater. The soaring, Spanish Gothic-style venue was built for United Artists Studio, and its founders, including Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin, were Davies’ frequent guests.

“Our concept is very informed by Hollywood, but not necessarily ‘Old Hollywood’,” says beverage manager for Ace Hotel Downtown LA, Dan Sabo. The rooftop pool and Upstairs Bar advertises a Mary Pickford cocktail, but has no real theme otherwise. On a recent weeknight, I parked myself beside Upstairs’ glorified hot tub with a Kentucky Mai Tai made of bourbon and mezcal. The crowd was sizable but tame: One guy rolled up his jeans and dunked his feet into the water, and his female companion followed suit. “It’s almost like an infinity pool,” mused a blonde in a leather moto-jacket, running her fingers across the water. “You could have parties here.”

Set just off the Sunset Strip, the Sunset Marquis was meant to evoke the bohemian spirit of the Garden of Allah, the home-turned hotel of silent film star Alla Nazimova. There she hosted Hemingway and Fitzgerald at all-night pool parties where Anita Louise dove in with full hair and makeup, Tallulah Bankhead swam naked and Clara Bow took a dip at sunrise. The Sunset Marquis opened in the early 1960s, and for decades, musicians have been stopping by to drink after gigs, from Neil Diamond to The Ramones. Today, the menu offers a moonshine cocktail, but families and juice-sippers make up a good part of the poolside contingent.

In fact, Pitchfork Radio has broadcasted live from the pool deck, which has also played host to GQ magazine launches, Absolut-sponsored parties and lectures with the Museum of the American Cocktail. The vibe is unpretentious, a touch ironic and certainly young—there are frozen Blue Hawaiians, but not too many moms.

“Each pool has a place,” says Ace Hotel Downtown LA food and beverage director Olivier Rassinoux. “If I wanted to be frou-frou-y, I’d go to the Beverly Hills Hotel.”

The pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel has seen its share of movie star glamour. Faye Dunaway supposedly learned to swim here, and talents like Ingrid Bergman and Elizabeth Taylor lounged on the patio. Despite its classic roots, however, the so-called Pink Palace has not eschewed trends. There are two draught cocktails on the pool menu: a Moscow Mule made with ginger juiced in-house, and a rosé-based sangria with seasonal fruit. Robert Rouleau, Assistant Director of Food and Beverage, says that while Champagne and rosé are still very popular poolside, more guests are starting to fall for the draught cocktails.

“Whatever is on-trend has to be honored, in a way,” agrees Linda Fusco, restaurant manager for The Garland in North Hollywood, a property with a subtly star-studded past. Created by TV actress Beverly Garland in 1972, the hotel rests on grounds once owned by actor-musician Gene Autry, and maintains its original low-key vibe. The pool has a leafy backyard feel, and hosts movie nights on the deck which are popular with guests. Two draught, barrel-aged cocktails—a Negroni and an Old-Fashioned—will debut at the hotel’s new restaurant and pool bar, The Front Yard, when it opens in May. Liquor-spiked snow cones and Pisco Punch made with proprietary syrups and juices are already big-sellers. I imagined sunbathers chatting about the health benefits of hibiscus tea syrup, too blissed-out to stir up any trouble.

Next, I looked to the Sunset Marquis. Set just off the Sunset Strip, the hotel was meant to evoke the bohemian spirit of the Garden of Allah, the home-turned hotel of silent film star Alla Nazimova. There she hosted Hemingway and Fitzgerald at all-night pool parties where Anita Louise dove in with full hair and makeup, Tallulah Bankhead swam naked and Clara Bow took a dip at sunrise. The Sunset Marquis opened in the early 1960s, and for decades, musicians have been stopping by to drink after gigs, from Neil Diamond to The Ramones. Today, the menu offers a moonshine cocktail, but families and juice-sippers make up a good part of the poolside contingent. The chances of a starlet jumping Garden-of-Allah-style into the pool seem slim.

I was starting to lose hope. The proliferation of polished poolside cocktails had begun to make the pools themselves seem irrelevant, and the undercurrent of raucous possibility pacified.

A quick survey of friends revealed a potential bright spot: the Tropicana Bar at the Hollywood Roosevelt, where mid-aughts shenanigans reportedly included Bruce Willis flirting poolside, and a guest of Lindsay Lohan jumping into the pool from her room. The property also hosted the first Academy Awards in 1929, and Mary Pickford was among the original investors.

I headed there on a recent weeknight only to discover a decidedly mellow atmosphere, the pool glowing blue beneath dozens of towering palm trees. Two men in business attire sipped white wine. Girlfriends politely ordered sangria, their canvas slip-on sneakers peaking out from breezy maxi-skirts. A couple walked to their poolside room with a 12-pack of Stella. My cocktail, a Pepino Smash made with arbol chile and jalapeño-infused agave, tasted really good.

It occurred to me that perhaps this is it, the current state of poolside drinking—an altogether pleasant combination of well-made drinks and easy conversation, with the pool as a placid companion. But as I was making my exit through the Hollywood Roosevelt lobby, a flash of mercurial possibility emerged: A well-known actor, often publicly offensive and uncontrollable, was nervously checking in. I considered staying to see how it would play out, but the drink and the dreamy palm trees had dulled my edges. I headed home, leaving the pool to its possibilities.

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