FEBRUARY 21, 2012
Illustration: Home of Will Rogers, Beverly Hills, California Postcard (detail) “THE HOUSE THAT JOKES BUILT” courtesy of Time Machine to the Twenties
EVERY WEDNESDAY EVENING in wartime Southern California — the early 1940s — local airwaves crackled with another installment of The Romance of the Ranchos. Accompanied by the strains of a Wurlitzer, a few strings, and the voices of orotund actors, the CBS radio program dramatized the early days of colonial California. Sponsored by Title Insurance and Trust Company of Los Angeles, The Romance of the Ranchos recounted how each Mexican land-grant parcel was settled and ultimately transformed into the communities that still thrive today. If the entire broadcast was a transparent shill for the purchase of title insurance, it was also a canny deployment of intellectual property: The program essentially cobbled together its weekly melodramas based on the transfer-of-ownership records the company kept on file.
Michael Gross’s Unreal Estate: Money, Ambition, and the Lust for Land in Los Angeles operates on a kindred premise: that the story of Los Angeles’s greatest estates in its finest neighborhoods lies in their titles and titleholders, in somewhat linear succession. But Gross isn’t selling us a bill of goods; he’s just asking us to enlist him as our trusted cicerone, to let him guide us through the neighborhood, even if he, admittedly, has never gained access to many of these properties. A tour most assuredly of his own design, it has plenty of melodrama and a cast of characters that, in number and complexity, is positively Dickensian. The reader must keep track of at least 50 major players and a score of Westside properties on his book’s Monopoly board.
Gross has earned a reputation as an engaging chronicler of the rich, famous, high, and mighty in books like Rogues’ Gallery, a history of the Metropolitan Museum of Art told through the biographies of its not-always-respectable directors, and 740 Park, a study of the most-lusted-after apartment building in New York and its illustrious occupants. Both are well-written and well-researched, and derive some of their impact from their organizing premises: The tales about the denizens of 740 Park — their foibles and excesses, triumphs and tragedies — all hang together because they took place under a single roof and spoke of the fervid desire to be under that roof. Rogues’ Gallery depends on its link to a revered institution. But Unreal Estate does not enjoy the structural unity of its predecessors.
It’s enticing to have an East Coast “outsider” like Gross set his sights on Los Angeles; sometimes it takes an interloper’s objectivity to refocus our lens, much like British-born Reyner Banham did when he identified the city’s four ecologies, or Roman Polanski with the filmChinatown, or Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One. But the challenge Unreal Estate poses is as daunting as Los Angeles’s own unending sprawl. Gross is gracious in his acknowledgment of Beverly Hills realtor Jeff Hyland’s The Legendary Estates of Beverly Hills, which is a lavish and encyclopedic coffee-table history of its subject. (Though “coffee table” is perhaps an unfair label: Hyland’s text is just as worthy as its images and – tipping the scales as it does at more than 12 pounds and measuring about 12 by 16 inches – could itself constitute a small table.) In Unreal Estate, Gross pays tribute to Hyland’s notable achievement, adding that he “saw an opportunity in what Hyland didn’t do: use the houses as a foundation of a social history of the estate district of Los Angeles from its earliest days to the present.”
So, picking up where Hyland leaves off, Gross narrows his focus to what local realtors call “The Platinum Triangle,” the contiguous communities of Beverly Hills, Holmby Hills, Bel Air, and Beverly Park, though this final gated community, only several decades old, is not home to any of the “greatest” estates but rather to newly sprung McMansions that have been home to the likes of Sylvester Stallone, Magic Johnson, Reba McEntire, Rod Stewart, and Mark Wahlberg. Gross laments that this new sanctum for the wealthy is essentially impenetrable, and he begins the first chapter with a droll account of his attempts to gain a vantage point of the enclave before launching into his story proper.
The writer has also taken some liberties in his use of the umbrella term “La-La Land,” which for native Angelenos like me is a very broad cognomen that can refer to the entire Southland if not the Golden State itself – any part of the landscape that wry observers can associate with lotus-eaters, dreamers, yoga instructors, past-life therapists, and reinvented transplants from the Midwest. But Gross’s La-La Land has very specific demarcations indeed, and he seems to require them in order to get his story told. His La-La Land shares boundaries with the two famous ranchos heralded by Title Insurance’s old radio program, Rancho Rodeo de las Aguas and Rancho San Jose de Buenos Ayres: the first now comprising much of Beverly Hills and the second, parts of Bel Air, Beverly Park, Holmby Hills, and Westwood. One could easily argue with this and note that other rancho lands that make up Malibu, Pacific Palisades, and Brentwood could be included in the story, but the author doesn’t annex them and stays within the accepted platinum confines.
Gross offers up a capsule history of the settlement of this triangular mecca and traces the westerly movement of Los Angeles’s well-to-do from the rather hot and dusty purlieus of its pueblo-centered downtown to the more gentle climes of the two ex-ranchos: one named literally for the “rounding up” of the waters at the mouth of El Cañon de las Aguas Frias (today’s Coldwater Canyon), the other for the “pleasant breezes” that come with its proximity to the Pacific. (It’s somehow refreshing to learn that Rodeo Drive, now famously center-stage in Beverly Hills’ paved-over business district, denotes not a cowboy extravaganza but a gathering of the waters.) In the early days this was bean-farming and sheepherding country, but that soon changed once the Los Angeles Aqueduct siphoned off water from the Sierra.
We learn of Burton Green and Max Whittier and Charles Canfield and Edward Doheny, the nineteenth-century land developers and oilmen who became Beverly Hills’ city fathers. (While Green is credited with naming Beverly Hills, Gross notes that its true derivation isn’t known.) Henry Huntington plays a part, too, as the enabling builder of Pacific Electric commuter rail lines that penetrated into the soon-to-be-exclusive suburb. Doheny looms familiar in these early tales in part because his Teapot Dome scandal-ridden bio is the inspiration for the film There Will Be Blood, and because Greystone, the house he had built for his son Ned, remains today the largest home in Beverly Hills. It was also the scene of a still-disputed murder-suicide, and is today a city park.
We’re also given Alphonzo Bell, a driven, abstemious visionary who purchased part of the old Rancho San Jose de Buenos Ayres, discovered oil there and elsewhere, and then developed the property — with a nod to his own surname — as “Bel Air.” We learn that the Mediterranean street names that characterize Bel Air were inspired by a tour of France, Spain and Tuscany that Alphonzo and his wife, Minnewa, embarked on in 1924. We learn of the Lettses and the Jansses, who bought up and developed Holmby Hills and Westwood, and who offered up the land that became UCLA, and we learn that the former home of Arthur Letts, Jr., is now the Playboy Mansion. We even learn that in these early years attempts were made (ultimately futile) to restrict residency: to keep out Jews and blacks and Mexicans and those awful Hollywood people.
And we discover that there are still plenty of Lettses, Whittiers, Bells and Dohenys around to tell their tales — Gross has assiduously tracked down many of them — as well as a slew of other estates’ former occupants, or descendants thereof, and a (very) few current occupants, too.
But most of all, we learn that the stage was set almost exactly a century ago, when all these forward-thinking individuals finished platting out the tracts that comprise the Platinum Triangle.
But what of the houses themselves: the “unreal estates” of the title? Gross opens the story by saying that it’s “about sixteen great estates in the best neighborhoods of Los Angeles.” He writes, “These trophy homes are not historic relics … all but Greystone are occupied today, and several continue to grow,” as if a historic relic is a bad thing. Perhaps that’s his ironic point, since he goes on to document how in this current milieu, the past is what those who strive to “reinvent” themselves would rather forget.
While one of the first and most famous of the Triangle’s estates came to be known as Pickfair, home of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, it has been altered, subdivided, and essentially rebuilt beyond recognition. So perhaps understandably, Pickfair isn’t among Gross’s top 16, although it figures in his narrative. (One could also argue that other estates — Jack Warner’s, Frank Niblo’s, and William Randolph Hearst’s — would qualify for inclusion, but they’re omitted.) Among Gross’s canon are Greenacres, silent-film star Harold Lloyd’s Florentine villa designed by Sumner Spaulding; Shadow Hill/Grayhall, once the opulent residence of actor George Hamilton; The Knoll, another Doheny residence and later that of oilman Marvin Davis; the Botiller mansion, later dubbed Sunset House by current owners Stewart and Lynda Resnick; the Kirkeby estate, which, much to its owners’ regret, became known as the “Beverly Hillbillies mansion”; Casa Encantada or Bellagio House, domain of hotelier Conrad Hilton; Owlwood, Florence Letts’ home, and later Sonny and Cher’s; and, of course, Greystone.
Yet as Gross’s subtitle reminds us, the story is really about “money, ambition, and the lust for land,” not necessarily the land itself, and his narrative employs each estate as a mere touchstone for spinning the yarns of its owners. He reminds me of John Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” whose goal is to traverse his upscale neighborhood pool by pool. A predictable pattern soon emerges in which Gross goes from house to house, telling story by story (some of them overlapping, some of them not) of successive owners (some of them famous, some of them not) and then returning to the house after a certain period of time and repeating the process.
One estate, Gross tells us, was bought but never occupied by old-time crooner Rudy Vallée. This is the “Pink Palace,” on the 10000 block of Sunset Boulevard, so named after its later owner Jayne Mansfield had it painted that color. But before going on to profile Mansfield, who actually lived in the home, Gross supplies us with a précis of Vallée’s career, spilling a lot of ink on his romances and infidelities. We learn more, it seems, than we could possibly need to know for the purposes of this book. It’s even more curious, then, that Gross never mentions that in his final years, after relocating to the Hollywood Hills, Vallée petitioned the city of Los Angeles to rename Pyramid Place, the street where he lived, “Rue de Vallée. ” He lost. (The Pink Palace, by the way, was demolished and absorbed into a larger compound; a trend that Gross notes is on the increase.)
Bing Crosby, who once occupied a house later razed and replaced by Aaron Spelling’s gargantuan estate, also receives the requisite mini-biography: After tracking Crosby’s career, Gross tersely states that “Bing’s film and recording careers ended … but nevertheless he remains a beloved icon.” The End. While not untrue, this seems a misleading remark about someone who even in the 1960s and 1970s ran a major television production company, owned (and pitched for) Minute Maid orange juice, and whose version of “White Christmas” still stands as the best-selling single record of all time. These are minor cavils, of course, but they illustrate a pattern on Gross’s part to either inflate or deflate the subject at hand. He’s fond of blunt, reductive characterizations and summaries, as well as disproportionate detail. Here’s a defining description of just one owner among the throng of owners of the host of properties he discusses: “Cher, born Cherilyn Sarkisian, was the daughter of a part-Cherokee maid and a hard-drinking, heroin-addicted gambler of Armenian extraction.” Well, that’s one way of putting it. Of course, Sonny doesn’t fare any better, nor do many of the others profiled here. Perhaps the most satisfying profiles are of those characters least known to us; Bernie Cornfeld and Dolly Green (daughter of Burton), for example, not household names but certainly characters with dramatic lives.
And so the parade goes by, which is how Gross characterizes his narrative as we proceed from estate to estate over time. We see the likes of other singers (Kenny Rogers and Engelbert Humperdinck, né Arnold George Dorsey), actors (Tony Curtis), business magnates (David Murdock), financiers (Cornfeld, Gary Winnick), and philanthropists (Lynda and Stewart Resnick), all of whom at one time or another resided — or currently reside — in one of the 16 great anointed estates. Playboys, mobsters, pornographers, psychics, producers, and courtesans put in their appearances, too.
It’s hard to say what this all adds up to. Most of the sketches are thoroughly researched, and on the occasions when the author is spurred to analysis, he makes some cogent if not necessarily startling observations. The houses become pawns in competitive games of one-upmanship, for example, or a means to buy oneself into society. Q.E.D. While Gross does provide descriptions of most of the homes — often in the form of a litany of their amenities and attributes — it’s difficult to conjure up a sense of what these estates actually feel like and why they have been so sought-after, let alone to tell one apart from another. Historic preservationists tell us that the significance of a house is based on “integrity,” which in turn relies on such qualities as feeling, association, workmanship, design, setting, and materials. In contrast to Hyland’s amply illustrated Legendary Estates, this book relies on words and words alone, with only a handful of grainy halftones to document some of its places and names. Those words tell many engaging stories, but they leave me bereft of a sense of place and setting. In that respect the book lives up to its promise of an unreal estate.
But even if one doesn’t possess a strong sense of what it was (or is) like to live at Greenacres or The Knoll or Owlwood, the stories that Gross tells of their owners dramatize an important point: Each estate is a palimpsest of multiple ownership. People in the Triangle come and go, talking of Michelangelo — and they come and go incessantly, it seems. The notion of a single property staying in the same family’s hands for decades, let alone centuries, is a rarity here. In the annals of popular American storytelling, perhaps the permanence and integrity of real estate is nowhere more memorable than in Gone with the Wind, whose heroine, after surviving thesturm und drang of her own melodramas, goes back to the land.
In the Platinum-Triangle-according-to-Gross, it’s almost Margaret Mitchell’s premise in reverse: the melodrama is what persists, and the real estate is as unstable as the tectonic plates it rests on or the liquefying hillsides it flanks. Newly moneyed strivers buy starter mansions, then move up to trophy estates, then out.
As Manifest Destiny’s end of the trail, California in general and Los Angeles in particular have been easy fodder for social criticism and books on real estate. One of Unreal Estate‘s epigraphs is the now vernacular observation by Frank Lloyd Wright: “Tip the world over on its side and everything loose will land in Los Angeles.” And Nathanael West and others drew a specific bead on the local architecture: the ersatz palazzos, faux Tyrolean piles, and Spanish haciendas populating the Hollywood Hills. But that inauthenticity doesn’t detract from the fascination these estates hold, and it’s only a shame that we don’t obtain a better sense of their true charms, whatever they may be. Gross offers some hopeful notes when he observes that several current estate owners — Ron Burkle, of Greenacres, and Eric Smidt, of the Knoll —have proven to be capable stewards of their demesnes, and have taken some pains to preserve the architectural integrity of their homes’ original designs.
But as Unreal Estate makes repeatedly clear, the story of Los Angeles’s great houses is a passing procession. The very utility of basic shelter has moved beyond creature comfort and sound architecture and into a realm that is self-consciously social and competitive. As Lynda Resnick, co-owner of Sunset House and a devotee of Scarlett O’Hara, has famously said of her own private Tara, “It’s not home, but it’s much.”