November 5, 2011 12:34 am

The return of a Hollywood legend

The secluded Hotel Bel-Air has reopened after a $100m facelift

Six weeks before her death in 1962, Marilyn Monroe, a frequent guest at Los Angeles’ secluded Hotel Bel-Air, posed there for the Vogue magazine shoot that would be her last. Grace Kelly, another regular guest of the hotel, stayed there in 1954 after winning an Oscar for her performance in The Country Girl and lived there before her marriage to Prince Rainier Grimaldi III. For the two stars who defined an era in cinema, as well as for many in Hollywood then and now, the Bel-Air was a second home.

Since its opening in 1946, guests have included heads of state and royalty: Prince Charles described it as “like staying in a rich friend’s home”. Richard Nixon wrote his memoirs there; Howard Hughes, Lauren Bacall and Cary Grant were also regulars, while Warren Beatty moved in after the Northridge earthquake of 1994.

Tony Curtis described the hotel as “the best wife” he ever had. “If I could, I would marry the Hotel Bel-Air tomorrow,” he said. “She doesn’t ask me where I’ve been all night, she doesn’t mind if I bring a girl home. She makes my bed every day, feeds me regularly, takes my messages faithfully and puts my laundry in little boxes tied up with ribbon.”

But for the past two years the Los Angeles landmark has been closed for a $100m renovation, its absence keenly felt in a city where it holds as much sway with well-heeled residents as it does visitors from out of town. Nestled in Stone Canyon above Sunset Boulevard, the hotel is set in 12 acres of lush, landscaped land dotted with ferns and swaying palm trees. It is off the beaten track: the winding residential streets of Bel-Air tend to confuse car navigation systems but the accidental detours offer a glimpse into an opulent world of money and immaculately kept lawns.

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After a remodelling that has transformed the interiors and the addition of a new spa, as well as a new restaurant from the fêted chef Wolfgang Puck, the Hotel Bel-Air finally reopened last month with a glitzy party. Tables piled high with lobster and oysters attracted long lines of eager diners while Puck watched as his chefs carved tender slices of lamb and fillet mignon.

But what should have been a happy occasion for the Dorchester Collection (which operates the Bel-Air as well as celebrated properties around the world including the Hôtel Plaza Athénée in Paris and the Dorchester in London) has been overshadowed by a dispute with former workers. Only a handful of the original staff has been rehired, and the union that represents those who lost their jobs when the hotel closed in 2009 has accused the management of throwing them out “like old furniture”. The hotel, for its part, says it paid a generous severance package, which was taken up by 84 per cent of its staff. “This is more than any hotel has ever paid in the history of California,” says a representative. With the addition of Puck’s restaurant and the remodelled spa, the hotel needed staff with “a different skill set and we hired the best qualified person for each position. Some were former employees and some were not.”

This has not assuaged the anger of those who lost their jobs – or their supporters. About 300 people demonstrated outside the hotel on the day it formally reopened last month, and the union’s campaign against the property has received widespread attention, with supporters including members of the Los Angeles City Council. The film director Judd Apatow declared on Twitter: “I will not be going there.”

Some of his Hollywood contemporaries have appeared less inclined to uphold a boycott. On the night I visited the actors Jennifer Garner and Patrick Stewart and the fashion designer turned film director Tom Ford were among those having dinner. The next day Nancy Reagan, a regular at the hotel for many years, came for lunch. “This place is an institution,” Puck tells me. “There’s nowhere else like it in Los Angeles, or the world. It’s in a residential neighbourhood and it’s been turned into a luxury property, the way it should be.”

The hotel has always had a reputation for luxury – it is renowned for its gardens, flowers and a pond with three swans, which the hotel refers to, rather grandly, as Swan Lake. The gardens have been the setting for countless parties: Oprah Winfrey celebrated her 50th birthday here, gathering friends on the lawn where Celine Dion surprised her with a rendition of “Happy Birthday”.

But in recent years the hotel had become tired; the restaurant had taken on a chintzy appearance while the bar – the scene of many a meeting between Hollywood powerbrokers – was attracting an increasingly ageing clientele. The trick, Puck explains, was to revive and refresh the property without alienating guests who have been coming for years. “It’s a discreet balance,” he says. “Nancy Reagan said to me: ‘I hope you will keep the tortilla soup.’” The dish remains on the menu, which also has plenty of new additions. Diners eat in the open air, warmed by heaters if the temperature drops. Those in need of a pick-me-up can retreat to the bar, which has lost none of its dark, clubby feel – although it has been jazzed up with some striking art chosen by Puck himself. The cocktail list has also been refreshed: new drinks include Help! Save the Bees and Rolling Fog Over Mount Fuji. Monroe’s Passion is the appropriately named signature drink.

The exterior of the hacienda-style property was largely left alone. The real difference is in the bedrooms, which have Bang & Olufsen televisions set into the walls and an iPad with which to order room service or book a spa appointment. The bathrooms have been overhauled, down to the electronic toilets with heat-controlled seats and showers that blast you with water from four separate shower heads. Larger suites have their own spa pools and private patios that are almost as large as the suite’s interiors.

The redevelopment has subtly modernised and updated the hotel, which has lost none of its grandeur, while the location remains as beautiful as it always was. The night I visited the view from the canyon over Los Angeles was lit up by a sky in numerous shades of blue and pink. It is clear why the hotel has for so long been the bolt-hole of choice for the great and the good of Hollywood and beyond, and its reopening is cause for celebration in Los Angeles. It’s just a shame that so many of its former workers were not invited to the party.

Doubles at the Hotel Bel-Air cost from $565; www.hotelbelair.com

Matthew Garrahan is the FT’s LA correspondent

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