The Inn at Death Valley: A Celebrity Magnet

The Inn at Death Valley: A Celebrity Magnet

Written by: , April 03rd, 2019

Imagine being a guest at this hotel in the absolute middle of nowhere and seeing Hollywood royalty.

Back in the golden age of Hollywood, the Furnace Creek Inn (the original name for The Inn at Death Valley) became a getaway for celebrities. A day’s drive from Los Angeles and hours from Las Vegas, which in those days was still just a dusty rail town with a population under 10,000, The Inn afforded a measure of solitude and surprising luxury in one of the world’s most dramatic desert settings.

Many stars discovered the hotel while filming movies in the area. “The studios would put them up at The Inn and a lot of them came back on their own,” says Death Valley historian David Woodruff and author of the book, Magnificent Oasis at Death Valley, who worked at the resort as the assistant director of food and beverage for nearly 20 years until 2011.

Clark Gable and Carol Lombard spent part of their honeymoon at The Inn, and some of Hollywood’s biggest stars also stayed here, including James Cagney and Bette Davis while filming The Bride Came C.O.D. Imagine being a guest at this hotel in the middle of nowhere and seeing Hollywood royalty.

As Donald Hough wrote in Esquire magazine in 1941, “We got there, coming in out of the sunset, just before time for dinner, and we made for the Furnace Creek Inn bar for cocktails. After a while Miss Davis just in from location, joined us. I was introduced to her, and she sat at the bar and ordered a whiskey and soda.”

In 1948, legendary director John Ford, acting icon John Wayne, and character actor Ward Bond ventured into the California desert to look for locations for the film 3 Godfathers, then spent time at The Inn during the movie shoot.

Ford loved the remoteness of Death Valley and the distance it gave him from intrusive studio execs. He played dominoes with the cast and crew, including Wayne, according to cowboy actor Harry Carey Jr., who says Ford sometimes cheated during those games. Meanwhile, Bond and his pals hung out by The Inn’s spring-fed pool — a perfect spot on a hot May day in Death Valley.

Inn Pool Sunset

In 1949, Jimmy Stewart stayed at The Inn when he served as the narrator for a lavish pageant marking the centennial of the Death Valley ‘49ers, the pioneering gold seekers who endured brutal hardships as they passed through the area. And not all of the luminaries at The Inn were movie stars.

Woodruff conducted an interview with Robert Pratt, a bellman during a few seasons in the 1930s, who said he remembered bringing out Ernest Hemingway’s luggage as the Nobel Prize-winning novelist checked out. “Yes, he was pretty friendly,” said Pratt. “Liked to drink at the new bar we had just put in. He was a pretty good tipper too.”

Pratt also recalled that a manager at the hotel, a Miss Ronan, emphasized the utmost discretion while dealing with notable guests. “Miss Ronan would always tell us to not give them any extra attention,” he told Woodruff in 1998. “Leave them alone and no autographs. I know we had some movie stars, but I didn’t always know who they were. I didn’t go to the movies all that much.”

For many celebrity guests, The Inn was almost a home away from home. Anthony Quinn hosted a number of family reunions here, and Marlon Brando, who likely discovered the resort during the 1959 filming of One-Eyed Jacks, frequently retreated to the hotel, always staying in Room 107. Brando so loved Death Valley that a portion of his ashes were scattered here.

More recent generations of celebrities have also come to The Inn (one of two hotels at The Oasis at Death Valley resort along with The Ranch at Death Valley), including Goldie Hawn, Martin Sheen, Matt Damon, and Diane Keaton. In addition to her Academy Award-winning acting career, Keaton is also a prominent architectural preservationist and co-authored the book California Romantica, which celebrates notable examples of Spanish Revival architecture in the state. No doubt she appreciated The Inn’s vintage Mission-style design, a classic of the genre.

During his tenure at The Inn, Woodruff saw his share of famous guests come through the hotel. He described basketball Hall of Famer Bill Walton, a regular visitor, as “an incredibly generous man” but Woodruff incurred the wrath of the notoriously surly English rock band Oasis in the 1990s.

At the time, the dress code at The Inn Dining Room didn’t allow blue jeans. When the band learned of the rule as they checked into the hotel, one of the musicians took off his jeans in the middle of the lobby and waved them at Woodruff, who was staffing the restaurant’s dining host podium.

“They ordered room service,” he says.

But Woodruff says the restaurant made an exception for comedian Flip Wilson, who would come to dinner in his bathrobe, explaining that he suffered from “a condition” that didn’t allow him to wear tighter fitting clothing.

First Lady Laura Bush also stayed at the hotel and Woodruff says that Secret Service agents thoroughly scouted the dining room before her meal. They wanted a table where the First Lady wouldn’t be surrounded by other guests, and the agents remained on high alert as she dined.

The Inn Dining Room was rather warm that day and someone opened the doors in the rear of the restaurant to increase the circulation. “Then the doors slammed shut when the wind blew or something, and they made a really loud noise,” says Woodruff. “Eight different guys jumped out of their seats. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone move so fast.”

Nor was Laura Bush the only occupant of the White House to stay at the hotel. Long before he hosted the television series Death Valley Days and nearly 40 years before he was elected president, Ronald Reagan stayed here. A recently auctioned personal check made out to The Furnace Creek Inn and signed by the future president shows that he spent a week in March 1948. The cost? A grand total of $133.50.

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