20 Jun 2015
Story Continues Below
In 1935, the macabre came to the Knickerbocker (and really never left) when the Pacific Coast Association of Magicians held their third annual convention at the hotel. Bess Houdini, a magician and the widow of the legendary Harry Houdini, attended the convention. Bystanders at the hotel and in Hollywood were privy to the magicians' high jinx:
Among the free thrills planned for the public today by the visitors are an automobile race on Hollywood Boulevard with blindfolded drivers at the wheels at 12:30 p.m., and an escape from a strait jacket by a magician while hanging upside down outside the convention hotel. 4
A year later, on October 31, 1936, an event occurred which would seal the Knickerbocker's legendary status. Before he passed away on Halloween 1926, Harry Houdini had told Bess that if he died and there was an afterlife, he would come back to her to prove it once and for all. For ten years Bess had been holding a séance every Halloween, waiting for Harry to give her a sign. The last séance, conducted on the roof of the Knickerbocker, was a media sensation. A young L.A. Times reporter named Gene Sherman recalled being sent to cover the story:
A jury of highly reputable witnesses, including superior judge Charles Fricke was on hand. The séance itself was conducted by a gentleman named Edward Saint, a confidant of the magician's widow. It was a dismal, drizzly night. On a red plush carpet stood a table on which rested a spirit trumpet, a bell, a piece of chalk, two slates, a pencil, and a black pad of paper. Mr. Saint urged Mr. Houdini to juggle the table, ring the bell, spring through the trumpet, or do something to manifest his presence. Mrs. Houdini said, "Please Harry, I've been waiting so long." The solemn cadence of "Pomp and Circumstance" drifted through a loudspeaker. The automobile horns of the impatient living honked mournfully below. Nothing happened -- other than an air of eerie tenseness. The meeting broke up and I made my way back to the office where I guiltily admitted I had failed to get the interview. Under the circumstances, I wasn't too much to blame. 5
Knickerbocker Hotel interior | Security Pacific National Bank Collectio, Los Angeles Public Library
I drank all the liquor I could get my hands on, including Benzedrine...What do you expect me to do? I get liquor in my orange juice-in my coffee. Must I starve to death to obey your laws?"
--Frances Farmer to a judge, after her arrest at the Knickerbocker 6
After the unsuccessful Houdini séance, stories from the Knickerbocker seem to shift from screwball to a darker shade of film noir. The beautiful, mentally ill actress Frances Farmer, now the legendary archetype of Hollywood's tragic underbelly, lived at the hotel, drinking herself into oblivion. In 1943, police knocked on her door at noon, a warrant for unpaid DUI fines in hand. They eventually opened the door with a passkey, where they found Farmer naked and in the middle of a drunken, manic episode. She refused to cooperate with the cops, clawing and scratching. Eventually she was wrapped in her own shower curtain and carried through the hotel kicking, spitting, and screaming. In one reporter's words: "She did not surrender peacefully." 7
Most of the action at the Knickerbocker was witnessed by Speck, the beloved English setter of hotel manager Jack Matthews. Speck could often be seen ringing his master's doorbell, and almost unbelievably, was said to be able to use the elevators on his own- pushing the elevator button with his paw. He always let hotel guests enter and exit first. 8
During the war, a group of pioneering United Airline stewardesses called the Knickerbocker home in between flights that often involved the military's war effort:
There is a cosmopolitan atmosphere about the girls' arrivals and departures as they whisk into town and out again to the airport, but in the apartment it is more like a sorority house. They relax, play the radio or take a sunbath on the sundeck of the hotel. Some of the girls prefer to eat in the apartment rather than go out to a restaurant, so a little domesticity appears as they don aprons and prepare meals. There's lots of chatter about where they have been and funny experiences they've had. But the "do not talk" slogan of all airlines is observed strictly by these girls on military subjects. 9
Front entrance of the Knickerbocker Hotel | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Countless guests and residents at the hotel no doubt unknowingly walked by a lost looking, elegant old gentleman swinging his signature cane through the lobby. This man, who was in large part responsible for the birth of "Hollywood," was pioneering director D.W. Griffith. During the last year of his life, the forgotten, out of work Griffith lived an "exceedingly quiet life" in his room at the Knickerbocker, spending most of his time alone with his books and papers. In the early evenings, Griffith would wander up and down Hollywood Boulevard unrecognized, often weaving in and out of multiple bars. Screenwriter Frances Marion recalled a heartbreaking scene at a handprint ceremony at Grauman's Chinese Theater, when she spotted a bewildered, stooped Griffith "hovering at the edge of the crowd." Unbelievably, he had never been asked for his handprints. On July 23, 1948, he suffered a massive stroke in his room at the hotel. He died later that day.
As the '40s turned into the '50s, Hollywood became less and less trendy, as celebrities and society moved increasingly toward west L.A. However, as the Knickerbocker's cachet faded, it increasingly became an out of the way rendezvous spot for famous folks craving privacy. Ill-fated lovers Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio would often meet in the hotel bar for incognito dates. In January 1954, it is claimed they spent their honeymoon in the hotel. That same year, legendary architect Paul R. Williams oversaw the hotel's renovation. Elvis Presley spent time in a newly renovated room in 1956, when producer Hal Wallace brought him to Hollywood to star in "Love Me Tender."
I am sorry to do this in this manner. Please see that [my husband] Eliot is taken care of. Alden take over the business. Get someone very good to design and be happy. I love you all. Irene
--Los Angeles Times, Nov 16, 1962 10
By 1962, the faded Knickerbocker was no longer a sexy place to hide, but people still hid out there. That year a sophisticated middle-aged woman checked into the Knickerbocker under an assumed name. Her real name was Irene Gibbons, though professionally she went by a single name -- Irene. During the golden age of Hollywood she had been a celebrated costume designer, dressing stars like Ingrid Bergman, Marlene Dietrich, Carole Lombard, and her great friend Joan Crawford. After retiring from film work she had started her own boutique, and continued to dress many of her famous friends. A week before her arrival at the Knickerbocker she had shown her new collection at the California Fashion Show in Beverly Hills, telling one reporter, "Anything new and beautiful makes one think beautiful thoughts!"
Intersection of Hollywood and Vine, with the Knickerbocker Hotel in the background | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
But Irene's thoughts were no longer beautiful. Worried about finances, and devastated by her husband's recent stroke and the death of her unrequited love Gary Cooper, she checked into the Knickerbocker. She proceeded to get drunk and write multiple suicide notes, including one to fellow hotel guests that read, "Sorry I had to drink so much to get the courage to do this." She then slit her wrists. At 3:20 p.m., still not dead, she jumped to her death from a hotel window. Her body landed on the roof of the hotel lobby.
In 1966, longtime Knickerbocker resident William Frawley, better known as curmudgeonly Fred Mertz from I Love Lucy, suffered a heart attack while walking down Hollywood Boulevard. His nurse dragged him into the hotel's lobby and an ambulance was called. He died at the hospital.
The now dumpy Knickerbocker went through multiple owners, as Hollywood Boulevard became increasingly seedy and unsafe. In 1972, the hotel was converted into senior citizen housing for moderate to low income residents. It is unsurprising that now many ghosts supposedly haunt the Knickerbocker. It is said a beloved bellhop named Roger walks the halls, while Marilyn Monroe stares at herself in the powder room vanity. Many anonymous hotel patrons have been seen. Doors slam on their own. In the most ironic twist, Rudolph Valentino is often sighted, even though he died four years before the Knickerbocker opened. That's Hollywood for you.