In the history of a legendary estate, all too often the first act is better, more exciting, and vastly more interesting than the second or third acts.
In the first act, the original—and usually well-known—owner creates a masterpiece of architecture and landscaping, an estate that excites the envy of friends and neighbors, and sometimes an estate where the famous and infamous party and play. In the second act, the estate is purchased by someone who fails to appreciate its beauty and history, who undertakes ill-advised renovations and additions, or who simply demolishes the mansion and subdivides the land.
Rarely does a legendary estate come fully into its own under the auspices of later owners. But that’s exactly what happened here.
In 1929, James and Pauline Martin moved into their new 10,000-square-foot home in Holmby Hills. An investment banker and real estate man, he was active in local projects such as the construction of the Civic Center and Union Station in downtown Los Angeles and the opening of the Municipal Airport, now LAX.
For their architect, the Martins wisely chose Gordon B. Kaufmann, who designed an Italian Mediterranean–style two-story home that was elegant in every way, yet restrained in its decorative treatment.
Kaufmann minimized the drawbacks to the Martins’ two-acre lot: its long, narrow configuration, and its steep slope (virtually a cliff) down to the bridle trail (the seasonal streambed) between Carolwood and Baroda Drives. The house – of necessity –was given a long, narrow shape to fit the lot. Kaufmann located the library and living room at the house’s southern end, where they would catch the sun all day. The dining room, kitchen and service areas, and garages were placed at the less desirable northern end. Upstairs, the master bedroom suite occupied the sunlit southern end of the house, which had the best views toward the city.
The landscape plan assured that, over time, the estate would have a private, countrified atmosphere, even though it was minutes away from Beverly Hills and Westwood Village. Trees and shrubs were planted along the northern and southern lot line; oak, sycamore, and eucalyptus trees were planted in the ravine below the house, so that they would grow into a forest and offer greater beauty and seclusion.
Before the landscape had achieved its full, mature beauty, the Martins left Carolwood, and a series of new owners held the estate over the next few decades. Fortunately, they made no presumptuous changes to architect Kaufmann’s elegantly designed residence.
Meanwhile, one increasingly wealthy Angeleno, who would eventually give the estate its very exciting second act, was rapidly amassing a major contemporary art collection. That person, who bought the estate in 1982 for his home and museum, was Frederick R. Weisman.
The son of Russian immigrants, Weisman was born in Minneapolis, moving to Los Angeles when he was seven years old. He later enrolled at UCLA for one year, and then transferred to the University of Minnesota; he dropped out because of family money problems in the Depression.
Soon, Weisman began to display the hard work and vision that built his fortune, and then his art collection. He had lucky breaks, too. In 1938, he married.
Marcia Simon, sister of the increasingly successful industrialist Norton Simon, who owned Val-Vita Cannery, later Hunt Foods. By 1943, Weisman was president of Hunt Foods. Norton Simon was chairman of the board. In subsequent years, Weisman achieved great success without relying on his family connections. He founded a savings and loan, acquired a racetrack, and owned a line of products for drug stores. But Weisman’s most profitable venture was his daring 1970 purchase of the mid-Atlantic states distributorship for what was a dark-horse Japanese car company. known as Toyota. Weisman’s Mid-Atlantic Toyota became the largest importer of Japanesecars in the United States, and it fueled his ever-increasing art purchases.
In the 1950s, Frederick and Marcia Weisman became passionate art collectors, purchasing paintings, drawings, and sculptures by Alberto Giacometti, Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, and Andy Warhol, among many others.The Weismans bought boldly. They recognized the importance of abstract expressionist and pop art works before those styles became popular.
When the Weismans could not choose between two de Kooning paintings—Pink Angels and Dark Pond—they purchased both. The Weismans were a popular fixture in Southern California social circles and in the press. Los Angeles craved cultural heroes. After World War II, the city was growing rapidly, and some of its residents were amassing large fortunes. Los Angeles, however, was still viewed by the East Coast and Europe as a vast cultural wasteland. Civic and social leaders addressed the issue by supporting the construction of the Music Center (1964) and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (1965).
Before Weisman became nationally recognized as a contemporary art collector, one of his greatest claims to fame was telling Frank Sinatra and some of his Rat Pack pals to be quiet, and living to tell the tale. But just barely. The year was 1966. The locale was the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Weisman was eating dinner. At the next table were Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sinatra’s bodyguard buddy Jilly Rizzo, actor Richard Conte, and various“ladies.” The group was celebrating Dean Martin’s birthday. A little too loudly.
Weisman asked Sinatra to observe the event more quietly. Sinatra recognized Weisman, and he replied with a nasty, anti-Semitic comment. Weisman stood up. A mistake. Sinatra stood up. More words were exchanged. Then Sinatra grabbed one of the famous Polo Lounge telephones, and he smashed Weisman over the head. Several times. Soon, Weisman was lying unconscious on the floor.
Weisman remained unconscious in the hospital for forty-eight hours. His skull had been fractured in the attack. Weisman wanted to press charges against Sinatra. After all, the attack had plenty of witnesses. But he changed his mind—he told friends—after receiving threatening, late-night telephone calls. He was advised to drop any thought of charges against Sinatra if he wanted to enjoy his life and hobbies, particularly his passion for art.
By the 1960s and 1970s, the Weismans were being recognized as important collectors, not just in Los Angeles but also among the East Coast art elite. The New York Times proclaimed: “Together, Fred and Marcia Weisman accumulated one of the best collections of modern art in private hands today.”
Not all Angelenos fell under the Weismans’ contemporary art spell. After reading an article describing a 1978 visit to their art-filled home—an article Weisman himself described as having “captured the essence of our personalities in a forthright, honest, and humorous manner”—one Pasadena resident penned a caustic letter to the editor: “Thank heavens Marcia and Weisman aren’t foisting their art on me. I can’t believe anyone could live with such monstrosities.”
In 1981, the Weismans amicably divorced. To split the art collection, they flipped a coin. Marcia won the toss, and she got first choice. Then they quickly selected their favorite items, alternating turns, one after another. Despite the collection’s size, the entire process—reportedly—took forty-five minutes.
A year after the divorce, Weisman acquired the Carolwood Drive estate in a trade for his Malibu beach house. Weisman continued to buy art, particularly works by promising but not yet established artists. “He’s been a maverick,” said one museum’s director. “He had the courage to take risks, and he was right most of the time.” The estate was soon overflowing with art. When Weisman ran out of wall space, he displayed works on the ceilings. He delighted in provocative inconsistencies, and would hang his latest East Village “find” beside the work of an acknowledged contemporary master.
He placed sculptures around the mansion and estate grounds to delight visitors or, more often, surprise them. Duane Hanson’s Florida Shopper —an extremely realistic, life-size sculpture of a woman—stood near the staircase. Hanson’s Old Man Dozing “slept” in Weisman’s study. Weisman genuinely enjoyed the hunt for new works, and he lent works from his collection to museums. In 1986, for example, half of the collection was traveling in Asia, and the other half was being shown in Europe.
In the mid-1980s, Weisman launched one of his most audacious ideas. He wanted to lease Greystone from the City of Beverly Hills to open a museum for his collection. Weisman doggedly pursued his proposal for two and a half years. In return for a $1 per year lease for fifty-five years, he offered to provide $1.5 million annually for operating costs and $8 million to restore and refurbish the building. The Greystone Foundation came onboard, saying that
Weisman’s museum was the best use of the landmark mansion, which was viewed by many as the ultimate white elephant. Nearby residents, however, opposed the plan, complaining of increased traffic and the influx of, well, art-loving commoners, into their neighborhood.
Just when victory seemed certain, Weisman pulled out, defeated by continuing community opposition and the desire of some officials to censor what was shown. For many locals, the big issue was not crowds and parking problems, it was the art itself. It was all too. . . modern. Picturing Hanson’s Florida Shopper standing within the ever-so-grand halls of Greystone did require some imagination.“Our preferences lean towards the Old Masters,” wrote one critic. Other opponents declared that Beverly Hills should try to lure someone associated with less controversial art: the Rockefellers, Norton Simon, or J. Paul Getty.
In 1986, Weisman decided to turn his own estate into a private museum. In 1991, he built an annex, or “art pavilion,” designed by architect Franklin D. Israel, at the estate’s northern end to display larger works. Weisman always delighted in showing his collection to visitors. “He’s 81 years old now and done it a hundred times, but nothing delights Frederick R. Weisman more than guiding visitors through the magnificent collection of contemporary art that fills his Holmby Hills mansion,” wrote the New York Times in 1993. “He leads them past the de Koonings and Giacomettis, then takes them into an upstairs bathroom where they are startled by a nude couple in embrace—actually a lifelike Duane Hanson sculpture. ‘Oh, I guess they didn’t check out yet,’ he says with an impish grin.”
Since Weisman’s death in 1994, the Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation furthered his cultural mission, and it offered appointment-only tours of the mansion and art pavilion. Seeing the property and enjoying a small portion of the large and very personal collection, visitors were easily reminded of one of Weisman’s favorite sayings: “I don’t think there is anything that communicates better than art. It is quicker than language and clearer than philosophy.”