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.”
When Jacob (“Jay”) Paley asked Paul R. Williams to design his house, the forty year old architect had reached the top of his profession in California. In the previous decade, Williams had designed important mansions in all of the area’s best neighborhoods: Bel-Air, Beverly Hills, Holmby Hills, Brentwood Park, Hancock Park, Pasadena, and Pacific Palisades.
A sophisticated architect who served his clients’ tastes, he designed homes in a rich variety of styles: Spanish, Tudor, Colonial Revival, and French Norman. By the 1930s, he had branched out into commercial work, designing buildings for Saks Fifth Avenue and W. & J. Sloane on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills.
Williams’s residential clients included Hollywood stars Tyrone Power, Barbara Stanwyck, and Frank Sinatra. Some of Williams’s homes were stars in their own right. The Tudor-style sixteen-room Jack Atkin mansion in Pasadena, which Williams designed in 1929, was featured in the classic screwball comedy Topper (1937) starring Cary Grant and Constance Bennett.
For automotive pioneer E. L. Cord, Williams designed the almost ten-acre Cordhaven estate (see page 326). The Banning family — raised to wealth and prominence in the 19th century by Phineas Banning, considered the “father of the Port of Los Angeles”—admired Williams so much that they asked him to design three large homes for them in Hancock Park: two next door to each other, and one across the street.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Williams’s career was that this brilliant and much sought after architect achieved such success as an African American, despite rampant racism throughout the United States.
Paul Revere Williams was born in 1894 in Los Angeles, orphaned at age four, and raised by a kind and intelligent foster mother. At Los Angeles’s Polytechnic High School, he displayed great skill in drawing and enrolled in architectural classes. Young Williams told his instructor that he wanted to become an architect. “He stared at me with as much astonishment as he would have had I proposed a rocket flight to Mars. Who ever heard of a Negro being an architect?” recalled Williams.
Fortunately, Williams was as determined and ambitious as he was talented. He attended the Beaux Art Institute of Design and won the school’s prestigious Beaux Arts Medal. At age twenty, he won first prize—and $200—for the design of a community center in Pasadena. Established firms soon recognized Williams’s skills. He worked for town planner and landscape architect Wilbur D. Cook, who had prepared the 1906 master plan for Beverly Hills. He got a job with Reginald Johnson, who worked primarily in Pasadena and Santa Barbara. Finally, he was employed by John C. Austin, which gave him experience working on large, complex commercial structures such as the Shrine Civic Auditorium in Los Angeles.
All the while, Williams continued to enter—and win—architectural competitions for small homes. Williams, of course, wanted to have his own practice. In 1921, at the age of twenty-seven, he finally got his big break. Rich and socially prominent Louis Cass, one of Williams’ classmates at Polytechnic High School, asked him to design his new $90,000 mansion in Flintridge. “Let this be a starter for your new office,” Cass told Williams, and that’s what Williams did.
He opened his own practice in a small office in downtown Los Angeles’ Stock Exchange Building. When Louis Cass’ equally rich and socially prominent friends visited his new Flintridge home, they admired Williams’ work and hired him to design their own residences.
Williams’ career took off in the midst of the 1920s Southern California boom. By the time the Depression hit in 1929, he was a much-admired and well-established architect with a very wealthy clientele that still had money to spend.
Ironically, Williams could not have lived in most of the neighborhoods for which he designed homes because restrictive covenants, written by the original landowners, forbade the sale of property to anyone of “African or Ethiopian descent.”
Williams succeeded not simply because he was a brilliant architect but because he understood the racism of his day and adapted his working style to mitigate any client prejudice. For example, he learned how to draft plans upside down so that his clients—particularly their wives—could view sample plans without sitting beside him. Clients sat on one side of his desk or worktable, and Williams sat on the other as he sketched upside down.
“Naturally, I encountered many discouragements and rebuffs, most of which were predicated upon my color,” Williams said. “I survived a few financial hardships which might have been avoided had my face been white. But I do not regret those difficulties, for I think that I am a far better craftsman today than I would be had my course been free.”
Certainly, Williams’ reputation helped him get the commission for the Jay Paley residence, but he also had an “inside track.” He had completed a mansion at 200 South Mapleton Drive for William S. Paley, Jay’s nephew, the previous year.
The 1935 commission for the Jay Paley estate was a milestone in Williams’ thriving 1930s career. The mansion gave him the opportunity to take his work in a new direction. He started with the traditional English Georgian style and then gave the residence a thoroughly modernist spirit, creating a residence that was both traditional and contemporary. Williams continued to develop this eclectic architectural style with many Westside residences and commercial buildings, the design strength and elegance of which have never gone out of style.
But who was Jay Paley? And how could he afford a large, showy estate in Holmby Hills. The debonair and financially astute Jay Paley, along with his brother Samuel, were Russian immigrants who had founded the Congress Cigar Company in Chicago in the 1890s and had succeeded by following their father’s advice: As far as customers were concerned, he told his sons, what was inside the cigar was less important than the wrapper. Image was everything.
To advertise their La Palina cigars, the Paley brothers bought a program on a small Philadelphia radio station. The program’s singer and songwriter, Harry Link, was the “La Palina Boy” who tinkled the ivories and heralded the joys of La Palina cigars. Sales went up. This show soon grew into “The La Palina Smoker” program, a weekly spot in which men bantered witticisms with a sultry-voiced “Miss La Palina.” The show—and the cigars—were a big hit.
The Paleys then moved from radio programs to their own radio network—the Columbia Broadcasting Network (later the Columbia Broadcasting System, or CBS)—and made it very successful indeed. So much so that in 1928, at the age of forty-two, Jay Paley sold millions of dollars of his CBS stock, along with his interest in Congress Cigar Company, and settled into a most enjoyable early retirement filled with travel, gambling, horse racing, fine art collecting, and, increasingly, dalliances with a bevy of attractive young women, many of whom were associated with the motion picture industry. His wife, Lillian, whom he had married in 1906, played the “good wife” and said nothing, at least for a time.
In the early 1930s, Jay Paley met the dynamic young movie executive Walter Wanger, whom many believe was one of the brightest and most creative of the Hollywood movie moguls. Wanger later recalled that when he met Jay Paley, it was like meeting “one of the lost souls in Dante’s Inferno, wandering about with nothing to do.”
Wanger gave him something to do. He talked Paley into becoming a Hollywood producer. Paley sold more of his CBS stock to his brother Samuel and nephew William. Jay Paley and Lillian moved to Los Angeles. With Wanger as creative head, the two men founded the semi-independent JayPay Productions company in association with Paramount Studios in 1934.
Naturally, a freshly minted Hollywood mogul needed an estate that reflected his wealth and position . . . and a place to leave his wife while he worked long hours and played on the side. For Paley’s Holmby Hills estate, completed in 1936, Williams designed a long, horizontal, two-story home on a modified H-plan with a stripped-down, white-painted brick façade, tall, multi-pane windows, and a tall front doorway.
Instead of a portico, Williams framed the front door with carved, nearly flush wood columns and a pediment. Rather than a flat façade typical of Georgian architecture, Williams created an E-configuration, pulling the center entry and northwest and southwest wings out from the horizontal line of the mansion.
He then created an asymmetrical rear façade by extending the northeast and southwest wings. The northeast wing had a rectangular design, and the semicircular southeast terrace had a two-story-tall conical roof supported by slender pairs of columns.From the motor court, the front door opened onto an entry and central hall that ran north-south across the entire length of the house. On the right was a large, step-down living room, known as the drawing room; at the side of the house, this room opened onto a private garden and ornamental pond. A den at the back of the house opened onto the conical-roof terrace. A music room and the library were on the north side of the first floor. The formal dining room, a circular breakfast room, the butler’s pantry, the kitchen, and four maids’ rooms, each with their own living room, were on the east side of the house. Outside the service wing was the servants’ private garden.
“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.
The fates of great estates in Beverly Hills, Holmby Hills, and Bel-Air are often tragic. Too often, the original owner lavished wealth and personal attention on the creation of a showplace in the 1920s and 1930s, constructing a magnificent mansion to exacting standards, laying out beautiful and expansive grounds, and entertaining on a grand—and occasionally notorious—scale.
A generation later, however, the next owner often disregarded—even belittled—all of the time, care, and money that originally went into the estate. Architectural tastes had changed in the intervening years. What was once considered a masterpiece was often considered old-fashioned, even ugly and unwieldy.
New owners often modernized the mansion, usually badly. Other times, the owners had dollar signs in their eyes and sold off significant portions of the estate grounds as home sites. And sometimes, an owner demolished the mansion itself so that its site could be subdivided.
Such a fate befell legendary estates including Thomas H. Ince’s Dias Dorados, E. L. Cord’s Cordhaven, George and Gertrude Lewis’s Hill Grove, and too many others.
But, miraculously, it did not happen to one of the greatest estates ever constructed in Holmby Hills. And that miracle came courtesy of a most surprising new owner during the 1970s, a time when once-prized estates, including this Charing Cross residence, faced great peril.
The story of this Charing Cross estate starts in the mid-1920s when Arthur Letts Jr. decided to move from Hancock Park to Holmby Hills. That was understandable. In 1923, his late father, had sold the 3,300-acre Wolfskill Ranch to Edwin and Harold Janss, and the two brothers (Harold had married Gladys Letts) were developing most of the property as Westwood. The Letts family was a partner in the development.
The most desirable portion of the ranch was the 400-acre parcel, just west of Beverly Hills and the Los Angeles Country Club, and on both sides of Sunset Boulevard. That gently rolling land would be transformed into the high-end Holmby Hills estate community by the Holmby Corporation, which was part of the Janss Investment Co.
Never one for half-hearted gestures, Arthur Letts Jr. decided to create the grandest estate in Holmby Hills. After all, he was his father’s only son, and he proudly carried his name. He was president of Broadway department stores before its sale in 1926. He was president of the Holmby Corporation, and he wanted to demonstrate his faith in the new community, just as the Rodeo Land & Water Company investors had constructed their mansions in largely empty Beverly Hills a decade earlier.
On September 13, 1926, Letts purchased a 4.5-acre parcel from the Janss Investment Co. and Holmby Corporation. The property was not only the largest in Holmby Hills, it had arguably the best location, on a rise overlooking the golf course, and views of Beverly Hills and downtown Los Angeles. Because of its placement on the property, the Letts mansion boasted a magnificent driveway that wound several hundred yards up the hill to the motor court, with a secondary entrance on a different street. No other Holmby Hills residence claimed such an impressive entry.
For his architect, Letts selected Arthur R. Kelly, who was best known for his formal English Tudor residences with stone façades. English Tudor, which was very popular in fashionable East Coast and Midwestern suburbs in the 1920s, implied wealth, tradition, and propriety. The style also appealed to Letts, because Holmby Hills was named for the English village of Holmby, where his father had been born.
Letts didn’t waste any time starting his 14,000-square-foot mansion. In late 1926, Kelly completed plans for the residence. By February 1927, the mansion’s stone walls were nearly finished. By late 1927, the exterior was complete, and craftsmen were finishing the interior. By early 1928, the Letts family had moved in.
The Letts mansion was one of the most successful examples of 1920s English Tudor—a style that is more of a transplant than a genuine expression of Southern California’s climate, topography, and traditions. Ceilings, however, tend to be lower than those in other homes, and the use of Tudor-inspired leaded glass windows meant that rooms lack abundant light and the best views of gardens and views.
With its rough-cut stone façade, the sprawling Letts mansion was imposing yet inviting, unlike the Doheny family’s monolithic and “frosty” Greystone. It was made more appealing by its asymmetrical, H-shaped layout; many bay windows and oriels, which broke up the stone façade; and the varied, slate-covered, pitched rooflines accented by crenellated towers and tall, double chimneys.
The mansion’s interior was eclectic, in keeping with the 1920s taste for mixing different styles and eras. On the first floor, the living room was virtually an Old English stage set: wood-paneled walls hung with tapestries; a large, carved-stone fireplace; several bay windows with leaded glass; ceilings with rich, Jacobean-inspired plasterwork; and plenty of reproduction Jacobean furniture.
The dining room, by contrast, with its paneled walls, fireplace, and reproduction furniture, had a definite early-18th-century Georgian spirit. The seven second-floor bedrooms, and particularly the master suite, were decorated in a 1920s French style. The master bathroom—which boasted a huge rectangular freestanding black and white marble bathtub—combined 1920s French and Art Deco inspirations.
The mansion’s pièce de résistance was the two-story Great Hall with its oak paneling, upper-level minstrels’ gallery, two-story-tall windows overlooking the back terraces and golf course, Italian marble floor, and richly carved double staircase leading to the second floor. The Great Hall was meant as a setting for large parties and dancing—entertainments that definitely changed over the years, as tastes changed and new owners purchased the estate. The grounds of the Letts estate were equally impressive.
When the Letts family sold off their showplace Hollywood estate in early 1927, Arthur Letts Jr. transported many of his father’s rare specimen trees—and even the greenhouse—to his new Holmby Hills estate. Mature trees were planted along the property’s north and west boundaries to shield the mansion from view.
Over the next three decades, Arthur Letts Jr. lived at his Charing Cross Road estate—managing his real estate investments, pursuing charitable activities, and hosting parties for his extended family. By the time of his death in 1959, he could take pride that the family’s development of Westwood was a great success, and that Holmby Hills had become one of Southern California’s finest neighborhoods.
In 1961, Louis Statham purchased the Letts estate. He had long admired the property, and the price was certainly right: $110,200.Statham was often described as a “scientist and industrialist,” but that hardly captured the scope of his professional and personal interests. Head of Statham Instruments, he invented important equipment for oil exploration, as well as for rockets and satellites in those early years of space exploration. On the medical front, he invented blood-flow meters and patient-monitoring devices.
Statham told friends that he did some of his best “creative thinking” while strolling the estate grounds. Louis Statham and his wife, Anne, were well known for their frequent parties at the estate, which they renamed Statham House. Both loved music—she was one of the founders of the Los Angeles Music Center—and they hosted parties for opera, chamber music, and choral events in the Great Hall. At one event, Louis himself sang a selection from Mozart’s The Magic Flute.
In 1971, the remarkable happened. Twice. First, the Arthur Letts-Louis Statham estate sold for $1.05 million, a record-breaking sale price for a Los Angeles home at the time. Second, the buyer was Playboy Enterprises, Inc. Needless to say, the estate’s immediate neighbors—indeed, all of Holmby Hills—were up in arms. Visions of nonstop bacchanalian revels and debauchery, which would corrupt the prestigious neighborhood, danced in everyone’s heads.
Playboy Enterprises was an astonishing phenomenon in America in the mid-20th-century. This media and entertainment empire got its start in 1953, a time when every girl was supposed to be a virgin, when every woman was supposed to be a wife and mother, and when movie and television censors still put married couples in separate twin beds.
The new Playboy magazine gleefully thumbed its nose at all of that conventionality and conservatism.
Few architects worked longer—or created more great homes and estates—in Beverly Hills, Holmby Hills, and Bel-Air than Wallace Neff. His career stretched more than five decades, from the late 1910s until 1970.
Few architects had more repeat clients who were updating existing homes or designing new ones. Two of Neff’s most notable loyal clients were the Doheny family and Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Mary Pickford.
Few architects were more adaptable to changing architectural styles—and their clients’ changing tastes and needs in their homes. In the 1920s, Neff achieved his initial fame by creating some of Southern California’s greatest Spanish Colonial Revival estates. Later, he mastered the French Norman, English medieval, 18th-century French, Monterey Colonial style, even sophisticated large ranch houses and flat-roofed Modernist residences.
In the late 1960s, Dr. and Mrs. Henry Singleton asked Neff to design the home for a vacant site in Holmby Hills. Neff immediately said yes, because the Singleton commission was an architect’s dream job.
First, the Singletons had plenty of money to create a grand estate. From the 1960s to 1991, Henry Singleton was chairman of Teledyne, a hugely successful conglomerate that included aeronautics, insurance, and specialty metals businesses.
Second, the Singletons appreciated—and understood—good architecture. When the couple approached Neff, they were living with their five children in a home designed by Richard Neutra in 1968, at 15000 Mulholland Drive, overlooking Stone Canyon Reservoir. As president of the Radcliffe Club of Southern California, Caroline Singleton organized annual fund-raising tours of architecturally significant Westside homes. The Singletons needed a larger home, one more convenient to the Westside for frequent entertaining.
Third, the Singletons asked Neff to select the style for their new home. He designed a more contemporary version of his much-admired Joan Bennett residence at 515 South Mapleton Drive in Holmby Hills.
Finally, the Singletons owned an extraordinary estate site. They had purchased three parcels that stretched more than 300 feet along North Faring Road and 250 feet on Delfern Drive. The property extended to the bottom of the ravine that separated the estates on the east side of North Faring and Delfern from the adjacent estates on the west side of Brooklawn and Carolwood Drives.
The parcel presented one major problem: except for the frontage along the streets, the property was steep and considered to be virtually unbuildable. Neff and the Singletons’ engineers decided to fill in most of the steep hillside to create a largely level property. The question was where to find huge quantities of dirt, and relatively close to Holmby Hills.
The development of nearby Century City provided the answer. Millions of cubic yards of earth had to be moved from the site (which originally had been the 20th Century-Fox back lot) for the construction of new office and residential towers.
The Singletons transported thousands of truckloads of Century City dirt to create a mostly level estate. Neff worked on the estate—designing both the two-story mansion and its furniture—for more than two years. Landscape architect Frederick D. Church designed the extensive grounds. The mansion and its grounds were completed by 1971.
The estate gates, which stood on Delfern Drive, opened into a drivewaythat led to a motor court in front of the two-story-tall portico on the hip-roofed mansion’s westerly facing main façade. The front door opened into an oval reception hall. At its far end, the hall led to terraces overlooking the gardens. Adjacent was a large den.
To the left of the reception hall was a huge living room, which faced the gardens and pool; to the right was the family room or library. Beyond were the formal dining room and kitchen, both designed for large-scale entertaining. Upstairs were seven bedrooms, several with balconies.
The 15,000-square-foot mansion, which included another 8,000 square feet of belowground entertainment areas, was not only admired for its size and for Neff’s architectural skills but also for its costly materials and craftsmanship, including the marble floors in the hallways and reception room and the walnut-paneled library.
The estate’s pièce de résistance was its extensive, park-like grassy grounds, with specimen trees strategically placed to create dramatic vistas. A pond stood at the far end of the back lawns. Pathways wound through the grounds to the tennis court, hidden in one corner, and to a hothouse, nestled among trees at the other side of the property.
After the Singletons moved into their estate in 1971, they held large events, particularly for civic or charitable purposes.
Henry Singleton died in 1999. His widow, Caroline, continued her cultural activities and the entertainments at her home, until her death in 2006.
Guests fortunate enough to attend small dinners or larger events at the Singleton residence describe the estate as very impressive, even by Holmby Hills standards. The mansion was large and elegant, yet not ostentatious. The rooms were grand, but beautifully proportioned. The Singleton residence was Wallace Neff’s final major commission before his retirement.
Today, the Singleton estate’s most alluring feature is its spectacular grounds, which make up the second largest estate in Holmby Hills. These largely flat lawns, highlighted by the specimen trees and pond, are idyllic and picturesque.
The era of the great new Beverly Hills, Holmby Hills, and Bel-Air estates was over by the late 20th century. Or so some skeptics claimed, based on three beliefs:
First, no one could find enough flat or gently rolling land for a grand estate in those legendary neighborhoods. Too-big houses were being constructed on too-small lots that lacked space for large lawns and ornamental gardens, let alone the long and winding driveways that would provide evocative glimpses of the residence.
Second, the age of skilled craftsmanship had ended. People were building large, costly homes, but they were weak attempts—even parodies—of the solidly built, exquisitely crafted mansions of earlier decades.
Third, the art of great landscaping had been lost. Homebuilders—even if they could find large properties—simply could not create the grand grounds of earlier estates. Mature trees were nearly impossible to find, so owners would have to wait years for trees and shrubs to grow. Skilled landscape architects were scarce, and they didn’t have the experience to plan extensive grounds because so few genuine estates were being created.
For once, however, the skeptics—and the naysayers—were wrong. Very wrong. In 2002, the grand gates swung open to the new Fleur de Lys estate. By any measure, the property was born a legendary estate and a grand rival to the greatest residences of the 1920s and 1930s.
The five-acre Fleur de Lys had a 41,000-square-foot French limestone mansion inspired by France’s magnificent Vaux le Vicomte palace outside Paris. Surrounding the mansion were flat lawns, ornamental gardens, and mature trees that gave this Holmby Hills estate a secluded country air. The property also included a 3,000-square-foot manager’s house, staff quarters for ten people, a spa and pool with a pavilion that had its own kitchen, a championship tennis court, and—a necessity for any French palace—a garden folly.
Planning, constructing, and completing such an estate was not easy.
One of the greatest challenges was acquiring enough land—particularly flat land—for the motor court, the mansion, and its rear lawns. Throughout Los Angeles, Spanish- and Italian-inspired mansions and their immediate grounds had been placed on hilly or uneven sites, and these residences were both attractive and true to their stylistic origins. By contrast, constructing a genuine neoclassical French palace required a relatively flat site, because elegant symmetry was so essential for this style.
After five years of negotiations with various landowners, the owners purchased six adjacent parcels along Angelo and Carolwood Drives, one by one, to create a five-acre property with adequate flat land for Fleur de Lys. Only one house had to be demolished. The rest of the land was empty.
As befitted such an important residence, a formal groundbreaking ceremony was held on January 1, 1996, on the vacant parcel—complete with leather-handled shovels, Fleur de Lys hardhats, and plenty of Cristal champagne. The three years of construction required the greatest skill and patience. After the foundation was dug, workers erected a steel frame to assure the mansion’s structural integrity and minimize any impact from earthquakes. The steel frame was built atop huge steel rollers in the foundation, so that the mansion would glide back and forth—not shake—in an earthquake.
Each limestone block on the elegant façade was cut to precise specifications (to the smallest fraction of an inch) and finished in France, then shipped to California and attached to the steel frame.
Managing the construction of such a large residence in the heart of Holmby Hills was a challenge, too. Excess noise and commotion would not win friends among the neighbors. After the steel frame was erected and the basic interior structure complete, crews went on a twenty-four-hour schedule. Exterior work was done during the day, when noise was less of a nuisance to neighbors; interior work was carried out at night.
Upon its completion in 2002, Fleur de Lys was instantly acclaimed as one of Los Angeles’s greatest estates. Its massive wrought-iron gates on Angelo Drive, just up the block from the Jack Warner residence, opened onto a 600-foot-long driveway that went up a gentle hill, past the tennis court on the left. The driveway turned left at the estate manager’s 18th-century French-style limestone house, then made a complete U-turn into a tree-lined allée, ending at a pair of large limestone gateposts and the cobblestone-paved motor court. On either side of the allée were vast, formal gardens.
The front entrance to the elegantly restrained French palace opened onto a two-story reception hall, with a white and gold-leaf paneled ceiling and a marble floor, which ended at twin staircases that rose to the second floor. A pair of marble columns topped in gold leaf framed a doorway and views to the lawns and gardens at the rear of the house.
Double doors at the right of the reception hall opened onto a hallway that led to the formal dining room overlooking the motor court, a family room overlooking the rear terraces and gardens, and a room for china, silver, and crystal. Beyond these public areas was a vast service wing, including the butler’s pantry, a commercial-grade kitchen, staff dining room and offices, and the security center.
Double doors at the left of the reception room opened onto a hallway leading to the music room overlooking the rear terrace and gardens, a two-story paneled library facing the motor court, and a well-hidden bar. (The owners were determined to create a French palace so authentic that, if Louis XIV were suddenly transported to Fleur de Lys, he would find no jarring note. In his era, French palaces did not have bars.) At the end of this hallway was the two-story main salon, which extended the full width of the mansion and was furnished in museum quality French antiques.
On the second floor were seven bedrooms, including a master suite with three-year search for museum-quality pieces in Paris and New York shops, in private sales from collectors, and at auctions. One of the greatest features of Fleur de Lys was its grounds. A large limestone terrace at the center of the mansion’s rear façade led down a majestic sweep of flat lawn that ended—in a very neoclassical French style—at a Grecian temple folly set against a backdrop of dense foliage.
Fleur de Lys was an early-21st-century estate, created with consummate quality and attention to detail, and adequate time and budget to achieve extraordinary quality. Grand as it might be, the property lacked the history—and the great stories—of legendary estates from earlier decades. Time, of course, will bring those sagas to this Holmby Hills home, which will always be remembered as oneof the greatest estates of its era.
In 1932, Charles and Florence Letss Quinn—Mrs. Arthur Letts Sr. had become Mrs. Charles H. Quinn by that time—purchased a four-acre parcel from the Janss Investment Company along the south side of Sunset Boulevard opposite Carolwood Drive.
For Florence Martha Letts Quinn, the location, in addition to backing up to the Los Angeles Country Club, had three very personal reasons in its favor: Her three children, who lived nearby. Daughter Gladys and her husband, Edwin Janss, owned the adjacent estate on Sunset Boulevard. Son Arthur Jr. lived on nearby Charing Cross Road (see page 194), within sight of her home across the golf course. Her other daughter, Edna Letts McNaghten, and her husband, Malcolm, were completing their South Mapleton Drive estate (see page 234) a few properties south of Arthur Jr.’s home. Mother could literally keep an eye on her three grown children, and she could visit her grandchildren at any time.
Charles and Florence Quinn insisted on nothing but the best for their estate, which later became known as Owlwood. First, they purchased one of the finest remaining estate sites in Holmby Hills.
Second, they hired architect Robert Farquhar to design their Italian Renaissance–style mansion. Other Southern California architects—for example the highly talented Gordon B. Kaufmann, Wallace Neff, and Paul R. Williams—were more prolific than Farquhar. But they never surpassed the understated dignity and opulence of Farquhar’s buildings, or possessed his high-level social connections, always a plus in getting the prime commissions. Farquhar had designed 1000 North Crescent Drive in Beverly Hills, the lavish William Andrews Clark Memorial Library next to Clark’s own mansion in the West Adams District, and the elite (and ever-so-restricted) California Club in downtown Los Angeles.
The Quinns gave Farquhar a $150,000 construction budget for the mansion, a huge sum in Depression-era dollars. Farquhar’s attention to every detail at the Quinn mansion can be seen in his architectural drawings. The quality of the materials selected for the mansion’s interior—fine marble and rare woods—demonstrates the clients’ concern for uncompromising quality.
On November 13, 1932, the Los Angeles Times published an article, “C. H. Quinn Will Build Huge Home: Year’s Largest Residence Costing $150,000, Seen as Permit Issued.” The article was only two paragraphs long, and it did not include an architectural rendering of the grand Italian Renaissance–style mansion, but the sheer audacity of the Quinns getting the largest residential building permit of the year during the Depression kicked up controversy.
By 1932, the boom years of the 1920s were a fond memory. Thousands of Angelenos were jobless, and many had lost their savings when local banks failed (and government insurance of depositors’ money was nonexistent). Some wealthy homebuilders, who still had money, forced construction workers and skilled artisans to work one day at full pay, and then work one day for free.
George Washington smith was one of the masters of the Spanish Colonial Revival style in Southern California. His homes were renowned for their highly restrained yet unabashedly romantic look and feel, characterized by the effective use of polychrome Spanish and Tunisian tiles; hand-forged, wrought-iron window grilles; and heavy, wood-beamed ceilings decorated with colorful stenciling.
Yet Smith’s houses also offered their owners something more extraordinary. Unlike many of his architectural contemporaries in the 1920s, Smith strove for simplicity and purity of design, a distillation of southern Spain’s Andalusian style to its true essence. Smith’s interpretation can be seen in the informal arrangement of comfortably scaled rooms; the skillful rendering of simple materials such as whitewashed stucco, red clay tile, and hand-hewn wood; and the views from nearly every room into intimate patios and terraces.
Smith was among that era’s architectural connoisseurs, and his residences were also coveted because of what they didn’t feature: the extensive use of applied Spanish ornament, which often verged on kitsch in the hands of lesser architects or builders.
Smith’s talent was immediately recognized upon the 1918 completion of his first residence: the Spanish-style home that he designed for himself and his wife, Mary Catherine, on Middle Road in highly desirable Montecito, adjacent to Santa Barbara. “The house for George Washington Smith,” enthused an April 1920 Architectural Forum article on California homes, “speaks so eloquently of picturesqueness that it is . . . the germ of hope for future California architecture.”
Like the work of other great architects, Smith’s houses are relatively rare. When he started his practice in 1918 at age forty-two—he had previously been a painter—he did not set out to create a large firm that would mass-produce commission after commission. He strove for true quality, and he enjoyed getting to know his clients so he could design just the right house for their taste and lifestyle. Smith’s residences are rarer still, because he only practiced for twelve years. He died in 1930 at age fifty-four.
Most of Smith’s residences have always been prized in Santa Barbara and Montecito. The wealthy residents of those cities admired Smith’s own home, and they commissioned dozens of homes by great architects in the booming 1920s.
Harold Lloyd was one-third of the American silent-movie era’s famed Comedy Triumvirate, the other two-thirds were Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Lloyd played the fumbling but earnest and charming hero, and his on-screen trademark was his horn-rimmed glasses - which were without lenses, to prevent reflections from the studio lights. Without those glasses, Lloyd was virtually unrecognizable to his fans when he walked down a street, went into a store, or attended the theater.
Lloyd earned millions of dollars producing and starring in Grandma’s Boy (1922), Safety Last! (1923), Girl Shy (1924), The Freshman (1925), and Speedy (1928), among many others. Probably his most unforgettable scene - the image still appears in modern media, from posters to television commercials—was from Safety Last!, in which he dangled desperately from the hand of a giant clock high above a street in downtown Los Angeles.
As befitted one of Hollywood’s greatest stars—he earned more money in the 1920s than Chaplin or Keaton—the hard-working and always-methodical Lloyd was determined to construct one of Los Angeles’s greatest estates as a testament to his popularity and wealth. Lloyd more than achieved that goal. Located on the west side of Beverly Hills’ fashionable Benedict Canyon, his fifteen-acre Greenacres estate outdid - actually overwhelmed - the homes of other stars, including Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Mary Pickford’s much-promoted Pickfair, Chaplin’s twenty-room Summit Drive mansion, and Rudolph Valentino’s hilltop Falcon Lair by virtue of its size, grandeur, and architectural sophistication.
Indeed, Greenacres was the most expensive, most impressive Hollywood star’s home in the 1920s. Or ever. Moreover, Lloyd—unlike so many silent-movie stars—remained rich throughout his life. He didn’t lose Greenacres to the Depression or a failing career.
He lived there for the rest of his life, pursuing his many post–movie career interests,
and keeping the estate intact. In his later years, Lloyd had one final goal for his beloved estate. In his will, he bequeathed Greenacres—including his personal possessions, film library, and vintage automobiles—to the “benefit of the public at large.” The Harold Lloyd Foundation was instructed to open Greenacres as a museum.
Through this bequest, Lloyd hoped to live on in the nation’s memory and give the public a chance to step back in time to a long-gone era of silent movies, lavish living, and Hollywood splendor when they visited his estate, which was the greatest, and least altered, silent star’s home. Tragically, this was the one time Lloyd did not get his way. Like so many of Hollywood’s early stars who struck it rich, Lloyd had modest origins. He was born in Burchard, Nebraska, in 1893. His mother, a frustrated actress, gave Lloyd an early love of the theater and acting. He was also devoted to studying magic. Though he claimed a middle-class upbringing, Lloyd’s family always lived on the edge. His father could never succeed at any job or business, save that of shoe sales clerk, so his family moved a great deal. After his parents divorced, Lloyd moved with his father to San Diego in 1912.
Clinging to the theater actor’s disdain of the fledgling movie industry, which at that time was cranking out very rough ten-minute one-reelers and twenty-minute two-reelers, young Lloyd tried to stick to the theater, until several weeks of living on nothing but doughnuts and coffee made him ready to accept any job, even in the movies.
In the winter of 1912–13, he appeared in his first film. He was an extra, cast as an Indian in The Old Monk’s Tale being filmed by Thomas Edison’s pioneering movie company in San Diego. His pay? Three dollars a day. Lloyd moved to Los Angeles and quickly became an extra at studios such as Universal and Keystone. By 1915, he was making short comedies with Hal Roach, a former extra turned small-time producer. Lloyd starred in dozens of comedy shorts as a character named Lonesome Luke, who had a small, Chaplinesque mustache. (Lloyd later admitted that Chaplin was his inspiration for Lonesome Luke.)
By 1918, Lloyd had tired of Lonesome Luke—as had the public. He introduced his far more popular “Glasses” character in the one-reeler Over the Fence (1917) and never looked back. His character’s charm and determined pursuit of success despite all obstacles appealed greatly to audiences. His gags, which he performed himself, became wilder and more intricate. By the summer of 1919, only Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle were more popular than Harold Lloyd.
Then, while posing for publicity photos with a prop bomb, disaster struck. “I put a cigarette in my mouth,” recalled Lloyd, “struck a sassy attitude and held the bomb in my right hand, the fuse to the cigarette. . . . As the fuse grew shorter and shorter, I raised the bomb nearer and nearer to my face, until, the fuse all but gone; I dropped the hand and was saying that we must insert a new fuse, when the thing exploded.”
Lloyd lost his right thumb and index finger. He wore a prosthetic for the rest of his life. But this serious injury to a very athletic comedian didn’t stop Lloyd. Just a few months after the accident, Lloyd had a new contract, was earning $500 a week and 50 percent of the profits from his films, and released his first two-reeler starring his “Glasses” character, Bumping into Broadway (1919). He continued to do his own stunts in the dozens of two-reelers that made him one of the most famous of all Hollywood stars.
In 1921, Lloyd was earning $1,000 a week and 80 percent of the film profits, he had full control over his movies, and he made his first feature-length film, A Sailor-Made Man. In 1922, he formed his own production company, Harold Lloyd Corporation, and in 1923 he left Hal Roach Productions for good. He also got married in 1923. And, unlike Chaplin and Keaton, he stayed married for more than forty years.
Back in 1919, seventeen-year-old Mildred Davis had been hired to replace Bebe Daniels as Harold Lloyd’s leading lady. She soon took over Miss Daniels’s former real-life role as Lloyd’s love interest as well. The depth of Lloyd’s “interest,” however, was questionable. He was raised by a domineering, even emasculating, mother, and Lloyd’s ideal woman, seen in the films that he made with Mildred, was sweet, demure, soft, and vulnerable. A woman who was assertive, ambitious, and strong was anathema to him. “Harold always liked his girls to disappear into the wallpaper,” said his friend Harvey Parry.
Ever cautious, Lloyd had studied Mildred at work and in private for four years, and she seemed to possess the qualities that he found desirable in a woman. She was attractive, and an adequate actress. She was also leaving for another job. “I married Mid [Mildred] because I found she was about to leave me to do pictures for somebody else, and I figured that was the only way to keep her around,” Lloyd told one interviewer after another.
His marriage to Mildred Davis on February 10, 1923, did indeed begin primarily as a marriage of convenience. He wanted to keep her in his films, and he wanted her around in his personal life to look after him. The marriage was certainly convenient for Mildred. She became the wife of a major star who, at the time, was more popular than Chaplin. Lloyd was attractive, rich, a brilliant filmmaker, and committed to taking good care of her. They had a ten-day honeymoon in San Diego, then returned to Los Angeles and went back to work. (Ironically, within a year, Lloyd insisted that Mildred give up her film career. A wife’s place, after all, was in the home.) The bachelor quarters in the house Lloyd had shared with his father, “Foxy” Lloyd, at 369 South Hoover Street, wasn’t the place for a newlywed couple to live, so Lloyd gave it to his father. (He was already buying his mother a series
of ever-larger Los Angeles homes.)
Lloyd moved his bride to the newly developing Windsor Square district and a rented, fully furnished home—complete with a large art collection—on a corner lot at 502 South Irving Street, which the Los Angeles Times called “a pile of cream-toned grandeur.” He then bought this house for $125,000 in April 1923.
Like every other major star in Hollywood, Lloyd milked his home life for the publicity that helped keep his millions of fans coming to his movies and made him both rich and famous. His new home got plenty of press coverage. “The house has ten rooms,” reported the Los Angeles Times. “No period or bizarre effects. The dining-room is most imposing, due to the marvelous silver. . . . Breakfast and luncheon are eaten in the chummy breakfast-room, done in pale green, which opens to the back court wherein stands the famous Cappi de Meate marble vase—it’s worth $4000 and is a part of the valuable collection of paintings, prints and statuary that Lloyd bought from a curio connoisseur.
Mildred’s room is in rose with hand-painted ivory furniture. . . . On the floor, a white rug, which Pat, her tiny Boston bull pup, persists in chewing up. Harold’s room is in green and gold, with mahogany furniture, very sedate and plain.” This beautiful Windsor Square mansion, however, was nothing more than temporary quarters for the Lloyds. In May 1923, Harold Lloyd bought eleven acres in Benedict Canyon for approximately $100,000. He subsequently bought the four southernmost acres of the Dias Dorados property from Ellen Ince, widow of Thomas H. Ince, for which he paid $39,000.
Now, Lloyd owned fifteen acres of land in the heart of largely vacant but increasingly fashionable Benedict Canyon. Four of those acres ran along 1,400 feet of dusty and unpaved Benedict Canyon Drive. Two steep (and difficult to use) acres rose up to a ten-acre hilltop - the pedestal waiting for its mansion. The property was next door to Dias Dorados and to George and Gertrude Lewis’ Hill Grove estate and it was directly across the canyon from famed estates such as Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford’s Pickfair.
Lloyd was about to begin the greatest production Hollywood had ever seen. In the spring of 1925, he made plans to start building his Beverly Hills estate. First, he would grade the site. Next, he would complete the gardens, to give the trees and shrubs a year or two of growth. Then he would build the mansion. Around the same time, Lloyd met with thirty-two-year-old landscape architect A. E. Hanson. The two men walked Lloyd’s rugged, largely barren property. A wagon trail—a remnant from Benedict Canyon’s ranching days—crossed the heavily eroded hilltop where Lloyd wanted to construct his mansion. A few dead cypress trees stood like eerie sentinels on the bleak terrain. Down the hill along Benedict Canyon Drive, Hanson recalled, “ran a dry wash with a meandering channel. Everything was overgrown by weeds and shrubs.” On this “God-forsaken piece of land” which was covered with poison oak and nettles, Lloyd asked, “Do you suppose I could have a golf course here?” “I was stunned, it looked impossible,” Hanson recalled. “But nothing seemed beyond me that day, and I blithely said, ‘I don’t see why not!’”
The following afternoon, Hanson again met Lloyd at the “God-forsaken” property, took out an envelope on which he and golf course engineer and contractor Billy Bell had sketched out an initial plan only a few hours earlier, and showed it to Lloyd. The course had just nine holes, but golfers could play a full round by doubling back and forth. (Later, Lloyd and neighbor Jack Warner would occasionally combine their respective golf courses to create an eighteen-hole course for guests.) This would not be “a toy course,” Hanson assured Lloyd. The nine holes would provide “a fine test of golf, and the best of the pros and amateurs would enjoy playing it.” That promise sold Lloyd. He asked Hanson to design the golf course. A week later, Hanson showed Lloyd the initial plan, which included two lakes connected by a stream that was crossed by a stone bridge, an old mill that served as a clubhouse, and an 800-foot-long canoe pond that doubled as the water hazard for the golf course. “You’re my Landscape Architect!” Lloyd exclaimed, giving Hanson the job for the entire estate. “When can we go to work?”
There was only one answer: “Tomorrow,” Hanson declared.
First, however, Lloyd needed to hire an architect, because the size, style, and location of the mansion on the hilltop would influence the layout and design of the surrounding gardens.
Hanson recommended Sumner Spaulding, an architect who did not seek to impose any particular style on his clients, but instead provided various architectural options from which they could choose.
By August 1925, Spaulding, Hanson, and engineer L. McLane Tate, who had been assistant engineer of the recently opened Bel-Air district, had begun work at the estate. Harold and Mildred Lloyd had decided on an Italian Renaissance–style mansion, similar to the grand palace of Cardinal Ferdinando de’ Medici in Rome known as the Villa Medici. Lloyd’s publicity machine swung into high gear. Newspapers and fan magazines published articles such as “Lloyd Will Have Regal Hill Estate,” “Actor to Spend Million for Home and Features on Fifteen-Acre Site,” “Gorgeous Fairyland Being Created . . . for Harold Lloyd Home,” and “Beverly Hills Estate Will be Modern Day Eden.”
Early in 1926, the construction, landscaping, and furnishing budget had ballooned to $2 million, twice the original estimate. Some of the work was swiftly completed. Lloyd and his friends were already playing golf on his private course by early 1926. Lloyd even invited pros and amateurs from the Los Angeles Open Tournament—and a few Hollywood friends such as Douglas Fairbanks Sr.—for a barbecue and golf game.
By mid-1926, grading of the upper ten acres, the site of the mansion and its gardens, was well underway. That summer, however, construction of the estate came almost completely to a halt. Lloyd had abruptly changed his mind. Thinking the Villa Medici–inspired mansion would look too pretentious, he told Spaulding instead to design a more informal Tuscan villa similar to Villa Gamberaia outside Florence. Stress and tempers soared over the next several months. After one meeting at the architect’s office, Lloyd turned to Hanson and said, “The only thing to do is to hit Spaulding on the head with a baseball bat, take the drawings away from him, and build the damn thing!”
By mid-1927, however, Lloyd and Spaulding had resolved their differences and construction on the 36,000-square-foot Villa Gamberaia–inspired mansion - with its forty-four rooms—got underway at once. Work on most of the gardens had to cease, so that Spaulding’s crews could construct the house and service buildings without interference, and without risk of damaging the formal landscaping. The first buildings to be completed at the estate, other than the golf course’s sandstone clubhouse and water mill, were for daughter Gloria’s Play Yard, which had a four-room, child-sized, thatched-roof cottage and miniature barn, so that she could play while her parents inspected the rest of the construction. When work resumed on the twelve different gardens in April 1928, Hanson visited the estate three times a week. So that Lloyd wouldn’t have to wait for the grounds to have a finished look, Hanson bought hundreds of mature trees at local nurseries. “My theory of design,” Hanson stated, “was and is that every garden should have a starting point and a terminal.” He was particularly proud of his landscape solution for the steep hundredfoot hillside above Benedict Canyon Drive that separated the knoll, where the mansion was being built, and the golf course. He designed a stepped cascade lined on each side by Italian cypresses. The cascade started at a loggia near Lloyd’s library in the mansion and ran down the gently sloping lawn eastward toward the cliff. At the bottom of the cascade, the water emptied into a decorative basin in front of the highly ornamental Villa Medici fountain, which stood at the edge of the steep hillside and marked the end (the “terminal”) of that garden vista. The water disappeared from the cascade’s decorative basin into a drain, only to reemerge - very dramatically at the top of the waterfall and empty into the 800-foot-long canoe pond.
Unlike most of that era’s movie stars, including Chaplin, Fairbanks, and Pickford, Lloyd would not stoop to purchasing furniture sets from one of the better Los Angeles department stores to furnish the interior of his Tuscan villa. Instead, Lloyd and his interior designers ordered custom-made oriental carpets, silk drapes, and furniture for the mansion. Lloyd also bought numerous antiques during his visits to New York. One refectory table in the living room had a noticeable scratch on its otherwise- pristine surface. When socialite Evalyn Walsh McLean, who owned the famous forty-five-karat Hope Diamond, had visited the Lloyds, they had naturally asked to see the legendary gem, and she had dramatically tossed it on the table, scratching its surface.
Because Lloyd liked to tell this story to guests, he never fixed the scratch. The rest of the house and grounds, however, were immaculate and beautiful. The Lloyds formally moved onto the estate in August 1929. Their three-day-long housewarming party was the talk of the town. A temporary dance floor was built on the lawn near the mansion. Tables of food and drink were continually restocked. A series of bands played nonstop from Friday night until Monday morning.
The Lloyds’ guests had entered the estate through a set of gates on Benedict Canyon Drive, which opened onto a long, palm-lined driveway that crossed over a sandstone bridge spanning the canoe pond. The driveway wound up the hill, past the seven-car garage and the servants’ quarters, and finally ended at a courtyard, which had a large Italian fountain in the center and a grand staircase that led to an arcade and finally the front door of the house. The real joy of the mansion—aside from its grand style, materials, and craftsmanship—was its very Tuscan, very Southern California indoor/outdoor layout. The house was arranged around a central courtyard. Every important room opened onto a covered arcade or outdoor terrace. Guests walked through the front door into an entrance hall with a sixteen foot-high ceiling and a dramatic circular oak staircase. The sunken living room had a gold-leaf coffered ceiling, fine wood paneling, a stone fireplace, and a forty rank pipe organ. The formal dining could seat twenty-four guests at dinner. Because both the City of Beverly Hills and Los Angeles municipal limits ran through the mansion—indeed, right through the middle of the dining room—Lloyd joked about a new way of seating guests “above or below the salt.” He could put favored guests closer to his end of the table in exalted Beverly Hills and lesser guests in hum-drum Los Angeles.
The mansion’s first floor included a music room, library, a sunroom with walls painted to look as though they were covered with vines, and a large service area including kitchen and pantries. An oak-paneled elevator ascended to the ten bedrooms on the second floor. Running such a vast estate required more than thirty servants: a butler, several maids, a head cook and kitchen staff, a valet for Harold, a lady’s maid for Mildred, and nannies for the children. An operator managed the estate’s own telephone system at a switchboard off the kitchen. The Lloyds also had several chauffeurs—Mildred never learned how to drive—several handymen, guards for the gatehouse, and eighteen gardeners to tend the gardens, golf course, Olympic-sized swimming pool, and handball and tennis courts.
Ever the perfectionist, Lloyd had spent five years and $2 million planning, constructing, and furnishing his estate, and he got exactly what he wanted. “Only forty-four rooms,” Lloyd often quipped to guests, “but it’s still home to Mildred and me.”
When the Lloyds moved onto their palatial estate—it would not be named Greenacres until 1936—they had one child: five-year-old Gloria. They adopted a second daughter in 1929, a four-year-old whom they renamed Marjorie Elizabeth (she was always called Peggy), to give their lonely daughter a companion. In February 1931, Mildred gave birth to Harold Jr. At first, Greenacres was the scene of a continual round of parties for both the adults and the children. Little Shirley Temple was Gloria’s friend and a frequent guest. Lloyd hosted golf, tennis, and handball tournaments. Mildred gave teas for her friends. But a cloud hung over Greenacres: talkies had triumphed over silent films. And Lloyd’s talkies were both critical and box office failures. He always said that he never meant to retire from moviemaking, he was just waiting for the right script to come along. It never came.
Lloyd retired permanently to Greenacres. He devoted himself to his three children, becoming both the perfect playmate and the strict Victorian father, the bane of his teenage daughters’ (and their boyfriends’) lives. He loved and accepted his gay son, Harold Jr., who was known by the family as “Dukey.”
In the 1950s and 1960s, Harold and Mildred raised Gloria’s daughter, their granddaughter, Suzanne, while Gloria, who was divorced and in poor health, traveled in Europe. Lloyd remained passionate about movies, sometimes driving madly around town to see two or three new feature films in a single night. He also befriended and encouraged several up-and-coming young actors, including Robert Wagner, Jack Lemmon, and Debbie Reynolds. Lloyd was also a deeply committed Shriner, becoming the Imperial Potentate of the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, the highest position in the Shriners, in 1949. Over three decades, he personally helped to administer nineteen children’s hospitals, which he considered one of his greatest achievements.
Sadly, he let one of his other great achievements, Greenacres, slowly decay. Curtains, rugs, and furniture became aged and tattered but were not replaced. Woodwork, stonework, and ironwork were not cared for. As a teenager in the 1960s, Suzanne helped bring Greenacres back to life. She brought her friends home to enjoy the many pleasures of the estate—swimming pool, tennis courts, canoe pond, gardens—and to meet her grandfather. One of these friends, Richard Correll, would play a critical role in helping to preserve and restore all of Lloyd’s feature films, and many two-reelers, in the 1960s. Harold Lloyd might have slipped into obscurity, but with the publication of James Agee’s essay, “Comedy’s Greatest Era,” in Life magazine in 1949, public interest in the silent-film era began to grow again. In 1962, Lloyd created a compilation of his films, Harold Lloyd’s World of Comedy, which debuted at the Cannes Film Festival to great acclaim and went on to have successful bookings around the world.
In 1969, Kevin Brownlow’s book about silent movies, The Parade’s Gone By, generated even greater interest in Harold Lloyd and his films. He was famous again. Mildred, who had struggled with bouts of alcoholism for more than twenty years, died in 1969 from heart failure at the age of sixty-eight. In 1971, Harold Lloyd died from cancer at Greenacres at the age of seventy-seven. Nearly one thousand people attended his funeral. His $6.5 million fortune was divided primarily among his three children, granddaughter Suzanne, and his other two grandchildren. (Dukey, an alcoholic like his mother, died a few months after his father.) The will also stipulated that the Harold Lloyd Foundation would operate Greenacres as a museum. Unfortunately, Lloyd had left no money to fund his museum, and ticket sales and income from occasional television location shoots couldn’t keep it going. After just one year, despite its public popularity, the museum was forced to close.
Lloyds’s worst nightmare became reality. In July 1975, Greenacres was
auctioned off to a developer for just $1.6 million. Thousands of people had showed up so they could visit the estate one last time. The following year, the new owner’s bulldozers arrived at Greenacres. The gates on Benedict Canyon Drive were removed. A wide street replaced the elegant driveway. The golf course and canoe pond along Benedict Canyon and most of the gardens higher up the hill (including the elegant cascade and dramatic waterfall that dropped into the estate's lower garden along Benedict Canyon Drive) were ripped out, and the land was subdivided into fifteen building lots.
Lloyd’s beloved mansion—and five surrounding acres—were put up for sale. While the mansion sat empty and unguarded, curiosity seekers and vandals stripped custom-made hardware from the doors. To this day, one of the mansion’s most intriguing yet little-known features still survives. Lloyd loved to entertain his friends not only at his estate’s golf course and tennis court but also in his private den, reached via a celebrity photograph–lined tunnel that led from the mansion, under the front lawn, to a two-story room overlooking Benedict Canyon. Lloyd’s buddies, who lived in Benedict Canyon, knew the secret signal: If smoke appeared from the four-cornered lions’ mouths at the top of the column on the front lawn, that was their invitation to come for cards, billiards, and drinks at this most exclusive of gentlemen’s clubs. If the walls of Lloyd’s private den could talk, think of the stories that they could tell.
When Buster Keaton showed guests around his grand Spanish-style mansion on a three and one half-acre estate a block behind the Beverly Hills Hotel, he sometimes joked, “I took a lot of pratfalls to build that dump.”
The twenty-room mansion was hardly a dump; it was one of the finest homes of the 1920s film stars. But Keaton wasn’t kidding about taking a lot of pratfalls. Despite his on-screen brilliance, Keaton’s personal life and his film career were filled with hard times and sorrows.
Joseph Hallie Keaton and his wife Myra—who performed a medicine show and vaudeville act of acrobatics, comedy, and music—were playing in Piqua, Kansas, when first child Joseph Frank Keaton was born on October 4, 1895. He appeared onstage with his parents the next day. When the three-year-old took a tremendous tumble down a flight of stairs and got up unharmed, famed magician and escape artist Harry Houdini, a friend and the child’s godfather, said “What a buster your kid took!” (The word buster meant a dangerous fall.)
That’s how Buster Keaton got his name, and the world got the third brilliant member of its silent-screen Comedic Triumvirate: Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton.
By the time he was five, Buster was formally added to the family act and instantly made “The Three Keatons” a success. He was, in fact, the star and a skilled acrobat. His father would literally throw him across the stage, into the orchestra pit, or even into the audience, using a suitcase handle sewn into the boy’s clothes for better leverage and control.
He observed other vaudeville performers, and trained with them; he had summers off in an actors’ colony that his father helped to found in Muskegon, Michigan, and Buster learned to sing, dance (his teacher was Bill “Bojangles” Robinson), juggle, perform card tricks and magic (thanks to godfather Houdini), play the piano and the ukulele, and write gags and parodies.
In 1917, Keaton was twenty-one, and he moved from Los Angeles to New York, where he was immediately signed to appear in the Schubert Brothers’ “The Passing Show of 1917.”
Fate intervened. Ten days before rehearsals were scheduled to begin, Keaton met Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who would become both his movie mentor and close friend. Arbuckle was working on Manhattan’s East Side at the Talmadge Studios, under contract to producer Joseph M. Schenck, who was married to movie star Norma Talmadge. Arbuckle asked Keaton if he’d like to appear in a scene of The Butcher Boy (1917), which he was filming, Keaton said yes, and the scene was shot in a single take.
The next day, producer Schenck hired Keaton at $40 per week to work as a costar and gag man with Arbuckle. The two comedians were an instant hit with audiences. In May 1921, Keaton made one of the biggest mistakes of his life: He married actress Natalie Talmadge, second of the three Talmadge sisters and sister-in-law to Joseph Schenck.
During the first three years of marriage, Natalie bore two sons. Then, at the urging of (and backed by) her iron-willed mother, Peg, and her movie starsisters, Norma and Constance, Natalie refused Keaton any further conjugal rights and insisted on separate bedrooms.
He was twenty-nine.
Keaton, in turn, informed his wife that he would accept her decision, but would have affairs outside the marriage. He kept his word. Natalie had him followed by private detectives.
Keaton kept making movies. In the early to mid-1920s, he made more than a dozen shorts and several feature films. He always said that he just went for the laugh, but Keaton did much more. He put realism, black comedy, satire, wry wit, astounding physical acrobatics, and amazing gags into his movies, creating layers of humor and emotion that engaged the minds and hearts of the audience.
While many gags were carefully thought out and planned, Keaton’s genius often came from spontaneous creativity and improvisation. He hated being confined by scripts.In the midst of this creativity, Keaton built—and partly designed—one of the most magnificent homes in Beverly Hills. Thanks to Natalie.
Natalie Talmadge Keaton was driven by three needs: To keep up with and even surpass her more famous sisters, to meet what she considered the public’s expectations of her as a fashion icon (to be photographed in the same outfit twice was inconceivable), and to exhibit the lifestyle she thought a Hollywood star (and his wife) deserved.
Natalie reportedly spent $900 per week on clothes, and she pushed Keaton to buy or lease ever larger and more expensive homes in fashionable Los Angeles neighborhoods like Hancock Park to better reflect his (and her) exalted status.
In 1924, Keaton secretly bought a lot in Beverly Hills. He constructed a Mission-style mansion and furnished it as a surprise for Natalie. He thought she’d be wild with excitement. As always, she disappointed him. When he showed her the house for the first time, she dismissed it out of hand as being much too small. It had no servants’ quarters.
Heartbroken, Keaton sold the house to Berenice Mannix, the wife of MGM vice president Eddie Mannix, who loved the home. In December 1924, Keaton purchased a three and one half-acre property on a hillock behind the Beverly Hills Hotel with an entrance on Hartford Way. Cowboy star Tom Mix lived next door. Charlie Chaplin, Rudolph Valentino, and Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Mary Pickford were neighbors.
Although forgotten now, Gene Verge is listed as the architect; it was Keaton who planned large parts of the house and grounds. (He even designed his own bedroom furniture.) Verge assisted him, along with Keaton’s special-effects man, Fred “Gabe” Gabouri. While primarily Italian Renaissance in style, the white house with its many windows and red-tile roof was an eclectic mix of Mission,Spanish, Italian, and Moorish styles. The house had a central entrance with two major wings extending off at gentle angles to the east and the west. The front door stood beneath a narrow, carved-stone second-floor balcony, and it was surrounded by beautiful white Italian Renaissance carved stonework The arched glass, wrought-iron, and mahogany front door opened into a large, sunlit vestibule with high ceilings, a checkerboard terrazzo tile floor of dusty reds and tans, and a small white Italian fountain with flowers at the base.
On the west side of the vestibule and up a few steps through a broad, arched entry was a living room that opened onto an open-air loggia overlooking the grounds. The central feature of the living room was a spectacular Italian Renaissance carved-stone fireplace that was nearly five feet wide. In the west wing off the living room was the Play Room, which had a pool table and built-in cabinets for the pool cues, card tables, a record player, and a hidden bar. (Many 1920s mansions had such a feature because of Prohibition.)
“We used to have weekend poker parties where a man would win or lose $50,000 in an evening and either way didn’t worry about it,” Keaton recalled years later. “He could always make another picture.”
The Play Room could also be converted quickly into a movie theater—it had a projector and a rollout movie screen—where Keaton could show movies to friends and family and also work on his own in-progress films. On the east side of the vestibule, a few steps led up to a broad, arched
entry, beyond which was a breakfast room, conservatory, and the dining room (with its hand-painted, beamed ceiling) that opened onto another open-air loggia.
The kitchen and servants’ rooms, including the servants’ dining room, were also in the east wing.
A grand staircase rose from the entrance vestibule to a gilded gate, reportedly purchased from a Spanish palace, that granted or barred entrance to the second floor. A long, broad hallway with an intricately designed wrought-iron railing overlooked the ground floor.
Keaton’s bedroom suite took up the east wing, and it had its own entrance—very helpful when he didn’t want to be seen coming and going from rendezvous with his various mistresses.
His wife’s bedroom suite took up the larger west wing, and it included an entire room devoted to her vast wardrobe; a small, mirrored, octagonal dressing room; a pink tiled bathroom with gold-plated fixtures; and a king-sized bed on a raised platform.
Between the husband and wife wings were individual bedrooms and a bathroom for their two sons. The second floor also had a large sewing room. Keaton to swing from the staircase landing down to the first-floor living room—like Douglas Fairbanks in one of his 1920s swashbuckling movies.
The Beverly Hills Nurseries landscaped the estate. The house looked out over a huge lawn and a Roman-bath swimming pool, which had a mosaic-tiled bottom. Keaton spent $14,000 for forty-two towering palm trees that lined the driveway from Hartford Way to the house. The lushly landscaped grounds included a playhouse replica of the mansion for Keaton’s sons, a tennis court, an aviary, and kennels. The grounds even included a mechanized trout stream that Keaton
had planned and engineered himself. The stream could be turned on and off with the simple flick of a switch.
Keaton—not surprisingly—loved the estate and was justly proud of it. The mansion was featured in his Parlor, Bedroom and Bath (1931). By the late 1920s and early 1930s, Keaton’s film career was spiraling downward. His films were over budget and making little if any profit. The studios, first United Artists, then MGM, started supervising his films closely, which stifled
his creativity. Keaton was miserable, and not surprisingly. Unlike Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, Keaton had been nearly wiped out financially by the stock market crash in October 1929 and the Depression. Not only was money tight, it was stretched beyond belief. In addition to his own family, Keaton was the sole financial support of his mother, father, sister, and brother, and his brother’s family.
But Natalie continued to spend as extravagantly as ever. Keaton began drinking heavily. In 1932, Natalie divorced Keaton, charging him with “acts of cruelty” in a bitter and widely publicized court case. She took his entire fortune. She took the Italian villa. And she took their sons, legally changing their last name to Talmadge—and legally changing her eldest son’s name to James. She refused to allow Keaton to see them for the next nine years.
At the same time, MGM fired him. Keaton had to file for bankruptcy. By the mid-1930s, Keaton was sober and working again as a (usually uncredited) comedy coach, writer, and gag man. He worked on At the Circus (1939) and Go West (1940) for the Marx Brothers, on films for Red Skelton, and on musicals such as Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra’s Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949).
In 1940, Keaton married Eleanor Norris, an MGM contract dancer who was twenty-three. He was forty-five. The marriage lasted until his death in 1966. In his later years, he continued appearing in feature films. He performed a memorable bit part as one of the “waxworks” at a bridge game in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), starring Gloria Swanson. He was featured . . . as Charlie Chaplin’s straight man . . . in Limelight (1952).
Despite numerous attempts by reporters, biographers, and others to turn his life into a tragedy, Keaton never saw it that way. “I think I have had the happiest and luckiest of lives,” he said. “Maybe this is because I never expected as much as I got. . . . And when the knocks came I felt it was no surprise. I had always known life was like that, full of uppercuts for the deserving and the undeserving alike.”
And what of the Keaton estate in Beverly Hills?
Natalie Talmadge sold the property in September 1932, two months after her divorce from Keaton, to Mrs. Fanchon Simon, half of Fanchon and Marco, an MGM dance team. In July 1938, John Raymond Owens, a millionaire glass manufacturer from Milwaukee, bought the estate, paying $250,000 in cash and land.
In 1940, Barbara Hutton, the Woolworth heiress known as “Miss Moneybags” and “Poor Little Rich Girl” in the press, leased the house from Owens for a year. She was dating Cary Grant at the time. The publicity-shy couple protected their privacy by meeting at his Santa Monica beach house, or at her rented estate. It was at the estate that Grant threw dinner parties and weekly Sunday gatherings for his friends including Marlene Dietrich, David Niven, Rosalind Russell, and Merle Oberon.
When owner John Raymond Owens died at the end of World War II, his estate’s administrator put the property up for sale. And there it stayed. At that time, 1920s estates, no matter how grand or well located, had gone out of favor.
Finally, in 1948, Pamela Mason, wife of famed British actor James Mason, saw the Italian villa and fell madly in love with it. James Mason, while an admirer of Buster Keaton, was not enamored of the then-high $250,000 asking price and the money the estate would need for its upkeep. But he pushed down the asking price, way down. They bought the property in January 1949 for just $82,000.
Unfortunately, the Masons made major changes to the estate. Pamela wanted the house to be comfortable and convenient for her two children. She removed the fountain in the vestibule and replaced it with a merry-go-round. She covered the marble and oak wood floors with cork. When she started broadcasting her radio show from the house, she added acoustical tiles to the living room ceiling.
“I’ve made the house comfy,” said Pamela. “It was very beautiful. It’s no longer very beautiful, but it’s very cozy.” When Buster Keaton asked permission to show his wife, Eleanor, the
house, Pamela refused. She feared, she said, that the changes she had made to the interior would break his heart. She was probably right.
The Masons also subdivided the estate by selling off much of the property as three lots for new homes. The new cul-de-sac off Hartford Way, which provided access to the houses as well as the new entrance to estate, was named Pamela Drive in her honor.
Although Pamela Mason altered the mansion, she is the reason Buster Keaton’s home still stands today. After twenty-three years of marriage, Pamela divorced James Mason, accusing him of “habitual adultery,” in 1964. They each got about $1 million in community property. She got everything in the United States, while he kept all their property abroad. So Pamela got from the divorce settlement what she wanted most: her children and the villa. And she held onto both.
Over the years, Pamela hosted numerous glittering parties at the villa, which were attended by that era's celebrities: Elizabeth Taylor, Groucho Marx, and Vincente Minnelli, as well as rock stars who knew her college-age children. Pamela also let the house be filmed for The Godfather (1972).
Even with all the partying and moviemaking, Pamela made no substantive changes to the estate. She also didn’t maintain it. When something broke or fell into disrepair, she just closed the door and didn’t use that part of the house. When Pamela died in 1996, her daughter inherited the estate. Three years later, she sold the property to two investors who made extensive repairs to the estate.
In 2002, new owners purchased the Keaton estate, and they carried out significant additional work, reclaiming much of the original beauty that had been lost in the previous decades.