Stranger Than Paradise
The Singular Fate of a Heavenly Old Hollywood Hotel

By MICHAEL T. JARVIS

That a local Church of Scientology center once shared a name with the Elysian paradise of Greek myth sounds like a plot detail worthy of Evelyn Waugh. But as with much Hollywood lore, the true odyssey of the elegant old Chateau Elysee building is as weird as the mythology.

The Chateau Elysee legend got a boost last year, thanks to "The Cat's Meow," Peter Bogdanovich's movie fiction about the mysterious death of director and studio founder Thomas Ince during a jazz age revel aboard William Randolph Hearst's yacht in 1924. Hollywood folklore has it that Ince was felled not by the indigestion cited in official accounts, but by Hearst in a gunshot meant for Charlie Chaplin, who was paying court to Hearst's mistress, Marion Davies. For years, the rumor mill insisted that Ince's widow, Eleanor, built the Elysee with hush money forked over by Hearst in a cover-up abetted by gossip columnist Louella Parsons.

It didn't help that the seven-story building on Franklin Avenue was a Hearst-worthy endeavor. Designed by Arthur E. Harvey in French Normandy castle style, it had turrets, drawbridges, a grass moat and 77 apartments ranging from singles to deluxe three-bedrooms. The Elysee opened to temporary and permanent residents in 1929; guest book entries include Bette Davis, Edward G. Robinson, Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, George Gershwin and Cary Grant. Errol Flynn reportedly liked to gamble with the chauffeurs in the garage, and Parsons was married on the premises in 1930.

Barbara and Richard Ince, the director's son, were married at the Chateau Elysee in 1941, when the bride was 17. That year Richard died in a motorcycle race in Oakland. "They [the Inces] were known as the tragic family of Hollywood," says Richard's widow, Barbara Ince Simmons, a Beverly Hills resident married to her late husband's best friend, David Simmons, former head of Lockheed Air Terminal (now the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport).

Eleanor Ince sold the Chateau in 1943. In 1951 it became a residence for retired actors and artists. The place was slated for demolition when the Church of Scientology bought it in 1973, renaming the building the Manor Hotel. Today the complex is one of 12 Church of Scientology Celebrity Centres International, facilities for members connected with the creative arts. (The city designated the premises a Historic-Cultural Monument in 1987.) Today the Renaissance Restaurant on the ground floor is open to the public, and 39 hotel rooms on the top three floors are perpetually booked, primarily by church members, says spokeswoman Linda Hight. Everything from the fifth floor down is original, including doors, wood casings and cabinets, according to building overseer Art Medeiros. Of course, there are contemporary touches. Church offices occupy four floors, a new screening room has joined the original movie projection chamber, and a sauna in the basement is used for "detoxifying."

The church has not weighed in on the Ince mystery, but Ince Simmons puts the kibosh on the Hearst-Ince murder theory. "Mrs. [Eleanor] Ince told me and my husband that Mr. Ince was not shot and that Los Angeles police stopped the funeral procession and examined the body," says Simmons, who explains that her former mother-in-law built the hotel with funds from the sale of her Dias Dorados Ranch in Benedict Canyon to Carl Laemmle. Like his wife, David Simmons is firm in his belief that it was the indigestion that did Ince in. "Mr. Ince was known to have a million-dollar mind and a 10-cent stomach."