"You used to be able to tell what someone did by how he looked," Svend says. "If the guy had a belly and a cigar and something tucked under his arm, you knew he was a producer. Today you never know who anybody is." After a while, however, you begin to recognize certain types. There are the old-timers: men who look like Walter Matthau, in gold chains, with spouses who look like Ruth Gordon, in white newsboy caps and hoop earrings. There are carefully accessorized young women who extract copies of Bergdorf Blondes from Lulu Guinness bags. There are women trying to look like Beyoncé, or still trying after 40 years to look like Kim Novak, as well as graduates of the school of Aristotle Onassis, unthinkably tan, and getting darker by the minute. (Haven't they heard?) It's amazing how many men in Beverly Hills look like David Gest. And there's a constant supply of the Breasts and the Abs, trying to be noticed, pacing the pool like animals in a cage.
Each cabana reminded me of a diorama in a natural history museum. On one side I had a group of old-timers, huddled around a Vuitton Monogram Multicolore bag glistening in the sun. When the music mogul Clive Davis strolled by, one of them grabbed his hand, shook it enthusiastically, and reminded him—in a voice the entire pool could hear—how they knew each other, and she wouldn't let go. On my other side was a man who has come to cabana No. 6 every year since 1967. He taught me about the Swanky Frankie, a cheese dog completely wrapped in bacon—a poolside favorite in pre-heart-health days—that the courageous still order off the menu. A little farther down the pool was a group of Middle Eastern women in veils, watching the younger members of their party sunbathe. The Sopranos were having lunch in one cabana, and in another a group of young guys were talking about their reality TV show. In yet another an infant shared a chaise with a BlackBerry.
Everybody is on a cell phone at all times. Cell phones have virtually ended one of the great traditions of the Beverly Hills Hotel pool: being publicly and insistently paged, even when you're not there, to keep your name in circulation. (Sylvia Miles?You know, she'd be perfect for the part of...) But cell phones have also created new opportunities to get yourself noticed. People generally fall into two categories: The Pacers never sit down, and use hand gestures to make themselves the center of attention; the Sprawlers lie on their backs spread-eagle and let their booming voices do the work. Eavesdropping on their conversations can easily occupy an entire afternoon.
"Okay, I'm willing to go to seven million on the house."
"Yeah, I'm thinking about the Bentley."
"Has there been a movie this season that hasn't been too long?"
"Look, I can't talk now. I'm in the car." (No, he was applying sunblock to his shoulders.)
All of this compulsive dialing makes no sense, since in this part of Beverly Hills most cell phones don't work, or at least not for long. Svend enlightened me: "Just because somebody is on the phone doesn't mean there's anybody on the other end. People say things because they want to be heard saying them."
At the end of just one day in a cabana, it's amazing how many new things you have learned. For example: A pool boy can create shade anytime, anywhere. He can pocket a 20 without skipping a beat, like a pickpocket working in reverse. A surprising number of people in this world swim wearing sunglasses. There's a certain type of person who comes to the pool in late afternoon carrying serious shopping bags, then arranges them at the foot of his or her chaise longue for everybody to envy.
And for each question that has no answer—What makes a 65-year-old man think he can still pull off a racing Speedo?—you will take home a revelation: The woman smoking the cigar was the girl's mother.
STEPHEN DRUCKER is a contributing writer at Architectural Digest.