‘Perhaps the Ruth Gordon suite will be available?’ I say to Mr Smith as we cruise along Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. ‘Who?’ Mr Smith asks, a quizzical eyebrow inching above his Ray-Bans. ‘The actress – Harold and Maud… Rosemary’s Baby?' I offer.
Mr Smith is a student of high (heady literature, in-depth news blogs) and low (brain-rotting TV, ie: The Bachelor) culture, but not much for classic (or, in this case, cult classic) films. No matter, with the window down and his tortoiseshell-framed shades on, he’s looking all the part of movie-star handsome today.
Slight romance spoiler alert: we do have our four-year-old son in tow. But, would you get a gander of that big glowing orb overhead and those skyward-stretching palm trees through the car’s sunroof? Nothing could ruin the mood. All of us really needed a sun-kissed escape from New York, and turns out it would be a glamorous, old Hollywood one at that, thanks to The Charlie Hotel.
You’ll find this boutique hotel in a West Hollywood enclave of Spanish-style casas and trim California bungalows. Well, if you’re really looking, that is. Hidden discreetly behind a wall of manicured shrubs and a gate swirling with ornate ironwork is an intimate clutch of 13 former apartments from the 1920s.
Yes, Ruth Gordon did sleep here, as did Gloria Swanson, Marilyn Monroe and the retreat’s namesake and former owner: Charlie Chaplin. You can spy the Little Tramp’s silhouette in the stained-glass window of his cottage.
The hotel’s manager, Masha, escorted us through the central courtyard that’s anchored by a stone fountain bubbling peacefully amidst an English-style garden thick with fruit trees and blushing rose bushes. Ms Gordon’s former apartment was not vacant, but we were shown two rooms, each with their own charm.
We settled on the Dylan, a ground-floor suite, with a private patio, set in a two-story Tudor-style cottage. As with all of the suites, it had been restored to preserve original details: ornate transom-style leaded-glass windows, sturdy built-in bookshelves and the wide-plank hardwood floors stained dark as strong coffee.
In keeping with the celluloid theme, black and white photos of stars hung throughout the room. This is a detail I could have done without, but Mr Smith didn’t mind Ms Monroe hanging over his head (literally) each night.
French doors separated the bedroom from the sitting area where our son bunked (romance saved!). Along with that, the efficient, high-end kitchen with a stove and dishwasher made this feel more like a splashy studio apartment than a standard hotel suite.
Much like a private home, you’ll come and go as you please here with little interaction (or direction) from staff. The in-room folder is thin on local intel (there was one brochure for a tour of stars’ homes), and don’t expect a lobby, restaurant or flashy pool scene. This is ideal for those in favor of DIY adventures and keeping a low profile (it’s frequented by industry-types for longer-term stays).
It was DIY for us on this trip. We had an agenda in mind and the hotel was perfectly positioned for it all. On a rare rainy day, we dodged the drops and explored the galleries and sculpture gardens at The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) followed by some art gallery hopping.
On a subsequent sunny day, we indulged Master Smith with a trip to the Santa Monica Pier and its bite-sized amusement park that left none of us feeling fatigued (I’m holding firm to my ‘What Disneyland?’ stance for now). And, a spin on the Ferris wheel is not just a throwback delight, but a giddy, heart-in-your-stomach way to drink in views of the surfers and swimmers bobbing in the Pacific Ocean below.
Of course, a morning climb in Griffith Park is another way to get the heart pumping and spy the City of Angels (particularly the iconic Hollywood sign) from high above the traffic-clogged fray. We got that in too.
Traveling with a child means dining at unfashionably early hours, but the bonus of that is it usually secures you a seat at otherwise booked-for-weeks spots. Which is why we were waiting outside when the doors opened for dinner at Son of a Gun, a happening seafood eatery on West Third Street.
Dishes are of the small-plates, shared variety: fluke sashimi, grilled octopus and a ridiculously satisfying fried chicken sandwich with a spicy pickle slaw. Young Smith was happily occupied making drawings of the model ships and trophy fish adorning the walls, leaving us time for a proper cocktail.
The hotel also happens to be just a shopping-bag-toss from Melrose Avenue, the infamous strip where the stars stock their wardrobes (spotted: Jeremy Piven at a local tea shop). This label-wagging drag is home to Vivienne Westwood, Alexander McQueen, Paul Smith and my favorite spot to squander a paycheck, Fred Segal.
If in town on a Sunday, stroll over to the West Hollywood Farmers Market. You can stock the kitchen in your suite with the robust berries, rainbows of produce and bright bunches of flowers on sale.
On our stroll from the market back to the Charlie, Mr Smith signals to a street sign, ‘Hey, Melrose Place – I wonder if this is what inspired the show?’ For those unfamiliar, Melrose Place was a trashy 1990s nighttime drama set in an LA apartment complex overrun with young, hot professionals who sleep their way around said complex. It was just Mr Smith’s brand of Hollywood trivia. Yep, he’s still got it, that handsome junk-TV-loving devil – avert your eyes, Marilyn…