Yes, I’m a friend of Dorothy. I learnt the true meaning of this phrase on my recent visit to West Hollywood. Nothing to do with the Wizard of Oz it seems – but a saying birthed in this micro-city. ‘Dorothy’ in fact was Dorothy Parker, American literary darling and queen of the scene, who lived in WeHo during her brief stint with Paramount Studios. In the 1930s, she threw notorious queer parties and the La-la-land gay set would declare “I’m a friend of Dorothy”, to get past the doorman – it quickly became part of the vernacular.
I’m told this fact as I sip an “Amuse-Booze” from a china teacup at the ‘Melrose Umbrella Company’ – a speakeasy-style bar on, well, Melrose. I question the bartender on the contents of my pre-cocktail cocktail, but he says that he’d have to kill me if he told me. ‘Mystery’ seems to be a bit of a thing in WeHo at the moment (in case you’re wondering, it tasted like white sangria to me). From the growing popularity of speakeasy bars, pop-up clubs, secret gigs, underground art shows and off-menu food items – to the penchant of the locals to be privy to the latest gossip as it breaks (time literally stops for a retweet), or part of the latest trends – don’t even start me on how many conversations I had on the benefits of juicing kale.
Being ‘in-the-know’ in West Hollywood has great social currency, a kind of one-upmanship. In a city where you’re stressed to impress, it’s all about knowing or doing something, or someone, or going somewhere that your peers don’t yet know about. It was a running joke of mine to make stuff up – “Have you heard about that new ‘Pearl Necklace’ boutique on Santa Monica Boulevard” or “They closed DBA down to open TBA, but they’ve not yet announced where it’s going to be”, to the nodding agreement of my audience. I reveled in hearing a rumour that I started, being told back to me days later.
Mystery has always been in the air in WeHo, ever since Prohibition in the 1920s – the city’s defining moment. This little part of Los Angeles, back then called Sherman, rose in notoriety, sitting in a little pocket outside the jurisdiction of both the Los Angeles and Beverly Hill’s police departments. Alcohol flowed freely despite being banned elsewhere, although drinking and good times in the city involved cracking a code. Bar a few brave venue owners, the mobster operators made sure to keep the underground strictly underground, but with that came an ever evolving and fascinating programme of surprise performances, nightlife and venues – complete with their own secret code and social networks to get the word out.
Exclusivity was also key, it was important that the Tinseltown elite were never seen breaking the law, so they had their own high-end drinking dens. With that came a whole group of aspirational wannabes, desperate to know where they were and how to get in. At the other end of the scale, blue-collar Angelinos were flocking to the bars along Santa Monica, coming in on the Hollywood Subway system to join the revelry (yes, the subway existed. The line opened in 1925 and the underground tunnels and stations are still there beneath the streets, much of it left like a time-capsule since it closed in 1955). This lawless backdrop, alongside the ‘anything-goes’ attitude and bohemian atmosphere made it a haven for gay people – yet another private community, with its own codes and ways to (mis)behave.
The popularity of the city with the creative set brought with it wealth and a reputation of glamour. Home-ownership by the Hollywood elite grew – fabulous mansions and bungalows sprung up in the area, complete with their own party rooms, pool decks and entertaining spaces. Dorothy Parker moved to the area as Prohibition ended in 1933 and essentially kick-started the scene with her lavish house parties, still infamous to this day, securing her place in the WeHo hall of fame.
Not much has changed since then – over 80 years later, that same vibe exists, making WeHo arguably the gayest city in America, and also one of the most secretive playgrounds to visit. I found myself sat at a supper club concept dreamt up by a gay couple in one such bungalow. It’s everything you imagined of a LA home – a secret garden, pool and an extensive, not to mention expensive, art collection. One weekend each month, Brad and Giovanni open up their home to other gay people, for a price, to feast on Gio’s delicious Italian cooking, network with the homoglitterati and enjoy their beautiful home – by invitation only. It has turned into a lucrative sideline that has made them the talk of the town. After 20 years in WeHo, Brad had had enough of the monotonous Boystown scene – so he decided to bring the party to him. He liked being part of this counter-culture and felt that exclusivity and shared enjoyment among a small group of people was the answer to a growingly impersonal and commercialised society. I couldn’t agree more.
This is the same thinking behind the private members clubs that are all the rage in the city. When Soho House West Hollywood opened its doors five years ago, there were many who predicted its imminent closure. After all, how can you out-A-list the A-list in a city full of them? But, in just a short period of time, Soho House has become the most exclusive club in LA. Its admission and membership policy is as mysterious as its guests, but I’ve been told it places creativity over status – reality-TV stars are rarely admitted – to much hoo-ha, I’m sure.
Membership to any such club in the city has its privileges, but to access this exclusivity you’re required to have the right credentials – and these are mainly demographic – social and financial status, profession, powerful friends. However, in my time in WeHo, I found that the one credential that served me best in discovering the secrets of the city was my curiousity – this investment was non-monetary, it cost only my effort and time. Nothing was more exciting to me than uncovering the hidden, deeply personal or less discussed elements in the urban fabric and meeting, or learning all about the people, passion and often colourful anecdotes and stories behind them.
This finally dawned on me as I walked through a grocery store with the same friend that told me about Dorothy Parker. We were nursing a hangover from the evening before – that secret drink at the bar in Melrose kicked off quite a night out in West Hollywood, ending up at a party called ‘Whore Haus’ at ‘Mickey’s’ – we’ll just leave it at that. We stumble upon a little corner of the store undergoing some refurbishment. Behind the cordon, were the remnants of a restaurant with pictures of celebrities on its walls – another secret piece of WeHo history. My friend told me that this was once ‘Chasen’s’, restaurant to the stars, the in-place to eat, until it was engulfed by the supermarket. Legend has it that Donna Summer wrote ‘She works hard for the money’ on toilet paper while in the bathroom.
West Hollywood gives so much to those willing to look. Behind the glossy, uber-positive lifestyles and the rainbow-tinted gay aesthetic, a visitor can take a lot from this city and unlock the secrets specifically relevant to them – from the sophisticated, to the gritty, to the downright ridiculous. In my short time I experienced so much that was unexpected – yes, I stayed in fine hotels, tipped the go-go boys at the Abbey, ate at the best and most talked about places – but I also saw the Hills from a random viewpoint, came face to face with the ghost of Chaplin, browsed first-edition books and film scripts, drank Negronis in a 60s airport lounge-inspired bar, was the only person in a white t-shirt at a gay goth night and ate at a restaurant that was once home to a sex cult – all within two square miles of city.
For everything else you need to know about West Hollywood, visit their website at www.visitwesthollywood.com
1. The view from the West Hollywood Park Tennis Courts at 647 North San Vincente Boulevard is sublime. Swap your ID for a free key card at the first floor cashier’s office.
2. Book Soup is a great place to pick up a copy of OutThere, but next door, down a nondescript alleyway, you’ll find Harvey at MP – probably sat in a chair outside what is, by far, the world’s most spectacular first-edition bookstore. www.mysterypierbooks.com
3. Relive the speakeasy, visit WeHo’s secret drinking dens – The Roger, Now Boarding and The Surly Goat are great starting points.
4. First built in 1924, this mansion on North Sweetzer Avenue was once home to the little tramp, Charlie Chaplin. www.thecharliehotel.com
5. Make sure you research the secret menu items of WeHo’s best eateries online, or risk missing the house favourites.
6. WeHo’s biggest secret? You can easily walk everywhere. It’s not the done thing in L.A., but since when have you ever been conventional?
The inside track
Stuart Sandford is an artist whose photographic, video, sculpture, and installation work has been exhibited across the world. In 2010, he curated the group show ‘HUNG’ and co-curated ‘Boy BANG Boy’. Currently based in LA, he is also a writer and screenwriter currently developing his first feature film. www.stuartsandford.co.uk
Harlowe – A place with old school Hollywood décor, where a mixed and relaxed midweek crowd mingle and sip great cocktails. www.harlowebar.com
Guisados – this Eastside-born taco spot finally comes to the Westside, and brings with it super-tasty, authentic Mexican flavours. Try the sampler plate. www.guisados.co
OHWOW Gallery always has something worth seeing. www.oh-wow.com