There are nearly a million swimming pools in California, almost as many pools as there are people in the entire adjoining state of Nevada. "A lot of people who moved here from the East would trick their kids into coming out by promising to buy them a swimming pool," says pool builder Bob Winship. (Winship once built a pool in the shape of a heart for a cardiologist in Palos Verdes, then went charging over the top by driving an arrow through it.)
The swimming pool has been a central part of Hollywood mythology since the dawn of silent pictures, a truth observed and then turned upside down in the opening scene of the film classic Sunset Boulevard. In what is almost certainly the most famous swimming pool in the history of the movies, a screenwriter named Joe Gillis is seen floating facedown in the water. As the camera observes him from below, a surprised look still on his face, a voice that turns out to be Gillis's own explains how he got there. "The poor dope." Gillis says ruefully. "He always wanted a pool."
Billy Wilder, the movie's director, explains why he chose that image to open the film. "Back in those days a pool signified opulence and importance. It was a medal of success. Now everybody has one, even the apartment buildings," Wilder says, sounding faintly appalled. "A swimming pool wouldn't work now. If I wanted to remake the picture, which I certainly do not, I would have to use something else."
He almost had to use something else back then because the underwater shot of actor William Holden was so badly distorted by the refraction of light and water. "We found out that if you are trying to shoot anything in the water above you from the bottom of a swimming pool, it's indecipherable," says Wilder. "So at the bottom of the pool we put a mirror, and then we shot it from above."
The pool itself was built especially for the movie behind a house that was actually on Wilshire Boulevard in L.A. "One of the former wives of Paul Getty was having a dance school or an acting school there," Wilder says. "She told us we could put in a pool but we must not use any pipes or plumbing, and as soon as we were finished, we had to fill it in. It was very curious because she could have had a functioning pool for nothing, but she said no, after the shooting is over, you have to unpool it."
Another famous Hollywood pool that has been filled in and paved over was on Sunset Boulevard, at the old Garden of Allah resort. The Garden had been owned at one time by Russian actress Alla Nazimova, who had the pool built in the shape of the Black Sea to remind her of home. Legend has it that during a party at the hotel one night, the renowned American humorist Robert Benchley toppled headfirst into the swimming pool. After being dragged out, Benchley summoned up what remained of his dignity and said, "Get me out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini."
The anonymity of hotel pools often seems to incite extravagant behavior among the guests. A few years ago, superdupermodel Elle Macpherson was staying at the Sunset Marquis Hotel and was poolside with a fellow supermodel. The two women took up adjacent chaises at the hotel swimming pool, which is next to a popular outdoor cafe. "I don't know which of them took off her top first," says a desk clerk, "but it became kind of a competition between the two of them to see who could attract the most attention." (And to think, in certain parts of the world they will try to tell you that America has lost its edge, that we have become a third-rate power. And they will be wrong. For as long as there are supermodels willing to come to this country and put it all on the line, to compete, to strive, to embody so much about what is right in us as Americans, then we will always be No. 1. U-S-A! U-S-A! I am pool boy, hear me roar.)
No swimming pool occupies a more important position in the watery firmament of pools around which stars arrange their orbits in an effort to see and be seen than the Beverly Hills Hotel pool. The hotel, which was closed last year for renovations and will not reopen until 1995, is being completely made over, but the hotel's management has already reassured the public that the pool will remain much as it was before.
There has always been an abundant supply of movie stars at the pool. Katharine Hepburn would often drop by after her tennis match, stride onto the diving board and execute a neat backward somersault into the pool. Fully clothed. Then she would shove her hairpins back into place and strike off again for home. Hepburn's opposite when it came to fashion consciousness was English actor Rex Harrison, according to Svend Petersen, who for 30 years was the pool manager at the Beverly Hills Hotel. (Petersen's leathery brown skin and snappy towel presentation made him such a fixture that he was mentioned by name in three Jacqueline Susann novels.) Harrison often stayed in a private cabana at the hotel while making movies in America, and when sunbathing, "he never believed in bathing suits," Petersen told the Chicago Tribune. "He just put his privates under a handkerchief, and every day it was a different color."
The week before the Academy Awards ceremony, the starlets were often stacked up around the pool like 747s circling the airport. "There have been a few times when I had to escort a lady out," Petersen said. "One was on the high board with a see-through bathing suit. I think she might have been trying to be discovered."