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After Half a Century, Swank Eatery Remains Tops for Hollywood Dealmaking

July 9, 1991

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. (AP) _ Mike Todd made his deals there. Marilyn Monroe found romance there. Even Howard Hughes was a fleeting presence in the Polo Lounge, which marks 50 years of fabled existence this week.

Morning, noon and night, the restaurant in the Beverly Hills Hotel throbs with the pursuit of money, power and romance. No other Hollywood meeting place boasts such legend and longevity.

The hotel, now owned by the Sultan of Brunei, is tossing a celebrity party on Thursday’s anniversary.

It was on July 11, 1941, that then-owner Hernando Courtwright renamed the El Jardin room in honor of his polo playing friends, including Darryl Zanuck, Walt Disney, Spencer Tracy and Robert Stack. They often visited after a few chukkers at nearby polo fields.

The Polo Lounge is off the lobby of the pinkish, 79-year-old hotel, which sits on Sunset Boulevard among the world’s most expensive real estate.

Arriving at the eatery, guests are greeted by hosts Bernice Philbin in the morning, Emilio Trejo at lunch and Nino Osti in the evening - all diplomats of State Department caliber.

Depending on preference or status, patrons are ushered to tables or booths in either the Green Room, with telephone-equipped booths ideal for wheeler- dealers; the Loggia, an inner sanctum suitable for romancing the opposite sex or hard-to-get clients, or the Patio, a subtropical garden under an 86- year-old pepper tree.

Mornings are for power breakfasts, when TV, advertising and financial bigshots are wooed by producers, agents and filmmakers. It’s wooing of a different sort at lunch, when nearby residents such as Jimmy Stewart, James Woods and Charlton Heston appear for press interviews.

Starting at 4 p.m. over cocktails and then dinner, dealmaking can reach a feeding frenzy, with millions at stake in TV and movie contracts, corporate takeovers and other ventures. The bar can remain noisy right up to the 2 a.m. closing.

Sometimes too noisy. Errol Flynn, Gary Crosby and others have made headlines with their late-night fighting at the lounge.

There are other stories from the Polo’s legendary past: One day Peter Finch was en route to the restaurant for an interview about his ″Network″ film triumph. He dropped dead in the lobby. Marilyn Monroe and Yves Montand had adjoining bungalows at the hotel during the filming of ″Let’s Make Love″ and could be seen doing a little for-real loving in the Polo Lounge.

The stately Mrs. Philbin has seen history pass through the Polo Lounge. She started in 1950 when Howard Hughes, who long occupied a hotel bungalow, sometimes appeared for a late supper. ″After 1952, I didn’t see him anymore,″ she recalled.

Mrs. Philbin has seen the big names come and go, but one guest has remained constant. He is businessman Irving Link, who has breakfasted almost every morning at the Polo Lounge for 41 years.

″After all, it’s a pleasant way to start the day,″ said Mrs. Philbin. ″We do provide tender, loving care.″

Mrs. Philbin uses diplomacy in granting the most-wanted booths - Nos. 1, 2 and 3 in the Loggia. No. 2 is favored by frequent visitor Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Association of America. But the biggest competition is for No. 3 - ″because you can see and be seen when people enter the room,″ she said.

The restaurant once had a strict dress code, including no pants for women. But that ruled changed when the then-chairman of Trans World Airlines came to eat with his wife, who was wearing a silk pants suit.

″I had to tell her that ladies are not allowed in pants,″ Mrs. Philbin recalled.

″He went to management and raised such Cain that it was decided women could come in with pants. Now you’re lucky if they don’t come in naked.″


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