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Cabanarama

Who is that?She can't possibly be 18. Look at the way she's wriggling out of those cutoffs. Could her bathing suit be any skimpier?And what is that piece of jewelry hanging from her navel?Do you think those diamonds are real?And what's the story with that older woman next to her?She just keeps staring at her. Omigod, she's smoking a cigar.

Everybody thinks I'm reading the New York Times, but I'm not. I am focused just above the page on the real news of the day, across the swimming pool, on Best Performance Before 11 a.m. by a Beverly Hills Hotel Guest. And if everything is working right, at this very moment, somebody across the pool is peering over a newspaper and taking a long analytical look at me: Is he Anybody?He looks familiar. That blonde with him must be six foot two. Doesn't she ever take off those sunglasses?Fabulous. He must be Somebody. I mean, he's in cabana No. 7.

By now every student of luxury hotels has noticed that in recent years the cabana—that icon of mid-century sophistication, like baked alaska—has been making a steady comeback. Perhaps it was the need for a little shade after all that sun damage. Perhaps it was time to redress the balance of poolside power. In any case those damp little changing cabins that have been with us since the Victorian era are multiplying rapidly and being upgraded considerably in terms of style and amenities.

The Phoenician first reminded American hoteliers what a cabana could be when it dug a mother-of-pearl pool in 1987 and lined its edge with chic tents the color of egg yolks; someone was clearly thinking Cap d'Antibes, not Scottsdale. Ian Schrager, building upon the swinger heritage of poolside life, exploited a different line of possibilities in 1994 at his Delano in South Beach, with the first of the new generation of MTV-model-posse poolside sex pits. Today it's hard to find a hotel in the sun that does not have cabanas competing to impress the traveler. Bottled water and a bowl of fruit are the minimum to expect. Many have fax machines, Internet service, and minibars. Some have full bathrooms. At Paris in Las Vegas, they're air-conditioned; at the Bacara Resort in Santa Barbara, they are arranged like the tiers at La Scala.

To the uninitiated, the world of the cabana is a complete mystery. Hotel guests rent them by the day, for as much as $500 in high season, as poolside or beachside extensions of their rooms. Swimming has very little to do with it. Cabanas afford space, shade, and a place to entertain, and confer the aura of Somebodyness that only money can buy. Businesspeople often hold court in them, as does the sort of person always ready to pay a little extra to separate himself from the crowd, no matter how rarefied the crowd.

In the beginning, cabana life can be intimidating; there are so many possible missteps. Showing up at an appropriate time and securing a good location; tipping the pool boy; having the right clothes, accessories, reading material; occupying yourself for hour after hour in the hot sun; feeling you are making a worthwhile contribution to the mise-en-scène—there is no school for such things. How many of us naturally have the body image and sense of entitlement so public a performance requires?But it's amazing how quickly you adapt, as I did recently at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

Nowhere is the cabana as fully appreciated as it is in Beverly Hills, where relaxing by the pool is a blood sport. The Four Seasons Beverly Hills has seven lovely ones hovering politely in the background of its lively, easygoing pool scene. At the Peninsula Beverly Hills, 12 stately tents with misters and flat-screen televisions dominate a rooftop pool so intimate that everybody feels obliged to behave fairly well. For pool play at its most extreme, people have always gravitated to the much larger Beverly Hills Hotel pool, where the ghosts of the beautiful and the damned seem to be lying beside you on your green-striped chaise longue.

It is hard to imagine a more cunning design for a swimming pool. To approach it you must descend a flight of stairs; that is, you must make an entrance while everyone watches. It's the walk of a lifetime or the walk of death, depending on your perspective. You are greeted by the pool manager who, like the maître d' at Spago, pauses thoughtfully and proposes where you will be seated, which may or may not be what you had in mind. This is sometimes the beginning of a spirited negotiation. On one side of the pool, at no charge, are three rows of chaise longues, about 100 in all. On the other side, for $175 a day, there are 12 cabanas in the glamorous Hollywood Regency style, which may or may not already be reserved. Four decades ago you would have found starlets on one side and star makers on the other (and if the curtain to a cabana was closed, you could guess the rest). Not so much anymore, but there is still a distinct charge in the air: It's as if everybody in the first-class cabin on an airplane were forced to sit facing everybody in the economy cabin for the duration of an eight-hour flight.

A cabana reservation here is a guarantee of prime pool real estate, about 250 square feet of tented and outdoor space, in most cases at the water's edge. You get four chaises, an umbrella, a table for six, a ceiling fan, bottled water, fruit, ice, and a cordless phone; a TV and fax machine are yours for the asking. The most coveted cabanas, Nos. 5 through 8, are at the center of the pool; Nos. 6 and 7 are unimpeachable. Dodi Al Fayed was partial to No. 8. Jacqueline Susann was a regular in No. 9. People still talk about the day in the seventies when Elizabeth Taylor, whose blousy condition was causing too much loud comment, was quietly escorted to upstairs cabana No. 7—one of nine "upstairs cabanas" in the days when seclusion elevated your status. The Beatles used to like it up there. (Nobody wants privacy anymore; the old upstairs cabanas are now used for massages.) Yet not long ago Whitney Houston settled near the pool in No. 12, surrounded by her entourage. Why, in the tabloid age, would Whitney Houston make herself so visible?When you need a little attention, you just need it.

To fully enjoy a cabana, you have to get to know the pool boy, a character who, like the lifeguard and the tennis pro, theoretically lives for pleasure. Actually he works pretty hard, dragging around furniture, picking up dirty towels, managing egos, and spreading just enough information about who's who at the pool. Still, his most obvious job is to be attractive, and the Beverly Hills Hotel staff is clearly chosen for its bright eyes and tousled hair as well as its way with terry cloth. Svend Petersen, who came to the hotel in 1959, is the most famous pool boy in the world. Today he's called Hotel Ambassador; he waves, smiles a lot, shakes familiar hands that have grown liver-spotted, tells the new generation stories that start with phrases like "The first time I met Marilyn Monroe...," and generally advises his successor, Mark Jablonski, who has been in charge of the pool for two years. Svend is an international smoothie, in a Cary Grant studio-system way; Mark is a cool modern California guy, very HBO. His job is a little less cutthroat than it was in Svend's day, but people still do get crazy over where he seats them. "The big shots never reserve their cabana," Mark says with a smile. (Mark says everything with a smile.) "You're just expected to know when they're going to show up, and their cabana had better be available when they do."

So you like your cabana, and the pool boys have you in their sights; it's time to relax and enjoy the show. If the scene isn't quite what it was in the sixties, rest assured, on any warm day the characters at the Beverly Hills Hotel pool are plentiful. In the strong sunlight of southern California, everybody is a character.

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