A GoFundMe campaign to help beloved former Beverly Hills Hotel pool manager Svend Petersen out of homelessness has smashed its modest $5,900 goal and just topped $70,000 in donations. Among those who donated to Petersen's cause are Clive Davis, Sandra Bullock and son Louis with a pledge of $5,000, and the daughter of late game show producer Mark Goodson, who pledged $11,000.
The 86-year-old Petersen also got a major assist from Sebastian Claeys. The realtor donated his time to find an apartment for Petersen, who was due to move in April 25, bringing an end to nearly five months of itinerant living.
Petersen has been homeless since the start of the year, when he realized he could no longer afford his apartment on Wilcox Avenue. He moved into his car, which he was forced to sell shortly thereafter in order to pay bills. He says his financial troubles started three years ago, after he sold a home he owned in Beachwood Canyon.
Not long after the deal closed, Petersen says he received a tax bill for $71,000, a fee he didn't see coming. "I didn't know anything about real estate," Petersen admits. "When you don't have anyone around you, you don't know [what to do]. It sounds strange, but it's true. I don't have any family anymore."
He's been living off $1,800 per month, but since he couldn't pay the tax bill, his Social Security check is being garnished each month to the tune of $300, he says. What's left isn't enough for him to afford rent or the rest of his bills. "I have been eating only apples and bananas and oranges," he explains. "It's strange when you have money, you have a lot of friends and when you don't, nobody calls."
However, he found two friends in former tenants of his Beachwood property, married couple Thomas Marinello and Mercedes Kennedy. The two launched the GoFundMe campaign for him and have been acting as de facto publicists in helping spread his story and organize interviews. Since news of his situation circulated via social media and local news coverage, he also has received help from tax attorney Gary Slavett at Holtz, Slavett & Drabkin, who offered to look into his tax liabilities.
When The Hollywood Reporter met Petersen for an in-person chat, it took place in a corner room at the Annes Motel, not far from the 10 freeway on La Cienega Boulevard. "They've done so much for me," he says of the couple. "They just said, 'What can we do to help?' I can't thank them enough."
Petersen's tenure at the Beverly Hills Hotel - a far cry from his current days at the Annes - dates back to 1959, when he started as a lifeguard after moving to Los Angeles from his native Denmark. He worked at the hotel for 54 years, gaining status at the pool but also helping out in the public relations and communications department, he notes. He grew close to legends like Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Faye Dunaway and Johnny Carson.
"They treated me like I was one of them," says Petersen of his friendships with Hollywood's boldfaced names. "It was like a country club. Everybody knows everybody. Whitney Houston came down and she hugged and kissed me. That was my job and that's why I enjoyed it so much."
Bullock, however, is not someone he spent time with at the hotel. "The strange thing is, I've never met her, but I've seen her in all of her movies," Petersen admits. "It's so touching to my heart that she donated money because she doesn't even know me."
It's then that Petersen gets choked up, fighting back tears thinking of Bullock's selflessness and the dozens who joined her by pledging money on the crowdsourcing site. He also gets emotional thinking of the family he made during his time at the hotel. "I wish I could start there tomorrow and do it all over again," he says. "Most of them are gone now, and I miss every single one. It's sad to reminisce. That's what life is all about; make friends and be happy with all that you can."
Petersen admits that he hasn't heard from anyone at the hotel, but he's quick to shrug that off. "I'm embarrassed because the hotel has nothing to do with me being homeless. It's my own fault," he reveals. "I should have saved money when I was young for my old age. You don't think like that when you're 18, 19, 20 or even 40. You think you will do it forever. You learn that money doesn't hang on trees so you gotta work for it and before you know it - whammo!"
Despite his money troubles, Petersen hasn't lost the personality and humor that charmed the rich and famous. Asked how the GoFundMe cash will be spent, Petersen jokes, "I'm not going to spend it in Vegas. Pretty soon, I won't even know where Vegas is anymore." He adds that the only thing he's doubling down on is a new address. "I just want a little place I can call my own for the months or few years I have left," he says. "I won't live forever, so it would be nice to spend the time I do have left in my own place."
A place that he can smile about, as he does thinking of his days at the Beverly Hills Hotel. At the end of the interview, Petersen, who uses a walker, is quick to hand out his business card, a special one from the hotel that lists his current position there: ambassador.
"They are wonderful," he says, before adding that he can't figure out a way to express his gratitude to everyone who has donated to help him. "Thank you guys. I love you."
A version of this story first appeared in the April 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.