“I was going to Stanford while [the estate] was being built,” wrote the Haldemans’ daughter Dayl many years later to Neff. “Christmas of 1939 I had a large party—with bedspreads and such still arriving. In August of 1940, I had my wedding reception [at the estate]. I doubt that there was any more beautiful setting. My family sold the house in 1947, completely furnished, to a couple from Chicago.”
Yes, wanderers still, the Haldemans sold the estate to J. M. Friedman, whose family lived at the estate only briefly. The Friedmans rented it to a series of tenants, starting with billionaire Howard Hughes, who leased the house for sultry actress Jean Peters in the late 1940s during their well-reported affair. Peters would marry Texas oilman Stuart W. Cramer in 1954, divorce him in 1957, and finally marry Howard Hughes that same year. She divorced him in 1971, but kept his secrets and the details of their marriage to herself.
The torrid romance of Hughes and Peters at this estate was merely the warm-up act for the storied property. Next came one of Hollywood’s greatest and most troubled stars, Judy Garland, during one of the darker periods in her life.
She had been working since the age of two, first billed as “Baby Gumm.” (She had been named Frances, although her family called her “Baby”; the family’s surname was Gumm.) She went on to perform as one of the three singing Garland sisters, then as an MGM contract player, and finally as the increasingly popular star in a series of films with Mickey Rooney, usually directed by Busby Berkeley.
By the age of sixteen, when she starred as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (1939), MGM had hooked her on amphetamines so that she could work eighteen-hour days, and on barbiturates so she could get a few hours of sleep at night. Garland was a fountain of talent and torment and raw nerves. Even though she was pressured endlessly and worked to exhaustion by MGM and its dictatorial chief Louis B. Mayer, and raged at and controlled by her ne plus ultra stage mother, Frances Ethel Gumm, Garland somehow managed to perform brilliantly in a string of wildly successful films in the 1940s, including For Me and My Gal (1942), which was Gene Kelly’s first film; Girl Crazy (1943), with Mickey Rooney; and then, the perfect movie, Meet Me in St. Louis (1944).
Garland was still married to (though separated from) her first husband, composer David Rose, when she met the brilliant Vicente Minnelli, twenty years her senior, on the set of Meet Me in St. Louis. He was her director.
Garland’s biographers believe that her attraction to Minnelli was a profound yearning not just for a kind, intelligent, and sophisticated partner, but for a father figure, someone who would be on her side in the endless psychological struggles and pharmaceutical addictions in which she was ensnared.
Their romance blossomed. Judy was pregnant when her divorce from Rose came through. She and Minnelli married in June 1945. Their daughter was born in March 1946.Forced back to work by the studio, though she was still suffering from extreme postpartum depression, Garland made two films in 1946, including The Harvey Girls, in which she sang the Oscar-winning song “On the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe.” In 1947, she had a nervous breakdown during the filming of The Pirate (1948), which was directed by Minnelli and co-starred Gene Kelly. Her marriage to Minnelli began to fall apart, and the couple separated and reconciled several times.
Needing respite, in 1949 Garland secretly rented the estate for $1,000 a month. Minnelli remained at his Evanview Drive home in the hills above the Sunset Strip. Garland made In the Good Old Summertime with Van Johnson that year, and then Summer Stock (1950) with Gene Kelly. She was signed to star in Royal Wedding (1951) with Fred Astaire, but she never made it to the set to rehearse. She refused, in fact, to report to the studio. Her addictions had conquered her eagerness to work with Astaire again, even though they had teamed earlier and quite successfully in Easter Parade (1948).
On June 17, 1950, Garland received a telegram from Loews, Inc., which owned MGM, telling her that she had been suspended without pay. Garland was perpetually broke. She needed to work, and couldn’t. Her second marriage had failed. Her addictions were escalating. Ruled by her depression, demons, and addictions, two days later, on June 19, 1950, Garland tried to commit suicide. She had gone with her secretary, Myrtle, to meet Minnelli at his Evanview Drive house. Suddenly she rushed into one of the bathrooms, broke a bottle, and cut her throat.
Though not deep, the cut bled profusely. Panic stricken, Minnelli called Carleton Alsop, Garland’s manager and friend, who rushed over. Garland was on the living room floor, with Myrtle pressing a towel to her throat while Minnelli rushed about, hysterical. Alsop quickly made a plan. He picked up Garland and carried her to his car; Myrtle called a doctor and told him to meet Garland at her Sunset Boulevard house.
Thanks to all the trouble with Royal Wedding and Garland’s suspension, the press was prowling around trying to get pictures of and stories about the struggling MGM star. Knowing this, and knowing that the newspapers believed Garland was living with Minnelli at his Evanview Drive house, Alsop hoped that he could keep this damaging story from the press by hiding the star at her rental house. Unfortunately, someone followed Alsop’s car and word quickly spread. The estate was besieged by reporters.
But they didn’t know what had happened until an MGM representative, who had visited Garland, walked out the front door and into the sea of reporters. In response to their questions, the MGM representative drew his finger across his throat. The story made headlines around the world.
That same year, the estate, or at least its original driveway, played a pivotal role in the classic film Sunset Boulevard (1950). In the film, Gloria Swanson plays Norma Desmond, the delusional, aging, silent-film star who lives in her decaying 1920s mansion, and William Holden is Joe Gillis, a broke young screenwriter and gigolo.
Near the beginning of the film, Gillis is driving down Sunset Boulevard near the East Gate of Bel-Air trying to avoid the finance company men who want to repossess his car. When the repo men spot him, Gillis guns the engine and races eastward through Holmby Hills, with the repo men in hot pursuit. Suddenly, his right front tire blows out. Struggling to control the car, Gillis makes a quick turn into a driveway on his right.
That driveway belonged to this estate. A different house and movie sets filled in the role of Norma Desmond’s mansion. In 1954, J. M. Friedman put the Sunset Boulevard property back on the market. “I could have bought the Sunset house for $100,000,” wrote the Haldemans’ daughter. “I loved it, but the renters had made a disaster of it. I took another house [around the corner] on South Mapleton, because it was in such good condition.”
In 1955, the estate was sold to American Tobacco Company heir Charles Babcock. The estate was restored by two subsequent owners.