by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Long a premier hostelry in the City of Angels, the Ambassador Hotel flung open its doors to the public at the stroke of midnight on 1 January 1921 and quickly established a prominent presence in the burgeoning city, then undergoing another one of its fabled booms. On a sprawling 27 acres, the 1000-room facility had several eateries with a total capacity of several thousand, a large auditorium, a group of shops, a beautiful garden and the Cocoanut Grove nightclub, which became a hot spot for Hollywood celebrities and local luminaries looking for the finest in entertainment.
Not long after the hotel opened, it launched a magazine called California Outdoors and In and tonight’s featured object from the museum’s collection is the August 1923 issue of the publication. It provides an interesting mix of articles detailing hotel activities, promoting prominent patrons, and providing other information of note.
A key feature of the edition was “A Message from Scotland,” in which James Gordon McCrain, a resident of Edinburgh, wrote a lengthy letter to the Ambassador’s manager, Benjamin Frank, to voice his appreciation for the treatment he and his family received while staying at the hotel. McCrain, for example, offered that “perhaps our most lasting impression will be of a certain indescribable air of breezy camaraderie and comfort, entirely different from anything in European hotel life, which seemed to envelope us and remove a thousand and one little worries after we got settled down at your hotel.”
Specifically noted was how he and his family “feel as if they are units of a big family on such short acquaintance and the great lengths to which you go to entertain your guests in a score of different ways” and this was unheard of in the United Kingdom “where the principal desire of hotel people seems to be to leave their guests as much alone as possible.” On that first day, the McCrains were delighted to receive “a delicious basket of California fruits” and tickets to the pool, golf course, and theater.
Following that were bridge parties, “afternoon sporting teas,” and picnics away from the Ambassador in the countryside, with the latter leaving the guests flummoxed about “how you could afford to send scores of cooks so many miles away to prepare such a delightful meal for so many guests.” The “get-together” spirit “is one of the things that separates the Old World from the New” and “makes life so enjoyable with you.”
McCrain wrote Frank “what a wonderful and unique hotel is yours” and stating “there can be nothing quite like it anywhere else” based on wide experience with hostelries in Europe and America. After requesting some postcards from the Ambassador, he concluded with the enthusiastic endorsement:
I wish I could say that we were coming back to Southern California to live, but unfortunately business ties will keep me here at least for many years. However, I want you to be sure that I have become what you call a “booster” for your beautiful land; in fact, anyone who says anything derogatory of the United States is going to have a nasty half hour with me, I assure you.
Another piece of correspondence had to do with another interesting aspect of the Ambassador’s operations, the broadcast by radio of music from the hotel. The magazine reprinted a short letter from a “Charles H.” to the writer of a column called “Ye Town Gossip” and who wrote “out here on the desert, am I, 200 miles from anywhere, a derelict with a past and no hope for the future, and every night at 11 o’clock my home-made radio brings me the music and the sound of shuffling feet and the hum of conversation in the danceroom at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.”
The correspondent continued that “sometimes when the mood comes on I try a step out here on my rough board floor, all by myself, but it isn’t like the music that I one time knew.” Still, he went on, “it bring me memories” and he requested that the columnist, next time he was in Los Angeles, “will ask the orchestra leader to play one of the waltzes that were popular twenty years ago.” That way, “Charles H.” ended, “I would like to put the light out and dream of what might have been.”
Two items dealing with sports directly connected with the Ambassador involved golf and horse riding and jumping. The latter concerned the fact that, since the hotel offered its well-attended horse show, “there has been marked interest among the society folks of Southern California in riding and driving.” That meant that the Gold Seal Riding Academy and Hunt Club, affiliated with the hotel and located on Preuss Road, now Robertson Boulevard, between Pico and Wilshire boulevards, “has recently added to its equipment, erected new stables and renovated its entire plant so that it now ranks as the largest of its kind in the West.” Mentioned in the piece was instructor Lars Lithander, formerly of the Swedish army cavalry, and his star student Edna Cudahy, granddaughter of Michael Cudahy, meat-packer titan whose Los Angeles plant was covered in this blog recently.
With the former, the hotel’s junior-size gold course, called the “Rancho Club,” hosted a “Presidents and Vice-President’s Tournament,” and there were short notices such as the fact that “the new wings at the Rancho are rapidly taking shape and will soon be ready to take care of the constantly increasing membership in this popular club.” Of particular note was the increase in lockers, showers and a tea room for women, while another addition provided 250 lockers, showers and a grill for gents. The previous grill was to become a lounge overlooking a patio filled with flowers.
On the same page was a reference to the growing link to filmdom as a party was given to star Corinne Griffith by her colleagues Bessie Love and Carmel Myers, both notable actors as well, on the end of filming of Six Days, which was released in September. Guests included actors Mae Busch and Blanche Sweet, director Fred Niblo, screen writer June Mathis, and Griffith’s future husband and producer Walter Morosco, whose father Oliver was a famed theater impresario.
Elsewhere, there was a short piece about the fact that “over seven and one-half million dollars’ worth of theatrical and movie talent celebrated one of the biggest all-star nights ever given at the Ambassador Summer Grove.” It was averred that “seldom in the history of Los Angeles have so many famous stars danced under one roof” while hotel guests and film fans swarmed the venue “securing autographs on menus of the hotel.” Among the actors present were Busch, Sweet, Love, Myers, Fannie Brice, Tom Mix, Larry Semon, Herbert Rawlinson, May McAvoy, Claire Windsor, Billie Dove, Ford Sterline and Sophie Tucker.
At the top of the page is a panoramic photograph of the kitchen staff of the Ambassador, along with Ben Frank, his brother Lester, who was assistant manager, and head chef Ernest Leidholt. The Homestead happens to have an original of this photograph in its collection and it was highlighted in a post on the blog just last month. The caption in the magazine stated that “in the case of the Ambassador at least ‘many cooks do not spoil the broth.” This picture shows the small army which is engaged in making mealtimes attractive.” Leidholt, identified only as “the famous Ernest, head chef of the big hotel,” and the Frank brothers are referenced.
Other short items of interest include a photo of two young women being served tea on a floating table in the hotel swimming pool; a pair of images of hotel guests enjoying a picnic on the palisades of Santa Monica overlooking the ocean; and a list of “Arrivals at the Ambassador” including guests from New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, San Francisco and London. A well-known name for the time was best-selling writer Peter B. Kyne, many of whose works were made into films during the silent era, including four in 1922 alone.
The most important aspect of this issue of California Outdoors and In, however, was the cover photo of President Warren Harding, who was to stay at the Ambassador and occupy the suite used by the famous French hero of the First World War, Marshal Ferdinand Foch. The magazine observed that:
A thrill of pride ran through the hearts of every employee of the Ambassador when news arrived that President and Mrs. Harding would make this hotel their stopping place during their coming visit to Los Angeles.
Nothing but pleasant memories of his stay will remain in the Chief Executive’s mind and that of the first lady of the land, if human effort and desire to please count for aught.
The redecorated room with a dominant French grey color scheme and taupe carpet and wall hangings, was to include “priceless works of art and rare flowers” with the latter coming from the hotel’s well-known gardens.
The itinerary for the President’s visit on 2 August included a downtown parade; Harding’s presence at the dedication of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, honoring those Angelenos who died fighting in the war; an informal reception at the hotel around noontime; a visit to the national soldiers’ home at Sawtelle; an appearance at the Hollywood Bowl; a return to the Coliseum for an evening address; and the overnight stay followed by the next day’s trip to motion picture studios, a suburban tour, and a visit to Santa Catalina Island.
Harding’s term, which began in March 1921, was just over two years along but already marred by scandal, including what developed into the tempest of the Teapot Dome fiasco involving Edward L. Doheny, covered here in a couple of posts, including yesterday’s entry. While the president was not directly implicated in that and other scandals, he was feeling great pressure because of them.
Nevertheless, starting in late June, he embarked on a nationwide tour, hoping to burnish his reputation for his 1924 reelection campaign. The trip included visits to the Yellowstone and Zion national parks and Alaska and the unflagging activity seemed to some observers to be taking its toll on the president. Arriving in San Francisco at the end of July, Harding was seen by the president of Stanford University and the American Medical Association and a well-known cardiologist.
The president was found to have a fever of 102 degrees and pneumonia and the rest of his California appearances, including at Los Angeles and the planned stay at the Ambassador, were cancelled. Though he seemed to have improved by the first of August, he was in bed on the evening of 2 August, when he supposed to be in Los Angeles, and listening to his wife read a flattering Saturday Evening Post article about the president, when he suddenly died of what appears to have been heart failure. Harding was just 57 years old, but likely had a series of undiagnosed heart attacks in preceding months and had congestive heart disease for a long period.
This issue of California Outdoors and In is a very interesting artifact relating to one of Los Angeles’ preeminent hotels during its early years, when the region was undergoing another one of its many significant growth booms and because of its connection to the death of Harding, one of the most maligned of American presidents.