Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Unreal Estate

Looking west towards Bergdorfs and The Plaza, from the corner of 59th Street and Fifth Avenue. 8:00 PM. Photo: JH.
January 17, 2012. A very cold, very sunny day in New York. A quiet holiday in the city. Jesse Kornbluth told me he heard somebody say: “Have a happy Martin Luther King Day.” Jesse and I were talking about history when this came up and how people don’t know about it. In essence, the national tribute to Dr. King in making his birthday a holiday is, in reality, a day-off for a lot of people. This one was granted by Martin Luther King. Everybody (who’s working) likes a day off.

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Wendy Sarasohn gave a book signing the other night for Michael Gross and his new book Unreal Estate: Money, Ambition, and the Lust for Land in Los Angeles. I mentioned the book here once before but had only begun reading it and didn’t want to get into how I felt about it, since I didn’t know.

Well, I finished it a couple of weeks ago and now I know. This is a fascinating book. For me anyway. I lived out there for a long time, as many readers already know. I liked it out there for many reasons and not the least of which was the peculiar novelistic vibe to the place.

It’s the vibe that Raymond Chandler and Scott Fitzgerald and Tim Findley wrote about. Nathanael West, Joan Didion too. And it is a vibe, as if it’s in the air. It is like the movies -- film noir in the bright sunshine. Sex is in the air, and in the afternoon too. Sex and drugs and alcohol.  Not everybody, of course. Far from it, but nevertheless enough so that there will always be something to write about.

In Michael’s book, it’s these people living in West L.A. Houses are fascinating because houses are people. And when there’s the more, there’s the merrier, not to mention hucksters and hustlers, money managers and lawyers, and the misled, the misplaced, as well as the maudlin, and even murderous. It’s life on the other side of the real fence, and it’s not like yours or mine.
The author addresses the crowd.
Cocktails courtesy of Two E Bar at The Pierre.
Russell Pfeffer, Wendy J. Sarasohn, and Jamie Joseph.
Jamie Joseph, Wendy J. Sarasohn, and Tania Isacof.
Michael Gross, Anke Leeds, Christine Mortimer Biddle, and Wendy J. Sarasohn.
Wendy J. Sarasohn and Designer Jamie Drake.
Lauren Muss, Alfred Renna, and Maria Pashby.
Lauren Muss, Deanna Kory, and Deborah Kern.
That’s what you get in this book; the hot skinny and with caviar and creme fraiche. And Michael serves it up with an appetite for it as big as any reader’s. He does not disappoint. Michael himself is a controversial literary presence in New York. I have no way of gauging his prominence in the eye of the public, recognition, fame, etc. In New York in literary and social circles, it’s a name that has tumbled from the best of lips and not always in a smile.

Because Michael’s style is strong and doesn’t skip a beat. If he’s going to take on a story, he’s going to get it. Dogged, that appetite for uncovering, disrobing the characters – although never unkindly, yet with a curiosity that would once have been called vulgar, but these days is right on the money. When people review Michael, they often get personal and even leave out the book. The oeuvre, the work. Some, instead of reading the book, read the author. The riot act, etc. The last review of his in the New York Times was written by a woman who obviously doesn’t like the man. Or doesn’t think he should be the kind of person she thinks he is.
Michael Gross and Barbara Gallagher.
Michael Gross and Designer Susan Orsini.
Alfred Renna, Wendy J. Sarasohn, and Melanie Lazenby.
Michael Gross, Wendy J. Sarasohn, and Lynda Baquero.
Pam Liebman, Michael Gross, and Wendy J. Sarasohn.
This kind of thing is very funny. I don’t know the lady at the Times, but she’s not the first one to scowl at the sound of Michael Gross’ name. He is very ambitious. That’s reflected in the subjects he takes on (like pulling teeth from a Mastadon twelve feet under). He is also unabashedly, professionally ambitious. If you know him, you know he wants to get ahead and intends to do whatever he can to keep that show on the road.

He’s in the business of writing best-selling books and working the career like a producer. If he were a theatre subject he’d be Robert Morse in “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying ...” Many of you are too young to really get the analogy but Morse was a go-getter, etc, par excellence. So’s Michael, and he has that extra curiosity that grabs yours even if you're resisting.

The intrepid journalist always looking for the scoop. Break the story, tell the truth, show the consequences, unmask the villains.  Them, and the village idiots. There are quite a few of those garnishing the real estate fables in Unreal Estate. As there certainly are in that neck of the woods. (And this neck too.)
Some of the houses featured in Unreal Estate: A chopper's eye-view of a section of Beverly Park in Beverly Hills, the newest, already legendary real estate development for billionaires, as told in Michael Gross's Unreal Estate.
The legendary Owlwood on Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills, once owned by movie mogul Joe Schenck where he seduced the starlet Marilyn Monroe, also owned by Rudy Vallee, Tony Curtis, Sonny & Cher, Gregg Allman, Jayne Mansfield, Engelbert Humperdinck and a 25-year-old known as the Boy King of Porn.
The famous Beverly Hillbillies house, built for one Arnold Kirkeby, a Los Angeles businessman out of Raymond Chandler. His heirs eventually sold it to Jerry Perenchio, the former TV producer, now billionaire businessman who expanded the house and the estate size leaving only one nearby neighbor ... and that is Nancy Reagan, the widow of President Reagan.
These are the kind of writers we want to read if we’re going to read about the rich and the famous and the movie stars. Otherwise there’s no fun and no history. The residents of these fabulous houses in what he calls the Platinum Triangle – Beverly Hills, Bel Air and Holmby Hills – have an astounding history. “Money, Ambition, And the Lust For Land in Los Angeles” is the subtitle of this book. And lust is the word. Is this history? If it were Rome Fifth Century BC instead of the Platinum Triangle, would it be history?  Would Sonny and Cher be history too?

I have been told by those who know about these things that Michael has not got all the stories of people’s lives exactly right. That may be but such are the hazards of writing contemporary history and finding sources who are willing to help – meaning to talk. This is a daunting task to put together community history. People give many reasons for not wanting to be interviewed. This is most unfortunate but one of the hazards of the business.
Greenacres, the mansion built in 1929 for silent screen comedian Harold Lloyd in Benedict Canyon. It has since been owned by Ted Field, the Marshall Field heir and entertainment tycoon, as well as Ron Burkle and several others of star-crossed fortune and fate.
Pickfair, for decades the most famous Beverly Hills house in the world because of its original owners, Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Mary Pickford, two of the most famous and most financially successful movie stars of the late 19-teens and 1920s. Earl Mountbatten and his wife Edwina vacationed there on their honeymoon. Pickford and Fairbanks ("Pick" and "Fair") were the king and queen of Hollywood in their prime, and this was their castle as transformed (from a simple hunting lodge) by architect Wallace Neff. Fairbanks left Little Mary Pickford, America's first sweetheart, for a much younger blonde English divorcee, Lady Sylvia Ashley, and moved away. Pickford eventually remarried to a handsome young leading man Buddy Rogers and lived in the house for the rest of her life. In the 1980s it was re-transformed for New York businessman Meshulam Riklis for his new wife Pia Zadora. Peter Marino was hired, the place was basically gutted to near demolition and a new mansion arose from the smashes. The Riklis-Zadoras have also long departed the star crossed Pickfair.
Los Angeles is a spectacular place. It’s a literary genre. Hollywood, Hollywood, Fabulous Follywood; wrote the poet Don Blandings about the place almost a century ago. It’s still got that thing: Glorious Glamorous and that old standby Amorous. Its residents live in castles of make believe. Their version of make-believe. Flamboyance and its exponents is the leitmotif especially with the newcomers and those getting richer by the minute. Flamboyance inspired by climate. The Dream Factory landing.

You get all that and more in Michael Gross’s Unreal Estate. In this case, to borrow from that old Hemingway-Fitzgerald dialogue, these rich are different. They just are. Sometimes I do think it’s the air and the mornings out there, sometimes it's the mood of the day-long marine layers, and that light. Life becomes a kind of movie set. And then after awhile, people forget their lines. Fade to black.

Photographs by Richard Lewin.

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