Hollywood’s favorite hotelier comes clean about LA’s vicious hotel wars, Vanity Fair’s fizzling Oscar party, and his plan to convert a gay sex motel into the town’s most exclusive club.
It’s odd seeing Jeff Klein in the daylight. The dapper 48-year-old owner of the Sunset Tower Hotel in LA, the Monkey Bar in New York City (with Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter), and the upcoming San Vicente Inn in WeHo is more often glimpsed in the dappled candlelight of the Tower Bar with movie stars, social stars, agent stars, and fashion stars eating out of his hands and plates. (Oh, those truffle fries!) After purchasing New York City’s Tony City Hotel at the age of 31, the young hotelier trekked to Hollywood, where in 2005 he magically transformed a rundown Art Deco hotel called the Argyle into one of LA’s hottest hangouts—the favored watering hole of Jon Hamm, Jennifer Aniston, Johnny Depp, and Tom Ford and the former site of Vanity Fair’s fabled Oscar Night parties. Now he’s ready to work his magic again.
This time around, Klein has set his sights on a notorious West Hollywood bungalow motel that has virtually operated as a gay sex-and-drugs retreat since the eighties. Renovations on the property have just begun. But don’t hold your breaths, darlings—the place won’t open its doors until 2018, and even then it might not be opening its doors to US! Instead of another hotel, Klein is planning to turn the down-on-its-heels motel into a luxurious private club, with a membership restricted to just 2,000 carefully vetted bold-faced names. (Dimitri, the much-celebrated maîtres d’ of the Sunset Tower will also be making the move.) Think of the new San Vincente Inn as a grander, more exclusive answer to SoHo House. But does he plan to pull off such a radical reconstruction? We visited him in his new digs to find out. Klein looked a little odd in his Brunello Cucinelli jacket, Acne jeans, and Tod’s shoes—a perfectly groomed gent holding court amidst the detritus of a former bathhouse.
Merle Ginsberg: [looking around]God, looks like you have your work cut out for you here.
Jeff Klein: I know it! You should have seen the place before I bought it! It needed an immediate “refreshing.” But there was a bit of pushback when I forced everybody to wear clothes! Because, as you know, this used to be a nudist place.
MG: Apparently, there were people in WeHo’s gay community who weren’t too happy that you bought the place?
JK: They weren’t happy. But I did! [laughs]. I think if a non-gay person had institution. It took a certain buyer kind of buyer—it’s harder for the gay community to complain about a gay man taking it over. But I still get a lot of blowback from elements of the community. I don’t know when having anonymous, dangerous sex and doing dangerous drugs became such a protected part of gay culture. I don’t understand the reasons for that backlash,because this was not a nice place. I’m all for sex and stuff, but this was a bad, dark place. It really was.
MG: In a really upscale neighborhood.
JK: In the ‘70s, West Hollywood started to become a vibrant gay city, much like the West Village in New York. But the San Vicente remained a relic of the past. Everything around WeHo got built up and gentrified. But this place basically remained a sex club. Then, in 2008, the motel suddenly went up for sale. I love everything about it. It’s historically protected. And if it wasn’t, somebody would have bought this for, like $50 million and turned it into a big apartment building. These bungalows around us are the oldest freestanding structures in West Hollywood. That one’s from the 1800s, this other one’s from the 1920s. The one back there is from 1915!
MG: Your restaurant at Sunset Tower has become one of LA’s most popular dining spots. What are you planning to do about the food here?
JK: There is no food! We serve pastries and coffee for breakfast, but we’ll definitely be building a restaurant. That huge building in front will be a restaurant that will open up to this pool.
MG: Why did you decide to make it a private club?
JK: When Soho House first opened here, they asked my husband John and I to be founding members. I was, like, “I would never—what losers—that place is gonna close! It’s never gonna survive.” Because in New York, SoHo House was never that cool. But in LA, it’s had an incredible impact.
MG: Even though they tried to steal Dimitri from you ?
JK: Yes, they tried to steal my Dimitri! So did Bouchon. Because, as you know, he’s the heart and soul of this operation. He’s a social genius who knows everyone! I’m the most not-confident person in the world, but one thing I am confident is about my relationship with Dimitri. He actually owns a piece of San Vicente Inn. I gave him a piece of this—he’s my family. He’ll never leave. And I’ll never leave him. I will die for that guy.
MG: You pretty much discovered him, didn’t you?
JK: No, Tom Ford discovered him. But I had the confidence in him at a time when nobody wanted to work with him because they thought he was a relic of the past. But I understood that there was a retro thing that he brought. I mean, how can you not love Dimitri?
MG: What will be the lay of the land at the new, private San Vicente Inn?
JK: Eventually we’ll have a restaurant, a bar, a screening room, all sorts of social space—large living rooms—where people can sit by the fire and have a drink. Sit with your laptop and do some work. And then there will be private dining spaces hidden all over.
MG: Where is this all going to go? It doesn’t really seem that big?
JK: There are 29 hotel rooms now, and we’ll end up with only nine. So a lot of the rooms will be converted into other things. It’s a social club—a swimming social club of sorts.
MG: You’ve said that you’ll be strictly limiting the membership to 2,000 members. Who’s going to choose the lucky few?
JK: [laughs]There will be a committee.
MG: Of you and Dimitri?
JK: [laughs]Well, we’ll certainly have a say in it, but there really will be a committee. We want it to be balanced —people from fashion, tech, and the movie business. But obviously, it will be 80 percent Hollywood people. So you’ll have to be a member to stay here, or a member has to book you in. That’s how we control your behavior! You can’t act up! [laughs]
MG: Because no one in Hollywood acts up! [laughs]When do you think this project will finally be over?
JK: We’re starting construction in earnest in early 2017, and hopefully we’ll open 18 months later we still had people renting rooms here. Now we’ve finally locked the doors. Our interior decorator, Rita Konig, is rearing to go. Our architect is Marc Appleton, who designed the San Ysidro Ranch in Santa Barbara.
MG: What kind of menu do you envision? Do you plan to bring in a celebrity chef?
If you could see this place before I bought it, you’d know I did a single ‘refreshing.’ And I forced everybody to wear clothes!
JK: [laughs]I don’t know about a celebrity chef. Because there’s so much outdoor space here, we’ll have lots of outdoor grills strewn about. It will be an American menu, Very healthy—grilled fish, grilled meats, grilled vegetables. A wood-burning rotisserie.
MG: Dimitri has been such a mainstay of Tower Bar, that people were surprised to learn that he was coming here. What happens to Sunset Tower when he’s gone?
JK: [laughs]Well, Dimitri owns a piece of this hotel, so I’m sure he’ll continue to make appearances. But you’re right. He can’t abandon Sunset Tower. He’s part of the furniture there now. I suspect he’ll work three days there, two days here. He’ll bop around.
MG: Did you ever imagine that Sunset would become such a celebrity hot spot? Or that Dimitri would score the cover of the Sunday New York Times?
JK: No, I didn’t. But again, that’s not what I was focused on creating. I think that any restaurateur who wakes up and says, “I want to create a place where celebrities go” will end up being very disappointed.
MG: The Sunset Tower hosted the Vanity Fair Oscar party for four years until 2011. How much did that association burnish the hotel’s image?
JK: You tell me. I’m scared to say anything about Vanity Fair because the last time I did, I got in a lot of trouble! VF did a lot of great things. But the CAA Golden Globe party has become the year’s hottest ticket. It’s a truly insider party. Vanity Fair’s Oscar party used to be great, but now its filled with lots of advertisers. At CAA’s Golden Globe party you’re not not going to get in unless you’re Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise. They’re really strict about it. Even if you’re a TV star on, like, a pretty popular show, you might not make the cut. CAA has military-grade security.
MG: You always seem so comfortable and social, which is essential in your line of work. But your husband, [producer John Goldwyn]is famously shy, even though he’s descended from Hollywood royalty.
JK: Yes, John is shy. He rarely ventures into the restaurant. I actually met him a week after I first moved to LA. at Lisa and Eric Eisner’s house! It was 2004, twelve years ago, and we’re still together.
MG: When you first purchased the Argyle Hotel you were nervous about moving West. You didn’t think that you’d fit in.
JK: [laughs]I know! Now I love it. I’m here 90 percent of the time. I’d never move anywhere else. Which is odd, because I was the ultimate New Yorker. But what’s not to love about LA? It’s the perfect city. I recently reduced my interest in the City Club Hotel in Times Square, which was my first hotel. I still own a small piece of it. If I do another hotel, I’d love to build it in Santa Barbara. Or Palm Springs. Or Laguna. I love California.
MG: I’d love California too if I lived in your house. Not long ago it was featured in one of those over-the-top Architectural Digest real estate porn pieces. And then you promptly turned around and sold it!
JK: [laughs]I know. Totally random. We weren’t looking for a new house. Somebody called us and said, “There’s this place we think you should see. It’s an old 1920s Spanish house in Beverly Hills. Nice piece of land.” And I said, “We’re not really looking for a house.” Then John said, “I want to see it. It used to be Boris Karloff’s house.” I said, “Why? We’re not buying a house.” So we went and both said, “We’ll take it.” [laughs]We closed about a year ago this month. And thank God we sold the other house. You know who bought it? Lew Wasserman’s daughter, so it got to stay in a Hollywood family.
MG: So are you managing construction at your new home as well?
JK: We’re in there deciding what to do. We’re doing it with an architect named Kevin Clark. He’s based out of Ojai. He has a historical house and works on these historical houses. Right now, we’re living with our old furniture, which looks fine in the house.
MG: So is there a typical Jeff Klein day?
JK: Not really. My days are not very glamorous or fun. I go to the Tower Bar for dinner less now. No one cares if they see me at the restaurant or not. I go to work every day. I’m on the phone 95 percent of the time. I look like Sally from Time Life ’cause I have the earpiece on. I’m dealing with so many unglamorous things. This, construction documents—there’s just so much I have to do. Honestly, John and I are home most of the time.
MG: Are you worried about the explosion of new hotels on Sunset?
JK: It’s kind of scary. But I have a new partner in Sunset Tower and we’re putting some money into the hotel. Refreshing the rooms and lots of other good things so we can remain competitive. But all these new hotels—they’re never going to be Art Deco 1929 hotels with the Tower Bar and Dimitri and all the history we have. My clients don’t want to stay at the London or anything cookie-cutter generic. Can they get more square footage at some other hotel? Yeah, of course. But they’re staying with us for other reasons.
MG: You’ve lived here a while now. What are your own favorite hangouts?
JK: Well, I have three restaurants I frequent. Madeo is one. I take my parents there when they’re in town. And one that’s gonna shock you—the South Beverly Grill. It’s one of my favorites; the food is so good. It’s fast. It’s not that expensive, and I never know anyone there, which is a plus. And then the Tower Bar—going there is a mixed bag for me—if I go there, I have to look good. I have to say hello to everyone. If I’m wearing a T-shirt and I don’t wanna be charming, and I just want a date night with John, I go to South Beverly. There’s a new restaurant there that I like called Catch. It’s a place you want to go to with a group. Lots of pretty young girls. Kind of a Soho House vibe.
MG: What TV do you and John watch when you’re home?
JK: John is a fanatic. He watches almost everything. I’m obsessed with this show Younger. It was created by my friend Darren Star. Game of Thrones, of course. Best TV ever. When David Benioff comes to the restaurant, it’s as if God himself is coming in. I send over stuff. I try to be there that night. He’ll sit and talk to me about the show. He is so low key, and Amanda (Peet, his wife) is so low key. They’re amazing. I’m always, like, “Tell me what happens,” and, of course, he never does. But he will tell me about things that have happened. I’m very sad that Mad Men is over. I loved it. Jon Hamm is at Tower Bar all the time. He’s so handsome and great. But John and I don’t really stop in at the restaurant that much. We really don’t go out.
MG: I’m not buying it. What’s the last great party you went to?
JK: The CAA Golden Globe party! And that was a year ago! And I only got in cause I own the place!
Photographed by Joe Schmelzer; Producer Villani Productions
This interview originally appeared in FourTwoNine’s Holiday Issue, on stands now.