PHOTOS BY BRAD TORCHIA
I’m roaring up the Pacific Coast Highway toward Santa Monica in a two-tone 2018 Rolls-Royce Dawn convertible, the gilded woman on the prow leading the way. It’s a loaner, and I’ve secured her for a specific mission. My maternal grandfather, Stewart Chayes, was a collector of Rolls-Royces, 1960s Silver Shadows with right-hand drive and Connolly leather interiors. He was also an architect, a painter, a singer, and, according to my family, a lounge-singing, cigarette-smoking, idea-crafting, fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants renaissance man who sought out the spots—the whimsical, the glamourous, the divey—frequented by the Bogarts and Bacalls of the world.
Stewart died in 1985, when I was just 10 days old, and I’ve landed in Los Angeles to discover him. I know LA, having lived in both Westwood and Venice a decade ago, but I don’t know Stewart’s LA. So I’m here now to retrace his steps, to see the city through his eyes. As I grip the smooth wood steering wheel, I imagine Stewart pulling a Rolls up to one his Old Hollywood haunts, creating his own little slice of history. I hope that by doing the same, I can better understand my grandpa—and the city he called home.
My first stop is in Santa Monica, where my grandpa and his wife, Nancy Lee, eventually settled after moving their six kids from Chicago to California in the mid-’60s. I pull up to Chez Jay, one of my grandpa’s favorite joints, and a throng of passersby forms a ring around the Rolls to take photos. “Nice ride,” someone calls out. I toss the valet the keys, and he leaves the car out front, telling me it’ll draw a nice crowd. Feeling a bit modest, I hurry inside.
Opened on Ocean Avenue by Jay Fiondella in 1959, this tiny, nautical-themed shack quickly became a watering hole where A-listers such as Dennis Hopper and Elizabeth Taylor could hide out from paparazzi. Legend has it that Marilyn Monroe drank Champagne here while two Secret Service agents waited for the call to bring her over to JFK, who was staying several blocks away, at his brother-in-law’s beachfront escape.
The one-room interior is dark, despite the white-hot sun outside, and it’s packed with surfers, families, and dates kicking off the long weekend. A longtime local and close friend of Fiondella’s, Jim McGinn, tells me Chez Jay looks the same as when it first opened. Red leather booths frame the restaurant, and tables with red-and-white checkered tablecloths fill the center. Christmas lights hang from the ceiling. Dotting the walls are black-and-white photos of Fiondella with Nancy Sinatra, Julie Andrews, Gregory Peck, Lee Marvin. To this day, crushed peanut shells dust the floor; when Fiondella opened Chez Jay, he brought in a small elephant for the grand opening and fed it peanuts as it wandered the room. A giant yellowtail caught by a teenage future General George S. Patton off Catalina Island is mounted above the bar.
I immediately head to the jukebox and feed in a few bucks, dialing up Frank Sinatra for Stewart, who loved to sing Ol’Blue Eyes’s songs. Then, sinking into a booth against the wall, I order up a New York strip, my grandpa’s favorite, and imagine Jim Morrison and the Rat Pack—regulars here during the ’60s—strutting in for more drinks.
“We still have celebs that grace our ‘classy joint,’ as Jay would say,” says Fiondella’s daughter, Anita, citing Lady Gaga, Jimmy Buffett, and Kiefer Sutherland. “You never know who you might be sitting next to, but we still try to abide by Jay’s rules: No paparazzi or photographs, please.”
Sitting in my booth, I feel like Stewart could be right next to me, martini in hand, peanut shells crunching underfoot, in this “classy” dive. Maybe we’d mingle with Fiondella or Marlon Brando, or maybe we’d wax philosophical, Sinatra playing on the juke.
The scents of jasmine and eucalyptus waft through the salty air as I hug the curves of Sunset Boulevard the next morning, the convertible top down, blasting Dean Martin, another of Stewart’s favorites. I’m headed to meet one of his last living friends, the renowned Hollywood voice coach Bob Corff, who still trains celebrities today (including Jennifer Lawrence and Jared Leto). Stewart started taking lessons with Corff here, in the Hollywood Hills, just above Warner Bros. Studios, Universal Studios, and Disney, in 1982.
Corff Voice Studios is surrounded by bouganvillea, Buddhist statues, and trickling fountains. As Corff, a smiling, trim man in glasses, blazer, and jeans, shows me over to the piano where my grandpa once practiced, he tells me about Stewart’s musical ambitions: He performed with a live band at showcases at the famed rock club Gazzarri’s (now closed) and the Hollywood Improv (my step-grandma, Mary Lou, showed me a video of him singing to a packed, smoke-filled room here). Network heads, record company executives, and movie stars filled these iconic spots.
“He was singing in the style of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin,” Corff recalls. “It was fun because he was in a room filled with young rock ’n’ rollers and Broadway singers. Everybody got it—Stewart was from a different era.”
Another place Stewart’s musical inclination shone through was in his love of piano bars. I too enjoy a good piano bar—my favorite is Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop in New Orleans—but I’m keen to experience the LA version, Stewart’s version. “He knew every piano bar in LA,” my step-grandma, Mary Lou, tells me. Even in his later years, he was always on the hunt, and while most of the old spots have shuttered, one of the greats still stands, just east of Hollywood, in Los Feliz: The Dresden, which Stewart and Mary Lou stumbled onto in 1984, after taking an acting class nearby.
I swing the Rolls into The Dresden’s parking lot and saunter through the back door, the same way Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau made their entrance here in one of the party scenes in Swingers. I spot the owner, Jim Ferraro, leaning against the bar, chatting with a regular. Ferraro’s family opened the place in the mid-’5os, and three generations of the family have worked there. The aesthetics haven’t changed much in that time: Waiters in crisp white shirts and black bow ties zip between white vinyl booths, beneath Venetian chandeliers, and around 20-foot floor-to-ceiling wood beams.
Marty and Elayne, the lounge’s eccentric husband-and-wife musical duo, are putting on their act for a packed house. They’ve performed the same cacophonous jazz gig at The Dresden since 1981, drawing celebrities such as Julia Roberts (who took to the stage to sing “Makin’ Whoopee,” à la Ella Fitzgerald) and Nicolas Cage. Turns out my uncle, Chris Haller, has played bass with the duo, too. Tonight the place is packed with hip young locals and older couples on dates.
Later, Elayne tells me she has watched the audience shift over the years. “We got on jazz radio and crowds started flowing in,” she says. “Frank Zappa’s band and the Red Hot Chili Peppers would come in to play jazz with us. Then the rock crowd came in—guys with mohawks. Now it’s a really good mix, and it’s always packed. We get everyone from 21 to 90.” But no matter who’s in the seats, the vibe remains familiar. “The bar is almost the same,” Elayne adds, “except he took out the rug.”
Piano bars may have seen their popularity wane, but the next day I set out for a favorite of Stewart’s that has never lost its luster. “The Beverly Hills Hotel and the Polo Lounge were the epitome of glamour, which is why he loved it,” Mary Lou tells me. “I think, coming from our generation, he was impacted by the glam of the ’30s and ’40s movies’ elegance and style.”
That vibe drew Stewart, who would valet his Rolls-Royce at the pink 1912 Mission Revival-style hotel, just as I’m doing now, and head in to enjoy the live music and alfresco dining in the bar, which has been a Hollywood institution since it opened 1941. I feel a buzz sitting in an alcove booth in the Polo Lounge, taking in the signature green Martinique wallpaper. The restaurant director, Pepe de Anda, stops by to have a café au lait with me.
“Every booth has its own celebrity,” he says. “This was Marilyn Monroe’s. Table one was Charlie Chaplin’s. Table three we had to split between John Wayne and Frank Sinatra. That was a problem in those days. I’d have three big-shot people all wanting the same table. As a maître d’, I had to make the decision of who would sit there.” Today, I spy Al Pacino sitting several booths away.
As day fades to night, the Polo Lounge dims, with little lanterns lighting each table, the patrons mere contours in the dark. The backlit bar shelves are stocked with 1937 Macallan and Louis XIII Black Pearl Cognac ($2,000 per glass). “These are the most sought-after seats in Beverly Hills,” the bartender tells me. “It’s the place to be.”
For the last leg of my journey, I’m headed 22 miles off the coastline, to Catalina Island. Catalina was a refuge from busy LA for Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplin, and my grandpa, who is buried here.
To help me see Stewart’s Catalina, I invite along my uncle John, who was part of the original Dogtown skater scene. He tells me that in the ’60s, Stewart would load the whole family into a seaplane to get out to the island. That mode of transit is no longer available, so we take the Catalina Express, an hour-long boat ride, to the island, which is still wrapped in morning fog as we approach. From the water, I can see muted pastel homes peppering the hillside and white boats hugging the harbor—a familiar scene from my grandpa’s Impressionist oil paintings.
“When Stewart wasn’t working on architecture projects, he’d be painting,” John tells me. “After dinner, he’d walk down and sing at El Galleon,” a nautical-themed restaurant he designed.
Every 15 minutes, as we stroll the island’s sleepy streets, we hear the Chimes Tower tolling from high up the hill, standing guard over the island. It feels like a romantic European hideaway dropped in the Pacific. I can see why Stewart—and so many Hollywood royals—loved it here.
To get a taste of that old-world glamour, we stop in at the Catalina Island Museum. I learn that Marilyn Monroe lived here before she was famous, and that Natalie Wood died here, in a mysterious drowning that remains one of Hollywood’s most infamous deaths. In old photos, well-heeled folks stroll along the beach toward the Catalina Casino—today a cinema—and bathers in modest swimsuits play in the Pacific.
Afterward, we head to El Galleon. I picture Stewart in a linen suit and glasses, walking here from his house up on the hill. Standing in the restaurant, I notice a few echoes from my previous stops. There’s the nautical decor, which reminds me of Chez Jay, and the dark wood interiors and plush burgundy booths. And, naturally, there’s a place to sing, in the form of a karaoke set-up. I imagine Stewart stepping out on the floor, mic in hand, crooning, “Fly me to the moon/Let me play among the stars,” and I smile, happy that I’ve discovered my grandpa, and that I can play among the stars in the same places he did. This experience has deepened my ties with him, and confirmed something I’ve long suspected: We possess the same joie de vivre.