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La Vie En Ruffian: Meet Sunset Tower’s Jeff Klein

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In their latest installment of La Vie En Ruffian, Brian Wolk and Claude Morais of Ruffian sit down with hotel impresario Jeff Klein, owner of the Sunset Tower (home of the Vanity Fair Oscar party), The City Club Hotel in New York, and co-owner of the Monkey Bar to get his secrets….

Jeff Klein is endowed with a gift for hospitality. His charming yet humble demeanor has largely been informed by his family, which early on emphasized the importance of education, travel, and of course style. The secret to his success lies in both Mr. Klein’s intuition and almost clairvoyant ability to tap into the cultural zeitgeist and distill it into his properties. His Upper East Side provenance, post-modern take on sentimentality, and painstaking eye for detail allow him to levitate high to low and accommodate a variety of people, situations and environments with diplomatic ease and continental savoir faire. We were lucky enough to catch up with Jeff on a quiet Saturday afternoon at his newest property, The San Vicente Bungalows. Tucked away in a quiet oasis by the pool, we packed our Picnic at Ascot Dorset full reed willow basket with tea sandwiches, scones, and rosé wine, slipped into our bathing suits, and channeled our inner Barbara Walters to get a better understanding of how Los Angeles’ most revered Hotel Impresario ticks.

What was your first memorable hotel experience you can remember growing up?
I was very fortunate to have been born on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and to have parents who love to travel. They would always go to super fancy hotels which I loved. When I was about 15, they brought me to the Ritz in Paris and La Momounia in Marrakech. It was at that moment I knew hotels would be my life. It was all about the experience, and how ones setting and environment can change your mood. It was extraordinary hospitality experience, the trip of a life-time and it still resonates within me.

What was your first memorable hotel experience you can remember growing up?
I was very fortunate to have been born on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and have parents who love to travel. They would always go to super fancy hotels, which I would love. So when I was 15, they brought me to the Ritz in Paris and La Momounia in Marrakech. It was at that moment I knew hotels would be my life. It was all about the experience, and how ones setting and environment can change your mood. It was extraordinary hospitality experience, the trip of a lifetime and it still resonates within me.

What makes for a sexy hotel?
The real answer is soul. If a hotel has a soul, that makes it sexy. This hotel right now is so sexy. There is nothing fancy about it, but it has a soul. It has to have that. As a hotelier you have to understand how to make the soul come alive and see ghosts.

What your design process like?
Well first I listen to the soul, the building, the physical structure. I look for places with a real personality. The City Club Hotel in Manhattan was built in 1904, it’s a beautiful beaux-arts building. I respected its architecture. There is always give and take. At the Sunset Tower Hotel, what is now The Tower Bar, was being used at storage when I bought the hotel, than I found out it was originally was Bugsy Siegel’s apartment through research I did, and discovered a feature on it in Architectural Digest from 1947. The entire place had walnut paneling with brass inlay and I knew that would be the design element that would carry through the entire hotel. There are design elements of many periods at the tower: some ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, and even ’70s. My vision for the Sunset Tower was a younger, cooler version of the Carlyle, and everyone told me it would never work. I didn’t want a DJ in the lobby; I wanted to elevate the level of hospitality, and hired Paul Fortune to do the interiors.

Tell us about your romance with L.A.
My first love experience with the city is when I came here 11 years ago. My business partner said, “Come to L.A., there’s a hotel I want you to see”. At the time, the hotel was called The Argyle, and it was in a state of disrepair. The building was built in 1929, and initially it was a fabulous residence. Greta Garbo and Marilyn Monroe both lived there; John Wayne and Howard Hughes lived in the penthouse. Frank Sinatra, Liz Taylor, you name it, they all lived there. But when I went to see it, it really was quite decrepit. I had a vision; I saw the ghosts. As a New Yorker, you’re trained not to like L.A., but when I arrived I instantly loved it. New York was just becoming what it is today: a city for super wealthy people. There are no more Andy Warhols, and not much room for the bohemian class. I love New York, I am from New York, but it’s definitely a very different place than it used to be. So anyway, I fell in love with L.A., the art, the architecture and of course my husband. I love the people, the vibe, the lifestyle.

What make your hotels so appealing to celebrities and VIPs?
I never really gush about celebrities, but [recently] Annie Lennox was at the Sunset Tower and I totally gushed. She is such a brilliant artist, and I have incredible admiration for her talent. I was so proud she was there. I have listened to “Diva” about ten million times; I love her so much.

Did you say hi?
No, I never say hi; that would be weird! I always keep my distance. I can’t imagine why any celebrity would want to meet the hotel owner. But back to the question, I think we make celebrities feel comfortable, from the menu at the restaurant to the arrival at valet, the physical property, the lighting, it all makes everyone feel comfortable, demure and glamorous. Also no one ever bothers celebrities at the hotel. It’s like a club! Our beloved maître d’ Dmitri runs the place with an iron fist in a velvet glove.

What’s your favorite room at the Sunset Tower?
It’s hard for me to stay there because I can’t relax when I’m at the hotel. I focus on why the bellman’s collar isn’t perfectly pressed, or if a lily in a flower arrangement is off. But my favorite room is 1207. The penthouse is the biggest, the most expensive, and definitely the most fabulous. But the truth is, I would take 1207, the balcony, the layout, it’s all perfect.

Who rents the penthouse, Oprah and Celine?
Haha! Actually there are a lot of celebrities and titled aristocracy who rent the penthouse, not to mention my mom loves to stay there when she is in town from NYC.

Speaking of your mom, I hear she is an expert on Folk Art and Furniture. Did she inform your highly refined aesthetic?
Well thank you, I didn’t realize it was that highly refined but I will take the compliment! My mom is super stylish, super chic, and an unbelievable dresser.

Tell us a little about your latest project, The San Vicente Bungalows in West Hollywood.
The property was constructed in the 1880s, and the bungalows were for railroad workers to stay in when they were connecting the tracks between Santa Monica to Hollywood. These were the first structures in what is now West Hollywood, but at the time was called the city of Sherman. After the railroad workers were done, they became residential apartments, and in the 70’s a South African man bought it and turned it into a gay bathhouse. The plans for the development are still in the works but we will have a restaurant, a bar and cabanas; a cute little club-like environment in the heart of West Hollywood. These are historical bungalows so I need to respect the architecture, and I have hired restoration architects to do research to make sure I get everything right. It’s going to be a tremendous amount of work, so much in fact that I feel like I just bought a 30-room mini Beverly Hills hotel.

Who would be your dream guest for your hotel?
Coco Chanel, of course!

What’s your favorite movie?
That’s really hard because I’m married to a serious movie person. John, my husband introduced me to old movies, so I suppose any Alfred Hitchcock movie, Strangers on a Train and North by Northwest top the list.

Favorite Book?
I just read the Walter Isaacson biography on Steve Jobs, which was amazing. I tend to be that person where that last book I read is the one that inspires me.

Career mentor?
Well when I got my first job as a bellman, the man who owned the hotel became my mentor. I moved up to front desk manager, and the owner of hotel started to notice me. His name is Bernard Goldberg. To this day I still call and ask him questions.

Do you have a style mentor?
I love Billy Baldwin; He was an incredibly talented interior designer. Other than that, Phillip Johnson and Rothko continually inspire me.

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