WASHINGTON — “What ifs” drive logicians crazy and give conspiracists and alternative historians fodder. Almost everyone wonders about a “what if” in their life — if I would taken the other door, the other road, the other decision.
History would be changed for the better, almost everyone believes.
Like most assassinations, the murder of Robert F. Kennedy has been viewed and dissected from endless positions, endless what-ifs, endless conspiracies.
Yet while there are many what-ifs pondered and debated about the aftermath of 50 years ago, there is a rarely asked “Why.” As in: Why did Kennedy choose the Ambassador Hotel for his California victory party?
At first blush, it appears totally counter-intuitive. The Ambassador stood symbolically for most things Kennedy was campaigning again. He campaigned to end the divide between rich and poor; the Ambassador catered to the Hollywood, the monied, and the storied elite. Kennedy campaigned in part on behalf of the minorities who had little or no voice; those groups were rarely guests at the Ambassador, they’re more likely lower-scale workers. The Ambassador was gold leaf, palm trees and sand frisked from public beaches, and gaudy behavior hushed up by pliant columnists, a rich person’s playground at the expenses of the commoner — much of which became the core of Kennedy speaking to the new ranks of his burgeoning support.
Why did Kennedy choose the Ambassador?
In one sense, it was akin to the seismic change that was convulsing through the country in 1968 and through the race for president. The times were a changin’, just as Kennedy was. The one time aide to Joe McCarthy, the cold protector of brother Jack suddenly found himself a voice for those without one.
He would win the California primary, his team privately declared, and show the old order there is a new voice for the party and the country. He would take the old and make it the new.
Thus the Ambassador. He would make his campaign headquarters in the symbol of the establishment and elite and claim it for the new voices he was given chorus to sing.
Kennedy had been to the Ambassador several times, as early as 1960, meeting key politicians and influencers to steer them toward his brother Jack’s presidential race. It was the place with an iconic status conveying heft and importance.
One of those he met was the late actor Robert Vaughn, who strongly supported the Kennedy campaign in 1968 and was almost at the hotel on that deadly night.
“I had deeply admired Bobby since I was first introduced to him in 1960,” Vaughn said years ago. “Ironically, we met at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles where, eight years later, he would be assassinated.”
They met there because it was the place to meet: a commanding address of Wilshire Boulevard, a commanding entrance, a commanding grip on the city’s interest.
An article in 1921 ballyhooed the new star of the city,
“On January 18, 1921, several weeks after its initial opening, the Ambassador held a formal dinner and ball for 3,000 guests to celebrate its grand opening. The event was the largest of its kind at the time, said to rival a ball held the previous year to honor President Woodrow Wilson’s visit to LA. Jazz music blared while gorgeously dressed ladies and gents danced the night away. It was the first of many unforgettable and lavish evenings at the Ambassador. When the hotel’s Cocoanut Grove nightclub opened on April 21, 1921, the hotel had officially solidified its social scene,’ the article stated.
It continued even during the Depression. Six Academy Awards ceremonies were held at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in the hotel, as were birthday parties for everyone of note including Mickey and Minnie Mouse. In its egalitarian moments, the hotel invited WWII servicemen to mix and mingle with movie stars at fundraising events to boost the war effort.
“There was so much drama right here in this hotel…so many lives were affected, some for better, some for worse. So many careers began…some even ended in this very room,” actress Joan Crawford, who competed in Charleston dance competitions at the hotel, told one reporter at the time in what would become a prescient statement.
Neither war nor depression nor seemingly anything could slow down the Ambassador — until the 1960s began churning. Like the city and the country already being gnawed apart by political and civil rights strife, the foundations were weakening.
Kennedy’s death killed the hope for a new breath of politics in 1968 and it was the fatal blow to the hotel as well. It never recovered from its sobriquet of being the RFK assassination site.
After a long decline, the Ambassador closed in 1989. Yet there was one more chapter, underscoring how oddities taunt U.S. history and politics.
The last battle for the rights to the hotel was fought between three entities: preservationists, the Los Angeles Board of Education, and a then reality TV star named Donald Trump, who wanted to build a 125-story building, which would have been the world’s tallest. The school district won and in 2005, the hotel was razed to permit construction of a new school complex, and that part of Wilshire Boulevard has signs reading “Robert F. Kennedy Parkway.”
Dead hotels still tell tales.