Beloved fashion illustrator, celebrity portraitist, global man-about-town and Claridge’s artist-in-residence David Downton views L.A. through the looking glass.
My work takes me to London, Paris and New York—don’t cry for me—but I am not in Los Angeles nearly enough. Determined to do something about it, I recently spent a few days in the City of Angels. “You must,” said a friend to whom I defer, “stay at the Sunset Tower.” How right she was. Arriving at the Art Deco landmark on Sunset Boulevard (where, according to Truman Capote, “every scandal that ever happened, happened,”) I learn that I have been upgraded to the penthouse. Ah, the frisson of reaching for the button marked “PH” in a crowded elevator. I travel to my 15th-floor aerie, with its 180-degree terrace, flush with the glow of being envied.
The Tower was originally an apartment building (John Wayne once lived there and is said to have kept a cow on his balcony for when he craved fresh milk). After a chequered recent history it has blossomed again under the watchful eye of its latest owner, Jeff Klein. “You will need to make a friend of Dimitri,” advised my friend. Right again. Dimitri Dimitrov is the maitre d’ at the Tower Bar, the hotel’s so-happening-it-hurts restaurant, performing the nightly conjuring trick of seating the great and the good—it’s a hot-ticket Hunger Games with a comic-opera flourish. It’s no surprise to learn that Dimitrov inspired the character of M. Gustave in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Up early, I walk on the beach in Santa Monica and have a rather perfunctory look at the treasures on display at the Getty before driving to The Beverly Hills Hotel, where Denise Hale, San Francisco’s reigning social empress, is holding court in The Polo Lounge.
“Darling, of course I knew Don Loper,” she says, referring to the designer of the hotel’s iconic banana-leaf wallpaper. “He was a dancer on Broadway and later a dress designer. I met him when I was with Vincente.” (Vincente being Vincente Minnelli, the legendary director of MGM musicals and melodramas, to whom she was married for most of the 1960s.) They lived a cork’s pop across the street from the pink palace. “It was my annex,” says Denise, her native Serbian accent at once inviting and impenetrable. “Friends from all over the world came to stay and got up to God knows what!” When she began seeing Prentis Cobb Hale, who would become her third husband—and the love of her life—they met clandestinely at Bungalow 4. “Once we were married, we went legit and booked into the main building.” And Denise has remained loyal. “I am here because of Edward,” she says, as the hotel’s general manager, Edward A. Mady, appears. “He was the one who brought the glamour back.”
The next day—set the dial to stun—I visit high fashion’s favorite pinup, Dita Von Teese, who opens the door to her jewel-box house in Los Feliz in a silk robe, looking as though she has stepped from the set of a golden-age film noir. I half expect her to pull a smoking gun from her pocket. But that’s not Dita’s style; she is far too upbeat. “Want to see the glamour floor?” she asks brightly, leading the way upstairs to a red lacquer Aladdin’s cave, a ground zero of feminine artifice and allure, feathers and fur, thises and thats, shoes and more shoes. Later, as she poses for a drawing in the kind of bedroom you hope Rita Hayworth used to wake up in, we are joined by her cat, Aleister Von Teese (over 60,000 followers on Instagram). “I’ve often thought he should have his own cartoon strip—my life from his perspective,” she muses. Sold.
In life, Ms. Jones is breezy, good company, engaged and engaging—and the kind of blonde who might trouble Alfred Hitchcock. I already regret not drawing her in the hat she has brought along to try.
That night, I’m invited to a party at Dawnridge, the baroque former home of the more-was-never-enough designer Tony Duquette. Pitched somewhere between Brighton’s Royal Pavilion and Bali Hai, the house and several pagoda-style buildings are dotted around a ravine. The effect is hallucinogenic, a magpie’s dream—and a minimalist’s nightmare. The party swings along. Down by the shore (well, anyway, man-made lake) an orchestra is playing. This is a magic kingdom, a night blooming exotic. I cannot imagine it during daylight hours.
On my last day, I take a car and cover as much ground as I can: Bel Air and Hollywood Boulevard, the Griffith Observatory. Then, in the afternoon, I have a sitting with January Jones. As a Mad Men obsessive, this is a big deal for me. Of all the tangled and tortured characters in that echoing chamber piece, could it be that Betty was the most interesting? From her early Grace Kelly glow—via weight gain (and loss)—to her hair-trigger parenting, she was certainly the most unfathomable. In life, Ms. Jones is breezy, good company, engaged and engaging—and the kind of blonde who might trouble Alfred Hitchcock. I already regret not drawing her in the hat she has brought along to try. Reason enough for a return trip. L.A. is my lady.
Written and illustrated by DAVID DOWNTON.