Once Upon a Time, This Arizona Pool Was a Hotspot For Hollywood Royalty
Welcome to Marilyn Monroe’s favorite sunbathing spot.
For a brief spell in Hollywood’s golden age, the hottest desert pool parties weren’t in Palm Springs, or even in California. Movie stars, sports icons, musicians, and politicians were dipping their toes in the Catalina Pool at the Arizona Biltmore.
The crystal, palm-lined waters of the luxe resort’s pool have been enjoyed by presidents and Rat Packers alike. Marilyn Monroe—an expert on the subject—declared it her favorite spot to sunbathe. But the story of the hotel and its illustrious pool isn’t just a random piece of celebrity history: It’s essential to the history of Arizona’s now-thriving tourism industry.
Opened in February 1929, the Biltmore was the passion project of the McArthur brothers, early champions of Phoenix’s untapped tourism potential. Having previously whisked visitors from cold-climate states for proto-glamping experiences aboard their tricked-out Wonder Bus tours, the hotel was the next logical step in establishing the cacti-laden land as a glam destination.
Designed by Albert Chase McArthur—an architect inspired by former mentor Frank Lloyd Wright, who consulted—the hotel swung its doors open in grand fashion, with a three-day soiree catering to high-society revelers. But not long after the opulent opening—dubbed “the party of the decade” by press in Arizona and beyond—the stock market crashed and the brothers were forced to sell the hotel in 1930 to chewing-gum magnate William Wrigley Jr.
According to former Arizona Biltmore historian Becky Blaine, among the first orders of business when the Wrigleys took over was the creation of the stunning Catalina Pool, named after the California island on which they resided. Ada Wrigley added flourishes to make it wholly unique, including canary yellow and navy blue art-deco mosaic tiles custom made by the Catalina Pottery and Tile Company.
The Wrigleys used their influence to ensure the guest list was high-profile. Over four decades, staying at the hotel required an invitation, and the grounds were often crawling with famous baseball players. The Wrigleys—namesakes of Wrigley Field—owned the Chicago Cubs, and when athletes complained about the long commute to Catalina Island for training, the Biltmore became an ideal stopping point, with players hobnobbing around the hotel and splashing in the pool. (Blaine credits Wrigley with developing the first versions of spring training, still a tradition in Arizona).
Amid all the hotel’s ornate flourishes, the cabana-lined Catalina Pool was the place to be in Arizona, and played host to all types of events—including fashion shows and diving competitions—that brought out a star-studded crowd. Irving Berlin penned some of the holiday tune “White Christmas” while lounging poolside. Actor Clark Gable was photographed alongside Mr. Wrigley on the golf course. Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and Liza Minneli reportedly put on an impromptu show in the lobby. Every president since Herbert Hoover through George W. Bush has been a guest of the hotel.
And while the resort has never found any documented history of Marilyn (or any of her aliases), actually staying at the Biltmore, Blaine said it’s likely that the Hollywood starlet was kind of a “pool crasher,” sneaking away from Downtown Phoenix’s Westward Ho after filming movies in the ‘50s.
Today, more than 90 years since the Biltmore swung open its doors, the hotel remains a cornerstone of Phoenix’s now-thriving tourism industry and the gold standard of high-end luxury in the area. And much like its other notable features—towering sculptures, a massive Frank Lloyd Wright Ballroom, a Prohibition-era hidden speakeasy, and lush gardens—the pool remains immaculate, a sparkling lagoon with a backdrop of desert mountains.
Only today, you needn’t be be a high-roller on a guest list, or a pool-crashing legend of the silver screen, to enjoy what we have on good authority to be some pretty spectacular sunbathing.