Entering the Charlie Chaplin cottage, I stooped to avoid hitting my head. At 5 feet 8, I'm about 3 inches taller than Chaplin. (It's said the Little Tramp had the door made small so his guests would have to bow as they entered.)
I was at the Charlie, an eccentric but charming West Hollywood hotel occupying a cluster of cottages where, it's also said, Gloria Swanson, Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, Bette Davis and other screen luminaries once lived. They are among the famous for whom the cottages are named.
Many "facts" about this property are in the "it's said" category and may be only lore, but it is known that it was bought in 1924 and then developed by Chaplin, who had a home in Beverly Hills and a cottage here as a pied-à-terre.
The Charlie, with its fairy-tale shingled cottages, leaded glass windows and unmanicured garden, is very English. No surprise; Chaplin was a Londoner by birth. His London, however, was no fairy tale. Born into a dysfunctional theater family, he spent part of his childhood at a home for destitute children.
If you go
The Charlie, 819 N. Sweetzer Ave., West Hollywood; (323) 988-9000, http://www.thecharliehotel.com. One- and two-bedroom cottages in a garden setting, from $400 to $600 a day, $5,000 to $10,000 a month.
The hotel is the creation of Menachem Treivush, who spotted this secluded hideaway — then in a sad state of disrepair — while walking by in 2002. The owner at the time intended to raze the cottages and build a huge condo complex, but the plan had stalled. "Condos! A travesty," Treivush thought. So he bought the property and spent more than five years restoring it.
Treivush, an Israeli who moved to Los Angeles in 1977 and did well in the garment industry, wanted to "create an environment for creative people" at the Charlie, which opened in late 2008. Among guests Treivush mentions are Natalie Portman, Liv Tyler and "Twilight" costars Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart. A Teen Vogue crew was doing a photo shoot when I was here.
For two nights in late August, I occupied the Betty (named for Davis, who allegedly slept here). It's an upstairs unit sharing a stairwell with the Clark, as in Gable. He's not known to have stayed here, but, it's said, often partied here with film friends.
The Betty ($300 a night) has a nice living room with a dark wood floor, a full kitchen, a washer and dryer, a small bedroom with a king bed and no room for a chair, and a small but nicely redone tiled bath. There are two flat-screen TVs and Wi-Fi. There was a lot to like — white orchids, natural light that floods the rooms, the garden view through paned windows. The décor, traditional and cheerful, includes a pair of white leather-look wing chairs and a gray pinstripe sofa in the living area, a blue-and-white palette in the bedroom.
In the kitchen, I found a toaster but no coffeemaker. Treivush's daughter Masha, a Cornell University hotel school graduate who manages the Charlie, scared up a coffeemaker, but I had to drive to a market to buy coffee. A few other things $300 a night did not buy: Kleenex and a clock radio.
The Charlie seems more attuned to those staying longer and bringing their own stuff. Housekeeping is provided only on weekdays. Two of the 14 cottages have long-term tenants and a third is the office, which may or may not be open at stated hours. Both daily and monthly rates are quoted for the 11 other units.
The hotel is not for everyone. It has no lobby, fitness center or restaurant, but that could change. Treivush is eyeing an adjacent property where he could put a pool and cabanas and convert the existing home into a restaurant and screening room.
Renovation of the Charlie preserved or duplicated such vintage features as beamed ceilings and black-and-white bath tiles. The rose-filled garden was designed with guidance from an elderly woman who stopped one day, introduced herself and told the new owner that she had been Chaplin's secretary-paramour.
She told him how Chaplin took tea at 5 o'clock by the shaded outdoor fireplace, how — although he was reputed to be close with a dollar — he offered the cottages rent-free to struggling actors. She told of seeing Chaplin in his cottage, writing or watching silent films.
"So many people came by and told me who was here and what was here," Treivush said. Another source, a woman who'd been a 30-year tenant, said Monroe was a neighbor in the cottages in the '40s.
The 27,000-square-foot property once was called La Brea Farm and, like much of West Hollywood then, was a farm. Originally, there were only a farmhouse and a stable, since razed, where Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino are said to have kept horses. Treivush told me an early owner was the mother of actress-screenwriter Ruth Gordon, who lived in the farmhouse with her screenwriter husband, Garson Kanin. A cottage is named for Ruth.
Accused of un-American activities during the McCarthy era, Chaplin returned to England in 1952 and sold the property to members of the Vanderbilt family. He and his wife, Oona O'Neill, and their children eventually settled in Switzerland, where he died in 1977. There were three more owners before Treivush.
In Chaplin's cottage, Treivush pointed out the child-sized shower that was kept as a curiosity when a new one was installed. As we stood near the stairs, he showed me a photo of Chaplin standing in almost the same spot. Over the fireplace were two crossed canes — Chaplin memorabilia unearthed in the basement along with two of his typewriters.
Each cottage has a personality. I loved the Marilyn, with its beautiful little garden-view dining room and all-white master bedroom. I also liked the Masha, with its open-plan living-kitchen-dining room. The Gregory (as in Peck) has a quiet off-street location and a lovely, large gated patio, while the luxurious two-story Valentino has an enormous master bedroom with walk-in closet.
Gravel paths with flagstones traverse the garden. There are small patios off some of the one- or two-bedroom cottages and a big wooden deck, open to all tenants, overlooking the garden. Each cottage has gated parking.
Treivush can often be found on-site, eager to talk about Charlie and the Charlie. A first-time hotelier at 66, he says, "This place has given me so much to look forward to." One of his new hobbies: collecting Chaplin memorabilia. "Look," he says, handing me a recent acquisition. It's a book of paper dolls, featuring Chaplin and Paulette Goddard, said to be one of his four wives.