At 21, Penny Wolin moved into a hotel residence in the heart of Hollywood.
It was 1975 and the building was the St. Francis Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard – the same strip where movie legends have long immortalized their hand and footprints in wet cement.
The St. Francis was built in 1926, during the height of silent cinema, a place alive with the glitz and glamor of Old Hollywood. But half a century later, when Wolin arrived, the St. Francis was a very different place.
His rooms were filled with people who felt like they didn’t belong anywhere else. People whose dreams, as she said, were bigger than their bedrooms.
“People stayed there overnight or 30 years — and anywhere in between,” Wolin told NPR.
So she pulled out a camera, a single strobe light, and a tape recorder, and for the next three weeks of her stay there, Wolin strove to connect with the people who made up the St. Francis community, one by a.
Wolin grew up in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and remembers a time when she was a child and her father took her to the part of town that had apartment hotels. He always squeezed her hand a little tighter, she said, and that made her wonder: Who lives in these buildings?
When she arrived at the Saint-François, she began to understand.
“It was the people who needed a place to be, whether they were going up or maybe coming down,” Wolin says.
Nearly 50 years after her stay, Wolin’s photographs and the stories she heard have been turned into a book, Guest register. Included are photos of everything from an American man in the 70s and his new French-born girlfriend, to the empty room that had belonged to a stuntman until he died the night before Wolin was due to photograph it. .
Then there was the plumber-electrician who loved to wear lace.
“I used to see this guy leaving in the morning, and he was a muscular plumber,” Wolin recalled. “And then he would come back at the end of the day and go to his room, and then another type of person would emerge, which was a beautiful woman with a lace dress and high heels, and that was him. And he would leave. “
At the time Wolin wrote the book, he was well loved and respected by all who knew him. So she also wanted to know him.
Wolin also fondly remembers the orphaned brothers from Nebraska, who had managed to stay together since the ages of three and five, and who were now exploring the world as young adults.
“It just warmed my heart,” Wolin said. “They were just these great guys from Nebraska who said, ‘Let’s go to Hollywood.'”
For many St. Francis residents, it was the Hollywood mythos that drew them to the city. Wolin says that idea is alive and well and may still be true. She describes Hollywood not just as a geographical place, but as an existential place.
“And you can do something for yourself,” she says. “You can be a photographer, a musician, all those things you want to be, there’s hope you can be them. So Hollywood is built on hope.”
Saint Francis himself meant different things to different people, says Wolin. Like the woman who lived with her boyfriend and worked at Arby’s and kept a spotlessly clean room.
“So for her, it’s a place to stay for a short time,” Wolin says. “[But] the penthouse guy who had been there for probably decades, he understood the dynamics of where he was and got used to it. It was home, there was a home for people.”
Then there was the man in room 540, who left Wolin a handwritten note that simply said, “There’s a room for you here.” It was a note that would sustain her for years to come.
“It’s become the mantra that no matter how bad things get in the journey to find your way…if it’s as bad as it can be, it’s not that bad,” Wolin says. “If there was room for me here at the Existential Hotel, well, I have a place to be in the world and people will take care of me.”