Few Los Angeles residences were home to more Hollywood celebrities, one after another, than a large mansion that once stood on this one acre property. The house itself was rather unprepossessing: a 1930 neo-Colonial frame home with a wooden clapboard façade.
Nevertheless, the estate had what many in Hollywood craved: an impressively large—10,000-square-foot—mansion and a coveted Old Bel-Air address.
A parade of Hollywood owners started when famed director Frank Capra purchased the estate in 1934 to celebrate a very good year in his career, and ended in 1949 when Louis B. Mayer, a founder of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the premier studio during Hollywood’s golden age, acquired the property.
Mayer made a few improvements to the St. Cloud Road mansion. Like so many Hollywood luminaries, he hired Wallace Neff as his architect. Neff liked working for Mayer. “He was an easy client,” he recalled years later. “He was so busy he didn’t even look. He delegated—and that was that.”
After Mayer’s death in 1957, the St. Cloud Road estate was sold and re-sold several times. Despite its many famous owners, the mansion became increasingly dated and rundown and, in the late 1980s, it was finally demolished. New owners started building a 35,000-square-foot mansion, but they sold the property before it was finished.
The new owner completed the mansion to the highest standards. The estate—named “La Belle Vie”—became a much-admired addition to Old Bel-Air, because it was not only large and impressive but also tasteful and refined.
The neoclassical limestone façade was modeled after an 18th-century mansion, the Hôtel Biron (now the Musée Rodin), where famed sculptor Auguste Rodin lived in the early 20th century.
The mansion’s interior was a showstopper, even by Bel-Air standards. The front door opened into a thirty-foot-tall oval entrance hall that rose to a columned second-floor gallery, and ended at a richly decorated dome encircled by ten skylights. A curving white marble staircase with an intricately designed wrought-iron banister stretched from the entrance hall to the second (topmost) floor.
The ballroom-sized two-story living room, dining room, and formal family room had marble floors, highly decorative ceiling plasterwork, and the finest 18th-century French furniture. Impressionist and post-impressionist paintings hung on the walls. Not surprisingly, Rodin sculptures were exhibited throughout the house, both in the rooms and at the end of corridors for the greatest visual impact.
At the back of the mansion, the main rooms opened onto a French stone terrace. Grand staircases led down a perfectly manicured lawn and formal gardens. From the gardens, more staircases led to the swimming pool, the neoclassical pool house, and down to the tennis court. Rodin sculptures were carefully placed throughout the grounds.By any measure—its location, size, stunning interior, exquisitely landscaped grounds, or impeccable materials and craftsmanship—the owner had decisively proved that great estates were not a thing of the past.
John and Agnes Fredericks’ estate occupied a prized spot on Chalon Road: the street makes an outward (or southern) U away from the hillside and toward a flat promontory. The lot itself was fan-shaped. The narrowest portion was the Chalon Road frontage. The lot widened—and encompassed more of the view—as it went down the hill. When the Fredericks bought this land in 1926, it was virtually empty. Only a few native live oaks originally stood on the property.
Architect Gordon Kaufmann laid out the estate in an innovative, essentially new way, just as he gave the Fredericks a revitalized approach to the Colonial Revival style. He did not put the mansion in the middle of the flat promontory. Nor did he “hide” the view, revealing it only after visitors had walked into the house, and out a doorway to a terrace overlooking the city.
Instead, Kaufmann located the two-story mansion on the left side of the flat promontory.
The mansion displayed a brick façade that was painted white—a distinct difference from the red-brick façades of the more traditional and rectangular Colonial Revival homes of the 1910s and 1920s. The Fredericks house had different wings to fit the site and maximize views. The major first-floor rooms opened onto terraces—a particularly Southern California feature. Several of the second-floor rooms opened onto private terraces—again, a nod to the region’s sunlight and temperate climate.
To the right of the front door stood a two-story circular tower, which was definitely not standard Colonial Revival but which lent picturesqueness to the façade. The house—in a surprising nod to the Southern California “tradition”— had a red-tile roof.
The front door opened into an entrance hall and French doors, which led onto one of the back terraces and gardens. To the right was a large living room with fourteen-foot-high ceilings and doors opening onto a semicircular portico. Just before visitors reached the living room, they passed the doorway into the walnut-paneled circular library, which occupied the tower near the front door.
To the left of the entrance hall, visitors passed a spiral—and dramatically freestanding—staircase that led to the second-floor bedrooms. Kaufmann utilized a design approach that subsequently gained popularity in the 1930s: He hid the staircase from immediate view from the entrance hall. Hence, the spiral staircase became a visual surprise as one proceeded toward the dining room at the end of the hallway. Next to the dining room were a semicircular breakfast room, and beyond that, a butler’s pantry, followed by the kitchen and service facilities.
John and Agnes Fredericks died in the mid-1940s, their Chalon Road estate had various owners. Some altered the mansion inappropriately. Others appreciated the residence as a work of architectural art that had updated the Colonial Revival style for Southern California’s hillside neighborhoods.
Today, the mansion is restored, and the grounds are beautifully maintained. If the Fredericks walked through the front door today, they would appreciate how little the property has changed, and they would feel right at home.
The first mansion constructed in Bel-Air occupied a prized Bel-Air Road site, just below Alphonzo Bell’s own home, and high enough on the hill that it overlooked Stone Canyon and the Pacific Ocean. In November 1922, just after Bell put Bel-Air’s “gentleman’s estate” parcels onto the market, this seven-acre lot was bought by Czech-born millionaire botanist A. Stephan Vavra and his wife, Etta, of Pasadena for $40,000. The Vavras did not hire a famed architect to design their new residence. Like other Bel-Air land buyers, the Vavras asked Waring Ellis, chief of the architectural department at the Frank Meline Company, which handled Bel-Air lot sales for Alphonzo Bell, to design their new home.
The grounds were the estate’s most spectacular feature. Within a decade, the Vavra estate was known as one of the finest botanical gardens in California. The couple hosted tours and events for many garden groups, and they welcomed visits from UCLA botany students.
By 1962, the estate had been subdivided into two large parcels. William Doheny—a son of E. L. Doheny Jr., who was raised at Greystone (see page 44)—purchased the lower four-acre lot. Insurance executive J. D. Bain purchased the upper three-acre parcel and moved into the Vavra mansion.
In 1970, Bain decided to build a new home on the property. He constructed a remarkable 11,000-square-foot mansion that, while completely hidden from the street, had views that stretched from Stone Canyon to all of West Los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean.
From the circular, lavishly landscaped motor court, the front door opened into a magnificent two-story rotunda with a marble floor. The entries to the rooms off the rotunda were bordered by marble columns topped with marble pediments. Above this beautiful entry was a large white and gold dome from which hung a large crystal chandelier.
To the left of the rotunda was a hallway leading to the large living room overlooking the ocean. Beyond the living room was the sunlit master bedroom suite on the south side of the mansion, which had a view of treetops, downtown Los Angeles, Century City, and the Pacific Ocean.
To the right of the rotunda was a hallway leading to a formal dining room, an enormous butler’s pantry, and the staff kitchen.
The second floor, which was downstairs, had two guest apartments, each of which had its own living room and bedroom. The second floor also had a large billiards/entertainment room that could serve as a private theater. This room opened out to the swimming pool and spa, the terraces, and the formal rose garden. Framed by tall hedges, the garden commanded views of downtown Los Angeles at the far end.The grounds included a serpentine lily pond, with koi swimming lazily in the shadows cast by palm trees and, remarkably, some surviving specimens from the Vavras’ botanical gardens, including dozens of mature trees that lent both beauty and privacy to the estate.
The failure of the Strada Vecchia design was particularly heartbreaking, because Wallace Neff (the home’s designer) was working with one of the most dramatic lots in Bel-Air: a slightly triangular, four-acre parcel bounded by Strada Vecchia Road on the north and Bel-Air Road on the east. This was one of the parcels subdivided from Alphonzo Bell’s Capo di Monte estate (see page 372). Francis and Marguerite Browne had purchased the hillside site that had once been graced by that estate’s famed terraced gardens, and it was a true rarity in Bel-Air, a flat, two-acre knoll on which to build, which still had some of the most spectacular views in Bel-Air.
Marguerite had sketched her own design; a vast, inward-looking compound that enclosed a central courtyard and pool. The house was dominated by arcades and a broad, overhanging shingled roof. The house abounded in the latest kitchen gadgets like a dishwasher and an electric stove, an all-electric washer and dryer, and, of course, central air conditioning. Sunlight, trees for shade, and natural ventilation were all but ignored.
Neff tried to interest the Brownes in more appropriate design options. The discuss
ions got heated. Neff got nowhere. The couple wouldn’t budge. He eventually gave the Brownes what they wanted: one of his least distinguished and most forgettable homes. The residence looked like it was hunkered down on the ground, as if it was afraid to acknowledge that there was a world beyond its roof overhangs.
In 2000, the Browne residence was demolished. Nobody rallied to save the house. Virtually no one knew that it was a Neff house. Or really cared.
This time, the new residence was designed to take advantage of the site, and the results were remarkable. From the gates on Strada Vecchia Road, the long driveway passed in and out of a thick grove of California redwoods, offering one brief glimpse of the two-story white residence before the mansion came into full view.
The architectural design was a one-of-a-kind custom contemporary style with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the terraces and a circular two-story windowed rotunda looking out over the gardens and the city views. The interior was given a strong Scandinavian feeling through the use of wood, pleasing proportions, the avoidance of unnecessary ornament, and the abundance of natural light.
The two-acre flat grounds around the mansion included a large, rectangular motor court near the front door, a swimming pool and pool house, and grassy lawns, all surrounded by densely planted trees on the non-view portions of the perimeter so that the residents felt as if they were living within a forest. The placement of several pools of various sizes on the flat land around the house strengthened that feeling by conjuring up images of lakes in the wilderness.The residence was all the more dramatic looking because its white façade and expansive glass windows were such a contrast to the green lawns and surrounding trees. This four-acre estate was an oasis of quiet beauty and serenity that embraced the many advantages of this site, from its spectacular views to its rare, flat, two-acre hilltop.
On March 22, 1934, Hilda Weber purchased what would become Casa Encantada for $100,000—an astonishing sum in the Depression. Some of the greatest estates of the 1920s—like twenty-two-acre Dias Dorados and Frances Marion and Fred Thomson’s twenty-two-acre Enchanted Hill—had languished for years on the market at that price.
In 1935, Hilda hired Benjamin Morton Purdy as landscape architect. A year later, his crews started grading the property, planting full-grown trees and preparing the gardens, which would stretch for hundreds of feet behind the mansion.
On March 17, 1936, Hilda hired James E. Dolena as architect. He started working drawings on April 29, 1936, in a Moderne-influenced Georgian style, or what he described to his client as “modern Georgian with Grecian influences.”
Next, Hilda hired Peterson Studios of Santa Barbara and T. H. Robsjohn- Gibbings to design and manufacture custom-made furniture, carpets, and fabrics. Many of Los Angeles’s “best families” purchased pricey reproduction furniture from department stores for their homes. Not Hilda Weber.
On May 15, 1937, Hilda Weber—and her architect, landscape architect, and contractor—laid the cornerstone for the mansion.
Construction proceeded quickly on the 40,000-square-foot residence and its outbuildings. On December 17, 1938, the mansion was finished, and all furnishings were installed. A few days later, the Webers moved into their estate, which had cost more than $2 million, a significant portion of Hilda’s net worth.
Unfortunately, like so many who become suddenly wealthy, Hilda Weber was always careless about money. First, she had spent $2 million building and furnishing Casa Encantada. Then, she gave away one of Santa Barbara’s prized estates. Her day-to-day living expenses were enormous. Her household staff reportedly totaled twenty-one, and she employed another twenty-one full-time groundskeepers and gardeners.
In 1948, she reluctantly put Casa Encantada up for sale. The original asking price was $1.5 million—less than the estate and its furniture had cost ten years earlier. No takers.
Finally, in 1950, hotel magnate Conrad Hilton purchased the estate— including its furniture, art, and silver—for $225,000.
For Conrad Hilton, Casa Encantada lived up to its name, and he lived there in grand style until his death in 1979. In those four decades, Hilton made almost no changes to the mansion, its furnishing and art, or its grounds. The mansion was an extraordinary time capsule of high-style 1940s taste.
After Hilton’s death, the family sold the estate for $12.4 million—the highest price for any single-family home in the United States at the time. The new owners redecorated the mansion with the finest antiques.In 2000, Casa Encantada was sold to its current owner for $94 million—setting another record for the most expensive home in the country.
In August 1930, architect Wallace Neff received a telephone call that he would never forget. Powerful studio mogul Sol Wurtzel had just purchased a 1.5-acre parcel on the north side of Bellagio Road in Bel-Air, and he wanted to talk with Neff about designing his new mansion and estate. Shortly thereafter, the film producer decided Neff was the man for the job.
“The house,” Neff told friends, “was designed to fit the natural contour of the ground, resulting in a semicircular shape being selected for it.” Neff, moreover, took special care that every room was filled with light and took advantage of the views. “All rooms,” Neff explained, “have at least two exposures opening onto wide loggias and terraces which overlook the gardens and on beyond to the sea.”
The 180-foot-long curving mansion was crafted on a small knoll well back from Bellagio Road, east of Stone Canyon and overlooking the Bel-Air Country Club on the other side of the street. Two staircases flowed from the terraces that led off the main rooms, and they curved down to a second, larger terrace and the tennis court. Below, a broad lawn sloped gently off to Bellagio Road, where trees were planted to shield the property from view.
The driveway wound up the hill past the east portion of the mansion to the secluded motor court at the back of the property. To compensate for the lack of a grand view at the entrance, Neff gave the front door an elaborate treatment: a pair of two-story Corinthian columns ending in a gently curving broken pediment topped by an urn.
The front door opened into an intimate, circular foyer, which led into a very large—and very grand—oval reception room, with the curving grand staircase on one side. To the right was the huge living room with French doors leading to the arched loggia. To the left was the dining room and breakfast room, both opening onto their loggia, and the kitchen and service wing. The second floor contained the library and four master bedrooms. (In 1939, Neff added a magnificent terrace, swimming pool, and loggia on flat land just west of the main house.)
Marian Wurtzel, who loved to spend money, furnished the mansion with reproduction antique furniture, purchased fine English silver for their dinner parties, and bought crystal chandeliers during a trip to Italy. She bought furs and jewels for herself.Since Howard Hughes, Prince Rainier, and Elvis Presley, the owners of this estate have been less eccentric, less royal, and less pursued by fans. They have however, admired the property’s beauty, and they protected the mansion and grounds from inappropriate changes. Today, the estate is one of the prized properties of Old Bel-Air.
When Dr. and Mrs. Roy Van Wart purchased a two-acre lot on the north side of Bellagio Road at the corner of Bel-Air Road and the East Gate in 1931, they asked architect Ray J. Kieffer to design a French Norman home with some “English” touches.
Roy Van Wart, a highly skilled neuropathologist in Canada and then in New Orleans, had retired from medicine in 1929 at age forty-one so that he could—according to one account—“devote full time to his personal business interests.” Certainly Dr. Van Wart continued his educational pursuits, but what he, his wife, Edna, and their daughter, Katherine, really wanted to do was enjoy their money. And few places were more conducive to pleasure than Southern California, and a new home on Bel-Air’s fashionable Bellagio Road.
For the Van Warts, Kieffer designed a fourteen-room fairy-tale manor house that looked as if it had been lifted from a French village. The cost? $50,000. In very valuable Depression dollars.
From original, simple, white wooden gates, the driveway led gently uphill from Bellagio Road to the mansion, which stood on a large expanse of flat land. After reaching the house, the driveway ran through an archway to the rear motor court and four-car garage.
The layered front façade was a combination of multicolor bricks and white half-timbers topped by steep, pitched roofs; the main tower even included a dovecote on top.
One of the property’s real delights was its grounds. From the brick terraces at the front of the house, the Van Wart family enjoyed a several-hundred-foot view of open land that ran downhill along the west side of Bel-Air Road toward Bellagio Road. At the narrow end of their estate, they constructed their swimming pool. By planting trees along the Bel-Air Road frontage, they concealed their neighborhood and the roadway, allowing them to gaze upon open space and enjoy the illusion of being in the middle of the country.
From its completion by Lynn Atkinson in 1938, few mansions have generated such excitement—and envy—from Southern California millionaires as Bel-Air Road.
Everyone who owns a television knows this house.
The mansion, which sat in full view behind impressive gates on Bel-Air Road, was an exquisitely designed 18th-century French neoclassical masterpiece surrounded by formal gardens. The interior was lavish, in many cases extravagant, but usually tasteful.
For a generation, this mansion sat resplendent and serene on its knoll in the best part of Bel-Air. Atkinson chose the exceptional Webber & Spaulding, who designed a magnificent 18th-century French château—the palm trees and other semitropical vegetation, curiously, distracted from that carefully crafted illusion—which, in the French tradition, was clearly visible from the road.
The estate began at a set of stone posts and intricately wrought-bronze gates, which opened to a long, rectangular lawn with square-trimmed carob trees bordering both sides of the driveway. Then came the mansion.
The mansion’s façade was finely cut limestone placed in front of steel-reinforced concrete walls. The copper roof would soon acquire a lovely softgreen patina. The mansion’s handsomely carved front doors opened into a stunning 20- by-38-foot entrance hall with an eighteen-foot-high ceiling, a multicolor marble floor, marble and frescoed walls, and a marble staircase leading to the second floor.
The first-floor drawing room boasted walnut parquet floors, damask covered walls, a marble fireplace, and an organ console. The library had vertically grained oak paneling that opened to reveal the bookshelves. The dining room, which seated twenty-four, had walnut parquet floors, walnut-paneled walls, and two large Baccarat crystal chandeliers. In the middle of the eighteen-foot-high ceiling was a fresco of a Madonna standing on a crescent moon and facing whoever sat at the head of the table. (To everyone else at the table, she seemed to be standing upside down.)
On the second floor were six bedrooms and bathrooms, including separate master’s and mistress’ suites. The mistress’ bedroom had a marble fireplace, paneled and frescoed walls, and a frescoed ceiling. The dressing room was decorated with damask-lined walls, inset floor-to-ceiling mirrors, and indirect lighting. The bathroom was a Moderne showplace, with green Swedish marble floors and walls and an aluminum-leaf ceiling.
Atkinson lavished the same care and expense on the gardens. The stone terrace across the back of the mansion overlooked a long, downward-sloping lawn with square-trimmed pittosporum on either side. A white marble statue of a Greek maiden standing in a decorative pool terminated the vista. A wall of fully grown trees, which had been transplanted to that end of the estate, protected the Atkinsons from the prying eyes of their neighbors.Stone pathways and stairs meandered along rustic landscaped hillsides, through flower gardens, and past hedges and more white marble statues. Down one steep hillside between the main house and the swimming pool, Atkinson created a picturesque palm garden, complete with a waterfall that flowed over artfully arranged boulders at the push of a button in the neoclassical pool house.
During the 1920s and 1930s, Art Deco was one of the most popular styles in Los Angeles. The Oviatt and Eastern Columbia buildings downtown, Bullocks Wilshire and I. Magnin on Wilshire Boulevard, and the Sunset Tower apartments on Sunset Strip adopted Art Deco’s sleek lines and decorative motifs, as well as the favored materials of aluminum and steel. The style appeared in many movies such as Grand Hotel (1932), where Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, and John and Lionel Barrymore act out their roles in a sumptuous and sleekly Art Deco luxury hotel in Europe. Of course, it was actually a set at MGM in Culver City.
Why was Art Deco not popular for single-family residences in Los Angeles? In its pure form, Art Deco was too daring, really too chic for many families, who favored the neo-Georgian and Colonial styles popular in the 1920s and 1930s. Art Deco, however, did have a significant impact on some residences through its simpler offshoot, the Moderne style, which became very popular in Los Angeles during the 1930s, and which was more appropriate to the region’s light and climate than the French-inspired Art Deco. A few Moderne touches on a simple dwelling or retail building denoted up-to-date taste, yet was not excessively showy during the Depression. In the hands of architects Paul R. Williams or James E. Dolena, and on a residence with a large budget, the neo-Georgian and Moderne influences were often combined into the fashionable Hollywood Regency style.
Of the few large Art Deco homes constructed in Los Angeles, the finest example is this Holmby Hills residence. Completed in 1928, this mansion was large enough in size—and in budget—to display Art Deco in all its glory.
Many great estates in Beverly Hills, Bel-Air, and Holmby Hills were with handsomely landscaped grounds, and then gave the architect a free hand. Sometimes, clients collaborated—or interfered—with the architect, bringing their own vision, tastes, and requirements to the project.
But only once did a major movie star play an architect in a film and later collaborate on a shared architectural vision for a new estate. That movie star was the legendary Gary Cooper. The film was The Fountainhead (1949), from Ayn Rand’s novel, in which Cooper played uncompromisingly idealistic architect Howard Roark. In real life, Cooper’s new estate was a close collaboration with the Modernist architect A. Quincy Jones.
For once, an architect and Hollywood client didn’t create an estate that evoked a different time or place, whether an idealized Spanish Andalusian, Old England, or dressed-up Colonial America. Nor did they aspire to build one of the super-sized ranch houses so popular in the Westside’s best neighborhoods in the west. This time, the architect and client created a home and grounds that were distinctly of their time and place, and yet timeless. They created an estate that celebrated earth, light, and privacy. And the renewal of Cooper’s battered marriage.
Gary Cooper, born in 1901, was originally named Frank. In 1906, his father In 1924, Cooper’s parents moved to Los Angeles and he—having failed to Cooper quickly discovered that he could make $10 to $20 a day as a movie That year, he also changed his name. “Nan Collins, my manager, came.“ The newly minted Gary Cooper, “Coop” to his friends and peers, advanced to bit parts and a few larger roles in the seven films he made in 1926, including The Winning of Barbara Worth, for which he had been hired as a stuntman. When one of the supporting actors had to back out at the last minute, the director gave the role to Cooper.
That was his big break. Paramount signed him to a long-term contract and cast him in six movies in 1927, including, at the urging of actress Clara Bow, with whom he was having an affair, her movies it and Wings. He made eight films in 1928, starring in most of them.
Then came The Virginian in 1929, Cooper’s first all-talking movie. “That was the big one,” he said. “You had to survive the transition to talking pictures. The Virginian put me over the hump and made millions.”
Suddenly, after thirty-one movies and at twenty-eight years of age, Gary Cooper became a major movie star. He worked in prestigious films opposite high-powered leading ladies, including Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, and Carole Lombard. He worked with the best directors. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor three years in a row, for Sergeant York (1941), The Pride of the Yankees (1942), and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), and won for Sergeant York.
His close friend, Bing Crosby, named his first son after him. Cooper was the unwitting inspiration for the pulp magazine hero Doc Savage. Irving Berlin even saluted him in his song “Puttin’ on the Ritz”: “Dressed up like a million-dollar trouper, trying hard to look like Gary Cooper . . . super duper!”
Many of the movies Cooper starred in during the 1930s and 1940s are considered classics today: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Beau Geste (1939), The Westerner (1940), Meet John Doe (1941), Ball of Fire (1941), and of course, The Fountainhead.
Cooper was also famous for the movies that he turned down: Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940) and Saboteur (1942), and George Cukor’s A Star Is Born (1954) with Judy Garland. Most famously, Cooper was producer David O. Selznick’s first choice to play Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind (1939).
Cooper, however, was horrified, declaring, “Gone with the Wind is going to be the biggest flop in Hollywood history. I’m glad it’ll be Clark Gable who’s falling flat on his nose, not me.”
Still, the roles Cooper chose brought him great success, and wealth. He bought a Bentley. He collected art. He bought a ranch in Encino where he grew corn and avocados. He bought a vacation home in Sun Valley, Idaho. His neighbor?
Famed writer Ernest Hemingway, who insisted that Cooper call him “Papa” and who wrote the character of Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls for Cooper. (Cooper would star in the film adaptation.) Cooper was also a close friend of Pablo Picasso, to whom he gave a six-shooter . . . and shooting lessons.
A conservative Republican, Cooper testified in 1947 as a friendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee. His testimony was so entertaining that he won frequent applause from the audience, and he was given a standing ovation when he concluded. Cooper’s charm and his skill, however, had disguised the fact that he hadn’t named names during his testimony. Not one.
He would go on to befriend blacklisted screenwriter Carl Foreman, who wrote High Noon (1952), a western allegory about the Hollywood blacklisting that brought Cooper his second Academy Award and revived his fading career.
In the midst of all this fame and fortune and controversy was Cooper’s troubled marriage. In 1933, he had married Veronica Balfe, whom Cooper called “Rocky.” She was a New York socialite who had a brief acting career under the name Sandra Shaw. Her father was a millionaire and the governor of the New York Stock Exchange, and her uncle was famed MGM art director Cedric Gibbons, who had introduced her to Cooper.
“Rocky is the ideal girl for me,” he declared. “She can ride, shoot, and do all the things I like to do.” Cooper was Episcopalian. Rocky was Roman Catholic. They would have one child, a daughter, also Catholic, to whom Cooper was devoted. The Coopers lived on a four-acre estate in Brentwood. The Bermuda-style house, which had been designed by Roland E. Coate, had a sunken living room and a wood-paneled library displaying paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe and Max Weber. Behind that lovely façade, however, was an ugly truth. The great American icon, Gary Cooper, was a serial philanderer, and everyone in Hollywood knew it because Cooper liked to boast about his conquests. In the 1930s, gossip columnists called him “Paramount’s paramount skirt-chaser.” He had affairs with virtually every actress with whom he worked: Marlene Dietrich, Carole Lombard, Ingrid Bergman, and Grace Kelly.
In 1931, while traveling in Europe to recuperate from exhaustion and poor health, Cooper had a torrid affair with Countess Dorothy di Frasso, an American-born socialite who had an open marriage to an Italian count. The countess took it upon herself to polish the lanky movie star into a sophisticated bon vivant who would know how to address a prince or a pauper, and how to dress very well indeed.
Usually, Cooper was the “love ’em and leave ’em” kind of adulterer. One affair, however, was so passionate, so long lasting (five years), and so heavily reported that Cooper’s teenage daughter actually spat in the actress’s face . . . in public. Because Rocky was Catholic, she wouldn’t give him a divorce, but she couldn’t tolerate this latest affair, either. In May 1951, Cooper moved out of their Brentwood home. In July 1954, Cooper and Rocky reconciled. As a symbol of their new start, the couple built a new home. Earlier, on February 8, 1953, Cooper had purchased one of the few remaining empty lots in Holmby Hills, a two-acre parcel on Baroda Drive north of Sunset Boulevard, for $35,000.