There are plenty of storied hotels around the world, but there are few hotels that share as many legends and Hollywood secrets as the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles.
Constructed in 1923, this iconic landmark put Los Angeles on the map as an American metropolis. Forget the orange groves and oil reserves that attracted the region’s first residents: the Biltmore Hotel established Los Angeles as a global wonder, capable of turning out a galaxy of stars and hosting presidents and dignitaries from around the world.
When it was built, the Biltmore was the largest and most opulent hotel west of Chicago. It’s panache and old-world grandeur attracted stars and investors from the get-go. On its opening night, over 3,000 guests attended an elaborate party, complete with singing canaries, a seven-course meal, movie stars, and a symphony orchestra.
Since that time, this Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument has played host to a golden era prohibition nightclub, the Academy Awards, the 1960 Democratic National Convention, the International Olympic Committee, and a lion’s share of starlit sagas and ghost-tales.
Everyone from Al Capone to John F. Kennedy has spent the night at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel. And the Beaux-arts building has served as the background for iconic American films like Chinatown, Ghostbusters, and Wedding Crashers. Among its many claims to fame, the Biltmore has also made recent debuts in Mad Men episodes, Taylor Swift music videos, American Idol Finales, and Grammy Award Afterparties. It continues to be the city’s swankiest see-and-been-seen destination.
So hitch your wagon to the stars, the stories behind this glamorous hotel are worth a listen.
Vatican and White House Muralist, Giovanni Battista Smeraldi, Leaves His Mark
At the request of the hotel’s founder, the architectural firm, Schultze & Weaver, designed the Millennium Biltmore Hotel to exude Spanish-Italian Renaissance charm and lavish elements. The group spared no expense during the hotel’s construction, utilizing marble fountains, crystal chandeliers, bronze fixtures, Corinthian columns, and hand-painted ceilings.
Schultze & Weaver commissioned the Italian artist, Giovanni Battista Smeraldi, previously known for his works in the Blue Room of the White House and the Vatican, to complete the Michelangelo-esk ceilings that continue to dazzle guests and attract international attention.
Smeraldi spent over seven months hand painting angels (for the city of Angels) and mythical creatures on the frescoed ceilings in the main Galleria and Crystal Ballroom. The murals were so popular in the 1920s and 30s that the Biltmore Hotel had to hire a bouncer to manage and control the crowds. If the bouncer witnessed a member of the public gawking at the artwork for too long, he would quietly slip them a business card to let them know that they had overstayed their welcome.
Smeraldi returned to later in life to declare that of all the murals he had done, that the Biltmore was his finest work. He died of a heart attack shortly after his last visit to the hotel. Since his death, his apprentice has carried on the immense task of restoring the glamorous works of art.
The Roaring 20s: The Allure of A Bygone Speakeasy Era
During the 1920s, the Millennium Biltmore Hotel developed an after-dark reputation as Los Angeles’ hottest social scene. The hotel’s Gold Room, outfitted with hidden doors to evade the police, served elegant gin cocktails to a melting pot of celebrities and socialites. Stars like Gloria Swanson, Theda Bara, Charlie Chaplin, and Clark Gable came to drink and dance the night away. Legend has it that a slew of politicians used to sneak in after dark to misbehave in a secret bedroom that was located off of Olive Street. Nightclub owner, Baron Long, also set up a hidden window above the French doors in the Gold Room, where he invited members of the paparazzi to snap away and get the gossip.
The Academy Awards at the Biltmore Hotel
In addition to the Biltmore’s trendy night scene, the hotel’s golden era contributed a number of modern marvels to the film and fashion industry. In 1927, over 300 leaders in the film industry gathered in the Biltmore’s iconic Crystal Ballroom for the second ver Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The first awards show took place at The Roosevelt Hollywood, but it was at the Biltmore that that American film producer, Luis B. Mayer, came up with the idea for the Academy Awards when he suggested (half-jokingly) that cinematic achievements should be recognized on a basis of merit rather than money.
MGM Art Director, Cedric Gibbons, was also present at the meeting — where he reportedly doodled a design for the awards on one of the Biltmore’s linen napkins. Gibbons’ sketch was later used by the sculptor, George Stanley, to create the art-deco Oscars statuette that is still used today.
Between 1935 and the onset of World War II, the Millennium Biltmore Hotel hosted several Academy Awards Shows and welcomed thousands of Tinseltown celebrities including Bette Davis, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Jimmy Stewart, Claudette Colbert, Joan Fontaine, and Ginger Rogers.
Fashion Icons and High Tea Tradition at the Biltmore Hotel
Socialite and designer, Peggy Hamilton, played a large role in 1920s fashion and the high tea traditions that continue on at the Biltmore today. Peggy believed in Los Angeles’ vision to transform American culture, and her legendary gowns were social staples at the Biltmore’s high-society events like the Biltmore Gala and the 1924 Aviation Ball.
After her debut at the Biltmore Gala, Peggy quickly became ‘the most photographed woman in the world’ and took on a role as a fashion editor for the Los Angeles Times. Her teatime fashion shows at the Biltmore garnered international attention and supported local LA designers — turning the world’s eye from NYC to LA. Celebrities like Joan Crawford and Dolores Del Rio joined her for tea at the Biltmore, and during the height of her fame, she served as the official hostess of Los Angeles at the 1932 Olympic Ceremony.
Today, you can still see her Biltmore gala dress on display in the hotel’s Crystal Ballroom and enjoy a cup of old-fashioned afternoon tea and pistachio cake in the hotel’s elegant Rendezvous Court.
The Biltmore Hotel & Its Patriotic World War II Days
During the heyday of World War II, the Los Angeles metropolitan area grew faster than any other American city. It was the boomtown of all boomtowns, packed with disembarking soldiers and producing war supplies left and right. In order to give back to the country, The Biltmore Hotel served as a military rest station, hosting soldiers who were back from combat on cots up on the second floor. The hotel’s ample luxuries, swimming pool, and lavish features stood in stark contrast to the accommodations that the soldiers occupied overseas. During the war, the USO also set up in the hotel, and nightclub owner, Baron Long’s, yacht was used as General MacArthur’s headquarters.
Biltmore’s Grand Avenue Bar and LGBTQ History
During the 1940s and 50s, Biltmore’s Grand Avenue Bar served a rendezvous point for Los Angeles’ gay community. Located near the “run,” a strip of bars, burlesque theaters, tattoo parlors and dance halls, the bar provided a fun and glamorous gathering spot for Los Angeles’ vibrant and active LGBTQ community (sailors, uniformed soldiers, and local residents alike) — further solidifying Los Angeles’ status as one of the most liberal and progressive cities in the world.
In addition to the Hotel’s LGBTQ-friendly Grand Avenue Bar, the Millennium Biltmore Hotel also served as the location for an important gay civil rights movement. In 1971, the Biltmore hosted the International Psychologists & Psychiatrists conference. At the event, several scholars proposed electroshock therapy as a cure for homosexuality. The Gay Liberation Front protested at the conference — opening one of the first dialogues between mental health professionals and the gay community. Two years later, after decades of misclassification, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from the list of mental disorders.
The Millennium Biltmore Hotel & Its Haunted History: The Ghosts Who Walk the Halls
Home to the glamorous golden era parties, the early Academy awards, World War II soldiers, presidents, gangsters, musicians, and storied people from around the globe, it should come as no surprise that this age-old hotel attracts the supernatural — or that it is the backdrop for the 1984 Ghostbusters film.
Over the years, employees have commented on the sounds of phantom parties coming from the first-floor ballroom and strange drops in temperature occurring throughout the hotel. Multiple guests have reported a military nurse ghost roaming the halls of the second floor in addition to a giggly girl ghost on the ninth floor.
But the Biltmore’s most famous paranormal resident has to be the ghost of Elizabeth Short, otherwise known as the Black Dahlia. Elizabeth Short was last seen at the Biltmore Hotel in 1947, shortly before she was brutally murdered and mutilated — a crime that has gone down in the books as one of California’s most recognizable and unsolved murders ever. Guests have reported seeing Elizabeth’s ghost on the 10th and 11th floors as well as on elevator rides throughout the hotel. Not to worry though, despite the occasional spook, the ghosts are harmless.
The 1960s Democratic National Convention and Presidential Suite
In 1960, the Democratic National Convention convened at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. Journalists and television crews gathered in the hotel’s spacious rooms to report on the outcome of the convention, the result of which set John F. Kennedy (at the time, a senator with far less political experience than his opponent) on his path to the presidency.
Kennedy and his campaign team posted up in the Biltmore’s Music Room, an elaborate and luxurious space that was remodeled in the 80s to be the lobby, while his opponent, Lyndon B. Johnson, ran his campaign out of the dark-paneled Emerald Room.
In addition to hosting this historic and important national convention, the Biltmore Hotel has also hosted its fair share of presidents over the years. The two-story, 4,600 square foot Presidential Suite has a spiral staircase, a private elevator, and sneaky hidden panels that are left over from the prohibition days. The Biltmore also has an elaborate 2,000 square foot Music Suite complete with two bedrooms, a kitchen and dining area, a music saloon, and grand piano.
As of 2018, eight U.S. Presidents including: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton had spent the night. Other notable guests include A-list names like Al Capone, the Beatles, and the Duke and Duchess of York.
The Biltmore Hotel Film Presence
Over the years, iconic directors like Roman Polanski and Ivan Reitman have turned to the Biltmore Hotel’s immaculate and versatile spaces for their productions and film sets. Nearly every inch of the hotel has appeared on screen at one point or another, and various facades and rooms have masqueraded as everything from the White House (on Scandal) to the fight circle where Rocky Balboa trains in Rocky III.
The first motion picture filmed at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles was Cecil B. DeMille’s Triumph in 1924, and since that time, the property has been featured in hundreds of movies, TV shows, commercials, and music videos.
The hotel’s limousine ramp served as the location of the famous Chinatown (1974) scene where Evelyn Mulwray learns that her husband was murdered. And in the 1984 hit, Ghostbusters, the crew captures the ghost Slimer (in the Biltmore Hotel current lobby) after destroying an ornate ballroom.
The Biltmore’s stately blue-tiled pool and fitness center, modeled after the 1920s ritzy cruise ship pools, was most famously featured in Cruel Intentions (1999) as the site where Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Phillippe indulge in a steamy late night swim. The pool has also been featured in Bugsy (1991), The Fan (1996), and also poses as a Russian Nightclub in the hit television series Alias.
Other Biltmore Hotel film appearances over the years include Oceans 11 (1960), The Sting (1973), Bachelor Party (1984), Beverly Hills Cop (1984), The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989), Independence Day (1996), The Italian Job (2003), Daredevil (2003), Wedding Crashers (2005), National Treasure (2004), Spiderman, and more.
More recently, the Millennium Biltmore Hotel hosted the American Idol semi-finals and served as the location for Taylor Swift’s 2018, “Delicate” music video, where she can be seen dancing on top of the reception desks in the hotel’s lobby.
The 1960s, 70s, and 80s – Hard Times and Renovations at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel
In the late 1960s and 70s, downtown Los Angeles succumbed to a state of disrepair. Residents and businesses flocked to the suburbs, and the town lost much of its original vibrancy. The decaying Biltmore was destined to become a retirement community. However, the owners of the architecture firm, Ridgeway Ltd., salvaged the hotel and purchased the building in 1976 for an easy $5.4 million.
The new owners (Phyllis Lambert and Gene Summers) had a lot of work to do. The guest rooms still had the original 1923 horsehair mattresses in them (50 years later!). Summers and Lambert poured $30 million into the restoration and renovation of the property, hiring Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (a German-American architect) to incorporate his modern furniture throughout the hotel and pop artist, Jim Dine, to produce lithographs for the walls.
Although there were many critics of the modern renovations and quirky furniture, the restoration received an American Institute of Architects National Honor Award for incorporating modern art and contemporary furnishings in a restored historic setting. City council members believe that the 1970s restoration of the Biltmore Hotel saved the city of Los Angeles and helped it return to its former glory.
Summers and Gene were eventually forced to sell the hotel in the 80s (due to tax issues), and the Biltmore Partners took over the hotel for $75 million. The new owners spent another $200 million to upgrade and restore the hotel adding a 24-story office tower, restoring Smeraldi’s hand-painted works, and converting the Music Room into the present day lobby.
The Biltmore Hotel Today
Honored as an elite member of the Historic Hotels of America, the Millennium Biltmore Hotel remains one of Hollywood’s hottest and swankiest hotels. A revolving door of movie stars, socialites, and tourists, the jaw-dropping property is a see and be seen destination that caters to Tinseltown’s vibrant downtown area. From the posh ruby staircases to the glistening crystal chandeliers, it’s easy to imagine the Hollywood greats twirling through the ballrooms and dreaming up the films and stories of the 20th century.
Purchased by Millennium & Copthorne Hotels in 2000, the Biltmore Hotel continues to boast golden era charm while also offering modern amenities and in-room features. Sip on Turkish Tea in the 24-karat gold Rendezvous Court, take a dip in the Roman pool, or pretend to be on the set of Mad Men…it’s all possible here…and the enchanting Hollywood tales, mysteries, and legends live on in the walls and words of all who stay.