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A few months ago, I had to go to Los Angeles for a terribly important meeting with a terribly important producer. In New York, a Mercedes SUV waited in front of my building with my name on a sign in the window. In the 1970s, as a struggling actor/waiter, I found the cheapest way to JFK was the subway, then a bus—a trek longer than the flight, which took place aboard an airline with a name like Sparkle or Harmony that had a terrible reputation for narrowly avoiding midair collisions.
Look at me now, I mused, drinking champagne in my first-class pod. Does it get any better? Then we landed at LAX. As the passengers knocked one another down unloading their rollies, I saw Patti Hansen, the wife of Keith Richards. We pecked cheeks and exchanged pleasantries—and then at the end of the jetway a mysterious figure in a dark suit who was wearing an earpiece motioned to her to follow. A door opened to a staircase toward the tarmac. Patti looked startled.
“I’m with the Private Suite,” the man said. “Oh, right,” said Patti. “My husband must have set this up for my birthday.”
“Happy birthday” would have been the nice thing to say, but I was in the grips of intense FOMO, so instead I yelled, “What the hell is the Private Suite?”
The answer, as I would soon find out, is a members-only passenger lounge located across the runway from the public parts of LAX. Quietly opened in 2017, the Private Suite is the first of its kind in the U.S.—a transit space free of crowds, flooded bathrooms, overflowing checkpoints, and waiting areas with gum-covered seats. Also, walkways: While it typically takes 2,200 steps to get from the plane to a car at LAX, guests of the Private Suite need only 70 before they’re whisked away in a BMW to a discreet blue building with an unmarked entrance, where you can lounge in true comfort while awaiting your flight. You can get a haircut (a decent one) or a massage (also worthwhile). Or you can take a nap in an actual bed or have a shower that doesn’t make you want to, well, take another shower.
But as its name says, what the Private Suite really offers is a protected space—a members-only club of the sort L.A. is enamored of at the moment. Ever since Soho House opened a West Hollywood branch in 2010, similar institutions have been popping up all over L.A., from Jeff Klein’s San Vicente Bungalows to Gwyneth Paltrow’s soon-to-open Arts Club. Although clubs used to be passé, especially after many became associated with discrimination.
According to Klein, the powerful hotelier behind the American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts property Sunset Tower Hotel—whose Tower Bar is L.A.’s premier A-list watering hole—the advent of cell phones and the Internet triggered the desire for clubs.
“Privacy has become rarefied,” said Klein. “Even if you’re not famous, you have no privacy. If people want to know where you are or what you’re doing, they just have to read a tweet or see a post.”
The San Vicente Bungalows, with nine guest rooms and plentiful work and social spaces, offer sublime comforts and impeccable style, but the allure starts at the door, where guests are required to cover up their phone cameras.
Similar restrictions exist at the Private Suite, where I went to meet the owner, Gavin de Becker, whose namesake security firm protects heads of state, Supreme Court justices, CEOs, and celebrities. (Full disclosure: I have known Gavin personally for many years.) There I toured one of the ten individual suites, each of which is staffed by no fewer than eight attendants. Decorated in soothingly neutral-toned furniture, it had a fully stocked bar and a virtual museum of swag—earpods, phone chargers, and homeopathic sleep aids—and a spacious bathroom with a temperature-controlled “smart toilet” that knew me better than I know myself.
I was stuffing a freebie neck pillow in my backpack when Gavin made his entrance. I was curious to know who uses the Private Suite, but Gavin is famously tight-lipped about his clients, so I asked how his interest in airport hospitality came about. He told me about working for Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor back in the 1970s.
“The Burtons introduced me to a way of travel I never knew existed,” he said. “The airlines had lounges for VIP passengers, but if you were even more important and hounded by paparazzi, they had a lounge within the lounge with its own entrance, so no one could see you enter. Sometimes the Burtons would charter a helicopter to land right next to the plane.” That was Gavin’s inspiration for having cars meet clients at the jetway.
Later, as providing security in airports like LAX got more difficult because of paparazzi and autograph-seekers, Gavin saw an opportunity to create a safe travel space for the high-profile clients he was already protecting. With the opening of the Private Suite, the jostling has stopped, he said.
The next day my girlfriend and I were flying to Hawaii, so we returned to the Private Suite, where we enjoyed an inspection at the only private TSA checkpoint in the country. If I had thought I would get a cursory pat-down because I was part of the Private Suite family, I was sorely mistaken. It wasn’t Midnight Express, but the TSA officer was professionally thorough. Then our Private Suite team leader told us it was time for departure, and we boarded one of those BMWs for what I looked forward to most: the ride out to the plane.
Seated in front were two earpiece-wearing gents like the guy who’d greeted Patti Hansen. Andy, the driver, had spent 11 years in the Marines. His partner, Dave, had served in the Grenadier Guards. As we pulled away, I thought I heard Dave say, “The package is on the move,” but it could have been my imagination.
Even though we could go only 20 miles per hour, it was thrilling. The choreography involved in making this happen seemed to bend the laws of the universe. My girlfriend and I shared a do-you-believe-this look. As a caterpillar of luggage on its way to a carousel passed us, I thought, Stretch it out, Dave. Let’s get behind that Emirates over there. But soon we arrived, and the BMW practically pulled under our plane. Dave turned to apologize for making us wait in the car. (We had arrived late, but ordinarily Private Suite guests get to choose between boarding their flight before or after the rest of the passengers.) I looked up at the passenger windows to see if anyone had observed our entrance, but the only witness was an orange-vested baggage handler whose face clearly said, “Who the hell are you?” Then the door opened and a staircase beckoned toward the belly of the 747. The flight even took off on time, though I can’t give the Private Suite credit for that.