Inside LA - The Los Angeles Lowdown

The Ambassador Hotel’s Date With Destiny

the Ambassador Hotel
Ambassador Hotel in its halcyon days

The Ambassador Hotel is one of Los Angeles’ most famous hotels, which is no mean feat in a city which boasts the Beverly Wilshire, the Biltmore, the Chateau Marmont and countless other famous – and infamous – establishments. The Ambassador’s fame principally comes from its reputation as a place of entertainment and glamor from it’s opening in 1921 to the 1960’s (during which time it hosted the Oscars several times) and its infamy rests on being the location of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1968. The other fact that really separates it from the others mentioned here – quite literally in fact – is that it no longer exists. It joins a select list of LA hostelries, such as the Garden of Allah and the Hollywood Hotel, whose fame has outlived them, like a silent movie star whose name you know – but you’ve never seen one of their films. Well, the Ambassador Hotel had a far bigger role in shaping the world you live in than you may realize.

The Ambassador Hotel opened its doors with much fanfare on New Year’s Day, 1921. It was located on Wilshire Boulevard, in what was then a fast-developing area three miles west of downtown Los Angeles, and in fact the new hotel spurred the development of the area into one of the main commercial and cultural arteries of the city. Designed by local Pasadena architect Myron Hunt, opinions always differed about the architectural quality of the design but, nevertheless, it rapidly became a landmark building.

The Ambassador’s swift rise to prominence was speeded partly through its willingness to serve alcohol (despite Prohibition) and partly by the opening there, a few months after the hotel, of the Cocoanut Grove nightclub. Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and Rudolph Valentino, to name but a few, all became much-photographed regulars and the nightclub’s reputation as the LA hot spot was sealed.

During the 1930’s and 40’s, the Ambassador’s reputation for glitz and glamor continued to spread as from 1930 to 1943 no less than six Academy Award ceremonies were held at the Cocoanut Grove and every U.S. President from Hoover to Nixon stayed there while visiting Los Angeles. Even Nikita Khrushchev, the Premier of the mighty Soviet Union, was a guest – and was visited by none other than Mickey Mouse when he was unable to take a trip Disneyland.

1931 Oscars at the Ambassador Hotel
1931 Oscars in the Cocoanut Grove at the Ambassador Hotel

Unfortunately for the Ambassador’s owners in the 1950’s and 60’s the neighborhood around the hotel became less fashionable and lower income. Once branded as being the heart of the “Ambassador District” the area became known as Koreatown (which it’s now called). This is the background to the tragic events of June 5th 1968 (exactly fifty-four years ago this month).

That day saw Robert Kennedy give a speech in the Embassy Ballroom, following his victory in the California Democratic Primary over Senator Eugene McCarthy. After addressing his supporters, Kennedy was ushered through the kitchens to the waiting press and while walking through the pantry he was shot by a Palestinian radical Sirhan Sirhan who had immigrated to the U.S. as a child. 

Sirhan was incensed by comments Kennedy had made in support of Israel and also appeared to be suffering from mental illness (today he claims to have no memory of the actual shooting – but he has also stated that there was a second assassin who fired the fatal shots). After shooting Kennedy several times he continued firing and hit five other people before running out of bullets and being subdued. Kennedy initially survived the assassination, but he died in hospital after over three hours of neurosurgery. 

The assassination of Robert Kennedy, just a few years after his brother, has created one of the great what-ifs of history. Kennedy was almost certain to win the Democratic Primary campaign, which would have led to a Presidential contest between him and Richard Nixon (a Californian, let it not be forgotten). It was a sliding door moment for the U.S., and world, a single point in time that took history in a different direction.

It’s very likely Kennedy would have won the presidential election and it’s hard to think of two more different candidates than vigorous, upright Bobby and dour, Tricky Dickie (although he wasn’t known as such at the time). Kennedy had the Camelot glamor, there was a sense that he would be fulfilling the legacy of his brother, who was cut down in his prime. He was even more progressive than John though, and had allied himself with latino union leader Cesar Chavez in the run-up to the primary. Nixon on the other hand had been a respected VP under Eisenhower, but was viewed as an underwhelming, even boring, candidate by 1968, whose time had probably passed. Both candidates opposed the Vietnam war, although Kennedy was much more supported by those most wanting American troops home.

How narrow is the razor’s edge: if Kennedy hadn’t taken the shortcut through the kitchen, if Sirhan had waited somewhere else, if Kennedy hadn’t stopped to shake a supporter’s hand – we’d be living in a very different world. No Watergate to start with and therefore no Nixonian paranoia or impeachment. Civil Rights, one of Kennedy’s main priorities, would have been elevated to a level of much greater prominence. The bombing of Cambodia and Laos would not have happened – but neither perhaps the U.S. rapprochement with China. Who knows? Nevertheless history was changed because of the events of that night at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

The assassination of Kennedy only hastened the decline of the hotel however and on New Year’s Day 1989, exactly sixty-eight years after it opened, the Ambassador was permanently closed to guests, although it remained available for private functions and, perhaps more memorably, filming. The hotel has made appearances in The GraduateForrest Gump and Pretty Woman as well as many other movies and Television shows. 

Pretty Woman movie location
The Ambassador playing the Regent Beverly Wilshire in Pretty Woman

However in 2001, Los Angeles Unifies School District purchased the twenty-four acre property with the aim of building three schools there for the underserved neighborhood. In 2005, the Ambassador Hotel was demolished and in 2010 the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools opened on the site. Many felt that naming the schools after the murdered presidential candidate only continued Los Angeles’ uneasy (or should that be queasy) relationship with its own history. After all, why demolish a famous historic hotel and yet name the schools built in its place after a tragic historic event at said hotel? To remember or to forget? 

Nevertheless I, for one, am glad that it was schools that were built on the site instead of a proposed one hundred and twenty-five story golden tower by a New York real estate developer – and since disgraced ex-president – called, you guessed it, Donald J. Trump.

If you have any feedback on the Ambassador Hotel’s Date with Destiny please email us or reach out on social media, we’d love to hear from you.

– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)

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