During a recent stay for a conference, I discovered elegance in downtown Los Angeles hospitality. While the Millennium Biltmore Los Angeles, located across from Pershing Square, is not a full four-star experience, the 95-year-old hotel holds to high standards.
This is not a showy, pretentious property. Despite its grand reputation, history and lavish decor, the Millennium Biltmore primarily distinguishes itself as a premium hotel based upon its outstanding service. The standard room is adequate to good, depending upon one’s modern demands. Mine was alright, though I had to ask for another room upon check-in because the hotel’s non-smoking policy had clearly been violated by the previous guest. The fifth floor room lacked a vanity mirror for proper grooming, space was tight and housekeeping was mediocre.
Yet convenience, uniqueness and exemplary service compensate for the Millennium Biltmore’s flaws. Staff were without exception responsive and attentive during the conference, often exceeding expectations and anticipating demands. For example, when conference staff were overwhelmed during setup for registration, Biltmore staff, who were watching like sentinels in the background, stepped in time and again to provide logistical support, sustenance and manpower.
Cecil B. DeMille filmed his 1924 silent film Triumph here. Past guests include Howard Hughes, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jean Paul Getty, Shirley Temple, the prince of Wales, Walt Disney and Rudolph Valentino. Gary Cooper (High Noon), Claudette Colbert (The Palm Beach Story) and Clark Gable (Gone With the Wind) won Oscars here. The Biltmore proudly served American soldiers during World War 2. The bookie room in The Sting (1973) was filmed in the Biltmore’s Gold Room. The same room was used during Prohibition as a speakeasy with a hidden door so guests could dodge police by escaping onto Olive Street (for now, the exit is sealed in brick). Indulge in the hotel’s history with the concierge, who’s very knowledegable and is equipped with a complete list of motion pictures and television shows filmed here. Taylor Swift recently shot a video here when she stayed overnight. A web series was filming during my visit. Also stroll what the Biltmore calls its historic corridor, which features an exhibit of the hotel’s pictorial history.
Discovering the Millennium Biltmore means immersing in its small marvels and charms, chiefly a sense of simple luxury in the madness of downtown LA. Its bar and Cognac Room are both intimate and elegant. Smeraldi’s, where I dined for breakfast and lunch, serves delicious food very fast. Even the lobby, pictured above, fosters a quiet and relaxed atmosphere. Fitness, swimming and sauna and steam rooms add value and the Rendezvous Court with its piano, trickling water and natural light, as well as an afternoon tea, is perfect for reading, writing and thinking or conversation.
That the hotel’s interior designer, Giovanni Smeraldi, also decorated the White House and the Vatican is not surprising. From motifs based on literature’s Tales of the Arabian Nights to angels, gods and myths and 24-karat gold, the Millennium Biltmore surrounds the guest in elegance, interesting accents and themes and space for a distinctive and memorable downtown Los Angeles experience.
Nestled in the hills of Los Angeles is a uniquely compact and inviting home where I first met Dion Neutra. I had spoken with and interviewed the noted architect, who studied and worked with his father, the late Richard Neutra, a few times for articles about modern architecture. The prospect of an extensive interview had previously been discussed though it hadn’t been conducted. This time, when Dion Neutra suggested that we meet for an interview, it was promptly scheduled. I drove to LA’s Silver Lake neighborhood, parked and climbed the steep stairs. I soon met the man who made with his father some of America’s most distinctive and iconic homes and buildings. We sat in a dining room and talked for over an hour. Days later, we would toast to his 90th birthday and, later, talk again about a campaign to restore one of his father’s signature buildings, the Eagle Rock Clubhouse. During our exchange, we managed to cover a lifetime of memories, thoughts and details of his father, meeting Ayn Rand, Frank Lloyd Wright, the Kun house, World Trade Center, Neutra’s Gettysburg Cyclorama and his childhood trauma in Silver Lake. I knew from previous talks that Neutra’s son and heir could be both eccentric and exhausting. This conversation is no exception. Read my exclusive interview with Dion Neutra.
Another inheritance-themed opportunity for an exclusive talk recently presented itself when the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) named a new CEO. His name is Jim Brown and his background is in business, financial analysis and military leadership. Qualifications alone merited my interest and I immediately welcomed him to the ARI and asked for an interview, which he kindly granted at his Irvine office. Though days into the job, he discussed plans, management philosophy and his favorite Leonard Peikoff works. As an Objectivist who first visited the ARI as a teen when I took the bus to its office on Washington Boulevard in Los Angeles, who has worked and studied with the ARI, I want my readers to read the interview and consider supporting the ARI under Jim’s new management. An edited transcript of my conversation with the center for Objectivism’s chief executive officer—Jim Brown’s first interview as ARI’s chief executive officer—appears on Capitalism Magazine (postscript: read a shorter version in the Los Angeles Times here).
And I am delighted that my favorite filmmaker—director Lasse Hallström—granted to me his only interview about his successful motion picture, A Dog’s Purpose, before returning to making Disney’s adaptation of the beloved Christmas ballet The Nutcracker. I am often enchanted by Mr. Hallström’s work. I always anticipate whatever he chooses to make. And I am privileged to have interviewed Lasse Hallström before. This time was particularly rewarding.
Lightness in his pictures is perhaps the most indelible quality. Think of the French village in Chocolat or Venetian escapades in Casanova. The way he guides an ensemble cast to perfect union for an exalted or higher cinematic goal—around foodmaking in The Hundred-Foot Journey, liberation in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, serenity in An Unfinished Life, healing in The Shipping News, and the power of a dog to align man to what’s here and now in A Dog’s Purpose—should also be known. All of his movies, which began with his film about ABBA, are wonderfully musical including A Dog’s Purpose. But what, besides unity, love and lightness, is more pressing and relevant now than the seriousness with which he films his stories? This unique blend by a Swede who lives in America is often mistaken strictly as sweetness, which one should expect in a circus culture of cynics, celebrities and smears. The interview with Lasse Hallström, the artist who to me best expresses in today’s movies the American sense of life, is one I know I’ve earned and deserve.
I did not plan the pieces as a thematic trifecta, though it occurs to me that these three interviews explore man’s mastery of living in accordance with nature, man’s mastery of advancing the ideal and man’s mastery of recreating both in movies. Read, think and enjoy.
A movie about exceptionalism overcoming racism at an agency of the government, an effort to restore a building and a forthcoming book about accounting for an entire arts genre give me fuel this winter.
America’s top movie at the box office is Hidden Figures, which centers upon three individuals of ability in the Jim Crow-era South, when racist laws infected even an aeronautics U.S. agency charged with launching an American into outer space. It’s a wonderful film, really, which doesn’t surprise me because it’s written and directed by the same individual who wrote and directed 2014’s St. Vincent, which is also very good. His name is Theodore Melfi and he recently talked with me about writing and directing the talented cast, which includes Empire‘s Cookie, Taraji P. Henson, his thoughts on racism, storytelling and what he’d do differently and having his movie screened at the White House. Read my exclusive interview with Melfi about the nation’s number one motion picture here.
Speaking of exclusive interviews, I’ve recently had the pleasure of interviewing architect Dion Neutra at his home and office designed by his father, the late modern architect Richard Neutra, whose legacy I explore in an article about a campaign to restore one of Neutra’s signature buildings (read the story on LATimes.com here). I’ve been covering this effort by an architect and a realtor who say they want to restore the Los Angeles clubhouse to its original splendor, and finally met and interviewed them at Neutra’s building for a detailed restoration tour. The building, a parks and recreational center in northeast Los Angeles, opened in the 1950s with a stage that plays to both interior and exterior audiences, a kitchen with a window for selling concessions, an athletic court, reflecting pool and sloping landscapes—all in glass, brick and Neutra’s favored metal, steel—with a director’s office overlooking gymnastics, trails, pine trees, playgrounds, tennis courts and with retractable walls to let the air and spectators or audiences inside. The two gents are in talks with Dion Neutra as I write this.
A forthcoming book features new and interesting data about the words and works by William Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis, Stephen King, Agatha Christie and Ayn Rand among other literary greats. It’s titled Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve (Simon & Schuster, March 14, 2017) and the author covers detailed statistical analyses of these and other writers in a solid narrative. Among the newly mined data are authors’ ‘favorite’ words, how sexes write differently—Rand rates as “masculine”—and use of adverbs, exclamation points and novels’ opening lines. Mine is the book’s first non-trade review. Read my article here.
The newest Writing Boot Camp starts up next month (seats are still left in the 10-week course, so register here), moving to Tuesday nights, the day after my all-new course on social media (register here). These courses evolved from career camp workshops I was asked to teach several years ago. I subsequently taught a series of nine media and production workshops for Mood U, online, economic development, expo and public library presentations and developed the writing and media classes into full courses a few years ago for adult education in LA. They’re works in progress yet past students give positive and constructive feedback, so I’ve created Facebook groups for past students. Stand by for details and more on the upcoming courses.
Meanwhile, thank you for your readership, support and trade. I read every piece of correspondence, though I’m sometimes slow to respond, sent through the site and social media. This year, I plan to remake my website and I am working on other projects, from stories in manuscripts and screenplays to my cultural fellowship, new partnerships and a new media enterprise. For now, I want you to read, share and gain value from these articles about inspecting works of art and making, or mining, something good.
A recreational city park in northeastern Los Angeles has the distinction of featuring one of the signature buildings by architect Richard J. Neutra (1892-1970). The sleek design for the Eagle Rock Clubhouse, as it was originally known, includes a kitchen, director’s office, athletics court, recreational room and a stage connected to an outdoor amphitheater on a sloping hillside.
The primary feature, however, are the athletic court’s walls, which retract to the open air of the surrounding park. Hills, pine trees, shaded walkways, baseball diamonds, picnic areas, a workout and gymnastics area, children’s center, outdoor playground and tennis courts fill out the area, which is just off a freeway between the Los Angeles basin and the San Gabriel Valley in a section of LA known as Eagle Rock. Unfortunately, a reflecting pool was paved over and columns were added by city officials.
Though the clubhouse is badly in need of repair and renovation, and the park, too, needs an upgrade, the wonders of the property come through. Walking on curved, tree-lined paths amid vistas and sounds of a baseball game gives Eagle Rock Recreation Center an old-fashioned air. Toddlers waddled around their parents’ picnics, bachelors played fetch with their dogs and couples played tennis while musclemen worked out on the gymnastics bars, runners jogged and a team of girls played volleyball inside the building. Neither freeway noise nor poor building maintenance completely diminishes the presence of this impressive building, which retains an inviting functionality. Despite the need for landscaping, rebuilding and restoration, one can imagine the calls and cheers of past weddings, proms, games, scout troop meetings, play dates and playhouse productions. Conjuring an outdoor audience attending a play, dance recital or piano concert is easy.
When Eagle Rock officially opened the park 62 years ago this fall during the peak of Hollywood’s Golden Age, William Holden (Stalag 17, Picnic, Golden Boy, Sunset Boulevard, Executive Suite, Network) was reportedly on the guest list. Among those in attendance was the young architect Dion Neutra, Richard Neutra’s son, who worked on the project with his father, an icon of modern architecture and 20th century culture. He remembered that day during a recent interview with me for an article about the city’s proposed changes to the recreation center, which he told me he found lacking (read my interview and view recent pictures of Neutra’s clubhouse on the Los Angeles Times‘ website here).
Interviewing Dion Neutra, who turns 90 years old this week, led to a meeting at his home in Silver Lake, where we conducted a more extensive interview about his late father, architecture and career. We talked about the house his father created for director Josef von Sternberg (Shanghai Express) in 1936, which Ayn Rand (The Fountainhead) later lived in during her Southern California years, and his thoughts on Frank Gehry and Frank Lloyd Wright.
Look for the interview soon. In the meantime, I’m told that there may be an effort underway to restore Richard and Dion Neutra’s Eagle Rock clubhouse to its original condition. For Dion Neutra, who told me that he named his father’s clubhouse in his will as a possible memorial site for after he dies, the prospect of total, pure restoration makes the perfect birthday gift in a city of America’s greatest modern arts enriched by Neutra architecture.
Spending my youth in the suburbs north of Chicago often made me curious about its origins. There were exotic American Indian names, mysterious trails, woods and tales of corruption, scandal and murder amid the lush, green bluffs and flat, fertile soil, not to mention the lakefront, the railroad and the industry. I know I’m scratching the surface, but I’m enjoying writing about the towns, villages and enclaves north of Chicago in a newspaper history series I conceived and developed with my editor, David Sweet, earlier this year.
The theme is capitalism—the entrepreneurial spirit—on Chicagoland’s North Shore.
Talking with local and regional historians, curators and scholars, my research yields new takes on local myths and legends, facts about iconic names, dates and places and, above all, clarity about the men who forged new paths, pioneered Northern Illinois, fought for the Union during the Civil War and settled some of the nation’s most creative, productive and wealthiest towns. These men were largely men of vision and reason and they were farmers, frontiersmen, traders, industrialists and, mostly, individualists. Telling their stories, including notorious facts in the history of these towns, is more rewarding than I had thought possible when I first offered to write the articles.
These front page and cover story articles, which include bits on America’s first recorded serial killer, the only bridge ever designed and built by Frank Lloyd Wright and the invention of Christmas bubble lights, Girl Scout cookies and Frenchmens’, Indians’ and religionists’ plans for the area near and along Lake Michigan north of Chicago, are currently available online for free. Read about Glenview, Wilmette and Glencoe. Know that there are more stories to come.