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Frieze Los Angeles 2022

Sex, Death and The Beverly Hilton

To mark Frieze Los Angeles 2022 legendary new neighbour, Gracie Hadland looks at the historic comings and goings of the hotel's infamous clientele 

BY Gracie Hadland in Frieze Week Magazine , Opinion | 14 FEB 22

The Beverly Hilton sits on a triangular site between Santa Monica and Wilshire Boulevards, Los Angeles’s two main thoroughfares. When I mention I’m writing about the Hilton, an LA native says all he knows about the hotel is the famous driveway that allows you to cut between the two roads. More people have driven through the grounds of the Beverly Hilton than have stayed there. The property is dominated by parking structures and driveways: it’s nearly impossible to enter the hotel on foot, and the main entrance is only accessible by car. Pedestrians must enter via the driveway with no sidewalk, dodging the Escalades and Mercedes. The ceremony of coming and going by vehicle is treated like a sacred ritual in Los Angeles.

Since 1961, the Hilton has hosted the Golden Globe Awards. Its red carpet, the ultimate ceremony of arrival, happens around the hotel’s circular driveway. Being there, entering the building, is an event in and of itself. There are infinite images online of people walking that red carpet. I’m particularly struck by a series of Marilyn Monroe arriving at the award ceremony in 1962 in a green, sequined dress. Photographers swarm her; hands reach out around the frame to get her attention, touch her, take her coat for her. Her smile never wavers; it’s constant. Her sparkling diamond earrings shimmer in the camera’s flash. Yet, her eyes droop just slightly, her skin as pale as her white-blonde hair. Five months later, she was found dead at her home.

The red carpet outside the Beverly Hilton Hotel before the 59th Annual Golden Globe Awards, 2002. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: Vince Bucci

The very same year, Richard Nixon staged a now-famous press conference at the Beverly Hilton following his gubernatorial loss. He barked at the media: “You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.” It wasn’t his first lie, and it certainly wouldn’t be his last. He was re-elected six years later. In a series of promotional videos for the hotel, staff remark on the people who have walked the halls, graced the hotel with their presence, arrived in style, made grand entrances or memorable exits. It’s as if these gestures, these historical moments, are just as important as what goes on in the hotel itself — if not more so. In one of these videos, Michael Robertson, the hotel’s manager, says: “We are an icon because of every person who has graced the front door, every president, and we get to see them.”

Many of the legendary things that went on in the hotel are too salacious and uncouth for public promotion. In 1993, Heidi Fleiss, the Hollywood madam, operator of a high-end prostitution ring, was nabbed by the cops in a theatrical, dramatic sting in which detectives, posing as Japanese businessmen, arrested four women in a hotel room. In 2008, presidential candidate John Edwards was caught visiting his mistress and their child. He hid in the hotel room’s bathroom while photographers pounded on the door. He was eventually dragged out by security. It is rumored, too, that John F. Kennedy’s affair with Monroe took place at the Beverly Hilton. Both are such powerful icons — rendered so unreal and abstract by the mass circulation of their images — that the Hilton seems the only plausible setting.

Workers lay down the red carpet in preparation for the 76th Annual Golden Globe Awards, 2019. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: Kevork Djansezian

In 2012, Whitney Houston was found dead in the bathtub of her hotel room from an apparent overdose. She was due to appear at the Grammy Awards the next night. Out of respect, the room in which she was staying, suite 434, has been emptied and is no longer in use. In a video titled “Whitney Houston’s Body Leaves the Beverly Hilton” — posted on YouTube by Rumor-Fix in February 2012 — police, staff and photographers huddle outside the hotel’s parking garage waiting for the coroner’s van to drive off. The procession is chaotic; photographers slam their cameras against the vehicle’s back windows, trying to get a picture of the singer’s body. “It’s against the law to take a picture!” an authority figure shouts in vain. People push up against the van; the clicking of cameras makes a grating, violent noise. The security staff is unable to keep the mob of photographers away from the windows, as the van drives out of the parking lot onto Wilshire, past an “Exit Only” sign in the hotel’s signature font.

This article first appeared in Frieze Week, February 2022 under the headline ‘Head for the Hills’.

Main image: Beverly Hilton Hotel and Los Angeles cityscape, 2021. Courtesy: Getty Images

Gracie Hadland is a writer who lives in Los Angeles, USA.