Prohibition Parties, Skinny-Dipping Celebrities, and Gambling Schemes at the Casa Del Mar in Santa Monica

by Claire Van Winkle
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Legendary hotels attract legendary people, and Hotel Casa Del Mar is no exception. Surrounded by mountains, canyons, rolling hills, and a beachfront property to rival the rest, Santa Monica has its high place in the world. It’s no wonder that A-list celebrities like Marilyn Monroe, Oprah, and Jennifer Aniston have graced the halls of this luxurious seaside hotel over the years.

Listed as an exclusive member of the Leading Hotels of the World and celebrated on the National Register of Historic Places, this stunning Pacific palace boasts lavish furnishings, stunning seaside views, and, ahem, the ghosts of former celebrities, naval officers, and rehabilitation patients.

Yes, you read that right. If the walls of the historic Casa Del Mar property could talk, they would tell you about the wild 1920s prohibition parties held on the terrace, the skinny-dipping celebrities, the glamorous beachside barbeques, the elusive gambling schemes, and the slew of legendary people who spent the night. They might also whisper about the property’s years as a naval base or the drug-rehabilitation patients who once lived there. It’s the stories and mysteries of the 20th century that make this updated, art-deco Mediterranean paradise all the more appealing and why the hotel has enticed so many famous architects, athletes, actors, and businessmen over the years.

These juicy stories keep Hotel Casa del Mar Santa Monica alive and make us want to pull up a chair, grab a mojito by the beach, and listen closely — very closely.

The Roaring 20s at Casa Del Mar

It’s hard to find a place that feels wholly unique or capable of transporting you back in time to the bygone era of American glamour. But, tucked away on the beach just 16 miles outside of Los Angeles, is the secret hideaway of Hotel Casa del Mar with exclusive charms all its own.

In May of 1926, Jack and Til Harter (brothers who owned H&H holdings company), opened Club Casa del Mar, an elaborate beachfront club hotel that cost an outrageous (at the time) $2 million dollars to build. The brothers spared no expense.

Decorated with plush oriental rugs, hand-tiled Spanish floors, and elaborate bronze statues, the club took off as the most opulent and exclusive destination on the Santa Monica Coast — hosting the elite Hollywood starlets and silent film actors like Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, and Greta Garbo for wild boozy parties, elaborate floor shows, and expensive dinners.

The social scene was second to none. Illegal prohibition booze flowed freely at Club Casa Del Mar, party-goers skinny dipped in the heated indoor pool, and business executives gambled away their fortunes at the illegal slot machines and horse betting circles upstairs. On top of that, the club hosted elaborate aquatic shows in the Olympic-sized plunge pool, ran weekly volleyball tournaments, and…rumor has it…that the infamous prohibition bootlegger Tony Cornero was never far away, running an elite gambling circle just 3 miles offshore from the club (in international waters).

Casa del Mar was great-Gatsby lawless. Even the local newspaper, The Evening Outlook, turned a blind eye to the illegal drinking and gambling going on. What choice did they have? Their biggest investors and advertisers were all members of the club.

The posh parties and social starlet gatherings raged on for many years — catering to the city’s elite and allowing the well-heeled to rub elbows on the Santa Monica shore. At its peak, the club had around 2,000 members.

Unlike many of the other beach clubs in the area, Club Casa del Mar managed to survive the trials of the Great Depression. However, the club closed down in 1941, after the government took over the building to house World War II U.S. Naval Officers and protect the Californian shore from a Japanese attack.

Casa Del Mar Becomes a Naval Base

In 1941, the government purchased a number of beach clubs on the Santa Monica shore and converted them into redistribution centers for enlisted World War II crews. Casa del Mar became one of these centers. The goal of the redistribution centers was to rotate men out of combat and save lives. The men who stayed at the center were required to rest, recuperate, and recover from the struggles of war overseas before heading out on their next mission. After spending weeks at war, the juxtaposition of spending time in an elaborate former beach club (packed with swimming pools, gymnasiums, and ritzy hotel rooms) must have been something else.

But the Casa del Mar property provided a perfect recovery facility for the Navy recruits (nothing of its size, sort, or sunny weather existed anywhere else on the west coast). Atlantic City, Miami, and Santa Ana were the only other similar compounds in the U.S., and the luxurious accommodations and seaside breezes brought many American heroes back to life.

When the war ended, Til Harter, one of the brothers who founded the club, returned to restore the Grand Dame to her former glory. But, things weren’t the same as they had been in the 20s and 30s. After failing to revive the social scene, he was forced to close the club in 1960.

The Synanon Foundation Moves In: Rehabilitation Center or Cult?

Casa Del Mar’s most interesting residents may have been the Synanon members who occupied the space from 1967-1978. In 1967, Charles Dederich, the owner of the radical drug-treatment program, the Synanon Foundation, purchased the rights to the Casa del Mar property and began hosting in-patient therapy and sessions there. His rehabilitation program garnered widespread acclaim and collected great wealth before its eventual association with violence and cult behavior.

In order to understand how this massive movement and eventual cult spread in Santa Monica and eventually all across the United States, you have to understand Dederich’s background.

Dederich had a rough start in life. His alcoholic father died in an automobile accident when he was four, and his brother died just four years later. Dederich (also an alcoholic) dropped out of the University of Notre Dame and moved across the country to sunny California to participate in an LSD study at UCLA as a potential cure for recovering alcoholics. Dederich called the study “the most important single experience of his life.”

Around the same time, he started attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and was instantly hooked. With a new sense of confidence and a new supportive community of recovering addicts, Diedrich’s amassed a strong following. In 1958, he started an organization (which eventually became known as the Synanon Foundation) to help all kinds of addicts (not just alcoholics). It was a revolutionary idea at the time. Prior to the late 50s, addicts were considered hopelessly incurable. Most of them ended up in jail or in hospital beds for life. But Dederich’s foundation helped to convince the masses that addicts could be saved. Many of his patients ended up as interns and then therapists themselves (and then sometimes patients again). This tough-love, self-help no-doctor approach was an important and positive contribution to society and was adopted by future therapy programs around the world.

Before long even non-addicts wanted to join in — simply for the community. Many addicts and non-addicts also came to Casa del Mar to play The Game, a group therapy session invented by Dederich where participants sat in a circle and confronted each other with brutal honesty. Confrontational questions like “who is the most boring person in the room,” or “what do you hate most about this group,” were intended to provoke self-discovery. After years of societal repression, many found this honesty incredibly refreshing, and The Game attracted more and more middle-class participants from Los Angeles who sought alternative lifestyles.

At its height, the Synanon Foundation had over 1,300 followers and $30 million dollars in assets (businesses, properties, and schools across the country). For years, celebrities like Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling, Ray Bradbury, Jane Fonda, Steve Allen, attended parties and evenings at the foundation in Santa Monica. There were some pretty rad parties at the Casa del Mar property (attracting the likes of Los Angeles Celebrities) since many of the recovering addicts were jazz players, and the delightful grounds and beachfront property made for an exotic escape.

This new audience shifted the mission of the Synanon Foundation, and soon, the goal was to create a Utopian community. Members were encouraged to stay forever and adopt the Synanon code of conduct. Although backed by his community, this Utopian mission spiraled out of control, with Diedrich’s dislike for children causing him to insist members have abortions, get vasectomies, allow their children to be raised communally, and shave their heads for their sins. True believers lived together and followed Diedrich’s every command.

As the word got out about the abortions and violence, more and more reporters and lawyers started looking into the foundation and the premises at Casa del Mar. Paul Morantz, a prominent attorney, filed a lawsuit against Synanon for kidnapping members against their will. When he arrived at the Santa Monica compound to do some background research, he immediately knew something was wrong. Everyone had bald heads and was wearing overalls. When he started asking questions, he was threatened.

The nail in the coffin for the Synanon foundation was when Dederich and two other Synanon members attempted to commit murder by leaving a four-and-a-half-foot rattlesnake in Morantz’s mailbox. The deadly snake bit Morantz. Thanks to the quick action of his neighbors, Morantz survived the attack, but spent the next week in the hospital. Dederich was charged with a $10,000 personal fine, 5 years of probation, and a $17 million dollar fine from the foundation for conspiring to murder Morantz. The Synanon Foundation crumbled without the support of its leader, and in 1978, the Casa del Mar property changed hands once again — becoming Nathan Pritikin’s Longevity Center.

Pritikin Longevity Nutritional Center

In 1978, Nathan Pritikin, an inventor, author, and nutritionist took over the property, using it as a health resort and residential program for nutrition and exercise rehabilitation. Pritikin was a brilliant University of Chicago dropout, who made his fortune developing over two dozen patents for companies like General Electric, Corning Glass, Honeywell and other businesses.

Doctors diagnosed Pritikin with heart disease in 1957. Baffled by his diagnosis, Pritikin spent the next few years researching communities around the world with the lowest concentrations of heart disease. In conjunction with the research of Dr. Lester Morrison in California, he discovered that vegetarian communities who ate low-fat, high-fiber foods experienced decreased reported significantly fewer incidences of heart disease. Pritikin adopted this diet, reduced his own cholesterol by over 150 points, and cured his heart problems.

Over the next several years he invested in additional research and opened up his health resort in Santa Monica (inside the peaceful Casa del Mar beachfront property). For fees of $4,000-$6,000, Pritikin accepted patients into his center for a 26-day program of intensive nutritional education, exercise, and diet adaptations. In the late 1970s, 60 Minutes, produced an episode on the health resort, which followed three men as the dramatically improved their health and eliminated the need for their former medications. The center continued to operate at the dreamy seaside property for 20 years — closing only briefly in 1994 to rebuild after the earthquake. Today, Pritikin’s legend lives on at the new center in Miami, and his research continues to be supported by the American Heart Association to improve health, reduce heart disease, treat type 2 diabetes, obesity, and hypertension.

Casa Del Mar Returns to its Former Beach Club Glory and Becomes A National Landmark

After changing hands several times over the years, the Edward Thomas Hospitality Group (ETHC) (owners of neighboring Shutter Beach Hotel) purchased the property in 1997. The group spent over $50 million dollars to gut, renovate, and restore the former 1920s gem to its proper glory and to preserve the ancient Hollywood charm that once flourished there. With sweeping views of the sea, luxurious Mediterranean flair, intricate Spanish tiles, white marble baths, fine Italian sheets, a plunge pool, spa and health club, ocean-front dining, this major makeover returned the hotel to its state of effortless elegance. In 1997, the Hotel Casa Del Mar was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Celebrities like Jennifer Aniston, Oprah, Shaquille O’Neill, Sharon Stone, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and the Indiana Pacers, have all reveled in the charm of bygone Hollywood eras here, kicking back to the sounds of Sinatra and Louis Armstrong, sipping mojitos, listening to the cool pacific waves crash in the distance, and spilling ancient Hollywood secrets.

In 2008, the Hotel Casa Del Mar Santa Monica received a multi-million dollar upgrade from the Los Angeles designer, Darrell Schmidt, who outfitted the 129-room hotel with an elegant beach vibe, soft and simple lighting, and 1920s design elements such as velvet drapes, bronze furnishings, and retro shades of elegant greens, golds, deep blues, and apricots. Jennifer Aniston fell in love with design, and used Casa Del Mar as a set for two of her movies Just Go with It (2011) and Friends with Money (2006).

Obama White House Designer Gives the Hotel Case Del Mar a Major Makeover

In 2015, Hotel Casa del Mar enlisted the help of the Obama-appointed White House designer, Michael Smith, to complete yet another exquisite upgrade to the property. Smith, a five time recipient of Architectural Digest’s ‘The AD 100’ award, made upgrades to the rooms utilizing rich yet beachy textures, marble floors, and walnut pieces to restore the beachfront oasis. The most talked about renovation was the lobby — redone with beautiful Spanish tiles, hand-blown glass beads, striped cabana-styled sitting areas, hanging plants, and coastal artwork from around the world. Smith also updated the hotel’s Terrazza Lounge restaurant — adding floor to ceiling windows to maximize the ravishing ocean views and incorporating gems from around the world like opulent turquoise tiles, wicker chairs, palm trees, and hand-carved wooden tables.

Today, the historic Hotel Casa Del Mar is a frequent setting for celebrity interviews, see-and-be-seen lunches at the properties two restaurants, society fundraisers, and health and wellness retreats at the eco-friendly spa. It’s fair to assume that all of the former residents of the property from the Hollywood starlets to the Pritikin health and fitness participants have contributed to the current design in one way or another.

It’s not just the ethereal beauty and art-deco Hollywood glam that draw guests from around the world to Hotel Casa Del Mar Santa Monica. The stories and secrets behind this seaside hideaway make it an intriguing destination and true cultural gem that you have to visit to truly understand.

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