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'The Suicide': The Hotel Cecil and the Mean Streets of L.A.'s Notorious Skid Row

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The lobby is faded and gilded, like an old train station that's seen better days. There have clearly been efforts to make the Stay on Main, a boutique budget hotel that occupies part of the infamous Hotel Cecil, feel whimsical and vibrant. But these efforts have failed. The mod café seems permanently closed, and the entertainment lounge is little more than a dark cavern with a big screen TV that nobody is watching. Near the front desk, two young European tourists hunch over computers, surfing the internet, their rolling suitcases at their feet. Outside, transitional Main Street, half-skid row, half the trendiest part of town, teems with the homeless and the hip. I look up, past the hotel's orange and white marquee, to the rows of curtained windows that so many lost, troubled people have gazed out of over the decades. If you ever want to experience loneliness in the midst of a metropolis, take a trip to the Hotel Cecil.

Hotel of the High Class

The Hotel Cecil with its 700 rooms, according to Mr. Roberts, is the first large hostelry here to be furnished throughout with Los Angeles-made furniture... it is of the very choicest and most luxurious design, otherwise it would not be used in the furnishing of a hotel of the high class that the Cecil will be.

In 1920s, downtown L.A. was booming. Cutting edge, "sky-scraping" apartments, hotels, banks and department stores were springing up everywhere. No area was more fashionable than the 600 block of Main Street where hotelier W.B. Hanner began building his own high class hotel in 1924. He named it the Hotel Cecil, no doubt copying the famed Hotel Cecil in London. When it opened in December, the Los Angeles Times extolled its numerous virtues:

The Cecil quickly became a solidly popular hotel, its clientele a mix of visiting middle-class tourists and Angelinos who called the conveniently located building home. Many of these people were respectable, anonymous workers. However, the transient nature of the hotel's population and the huge influx of new arrivals into Los Angeles meant that not every guest was on the up and up. In 1927, John Croneur, a "suave and mild mannered Slavonian," was arrested in his room for running from police at the Hayward Hotel and stealing a diamond hairpin at the Rosslyn Hotel.

In April 1929, a 33-year-old woman from San Francisco named Dorothy Roberson was taken to the hospital after wandering around the hotel for three days. According to reports, she was distraught over the sudden death of her husband and had tried to poison herself with prescribed barbiturates. She failed in her attempt. With the stock market crash later that year, a depression settled over the Cecil that would never leave. The surrounding neighborhood slowly fell into disarray, and the Cecil increasingly became a hostel for the shady and the sick. There was the tale of Cecil resident George Ford, a successful morphine and opium dealer with a stash of $10,000 worth of opium, who was arrested in a sting at the nearby Astor Hotel. An elderly man was picked up at the Cecil, "in peril of death," after drinking poisoned liquor that had killed three other men. And then the successful suicides began:

W.K. Norton, 46 years of age, was found dead in a hotel room at 640 South Main Street yesterday morning. A number of capsules, believed to have contained poison, were given by police as evidence that Norton had ended his own life. The capsules, police said, were found in his vest pocket. Norton had been dead, apparently only a few hours when found by a maid. He registered at the hotel, according to police, last Saturday as James Willys of Chicago.

This would be the first of an astonishing number of suicides and disturbing violence which would plague the Cecil for the next 86 years. The following year, a 25-year-old man shot himself in his hotel room. A year later, a young truck driver was fatally pinned against the hotel by a large truck. In 1934, another lonely man took his life:

His throat slashed, Louis D. Borden, 53 years of age, former sergeant in the Army Medical Corps, was found dead in a hotel room at 640 South Main Street. Investigating officers, finding a razor by the body and farewell notes, reported Borden ended his own life because of ill health. In one brief note, he asked that Mrs. Edna Hasoner of P.O. Box 664 Edmonds, Wash., "sole beneficiary of the little that I leave," be notified.
Photo: Los Angeles Public Library
Photo: Los Angeles Public Library

The mayhem continued. An elderly Cecil resident attempted to shoot himself in Westlake Park, and an elderly woman tenant was found drowned in the ocean. A teenage stickup bandit was arrested at the Cecil. A note was found in his pocket that read: "You are covered. Open that cash register and shell out. No tricks or else." A woman named Dorothy January claimed that a man had answered her advert seeking a child care position, only to choke her and steal $40 from her purse.

Death Trap

Most marriages are happy ones. Not often are there musses. It's living together afterward that causes all the fusses.- Alexander Rosenbaum, the "sweet singer" of the Hotel Cecil
A young woman plummeted to her death from the 9th floor of a Main Street hotel Friday night, killing an elderly man strolling on the sidewalk below. Mrs. Pauline Otton, 27...had been discussing marital problems with her estranged husband, Dewey, 32, in the Hotel Cecil...Officers said she leaped or fell from the room when her husband went out to dinner. At first, police thought Mrs. Otton and George Gianinni, 65....might have leaped out of the window together, but they found the man had his hands in his pockets and his shoes still on. If he had fallen nine stories, the impact would have knocked his shoes off.- Los Angeles Times, 1962

Throughout the '30s, the Cecil catered to a mixed clientele, not all of the tragic variety. A visiting Hungarian couple, on a trip around the world, stayed at the hotel. "Ever since we left our native country, we have been in search of a properly prepared dish of goulash and cabbage as we travel about gathering material for books and furthering international relations with Hungary," they stated. Jacob Horner, an elderly, former Cavalryman with General Custer, spent half a year renting a room at the Cecil, where he gave an interview bemoaning the current state of the world. "In my time fighting, men went out and met one another and battled it out," he exclaimed. "That was war. But nowadays, the way they slaughter women and children-we old fighters can't call that war. Its murderous slaughter!"

But the suicides continued. In 1937, the Los Angeles Times reported:

Grace E. Magro, 25 years of age...died early yesterday in Georgia Street Receiving Hospital. Police were unable to determine whether the woman had fallen or jumped from the hotel room. Telephone wires, ripped from poles in her descent, were entangled about her body. The officers stated that M.W. Madison, 26 year old sailor of the U.S.S. Virginia, who was the woman's companion, was sleeping at the time of the occurrence and could give no explanation for the woman's action.

A year later, a marine fireman named Roy Thompson, who had been at the Cecil for several weeks, was found dead in the skylight of the building next door after apparently jumping from his hotel room. Prostitutes and cheating couples increasingly used the Cecil as an assignation spot. In 1940, the first regular Los Angeles AA meetings began to be held at the Cecil Hotel. A café manager, who lived at the Cecil, died in a nearby bar called the Waldorf Cellar after a gun battle with a bartender, who had been his childhood best friend. A change of management in 1941, which included extensive improvements, could not save the Cecil from its dark future. In 1947, Elizabeth Short, nicknamed the Black Dahlia, was allegedly seen at the Cecil bar shortly before she was murdered.

The area around the Cecil, filled with single-occupancy hotels and cheap watering holes, continued its inevitable decline into a last resort for lost, desperate people like Helen C. Gurnee:

A woman plunged to her death from a seventh-floor window of a downtown hotel yesterday afternoon, her body landing atop the hotel marquee above the heads of pedestrians on busy Main Street. Police identified her from cards in her purse as Mrs. Helen C. Gurnee, about 55, an employee of a San Diego stationery firm. Officials of the Hotel Cecil...said she had registered as Margaret Brown of Denver when she checked into room 704 a week ago. Hundreds of spectators gathered as firemen and ambulance attendants put a ladder up to the marquee and lowered the body. Shortly afterward, police were called to the lobby of Philharmonic Auditorium to aid a man who seemed to be hysterical, and they said he told them he had been unnerved by witnessing the woman's death.

Long term residents at the Cecil began to refer to the building as "The Suicide." In 1962, there was the infamous leap made by Pauline Otton, out of the 9th floor window, which killed not only her but also an elderly pensioner on the street below. That same year, Julia Frances Moore, 50, leapt from the 8th floor, her body landing on the 2nd floor rail. Amazingly, the horror at the Hotel Cecil was only just beginning.

Hotel of Horror

He used to wear a black jacket...what struck me most was his hair. It was so unruly. It just looked wild. He looked like one of the losers.

Perhaps the saddest death to occur at the Cecil was that of "Pigeon" Goldie Osgood, a retired telephone operator who frequently fed the pigeons in nearby Pershing Square. In 1964, Mrs. Osgood was raped, stabbed, and strangled in her room at the Cecil, her body found next to the "Dodger baseball cap she always wore and a paper bag of feed." One of her friends, a retired nurse named Jean, talked to a reporter in Pershing Square, while watering a bouquet of fast wilting flowers. "We were all her friends, all of us here in the square," she said. "I was just standing here this morning, thinking about what had happened, when someone suggested we get some flowers. No one has very much money around here, but all of a sudden, everyone started giving me what they could, and I got these. We just wanted her to know we remembered."

Osgood's murder was never solved. By the 1970s and '80s, skid row was plagued by increasing violence and a huge influx of illegal drugs. Richard Ramirez, the infamous "Night Stalker," terrorized Los Angeles in the mid-1980s. Ramirez was a visible presence on skid row in the months before his arrest. For a time, he allegedly lived at the Cecil, where rooms were as cheap as $14 a night:

Raoul Enriquez, a hotel night clerk [at the Cecil], said a man he is certain was Ramirez lived in a 14th floor room for several weeks in late July and August and for another two weeks in late August. Enriquez, 36, who lived in a room on the same floor, said he had a few brief conversations with Ramirez and said Ramirez told him he was from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. He said the men did not know each other by name. He said Ramirez liked to play rock 'n' roll music on his hotel room radio, and judging from odors Enriquez could smell, was smoking marijuana.

Ramirez wasn't the only murderer who would call the Cecil home. In 1988, a man accused of killing his girlfriend in Huntington Beach was arrested at the Cecil. The globe-trotting, Austrian serial killer Jack Unterweger supposedly stayed at the Cecil in the early '90s. In 1995, a murder suspect named Eric Reed was found at the hotel, after breaking out of a jail in Castaic.

By the mid-2000s, parts of downtown L.A. were becoming increasingly gentrified. In 2007, a group led by Fred Cordova bought the Cecil for 26 million dollars. They began to transform part of the Cecil into "The Stay," a budget boutique hotel for hip, middle class tourists. Many of the poor, long term residents were pushed out.

Despite the hotel's partial transformation, the weirdness continued. In 2010, city firefighter and "2010 paramedic of the year," Charles Anthony MacDougall, claimed he had been stabbed several times on an emergency call to the hotel, while his partner waited outside in the ambulance. However, MacDougall's story did not seem to check out and the case was filed as a false report, although MacDougall was not charged with a crime.

Elisa Lam Video

In February 2013, the Cecil made worldwide news when complaints of low water pressures led to the discovery of the body of Canadian tourist Elisa Lam, 21, in the Cecil's rooftop water tank. It had been there for over three weeks, and the coroner could discover no obvious cause of death. The mystery of what happened to Lam only deepened when a video of her in the hotel elevator was released. In the video, a frightened, curious and highly disoriented Lam appears to believe she is being followed by something or someone.

Efforts have been made to turn 384 rooms at the Cecil not used by the Stay into housing for the homeless. However, business leaders in the up-and-coming areas around the hotel are against the plan. As recently as June of this year, a 28-year-old man was found dead outside the Cecil after an apparent fall. It seems the curse of the Cecil lives on.

Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares

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