Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Abandon-dor Hotel

Part II of my Bobby Series.

I'm trying to capture here just how heartbreaking it was when this man was lost, and I think the Ambassador Hotel, where he was shot, is a microcosm of this.
The downturn of the hotel coincided with RFK's death. The two will forever be connected. 

The Ambassador Hotel was a sprawling, luxurious 500 room hotel in Los Angeles, a popular getaway for Hollywood stars, and The Cocoanut Grove was not a nightclub to be missed--Bob Hope hosted the 1939 Academy Awards in the Grove!


This was the stomping ground of The Rat Pack, Perry Como, Howard Hughes, Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant...you get it. This was where the presidents hung out too--Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Jack Kennedy...Khrushchev even stayed there during his 1959 visit to America. Joan Crawford won Charleston dance contests in the Cocoanut Grove, Richard Nixon composed his "Checkers" speech by the pool here, Marilyn Monroe received one of her first modeling bookings, and Hattie McDaniel was the first African-American to win an Academy Award here (for her role as Mammy in Gone With the Wind).
The hotel opened in 1921, 4 years before Bobby was born. It took up almost 24 acres on Wilshire Boulevard, and was actually the catalyst for the development of Wilshire Boulevard, which was a dirt road when the resort was first built.
You may recognize it from such movies as The Graduate, Forrest Gump, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Catch Me If You Can, Pretty Woman, Apollo 13...

The interior, the grounds, just the aura of the place captured the elegance and excitement of the times.

In 1968, in the pantry of the main kitchen area, Bobby Kennedy was shot, along with 5 bystanders, by Sirhan Sirhan. He had given a victory speech and left the stage, gotten stuck in the crowd, and was taken a back way. He was shaking hands with admiring busboy Juan Romero, when he was repeatedly shot by Sirhan. Romero ended up cradling Kennedy, and holding a rosary to his hand, a tragic image that quickly became iconic. 


"It is hard to understand. I did nothing. It just happened. Mr. Kennedy was there and he needed someone with him, that's all."  -Juan Romero



 After Bobby's assassination, the Ambassador spiralled downward. People changed their driving routes to avoid Wilshire Boulevard and having to go past the Ambassador because of the tragedy that had taken place there. They no longer wanted to stay there, dance at the Cocoanut Grove.
3 years after Bobby's death the jury for Charles Manson's murder trial stayed at the Ambassador. Quite a different atmosphere....

In 1989 the hotel officially closed to guests, but stayed open for select events and movie filming. After an ongoing battle between the Los Angeles Unified School District and the L.A. Conservancy, it was concluded that the hotel would be demolished to build a new school. Parts of it were to be preserved, but one of the first areas destroyed to make way for new development was the kitchen where Bobby was shot.  People made the mistake of believing that getting rid of a place will erase the memories that took place there.

The images taken of The Ambassador as it lay decaying, prior to its demolition, are haunting.
Much like Bobby's phantom presidency.









Today Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools stands on the site. Which, ironically, was something Bobby would have championed, though in a much different way.

The Cocoanut Grove is now a remodeled auditorium. The famous Coffee Shop is a faculty lounge. Isn't it funny how these things happen?  Preservationists and historians put up a good fight, but development and change are inevitable. The renegades and sentimentalists did what I would have done, had I lived nearby--they snuck into the Ambassador before she was gutted, took what they could save and cherish, and photographed her in her last throes. 

This image is one of the last taken of the kitchen where Bobby was shot.
Haunting.







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