Mogul madness in paradise

July 21, 2008, 7:10 PM UTC

Just a little story from the dark edge of the continent.

I was staying for the past few days at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. It’s a really nice place. A few years ago, it had gone kind of tatty, but they implemented a big revamp not long ago and did a terrific job. Sometimes when they buff a joint up after a long period of escalating decrepitude, they excise its character, history and whatever charm the old edifice had left. Sometimes, also, they fix up the lobby and leave the upstairs rooms still haunted by the ghosts of dead guys who were murdered in their bathtubs.

I stayed at one of those places a few weeks ago. In the lobby were pictures of all the great movie stars who were feted there, back in the day when you could fit all of the motion picture industry into one ballroom. How glam those pictures were! Clark Gable! Betty Grable! Tyrone Power! The Duke! All drunk off their butts, happy to be clustered like the pleiades around their glittering tables. My room upstairs, on the other hand, smelled of cheap cigars and the tired feet of washed-up private eyes hired to spy on the naughty couple down the hall.

The Hilton today is no such thing. Downstairs and up the walls are bedecked with pictures of the gang that loved to hang there when glamour walked hand-in-hand with talent and success. My favorite is in the Men’s Room on the Lobby Floor. Frank, Dean and Peter Lawford, walking down the strip near the Golden Nugget, lean and happy, skinny little ties over their cool, flat tummies. Opposite this shot, Bogart stares out, slightly petulant, a just-read letter in his elegant hand, from a picture by Hurrell, circa 1935. Near the ballroom, where so many grand events were held when there were such things, Louis Armstrong, Tony Curtis and his then-wife Janet Leigh, Marilyn, James Dean… all shot pretty much right where you are standing as you look at them and wonder where all that, whatever it was, has gone.

On the ground level, Trader Vic’s, long a sort-of tikki joke with cheesy drinks and flaming stuff on sticks, once dark and cramped under a low ceiling, has also been knocked open to the pool and sky, keeping what was cool and worthy of retro admiration, jettisoning the ironic eau de decomp that had collected around the old tropes over the years. Quite a scene there on Saturday night. The aqua lights of the gigantic swimming pool glow, illuminating the crisp, white cabanas and suites that ring its vast, watery depths. After a couple of Scorpion bowls, people can get kind of noisy. Good sushi. Very short skirts are apparently back, and stingy-brim hats and stubble for the guys.

There’s no center in LA, and until you get it, you think that’s a bummer. What it really means is that, like a giant beehive, every little cell in the honeycomb is just as potentially hot as the next. So improbably, where you are right then is just possibly where you ought to be. And the Hilton, right now, is no exception, particularly if you don’t mind the slight sensation that the specter of Norma Desmond just brushed by your elbow. 

The rooms, too, are kind of marvellous. Mine was, at any rate. Not fussy. Clean and open, with a little patio you could lie out on to observe the action at the pool and bar down below.

I say all this to make a point as clearly as I possibly can: in the world of business, it really doesn’t get any better. Did I mention I was there on business? Well, I was. And anybody who cannot appreciate an experience like this one in the line of duty should probably be shot, or perhaps be put away. Yeah, that’s right. Anybody who can’t be happy at the Beverly Hilton should be put in a mental institution.

So I was sitting on my little patio taking an hour in which I attempted to entertain not one phone call or a single message on my BlackBerry. The sun was hot. The breeze was cool. The sound of happy people splashing rose from the azure pool several floors below. On the patio above me, suddenly, came a voice. An ugly voice. Harsh. Grating. Aggrieved.

“I told SAM…” it said, “But SAM doesn’t LISTEN… to ANYBODY!… And I am SICK… of HIM!… and I am SICK… of YOU… and everybody NOT LISTENING TO ME!” I don’t know if I am capable of capturing the rhythm of the thing. Tremendous anger, righteous indignation, dripping with bitterness, and the feeling of having sustained a powerful wrong that had been visisted on him by countless enemies both seen and, more heinous, CLOSE BY… The complaints — for the one-way discourse was made up of nothing but complaints — were almost wrenched out of a spirit so tortured it could barely formuate complete sentences.

It went on like this for quite some time. After a while, I took my towel and went inside. I had a meeting to go to anyhow.

The next morning at 7AM, I was awakened by what at first I thought was the squawking of a giant crow. As my head cleared, I realized this was unlikely. Crows do not nest in the upper floors of urban hotels. The only birds I saw there, in fact, were tiny sparrows and the plastic owls they put on the rooftops to scare away other predators. Crows, maybe, come to think of it.

At any rate, this squawking — enraged, deliberate, desperately unhappy — was coming through two layers of heavy curtain and a hermetically-sealed sliding glass door.

“I don’t want to SEE you EVER AGAIN!…” it was saying. “And if you see ME… or any member of my FAMILY!… I WANT YOU TO TURN AROUND!… AND GET THE F**K OUTTA THERE! I’m the one with the
… and PEOPLE… are GOING… to LISTEN TO ME!!”

It went on. I opened the doors and stepped out on the patio to hear as much as I could of the torrent of invective pouring from the opulent space above me. All I saw was the back of a tiny, extremely bronzed bald pate bobbing up and down, and one edge of a small table at which the unnamed mogul in question was sitting. On the table was a glass of orange juice and a glass of prune juice.

I’ve been thinking since then about the number of people I know who are very rich, very successful, and what that access to power and affluence has had upon their characters. And I’m very slowly coming to a conclusion. Yes, we all know that money does not buy happiness. Of course, that’s ridiculous. Of course it does. We know it does. We also know that lack of money very often buys misery. As my dad used to tell me, “Rich or poor, it’s good to have money.”

But thinking about the miserable loser on the floor above me, I find myself wondering whether there is a tipping point, where the accumulation of too much power, too much money, actually produces in their recipient the exact opposite of all that money is supposed to buy. That perhaps it’s lonely at the top because the person you have become when you get there isn’t fit for human consumption. That maybe it’s better to be in the middle of things, because that where people are clustering together for warmth and still having a little bit of fun.

I’m home now, by the way, and it’s good to be back. Maybe too much of a good thing is just that.