By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
There are ghosts, they say, at the Ambassador Hotel. Ghosts and cats. Definitely cats. Up until recently, strays wandered the decrepit grounds and empty hallways of the Ambassador. They stalked the Embassy ballroom, where Robert F. Kennedy gave his final, ill-fated California primary victory speech. They haunted the kitchen, where Sirhan Sirhan once lay in wait, gun at the ready.
“Part of the colony was living out by the bungalows,” said Michael Friedman, pointing to a cluster of small buildings adjacent to the main building. “There are tunnels below this lawn area. Staff used them to deliver food to celebrities staying there. Famous people used them to sneak in lovers.”
It was nearing dusk on a Saturday when I met with Friedman and his wife, Pamela. From their flier at my local PetCo — “Save the Ambassador Cats!” — I had imagined them as insane cat people: afghans, clothes covered in fur, the scent of kitty litter. But the couple waiting for me by the chainlink fence were young and stylish. Both work in the television industry and had spent a lot of time here with the crews who came in to film. On their honeymoon, they decided to do something about the cats. In a few months’ time, the Ambassador was scheduled for demolition. They would take one or two cats, adopt them out. Be kind to animals. Do a good deed. Easy.
What began as a small thing quickly spiraled into chaos. They started with the tamest cats, the ones you could simply pick up and stash in the back seat of the car. Then they set traps in known cat stomping grounds — under the entrance awning emblazoned with the words “Cocoanut Grove,” under the eaves, on top of the roof, by the bushes. Hotel employees were enlisted to check the traps during the day and move the captured cats out of the sun. Pamela and Mike would return at midnight each night to collect the captives and set up new traps.
But once you trapped the cats, how did you coax them out? And once you coaxed them out, where would you put them? Soon the Friedmans were up to their eyeballs in cats. Cute, sweet, affectionate cats. But also hungry cats. Sick cats. Belligerent cats. Cats with claws. At their house in Venice, they showed me makeshift kitty condominiums Pamela had built out of borrowed carriers and bits of cardboard. Michael shook his head. “We have been introduced to a whole underground network of people who deal with feral cats. These people are all over the city. They operate in secret. There is simply no humane infrastructure set up to deal with the situation.” At one point, the couple had 17 cats squatting illegally in their garage.
Which is nothing compared to one woman Pamela spoke with, a member of the underground cat railroad, who had stashed 45 cats in her bedroom. “Honey,” said the woman, “you’re gonna have to enclose your entire house in chicken wire.”
By now, the Friedmans were back down to the legal cat limit: three. There were Humphrey Bogart, Shirley Temple, and a yet-to-be-named black cat they were calling Satan Kitty. The majority of cats were given in large bunches to people willing to foster ferals until more permanent homes could be found. Friends (and friends of friends) adopted the tamer cats — Frank Sinatra, Joey Bishop, Marilyn Monroe, Danny Kaye, Dean Martin.
“This is actually quiet,” said Michael, suddenly melancholy. He reached into a cage to pet Bogie, a mellow, hefty black-and-white tuxedo cat. “He’s quite the ladies’ man. He fathered many a kitten at the Ambassador.” Bogie yawned appreciatively. I wondered if Bogie knew the ghostly figure that had been spotted in a window on the hotel’s fourth floor, only to lean out and disappear. Or if he’d seen the lights that crew members said would turn on and off by themselves, or the other lights that streaked down hallways. The old hotel was riddled with cold spots. Doors would open and close inexplicably. Even Snoop Dogg, I’d read, who’d been filming recently at the hotel, was spooked.
Close by, something small squeaked. “Oh, that’s one of the kittens. We’re calling them the Little Rascals,” said Pamela. “For days, Satan Kitty was yowling like she was possessed. Then she had six kittens. We had no idea she was even pregnant. That’s how skinny she was.”
The image of a former stray scrounging for food, now getting a second chance at life as a well-fed kitty, sitting on a kind human’s lap watching television, that’s the hope that keeps Michael and Pamela going. It’s about reciprocity. It has been said that cats, who can see the souls of the dearly departed, keep their masters safe from unfriendly spirits. In the warmth of the Friedmans’ garage, Shirley Temple, a slim cat with grayish stripes, hopped onto Pamela’s desk and began to purr.