Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A favorite activity

Watching with great interest the post-Irene cleanup in Riverside Park. Photo: JH.
Tuesday, August 30, 2011. A memorable weekend of diverted focus and attention passed with most New Yorkers unscathed, and relieved, after the passing of Irene, the hurricane that wasn't quite but nevertheless left a lot of water and debris everywhere. Yesterday was a beautiful day in New York, waking to blue, cloudless skies, and a temperature in the low 60s reminding one of the oncoming arrival of autumn. Meanwhile Hamptonites can return to their lairs for the final week of the summer and Labor Day.
The afternoon blue.
Los Angeles. One of my favorite activities when I lived out there was giving tours of the area to friends visiting from the East. I’d usually start somewhere around Sunset Plaza and Sunset Boulevard, drive up into the hills and slowly move west up and down through the web winding, hilly streets until we got to Bel Air or sometimes Brentwood. Then I’d turn around and sometimes take Beverly Glen up to Mulholland Drive, turning east so that everyone could get a look at both sides of L.A. — the vast San Fernando Valley and the Los Angeles Basin from the top of the Santa Monica mountains, continuing on east until Laurel Canyon and then back down to Sunset and on over to Doheny Drive where I lived most of the years I was there.

I took JH, an almost first-time visitor to Los Angeles, on part of that tour. Although I altered the route greatly in order to take advantage of the Digital’s eye. 

In the early days of Los Angeles after the movie industry started, the flat land of Beverly Hills was a real estate development of houses built from the 19-teens through the 1950s, many of which were occupied by famous movie stars, directors, producers, writers and designers. We traveled first through the flats of Beverly Hills where I pointed out a couple of the sightseeing buses’ obvious points, viz., the art nouveau house on Rodeo Drive with its back alley adjunct. 
The art nouveau house on Rodeo Drive.
This house went up in the late 1980s, a renovation that became someone’s ultimate fantasy, a tour de force of mosaics, brilliant woodcarving, stucco swirls and a glassmaker’s piece de resistance.

One interesting factor in the design is that most of it is not visually accessible to passersbys, and some of its most intricate artisanship is apparent only in the back alley where people have the entrances to their garages and sanitation trucks pick up their loads.
The back alley of the art nouveau house.
From there we moved up Rodeo Drive to a house that used to belong to Carl and Estelle Reiner where they raised their then famous son Rob Reiner, the director and actor as the one-time character Meathead from “All in the Family.” 

Then we moved on over to the house where Lana Turner lived at the time her hoodlum lover Johnny Stompanato was stabbed to death in Lana’s bedroom, allegedly by Lana’s very young teen-age daughter Cheryl Crane. The story was that Crane had done it in defending her mother from the boyfriend’s physical raging. Many believed that Lana had defended herself from Stompanato quite effectively but such truths would ruin a great film career, and so ... Cheryl took the rap. Whatever the circumstances, Lana had got herself involved with the wrong kind of man and her poor daughter suffered the consequences.
The house that used to belong to Carl and Estelle Reiner.
Those were the days when the studios ruled the town and Lana’s studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, was the biggest, richest and most powerful (believe it or not, considering the studio situation today). When one of their stars had a problem, the studio took care of it. When an MGM star got in trouble that would bring in the cops, the first person to be called was Howard Strickling, the head of publicity for the studio. Mr. Strickling was the first and often the only man on the scene on more than one suicide or murder or drunken brawl. He held his post from the 1920s until the 1950s and when he died in his 86th year in 1982, he took all of his secrets with him, never once leaking anything about MGM, its executives, its employees or its stars.

Lana, as we know, survived her ordeal although not without first appearing in court on the witness stand for her big scene. Her daughter Cheryl somehow had the inner wherewithal to survive it too, growing up to be a tall and beautiful woman, very successful in the real estate business, and looking after her diminutive star of a mother to the end of her life.
The house where Lana Turner's lover was stabbed to death during a lover's quarrel.
From Lana Turner’s house we moved a few blocks over to the corner of Walden and Lomitas, just a block from Merv Griffin’s Beverly Hilton Hotel, where three quarters of a century ago a screenwriter named Irvin Willat built his Bavarian witches’ cottage. I think it was supposed to be Bavarian. Looking very much like a domicile straight out of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, this sandy colored stucco house with its sharp gables and doors and windows askew and a-kilter is one of the best examples of the uniqueness of Los Angeles architecture, by which I mean: people build their fantasies. And many times with great style and panache. 
1920's screenwriter Irvin Willat's fantasy of a Bavarian cottage in Beverly Hills.
The Great Unsolved Mystery of The Greystone Mansion Murders ...

We did not continue westward on the tour this day because I wanted to spend some time at the most fascinating (to me) house in all of Los Angeles. And that is Greystone, the Doheny mansion which sits on the hillside above Doheny Road on the eastern edge of Beverly Hills. Greystone is now a park, so named officially in 1971.

In the 1920s, 410 acres of that hillside area, which includes what is now Trousdale Estates and the adjacent Doheny Drive properties, extending westward and upwards into the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains; all of it belonged to the Dohenys, and most specifically Edward L. Doheny Jr., known as “Ned,” son of E.L. Sr., who with a partner, Charles Canfield, was the first to strike oil in the Los Angeles area in 1892, setting off the petroleum boom in Southern California. By the beginning of the 20th century, the elder Mr. Doheny was pumping enough oil to rival only one other oilman of consequence — John D. Rockefeller – with political connections and power to match.
Attorney Frank Hogan with his client E. L. Doheny. "The best client is a rich man who is scared." Mr. Doheny fit Hogan's bill.
In those early days, the Doheny family lived where all the rich of Los Angeles lived, in the southwest part of Los Angeles, around and about West Adams Boulevard, Chester Square and Lafayette Square. Sunset Boulevard around what is now Doheny Drive wasn’t much more than a dusty bridlepath (and often used as one) running through barren and hilly desert land out to the ocean.

The Dohenys’ property was known as the Doheny Ranch, a place to get away — out of town, as it were, for horseback riding and hiking and other healthy outdoor activities. Just below in what is now called West Hollywood, was a village called Sherman, populated by pointsettia fields, grown for commercial purposes.

By the early 1920s, young Ned, then in his mid-20s, with his wife Lucy and five children lived next door to the elder Dohenys in Lafayette Square and had a large and stylish house up in these hills, which they used as weekend getaways, as did several of their relatives with young families like them. 

E.L. Doheny Sr. was now one of the richest men in the world with hugely productive oil fields in the southwest and Mexico as well as the U.S. Navy’s petroleum reserves at the Elk Hills Oil Field. His wealth made him a very powerful man politically and early on in his career, he learned to use that power to ingratiate himself with, or even create, national political leaders, such as presidents. One president whose administration was profoundly affected by old man Doheny was Warren G. Harding. 

Albert Fall, the man who took the bribe at the center of the Teapot Dome Scandal.
President Harding had a Secretary of the Interior named Albert Fall who was a very close friend of the elder Mr. Doheny. In fact, Mr. Doheny once gave Mr. Fall $100,000 (about $3 million in today’s dollars) later claiming that it was a “no-interest loan” to help a friend buy some additional ranch land for himself to help him along. In return, out of gratitude of course, Secretary Fall made it possible for Doheny to secure oil drilling rights to a large deposit of oil on federally owned lands called the Elk Hills and Buena Vista Oil fields in Kern County, California. Fall also transferred control of the Teapot Dome Oil Field (called the Teapot Dome because its vastness was shaped like ... a teapot) in Wyoming to Harry F. Sinclair, another oilman and business associate and friend of Edward Doheny.

The Teapot Dome business was to become the downfall of Warren G. Harding’s administration and the greatest political scandal in American history until Watergate, which occurred about a half century later. Secretary Albert Fall was disgraced, fined (which he never paid), and went to jail. 

Doheny’s $100,000 cash bribe had been hand delivered to Secretary Fall, in a black valise, by Mr. Doheny’s son Ned, who was then in his late twenties, accompanied by his boyhood friend and then employee of the family, Hugh Plunkett. That single act — carrying that black bag and delivering it to Secretary Fall (five stacks of bills totalling $20,000 each secured with a rubber band) — was to seal the fate of both young Ned Doheny and Hugh Plunkett in a most terrible way.

However, before I go into that, I must return to the matter of Greystone, now situated on the corner of Alta Loma and Doheny Road in Beverly Hills on about 20 acres of what was part of the Doheny Ranch. Ned Doheny’s widow later sold the adjacent 400 or so acres to real estate developer Paul Trousdale in the 1950s.

In the early 1920s while all of this mischief was going on with men in high places, and after securing exclusive rights to this Elk Hills bonanza of an estimated oil reserve of 300 million barrels, Doheny Sr. decided to give his son and his wife Lucy a dream house on a plot of the Doheny ranch land.
The driveway leading to Greystone.
Greystone Mansion, built in 1928 for E.L. "Ned" Doheny, Jr.
It was a massive project, rivaled at the time only by the activities of William Randolph Hearst, who at about the same time farther up the coast at San Simeon, was building his now famous castle.

The property was transformed and planted and replanted to make way for a 46,000-square-foot stone mansion with terraces overlooking the city (which at that time was mainly bungalows and clusters of stores amidst a lot of vacant land). Hollywood was several miles down those almost remote roads. Downtown L.A. was a real hike.

The Dohenys and their designers scoured Europe for artisans and craftsmen, and for antiques and interiors. After several years and an expenditure said to be about $5 million (it would cost fifty times that today), Greystone was finished.
The western passage leading to the main entrance.
Main entry passage seen from the west.
The courtyard off of the main entrance to the house. The bank of three windows to the lower right are where the murders occurred.
Huge, regal, a kind of neo-Tudor confection, solid and substantial designed by prominent California architect Gordon Kaufman, 55 rooms on a knoll overlooking what is now Doheny Road, it was equipped with all the luxuries any young modern family could desire or need, including stables, kennels, riding trails, formal gardens, an 8-foot waterfall cascading into an artificial lake covered with waterlilies, a 60-foot swimming pool, tennis and badminton courts, greenhouses, a two-bedroom gate house, formal gardens, a gym, a screening room, a ballroom, bowling alleys. It even had its own switchboard and its own telephone system plus housing for a staff of 15.

It was the largest house in Southern California after Mr. Hearst’s castle. From its terraces looking south, young Ned Doheny could see across the basin to the hills above Culver City where the oil wells were pumping, and literally think to himself: “Someday this will be all mine.” Just like in the movies.

The house which was several years in preparation and construction was completed in the late summer of 1928. The family, Ned and Lucy Doheny, their five children and fifteen in staff, moved in that November.
Western view of the entrance to the courtyard. Courtyard fountain.
Southern view of the courtyard.
The front terrace.
His son taking possession of Greystone was a milestone in the life of E.L. Doheny, a rough and tumble oil wildcatter who worked long and hard to finally hit upon the big one that would make him rich and powerful. And now he was rich and powerful -- although in trouble. Because of Teapot Dome case which had become the subject of an investigation by Senator Thomas J. Walsh of Montana, Doheny’s son and only surviving child, his namesake, father of his grandchildren, Ned, was also in trouble. With the Feds. 

A bribe is a bribe is a bribe. And a hundred grand to a White House Cabinet member? All this, not to mention that Hugh Plunkett, the Dohenys’ retainer, the trusted confidant of young Ned — so trusted that he signed many of the checks in the building of Greystone — was also in trouble with the Feds too, for he was with his friend and employer, accompanying Ned Doheny to the Wall Street offices of Blair & Company where Ned withdrew the cash from his own securities account after which the two men hopped a train to Washington to deliver it in person to the Secretary of Interior Albert Fall.

At the time the young Dohenys — the golden couple of Los Angeles society with their elevated Eastern social and political connections — moved into Greystone, with its very real palatial splendor, with the world at their feet, so to speak, the shadow of the Teapot Dome Scandal had begun to darken their days. 
A back view of the west wing of the house. A study of artisanship, lantern and chimneys.
Detail of lamp fixtures.
View of a garage.
Congress was calling for blood. Fall was indicted, convicted and sent to jail. Harry Sinclair too. What about the Dohenys? They were next. At this point in his life old man Doheny, now a pillar of the community and an elder; one of the world’s richest men, a pious Roman Catholic as well, a great contributor to the community and most especially the Roman Catholic church in Los Angeles, was in his late 60s.

The incident had developed into a courtroom trial and a scandal. The world was about to see what would happen to the guilty in that courtroom.

But nothing went according to plan because on a Saturday night in early February 1929, only three months after the young Dohenys had moved into Greystone, about mid-evening, a very troubled Hugh Plunkett drove up to the house from his apartment in Hollywood, was let through by the gatekeeper at the big gate (still standing) on Doheny Road, and let himself into the house as he had done hundreds of times before. 

Just exactly what his movements upon entering will never be known precisely. It was later reported that he entered the bedroom of Mr. and Mrs. Doheny, very upset about something. Ned Doheny, a goodlooking man of 36, with dark hair, sharp dark eyes, a Black Irishman’s bearing and (sometimes) demeanor, in his silk dressing gown, took Plunkett to a guest bedroom in the east wing of the enormous house. 
A simple doorbell. A view of the ballroom.
The reception gallery, facing the entry stairs. Brass lantern over the entrance staircase.
What happened thereafter remains 73 years later mere speculation. The newspaper accounts went like this (generally, because the stories varied widely in the reporting).

Lucy Doheny claimed that she was sitting in the library reading magazines when she heard a gunshot. It was about 11 o’clock. Lucy Doheny claimed that she didn’t look for the source of the gunshot but instead called the family doctor who was with his wife at a theatre in Beverly Hills. Lucy was already aware that Plunketet was very disturbed and had been very disturbed about “something” and may have been fearfully alarmed already when she heard the shot.

Paged at the theatre, the Dr. Fishbaugh drove up to the house (not more than a ten minute drive from downtown Beverly Hills). There he was greeted at the imposing front door and immediately escorted by Lucy toward the wing where she claimed to have heard the gunshot.
Southern view of the east wing of the house.
A babe astride a monster of abundance: one of a series of carved stone plaques on a retainer wall along a walkway. A slate covered stone pass through on a walkway.
At that point, so went the official stories, Hugh Plunkett in a state of high anxiety came running out of the bedroom with gun in hand. On seeing the family doctor (whom he knew) and Lucy Doheny, he ran back into the room and slammed the door. Whereupon, the doctor and Lucy Doheny (later) claimed they heard another gunshot. 

When they entered the room, they found Hugh Plunkett dead on the floor in a pool of blood, and Ned Doheny also dead on the floor in a pool of blood.

This was the official story carried in the newspapers in Los Angeles the next day. 

The police were called after two a.m., almost three hours after the deaths. In the meantime, many of Lucy Doheny’s relatives had already showed up at the house. Later it was said that the bodies were moved before the police could see and photograph them, although from the crime photo, it appears they hadn’t been moved.

The official story was that the two old friends had been drinking while Ned Doheny tried to calm his friend about his “nerves.” Plunkett pulled a gun on Doheny, shot him in the head and then did nothing until Dr. Fishbaugh entered the room with Lucy Doheny, whereupon he shot himself and died instantly.
On the night of February 16, 1929, at Greystone mansion, oil heir Edward "Ned" Doheny Jr. died of a gunshot wound to the head and his friend and assistant Hugh Plunkett also died of a gunshot wound to the back of the head in the family's new house. Foreground, body of Doheny, and across the room on the other side of the doorway, was the body of his friend Hugh Plunkett. It was always believed that Plunkett shot Doheny and then turned the gun on himself. In today's Diary, that belief is found to be false.
The new D.A. Burton Fitts immediately opened an investigation of the death. Dr Fishbaugh, Mrs. Doheny and all members of the staff who were present had the same story. The D.A. was suspicious because one of its rookie investigators had, on inspecting the murder scene and then the bodies in the morgue, determined that Ned Doheny was shot in the head by a Colt .45 at close range (there were powder burns around the entrance of the bullet) but Plunkett’s fatal wound (also in the head) had no powder burns indicated that he hadn’t shot himself. The gun which lay by Plunkett's body had been wiped clean of fingerprints.

Two days later the local D.A.’s office closed an inquest on the deaths and it was judged that Hugh Plunkett shot Ned Doheny, his boyhood friend, and then turned the gun on himself. About a half hour later, of course, if the official story is to be believed.

Ned Doheny was buried with pomp and circumstance. His stepmother (his mother, a half-Cherokee, had committed suicide many years before) Estelle Doheny, was one of the biggest contributors to the Roman Catholic church in Los Angeles (she later owned the Gutenberg Codex which was purchased after her death by Bill Gates). However, Ned, strangely, was not buried in a Catholic cemetery but instead at Forest Lawn in Glendale. The reason for this has never been explained, although it could be deduced that his death was not necessarily by murder but by his own hand — a mortal sin in the eyes of the Church.

15 East 84 Street, which was rented by Ned Doheny during the 1920s where he and Plunkett stayed on his frequent "business" trips to New York.
Hugh Plunkett was buried in the same cemetery just a few yards from his friend Ned. From all this arose the story that the two men were lovers and that the quarrel which had ensued that night had to do with their relationship. The two men often traveled together and Ned Doheny often took business trips to New York where he kept a rented townhouse on 15 East 84th Street just off Fifth Avenue. (Doheny loved theatre and the Broadway scene which in the 1920s was the center of the city’s glitter and glamour, and speakeasies. Both men, like many of their contemporaries, were big drinkers.)

The stories about the men’s relationship took hold and it eventually became the explanation for the murder. A lover’s quarrel, an upset Plunkett – perhaps he was being rejected after all their years together, a confrontation, a gunshot, a suicide and story over. Nothing was ever written about the fact that Hugh Plunkett was, with Ned Doheny, a participant in the bribery of Albert Fall. Nor was it ever revealed until recently until author Laton McCartney’s The Teapot Dome Scandal (Random House, 2008) that: Doheny had to have been sitting in a chair -- overturned when he collapsed from the gunshot, indicating that if Plunkett had shot him he would have had to be kneeling next to him or shooting from the hip; and Plunkett, whose body was just outside the door to the room was found facedown with a burned cigarette still in his left hand. The investigator later concluded that Doheny may have shot Plunkett (who was trying to run from the room to escape him), at a short distance, and then turned the gun on himself.

None of this was made public, although Raymond Chandler who knew the case, knew the Doheny family and knew the investigator, a young man named White, wrote about such a murder situation in his third novel, The High Window. Nor was it recognized at the time that both men stood to go on trial as accomplices in the delivering of the bribe to Secretary Fall, or that Plunkett, by being present was a material witness whose testimony could send both Dohenys to jail.
A view of the rooftop of the east wing.
Instead it was assumed that the mystery of the men’s deaths had to do with their sexual inclinations. On the face of it, the idea that two men in their thirties who had been friends since their teenage years were having a sexual relationship is not impossible but absurd considering the almost two decades that they had been close friends and associates. The idea that Hugh Plunkett might have been terrified and enraged that he was going to be “hung out to dry” (go to jail) in the case of delivering the bribe money to Secretary Fall, is another matter entirely and a far more credible reason for his being upset.

However, none of that came to the surface. The two men were buried and everyone’s life went on. The sympathy for the father of the dead man, Ned Doheny, was so great that the Congressional investigation was called off. The trial of Albert Fall led to his conviction and jailing. For Edward L. Doheny Sr., it led to his acquittal after an hour of deliberations. Attorney Hogan had summed it up before the jury: “Do you believe this man is a crook? If he’s a crook, then convict him. But can you believe that his mind was so corrupt that he conceived bribery and that he had fallen so low that he selected his own son, whom a few years before he had given to the navy” (Ned Doheny served briefly in the navy at the end of World War I), “as the instrument of his bribery.”

An allée north of the house.
The fountain on the northern lawn.
Before E.L. Doheny returned to California after his trial, he had a Rolls Royce delivered to attorney Hogan’s house, It was also said he presented him with an additional million dollars.

Lucy Doheny, three years later, married a man named Leigh Batson, a stockbroker whom she and her late husband had known for some time. E.L. Doheny Sr. died — of a broken heart — it was written in the papers, in 1935 at age 78. 

The Batsons lived at Greystone for the next 26 years, until 1955 when Mrs. Doheny Batson decided it was too big. She gave the property to the city of Beverly Hills and built a new “smaller” house for herself on the adjoining property.  Equipped with 22 bathrooms, the newer house, called “The Knoll” was later sold to film producer Dino di Laurentiis, who sold it to singer Kenny Rogers, who in turn sold it to Barbara and Marvin Davis. With the occupation by the Davises, “The Knoll” was the scene of some of the greatest parties in America in the 1980s and 1990s.

Lucy Smith Doheny Batson lived to be a hundred. At the end of her life, she moved to a large and luxurious condo on the Wilshire Corridor. A very formidable character, it was said that even her grandchildren were afraid to ask her “what happened” in the big house on that fateful night in February 1929.

At the very end of her life, a centenarian, Mrs. Batson would arise each day, get herself dressed up for a luncheon engagement, place herself in a wingback chair in her livingroom, her handbag at her side, and sit. And wait.

Her grandchildren would visit, everyone minding their ways, never venturing forth with any curiosity about the mysterious death of their grandfather. One of them told me once that they wondered why she went to the trouble to dress and sit there, handbag ready, and wait. Was she waiting for her Maker to come a-calling. Was she worried about the Judgment Day, devoted Catholic that she was? Did she have reason to suffer from guilt? Was it because of what really happened to Neddie and Hugh on that fateful February night almost seventy years before? 

Are their ghosts at Greystone? JH, with his Digital taking in the architectural details that afternoon of our tour thinks so. Greystone today produces a curiosity that has no direction and no conclusion. Most visitors have no idea of the importance of the Dohenys in Los Angeles, or the scourge of the political scandal that destroyed at least two young lives. The house however, 83 years after its building, still stands stolid, solid and substantial. It has been used many many times for television and film shoots. For many years it was occupied by the American Film Institute (AFI). It remains, however, lifeless, a hapless reminder of great wealth, without a hint of spent lives.
From the terrace looking south over Beverly Hills and LA.
The story of Ned Doheny ended up in rumor to be linked with Hugh Plunkett, his boyhood friend (Plunkett worked for Lucy Doheny’s father who owned one of the first gas stations in downtown Los Angeles). The idea that the two men died because of a lover’s quarrel is a compelling but deeply misleading testament to the corruption of the patriarch and the consequences of ultimate greed. 

When E. L. Doheny died in 1935, his widow Estelle burned all of his personal papers. She later gave tens of millions more to the church. They also built a library at USC in memory of Ned. But they also buried him outside the church.

Ned, it was said, was a spoiled son, Over-indulged and reckless. It might have been a relief, it has been suggested more than once, that Ned was gone. That way Lucy could have a good life. Which is, apparently, what she did. Until the very end when she was old and frail, and dressed and waiting, for the Judgment Day.

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