“A hotel is a talk-show with beds.” No, this isn’t the title of the latest enigmatic artwork from Barbara Kruger or Jenny Holzer. It is, in fact, a truism from the mind of that gorgeously showbizzy, entrepreneurial powerhouse, the unstoppable Merv Griffin. I know what you’re thinking: “The nerve of Merv! Who is he to pontificate about hotels?” Well, for your information, Merv–the man who created Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! and defined the words “talk-show host”–has been successfully applying his people skills and his penchant for pizzazz to the hotel business for quite some time, most notably at Merv Griffin’s Beverly Hilton. For at least 10 years I’ve been a regular at this glamorous, welcoming hostelry, and I can honestly say that Merv has never let me down. In fact, I fail to understand why any New Yorker would, when visiting Los Angeles, elect to stay anywhere other than chez Merv.
What, apart from the glam name and the good prices (rooms start at $179; call 800-Hiltons), is so great about Merv Griffin’s Beverly Hilton?
1. The dreamy modern architecture by Welton Beckett & Associates. The hotel explodes off the corner of Wilshire and Santa Monica boulevards, and has done so since 1955. Honesty compels me to admit that the renovated room décor is a bit naff, but that is part of the Merv package. Edgy, hip design might cause one to feel aesthetically underevolved and, as a result, less comfy. The big cowabunga is definitely that gigantic, superbly appointed, Helmut Newton-ish pool! Esther Williams took the inaugural dive during the opening ceremonies. Maybe it’s your turn.
2. Celebs. I have, over the years, had no trouble spotting pillars of the entertainment world at Merv G.’s B.H. On one memorable occasion, I was crossing the lobby when I spotted Mr. Tutti Frutti himself, Little Richard, sashaying in my direction. With his faux-Versace shell suit, shoulder-length Jheri curl, scrunch boots and demonic, olive-hued contact lenses, he fairly took my breath away. Unable to contain my enthusiasm, I blurted out, “I adore you!”–to which the rocker turned preacher replied, “Thank you, honey” with a charmingly blasé nonchalance. Also spotted (also in a shell suit): Carol Channing, an old pal of Merv’s, having a major mood swing in one of the hotel elevators. Celeb-spotting is enhanced by the nightly functions, which clog the forecourt. On my most recent visit, I spotted the actress who plays Rosario on Will & Grace vamping her way toward the International Ballroom.
3. The man himself. Merv, who now, thanks to a beard, bears more than a passing resemblance to Henry VIII, is omnipresent at his hotel. It’s the opposite of Claudia and Naomi and the Fashion Café (any fool could have seen that, post-flashbulb, those girls would never darken the doorstep again). I have personally spotted Merv on two occasions: once, shaking hands in the lobby, and the second time, sharing an ice-cream sundae poolside with a young protégé.
Merv-watchers are most likely to find him at Griff’s, the buffet restaurant adjacent to the pool. Before entering, take a moment to pore over the permanent retrospective of framed glossies depicting moments from Merv’s chat show, which line the walls of the corridor outside Griff’s. This montage of flashy and eclectic celebs captured in their gaudy 70′s glory–Ruth Gordon, Sammy Davis Jr., Burt Reynolds, Gloria Swanson–is a true delight. When you’ve had enough of Merv’s memory lane, ensconce yourself in one of the sassy booths in jungle-themed Griff’s and chat up the waitresses. They all adore Merv and are only too happy to answer questions about him. On my recent stay, longtime employee Stella, who has waited on the Bee Gees and John Travolta, filled me in on Merv’s culinary preferences. “Merv’s favorite is dark-meat turkey with cole slaw with raisins, and he just luu-uurves popovers.” Merv was unavailable to refute these culinary disclosures, or anything else: He is currently on an eight-week cruise in the Mediterranean with his chum and publicist of 50 years, Warren Cowan.
4. The banquet rooms. Flying out to the West Coast for a substance-abuse intervention? Choose from Merv’s extensive selection of banquet and meeting rooms. A friend who has done this twice recommends the more intimate Roxbury and El Camino rooms. (Call 310-274-7777 to reserve rooms.) Keep the intervenee far away from Trader Vic’s: The cocktail menu advertises 75 specialty drinks.
5. Geezer nails. Pop into Anthony Paladino’s barber shop, right next to Griff’s, and get yourself an extra-shiny-buff geezer manicure for $15. A haircut is $40. This establishment is the last hotel barber shop in Beverly Hills. Mr. Paladino, formerly of the Beverly Hills Hotel, has trimmed the locks of the likes of Norm Crosby, Red Buttons and Jack Carter. How’s that for geezer chic?
Geezer chic? Yes, it’s a hot West Coast trend, of which Merv is the unwitting hotelier. The term was not, I reluctantly admit, coined by moi . Credit must go to book-publishing maven (Greybull Press), Gucci muse and L.A. style icon Lisa Eisner. Cadillac-driving Ms. Eisner is–though 100 percent female and mother of two–the geezer-chic movement’s earliest and most enthusiastic proponent. I interviewed her on my most recent trip about this passion for upscale, customized sleazeball style. “I just got a new Caddie with a rag top–I got the ‘gold package.’ I’m in heaven,” said Ms. Eisner by phone from her Laguna getaway. I asked her how and when her inner geezer first asserted itself. “I was at the Sammy Davis estate sale about 10 years ago, and I just went bonkers. I bought a ton of his jackets and shirts–he was tiny–and I wear them with pride. Every garment had some schmantzy label in the neck. One day it hit me–duh!–maybe some of these stores were still in existence?”
As it turned out, Lisa was right. The well-buffed fingernails of geezer chic had yet to loosen their grip on the 90210 zip code. With some pointers from La Eisner and her Greybull partner, Roman Alonso, I explored the geezer underbelly of the West Coast–and I hit pay dirt. Here is my geezer-chic guide to Beverly Hills:
1. Anto Distinguished Shirtmaker (formerly Nat Wise), located at 268 North Beverly Drive, is the most historic, Rat Pack-ish and fascinating store in Beverly Hills. The walls of this custom-shirt store are smothered with framed 8-by-10′s of the great geezers of yore. And owner Anto Sepetjian and his sons, Jack and Ken, have the archive and patterns to fill your custom dreams: Ironic and non-ironic geezers can order custom Rat Pack shirts where Frank Sinatra used to–and Jerry Lewis and Frankie Avalon still do!
After trying on various models and slobbering over bolts of gorgeous shirt fabric, I ordered a style called “The Lady’s Man.” This $350 shirt was Sammy Davis’ fave: It’s an unbelievably groovy, fitted evening-ish number with a giant (four-inch) rolled button-down collar, lace-trimmed (optional) placket and cuffs and pearl buttons. It is cut without tails; two cheeky slits adorn each hip. It’s better worn outside the pants. Block out two hours from your schedule on your next L.A. trip. (Call 310-278-4500 and ask for Jack or Ken.)
2. After an exhausting shirt-buying spree, you will need sustenance. Stagger up the street to Nate ‘n Al: This beneath-the-valley-of-the-ultra-geezers deli, at 414 North Beverly Drive, has everything a hungry guy might enjoy, including caramel-colored booths. P.S.: Nate ‘n Al can cater your intervention. A tray of finger sandwiches (50 trimmed triple-deckers) is $75. (Call 24 hours ahead of time; 310-274-0101.)
3. At 341 North Camden Drive, directly opposite Mr. Chow, lurks the curmudgeonly and utterly fabulous Jack Taylor. Mr. Taylor, a brilliant raconteur and an unbelievable tailor, is geezer royalty. A custom suit costs $2,750, a sport coat is $2,500 and slacks are $650. (Call 310-274-7276 for an appointment.) His badinage and devotion to an elegant silhouette have, despite the cost attendant with his bespoke skills, attracted a new generation of Hollywood bucks: Jason Schwartzman, Justin and David Murdock, Roman Alonso, Dewey Nicks and Peter Getty have all had the inside of their legs measured by Jack. Buckesses, too: During my riveting chat with Mr. Taylor, modish costume designer Susan Becker, wife of director Harold Becker, dropped by for a fitting. “It’s going right up my butt,” exclaimed Ms. Becker from the fitting room as she tried on a deliciously dykey pinstriped suit. Needless to say, the maestro fixed the problem before you could say “pick-stitched lap-seams.”
Before I left the store, I asked Mr. Taylor to reel off the names of a few of his more illustrious geezer clients: “Cary Grant, Danny Thomas.” I asked about Merv. “No, he was always more of a Fred Hayman guy, if you know what I mean. Where was I? Oh, yes … President Truman, Sid Caesar, John Wayne, Charles Bronson–shall I go on?” I begged him not to stop, and he didn’t: “Hal Roach, Jack Lemmon, Monty Hall …. ” I was in geezer heaven.