In August of 1965, Americans were coping with a devastating case of Beatlemania. In that sweltering summer month, the Beatles released the madcap adventure-comedy Help! and the accompanying platinum-selling album of the same title (which featured three chart-topping singles: “Yesterday,” “Ticket to Ride,” and the title track). And they embarked on a historic North American tour, shattering an attendance record by performing to 56,000 shrieking fans at Shea Stadium. They also played a legendary show at the Hollywood Bowl (which would later be released as an album in 1977) and ended their tour with two shows on the last day of August at the Cow Palace near San Francisco.
My mom, then a 14-year-old, was a diehard Beatlemaniac living in the East Bay. Like most kids her age, she tracked the Beatles’ every move, clipping out and keeping any newspaper article about the Liverpudlians’ exploits. That month, my mom wrote a letter to Herb Caen, the San Francisco Chronicle columnist and Bay Area icon. Caen, a Pulitzer Prize winner, published more than 16,000 columns in his career, coined the term “beatnik,” and, for multiple generations, was the voice of San Francisco. At that time, my mom wasn’t concerned about Caen’s accolades. She simply wanted to know where the Beatles would be staying when they were in the Bay Area. And, in a letter preserved in my family for nearly 60 years, the then 49-year-old columnist wrote back with the answer:
Thanks for your nice letter — and you can contact Paul Catalana at the Safari Room in San Jose.
However, the Beatles want to be close to the Cow Palace, so East Bay might be out. The latest rumor we have heard is that they are considering the Cabana Hotel in Palo Alto.
Thanks again for writing,
As a Beatle fan and a Bay Area native myself, I’ve looked at this 1965 letter with wonder. And in one of those truly modern moments, combining ennui and having all the world’s information at my fingertips, I decided to Google if Caen was in fact correct. Did the Beatles stay at the Cabana Hotel in Palo Alto?
My quick search revealed that, yes, the Beatles did stay at the Cabana. In 1965, the hotel was owned by the actress and singer Doris Day (whose son, record producer Terry Melcher, was infamously connected to the Manson family) and exuded a swanky Vegas vibe. I was surprised to see this because nothing in Palo Alto—home of Stanford University and Mark Zuckerberg—currently exudes a swanky Vegas vibe. I dug deeper. Does the Cabana Hotel still exist? In a way, yes. The building it once inhabited is now the Crowne Plaza Cabana, a corporate chain hotel nestled near the headquarters for Google and Meta. And the Crowne Plaza Cabana has a Beatles suite—a room where one or two of the Fab Four once rested their mop-topped heads. I immediately picked up the phone and called the hotel.
“Hi. Do you guys still have a Beatles suite?” I asked.
The manager let out a long exhausted sigh, as if this is a question she gets asked more often than “What time is checkout?” or “Where’s the ice machine?”
“Yes,” she said. “We have a Beatles suite.” I booked the room.
Before embarking on my trip, I read as much as possible in newspaper archives about the Beatles’ 1965 Bay Area visit. One article said that when the Beatles checked out of the Cabana, the hotel staff took their bedsheets, cut them up, and sold them to fans in the parking lot.
Another article caught my eye, from the day after the Beatles’ two shows at the Cow Palace, on Wednesday, September 1, 1965. Accompanying it was a striking photograph of a 13-year-old girl named Jane Semel, holding a cigarette aloft in triumph. The caption read, “This girl will frame John’s cigarette.” The joy on her face jumped off the page. The article describes Jane as “a dark-haired girl, pretty as a pixie,” and goes on to say:
Jane darted around the guard to John Lennon’s side of the limousine and thrust a gift-wrapped package through the window … she was graciously handed the cigarette John Lennon had been smoking. Jane danced away in a wide arc, holding the half-consumed item as if it were a martyr’s relic.
The article notes that the gift Jane handed the Beatles was a set of matching long johns. I wasn’t just charmed by this story. It encapsulated everything I believed: that timeless magic might just be contained in a smoldering cigarette handed to a teenage fan, or in a hotel room where the Beatles once slept.
Herb Caen’s letter to my mom, with its yellowed-by-age stationery, felt like directions to a buried treasure. In 1965, my mom wanted to see the Beatles at the Cabana Hotel, but she was too young to drive. Fifty-seven years later, I have a car and a driver’s license. Call it settling unfinished business, but I wanted to see what I could find at the Crowne Plaza Cabana.
The Beatles’ day-to-day activities in the 1960s are as well-documented as Lewis and Clark’s expedition. From 1963 to 1970, we pretty much know where they were every day. And their hotel itineraries are also on record: In 1964, they had rooms 1209 through 1216 at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan; later that year, they stayed in room 272 at the Edgewater Hotel in Seattle, which is now stocked with Fab Four memorabilia. Their rooms at the Plaza don’t exhibit any trace of John, Paul George or Ringo, but currently come with a private elevator and white-glove butler service.
By comparison, the Crowne Plaza Cabana is quite plain. I walked past the lobby bar and clocked a gaggle of weary business travelers nursing Heinekens while watching college football. A plaque by the elevator bank noted that in 1973, Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn invented the Internet at this very hotel. This is arguably more important than the Beatles sleeping here for one night. And yet, there is not a Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn suite.
The woman at the front desk gave me my card key, and I went up to room 810 on the top floor. A sign on the door said, “THE BEATLES ROOM.” I walked into a room that could’ve been any corporate hotel suite, except this one housed a trove of Beatles memorabilia. Framed photos of the Beatles exiting the hotel on the day they stayed here lined the walls. A Victrola turntable emblazoned with a Union Jack design sat on a table along with three Beatles LPs (Abbey Road, Sgt. Pepper and Let It Be) for your listening pleasure.
By the window overlooking the parking lot, a stack of books about the Beatles rested on a coffee table. In one corner of the room, three framed documents hung on the wall: Pages of notes from a meeting on August 23, 1965, about the security protocol for the Beatles’ stay at the hotel. It mentions that 23 members of the Santa Clara University football team “will act to keep children out of the hotel” and that uniformed guards on the premises “will retain guns but will carry no ammunition.”
I made myself a weak cup of coffee with the Keurig machine in the room and looked around. Even though the Beatles Room at the Crowne Plaza Cabana has had a major overhaul, it’s easy to imagine John or Ringo standing at the window, looking down at the fans gathered in the parking lot. By some accounts there were thousands of kids outside, screaming for their idols.
When I was 12, in April of 1993, I was a colossal Nirvana fan. The jangly yet distorted guitars, the thunderous drums, the sing-song childlike melodies, Kurt Cobain’s gravelly caterwaul—I couldn’t get enough. I was dying to see them play at the Cow Palace, the same cavernous venue where the Beatles had played in the 1960s. Unfortunately, my parents dashed my dreams. “You’re not even a teenager yet,” my mom said. My dad said that before I could see a concert of my own choosing, I’d have to go to five concerts of his choosing with him. I reluctantly agreed to this deal and conceded that there’d be other opportunities to see Nirvana.
That summer, at a venue that catered to oldies acts, my dad took me to see five artists: Johnny Cash, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley, and the Beach Boys. It was an education in early rock ‘n’ roll. On the night of the Little Richard concert, we sat in the third row. Little Richard, looking resplendent in a red blazer bedecked with glittering costume jewelry, bashed at the keys of a grand piano. After he played “Slippin’ and Slidin’” early in the set, he gazed out with his wild eyes at the applauding boomers in the audience and spotted me amongst them, a gawky preteen braceface. From his piano bench, he pulled a piece of plastic jewelry off his jacket and underhand tossed it to me. I caught it and clutched it like a magical talisman. Never mind that it only cost a few pennies to make—it was a treasure handed down from Olympus. I never got to see Nirvana, but I still have that plastic piece of costume jewelry from Little Richard, the man who created rock ‘n’ roll, in a shoebox at my parents’ house.
After I unpacked and settled into the Beatles suite, I sat at the desk under a framed photo of John, Paul, George, and Ringo crossing Abbey Road and called Elisabeth Semel, the sister of Jane, the 13-year-old girl who was handed a still-burning cigarette by John Lennon. Elisabeth answered the call from her mother’s house in San Francisco. In an email before we chatted, she mentioned that she had seen the Beatles at the Cow Palace on their first U.S. tour a year earlier in 1964. Her parents deemed Jane—then only 12—too young to participate in the teenage chaos that the Beatles inspired. “Pandemonium is what I remember,” Elisabeth said, thinking back. “I remember screaming. It was just so loud, so crazy loud.”
The following summer, Elisabeth’s parents still deemed Jane too young to go to the Beatles’ return to the Cow Palace. Instead, Jane managed to have her brush with the four Liverpudlians at a Bay Area airfield. “Janie had a friend in junior high whose dad was a reporter or a photographer, and he knew where they were going to land,” Elisabeth said. The Beatles evaded an onslaught of teens by covertly landing at the Pan American Air Base and not San Francisco’s main airport. The only teen they couldn’t escape was Jane.
“What’s sort of ironic about the fact that my sister went and got that cigarette is that I remember being somewhat annoyed, because I was the bigger Beatles fan,” Elisabeth said. “This is so sisterly, right? Janie was a really talented musician, and she related much more to Joan Baez and folk music. And she gets this cigarette, which she then proceeded to write to Lloyds of London about insuring. I remember that as well. She put it in a test tube—I remember this very distinctly—and saved it.”
In 1970, Jane was killed in an accident at the age of 18. Her family kept her personal belongings, including the cigarette, and moved them into storage when Jane’s father passed away in 1994. “One aspect of the photograph of Janie that I have always treasured—my mom has the newspaper clipping framed—is the expression on her face,” Elisabeth said. “She was radiant. I realize that sounds like a sister who idolizes her deceased younger sibling. But anyone who knew her will tell you that she, in her essence, was joyful, compassionate, and radiant.”
Elisabeth recalled that she became politically active after her infatuation with the Beatles subsided, and that Jane was also an activist. San Francisco’s vibrant counterculture—which the Beatles orbited during the Summer of Love—inspired the youth movement to pursue a more meaningful path. This includes Elisabeth who, today, is on the faculty at UC Berkeley’s Law School, where she co-chairs the Death Penalty Clinic. It’s a natural evolution from her political interests as a 1960s Bay Area teenager.
“What we do in the clinic is represent clients facing capital punishment in different parts of the country, but primarily in the Deep South because of the lack of resources and lack of really quality lawyering for many people who are facing the death penalty,” Elisabeth said. “The students enroll for a year, and they work side by side with us. Our cases go on for many, many years because that’s the nature of death penalty work. To say it’s rewarding is the understatement of the century.”
That night, as I drifted off to sleep in a room where one or two of the Beatles once slumbered, I thought of an odd job I once held. In grad school, I worked as a security guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was a job choice clearly inspired by Stephen Malkmus of Pavement and David Berman of Silver Jews, who both worked as guards at the Whitney before embarking on careers as indie-rock heroes.
As I paced the museum’s wings, looking for art thieves and giving tourists directions to either “Washington Crossing the Delaware” or the bathroom, I’d occasionally pass a certain object in the Medieval Treasury that caught my eye. It was the Reliquary of Mary Magdalene, a gilded copper piece that displayed a relic, encased in rock crystal, believed to be the tooth of Mary Magdalene. This piece fascinated me. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people walk by it every day. It’s from either 14th or 15th century Tuscany, when an unknown Italian artist decided to preserve this tooth of a Christian saint. And now the tooth sits on display in Manhattan.
When I woke up the next morning, I looked up “unusual Beatles memorabilia” online. One of the first hits was “John Lennon’s tooth.” At some point between 1964 and 1968, Lennon gave an extracted molar to his housekeeper, Dot Jarret, to throw away. But Jarret gave it to her daughter, who was a huge Beatles fan. In 2011, the tooth sold at auction for $31,200 to a Canadian dentist.
My mom wasn’t able to get to the Cabana in 1965, but I was still on a mission to have a Beatles experience in 2022. I needed to find out if there was any of their creative magic lingering in the walls of room 810. I had an idea: I’d invite a medium to determine if there was any residual Beatle energy at the Crowne Plaza Cabana. I scheduled a meeting with Jess Boyer, a San Francisco-based medium, to come check out the room.
Several mediums passed on my request to visit the hotel. One declined by saying that she felt I “was trying to conjure up dark energy.” Another told me it seemed like I was looking for a medium “like Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost and that is definitely not what I do.” But when I spoke to Boyer, she said she’d been listening to a lot of Beatles lately, even though she’s not a superfan. She was intrigued by the assignment and felt there was something synchronous between her recent Beatles binge and my call.
Boyer, blonde and dressed in black, entered the room and flung the curtains open as wide as they’d go, letting sunlight flood the room. She took a seat in a chair by the circular coffee table with a stack of Beatles books on it. I sat across from her. Boyer began by meditating and held one stone in each hand—rose quartz in one and blue apatite in the other. Despite the fact I’ve never been to a medium, or had a palm reading, or even dabbled with tarot cards, there was a sense of déjà vu to my meeting with Boyer. I mentioned that to her, and she said she got chills. I asked if the Beatles creative energy lingered in room 810 of the Crowne Plaza Cabana Hotel. “Yes,” she said, “we can feel their presence here. But … we can feel it anywhere. They’re accessible to anyone who seeks them.”
On the Revolver track “I’m Only Sleeping,” released a year after the Beatles stayed at the Cabana, Lennon warbles, “When I’m in the middle of a dream, stay in bed, float upstream.” It’s a song that taps into the dreamlike feeling of existence. We can float upstream through life in a dreamlike state, and then we’re handed an object—a cigarette or a piece of costume jewelry—from a mythical figure, be it John Lennon or Little Richard. These artifacts ground us in reality. This isn’t a dream. This is actually happening.
Fans seek deeper connections with their favorite artists—whether they’re shrieking outside of a hotel for Ringo or Jimin from BTS. But what we really gain is connection with each other. When Herb Caen dashed off that letter to a teenage girl in 1965, he never could’ve guessed that it’d lead to that her son tracking down the hotel room decades later; the Beatles never could’ve predicted that a corporate Silicon Valley hotel chain would turn their room into a tourist attraction; and I never could’ve predicted that I’d get to talk to a death-row lawyer about her sister, all because of a cigarette. On the Beatles’ last album, John Lennon wanted us to come together over him, and all these years later, of course, we still are.