A house to remember her by

Featured image
A view of downtown Los Angeles. Photo: JH.

Wednesday, July 6, 2022. On this past holiday weekend, I spent a good part of my days and nights reviewing archives for another project I’m working on. The activity, the Diary, as it is in anyone’s personal memories, is always curious and generously insightful.

During this particular process I came upon a Diary I’d written several years ago about a woman named Edie Goetz, a child of the early motion picture industry, and daughter of Louis B. Mayer of MGM-dom. (Mr. Mayer, incidentally, set down his birthdate as July 4th — indicating his deep patriotism.)

His daughter Edie left us back in 1987, and years later her house on Delfern Drive in Holmby Hills which had been sold shortly after her passing to people who bought it from her estate. 20 years later, back in 2016, the owners sold it for the sum of $79 million! The original property had been expanded by the previous owners. Edie would have loved learning what happened to the property dollar-wise.

The Edie Goetz estate as it appeared in 2016.

She was an early teenager when she moved from Brookline, Massachusetts with her younger sister Irene and her mother and father, to Los Angeles where her father had started a film production company, Mayer Productions. He’d got into the business at the turn of the century owning a nickelodeon in a town northwest of Boston. Within the decade he was working on putting productions together and finally decided to follow the trend to Los Angeles for filmmaking.

Within what turned out to be a few short years, his production company in a merger became Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and Louis became the King of the film moguls. And his eldest daughter was the Princess. Who retained her title to the end. She was always her father’s daughter.

I got to know Edie during her last decade as an occasional guest at one of her dinners.  Over time I suggested I interview her about her life and family history. Because her sister Irene had written a memoir and gained a lot of attention for her producer role in theatre, she agreed. So every Saturday afternoon throughout the winter autumn and winter months in LA, I would go to interview her for a couple of hours.

Thinking of the house on Delfern brought it all back, again.

Edie Goetz’ house. Big old Hollywood houses. The house was built in 1938. The area was a fairly new real estate development known as Holmby Hills. A century before, that area was just rolling unpopulated sandy hills, and the outskirts of a desert, with little vegetation. When the Goetzes bought the house in 1949, there were still many empty lots with acreage still available.

Gary Cooper and daughter Maria in front of the Holmby Hills house on Baroda Drive.

A few years after the Goetzes moved in, their close friends, Gary and Rocky Cooper built a house on some acreage right behind the Goetzes on Baroda Drive. Later Ginny and Henry Mancini built across the road from the Goetzes’ gate, on the corner of Baroda and Delfern.

The house had had two previous occupants — the family for whom it was built, and secondly, in 1946, Ann Miller, the MGM dancing star and her then new (and first) husband, Reese Milner. Mr. Milner was the scion of a wealthy Los Angeles steel family by the name of Llewellyn, and he was a rancher and investor in Southern California real estate.

Ms. Miller had started her career as a dancer at RKO Studios ten years before when she was just 13 (she lied about her age, producing a birth certificate claiming she was 18, to qualify for fulltime employment).

Ann Miller and her first husband, Reese Milner; Ann Miller at home in 1938.

The same year she married Mr. Milner, she signed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer by then considered in the industry and among actors and directors as the greatest studio in Hollywood. Louis B. Mayer was the King of Hollywood at that time, and of course, Edie Goetz’ father. Mayer had wanted to marry Ann Miller the year before she married Milner, but she turned him down, claiming diplomatically he was too old for her (he was 61 and she was 22).

Louis B. Mayer with Ann Miller.

She was soon pregnant and the newlyweds moved into their new home at 300 Delfern, a “Regency” style mansion with 8 bedrooms, a guest house and pool with poolhouse set on four acres.

Mr. Milner was known to have a volatile personality. One night in 1947, in the eighth month of Ann’s pregnancy, the couple had some kind of row in the marital bedroom, and Milner pulled a gun on his movie star bride, threatening to kill her.

Terrified, she ran out of the bedroom, across the hall, and down the long circular staircase as her raging husband took a shot at her that missed and went into the wall by the top of the staircase.

Miller, near the bottom of the stairs and in a state of panic, slipped and fell, injuring herself and requiring hospitalization. Her injuries led to premature delivery of her baby, and the child died a few hours later.

The couple were divorced shortly thereafter and the house was sold to the Goetzes for $250,000 — a very large sum in those days. The bullet hole was still in the wall when they took possession.

The Goetzes had originally lived on St. Pierre Road in the newly developed Bel Air, in a house her father had given them as a wedding present when they married in 1930. In keeping with the fashion, in those days, the couple also acquired a house on the beach in Santa Monica along a mile long stretch that was an early and most important enclave of Hollywood moguls and their families, including the Mayers, Darryl and Virginia Zanuck, Irving Thalberg and Norma Shearer, Marion Davies and William Randolph Hearst.

The mile-long stretch in Santa Monica where the Mayers, Zanucks, Irving Thalberg and Norma Shearer, Marion Davies and William Randolph Hearst had homes. The extensive property on the left is the Marion Davis beach house — 118 rooms with 55 baths, accompanying guest and staff houses, tennis courts and swimming pool.

The newlyweds were second generation Hollywood. Billy Goetz’ brothers were also in the film business on the processing side. His marriage to Edie was said to have been negotiated by L.B. and one of Bill Goetz’ elder brothers. Edie’s younger sister by 18 months Irene Mayer Selznick claimed in her memoir “A Private View” that the “merger” was arranged so that Irene could marry David Selznick, as her parents did not want her to marry before her elder sister Edie married.

Arranged or not, it was one of the most successful marriages — and acknowledged to be — in the film community. They called each other “Snoogie” (sounds like Snoo-Gee) which amused everybody around them in one way or another. Ernst Lubitsch made two comedies in which there were characters named Snoogie.

The Mayers: Edie, Louis B., wife Margaret and Irene visiting Herbert Hoover at the White House in the late 1920s.
Edith and William Goetz wedding.
Left: On April 29, 1930, a little more than a month after Edie married Bill Goetz, Irene and David married. Pictured are LB Mayer, Irene, David Selznick, and Margaret Mayer. Right: Irene and Edie in a rare intimate moment of sisterhood, 1929.

Louis B. Mayer and Joe Schenck invested in a new company called 20th Century Productions run by Darryl Zanuck, who had been the brilliant head of production at Warners. They merged 20th with the bankrupt Fox Film. Mayer gave each daughter a quarter share of his share and Bill Goetz was brought in as a vice-president. During World War II, when Darryl Zanuck joined the service, Goetz took over as production chief. The new studio was a winner.

Bill and Edie Goetz on the terrace of their house on 300 Delfern Drive in Holmby Hills.

Bill Goetz was a very popular fellow in the industry. A charming individual who liked nothing better than kibitzing with Jack Benny and George Burns and saying something funny, with everyone making each other laugh. He was also an agreeable businessman who wore his shrewdness unassumingly.

Edie was a real Hollywood princess (daughter of a “king”) and played the role to the hilt — to those knew who she was — and succeeded in becoming one of the most important (read: powerful) Hollywood hostesses when the Dinner Party was de rigueur.

Edie and her sister Irene had a rivalry of classic proportions that began in childhood. Irene had the looks and was credited as the more intelligent — although that is arguable. Edie was “Dad’s” princess. Irene’s husband David Selznick was one of the hottest producers in the business and considered something of a wunderkind like Zanuck — and unlike Billy Goetz for whom Irene had little regard except for his performance as Edie’s husband — something that had eluded Irene in her life.

Irene naturally regarded herself the more serious as well as savvy about the picture business. Edie considered herself the personification of Hollywood royalty and “acted” the part. She assiduously modeled her style after Frances Goldwyn who was the wife of Sam Goldwyn, and Dorothy Paley (later Hirshon), the wife of CBS tycoon Bill Paley, both of whom were highly regarded for their style and sophistication.

Samuel and Frances Goldwyn, after whom Edie modeled her style.
Dorothy Paley with Irene Selznick at Santa Anita in a photograph taken by Bill Paley, 1938.

Meanwhile Edie’s marriage had grown stronger as the years passed. Billy Goetz, tired of being Number Two son-in-law, left Zanuck and 20th, and with LB’s backing went off on his own with a production company he called International Pictures. David’s company was Selznick International Pictures, and Goetz’ new company name similarly grated on Irene’s nerves even after she and David had divorced.

In his new company Goetz produced Tomorrow is Forever with their friend Claudette Colbert and Orson Welles and a little girl named Natasha Gurdin (whom Bill Goetz renamed Natalie Wood — after his friend Sam Wood, the director); and then he made Song of Bernadette, starring his brother-in-law’s new protégé Jennifer Jones. Now Bill Goetz’ star was finally on the rise.

Orson Welles and Claudette Colbert in Tomorrow is Forever.
Jennifer Jones in Song of Bernadette.

The same year the Goetzes bought Delfern, 1949, Irene and David Selznick divorced and he married Jennifer Jones. The Selznicks had separated four years before because of his affair with the actress, and Irene had then moved to New York where she got involved with Elia Kazan and Tennessee Williams, producing “A Streetcar Named Desire” with Marlon Brando and Jessica Tandy.

David Selznick, Jennifer Jones, and Rock Hudson at the premiere of A Farewell to Arms,  in 1957.

In 1946, in partnership with British producer J. Arthur Rank, Goetz bought into Universal Pictures, renaming it Universal-International. To mark the event, Edie staged a dinner party that marked the apotheosis of her career as a Hollywood hostess. Among the 84 guests (including wives and husbands) were Greer Garson, Lana Turner, Joan Crawford, Loretta Young, Robert Young, Douglas Fairbanks, William Powell, Merle Oberon, Dick Powell and June Allyson, Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck, Rocky and Gary Cooper, Deborah Kerr, Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli, Henry Fonda, Ava Gardner, Cary Grant, David Niven, Danny Kaye, Ellin and Irving Berlin, Joan Bennett and Walter Wanger, Robert Montgomery, Charles Boyer, Frances and Sam Goldwyn and Johnny Green who sat and played for hours after the dinner while Judy Garland sang to the guests.

The invitation was for 7:30. Cocktails were served in the Billy Haines designed library with the van Gogh self-portrait over the fireplace and family photos in the bay including LB Mayer on the lot standing between William Randolph Hearst and Winston Churchill. At 8:15 the butler announced that dinner would be served and guests crossed the large living room as the butler opened the double doors to the dining room. Unlike the photograph, the room was always lit only by the candles and the lights above the paintings, giving the entire room a soft pinkish-yellow glow. Mrs. Goetz sat at one end under the Degas — with the Bonnard on the north wall. Dinner was served by a butler, a footman and a serving maid. The Goetz chef was said to be the best in Southern California. At about 9 to 9:15 guests returned to the living room for the film.

LB Mayer came with Lorena Danker, a 30-year-old San Fernando Valley widow whom he would soon marry. Not present were Irene (who was in New York where she was about to produce Streetcar) and David Selznick who then married to Jennifer was entering the nadir and conclusion of his great career.

By the early ’50s, Bill and Eddie Goetz were famous among the famous for their dinner parties which were brilliantly organized and served to perfection with the host and hostess at either end of the table. Despite his wife’s “royal” attitudes, at table the husband Snoogie would get up and greet the guests and thanking his Snoogie for her great work while also puncturing any pomposity perceived in her with hilarious jokes about her professional demeanor. None of it was subtle and all provoked laughter at the table, especially coming from the hostess herself who always melted at her husband’s anecdotes about her royal ways.

Bill and Edie Goetz in their living room with a self-portrait by Vincent van Gogh, 1952.

Bill Goetz died in 1969, having sold his share of U-I to Jules Stein’s mega talent agency MCA which was renamed Universal Pictures. All arrangements for his funeral were made by his devoted friend Frank Sinatra who loved Bill Goetz and reveled in their society. The afternoon after the funeral service, when Edie returned to Delfern, bereft, she lamented to her husband’s secretary Sonya Gilbert, that her “life was over now that he’s gone, I’m finished. Miss Gilbert asked Edie what she meant. “They came for him. It was never me, and now that will all stop.”

Edie and Frank.

It was not entirely true. Edie continued giving her dinners on Tuesdays or Thursdays, usually for eight or sixteen, in her entirely candlelit dining room with a lit Degas of ballet dancers behind the head of the table, a Bonnard and a Fantin Latour on either side, and beyond the foot of the table, a Modigliani and a Berthe Morisot keeping everyone company.

There were always stars or celebrated people in attendance, and it was followed by a screening of a first-run or a not-yet-released film shown on a massive wide screen that covered the width of the living room when it was automatically ejected by the press of a button from the ceiling at one end of the room, while at the same moment, a panel containing a Monet and a Manet raised at the other end, giving access to a projector.

Top to bottom (l. to r.): Modigliani’s Lunia Czechowska, 1918; Après le Repas by Pierre Bonnard; Claude Monet’s La Plage a Trouville, 1870; Renoir’s Young Woman in a Garden, 1916, the first picture that became the cornerstone of the Goetz collection; Le Chasseur by Chaim Soutine.

One night when I was present, it was a table of eight for dinner including Fred Astaire and his wife Robyn, and Mary Lasker and Deeda Blair who were visiting from New York. Fred was dressed casually in a blue blazer, grey flannels and ascot. Mrs. Lasker was bejeweled, crusts of diamonds, and Deeda Blair was her noteworthy chic self. Mrs. Goetz was in a long chiffon dress. The film that night, not yet released was Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal” starring Jeremy Irons. Watching it, in the environment surrounded by Hollywood history and the great Goetz art collection, I remember asking myself of the whole scene, including the story on the screen: “what is reality?”

Edie Goetz died in 1987. Although she entertained less frequently in the last two or three years of her life (she was 82 when she died), she continued to maintain a staff of ten including a chauffeur whom she never used. It so happened that in the last year of her life, she was down to her last $200,000 in available cash and her annual expenditures had always exceeded $300,000.

Edie with her staff except for Harold Lodge, her butler.

It had been suggested to her that she lighten up on her expenses (staff-wise for one), and maybe sell a couple of pictures or books from Bill Goetz’ rare book collection. Nothing doing, responded Madam when these ideas were put forth. She did not want her sister Irene or Harriet Deutsch, the wife of Bill’s friend Ardie Deutsch, to think she didn’t have the money.

Edie in 1984.

When she died, one of the first people informed was her sister Irene, then living in her apartment at the Pierre here in New York. At six o’clock that morning, Irene phoned her friend also here in New York, and Edie’s friend of long ago, Claudette Colbert. “Thank God in heaven, she’s dead!” the voice said to Colbert who had been awakened by the call.

“Who’s dead?” Colbert asked, shocked at the message at that hour.

“Edie!” Irene yelled into the phone.

At the end of Edie’s life, I asked her butler Harold Lodge, who had come from the Royal Household to work for her several years before, what it was like to work for “Madam.”

“Oh, she’s very much like the Queen,” he said very seriously. He didn’t seem to be exaggerating by his voice. Then he added, “I don’t mean Queen Elizabeth, the Queen,” he corrected, “I mean the Queen Mum.”

“Oh,” said I, surprised by the comparison. I asked Lodge how Edie was like the Queen Mum.

“Her staff comes first,” he replied. “She is most concerned that everything is well with her staff, before anything else.”

I told Edie later that evening about Lodge’s comparison. “Gee,” she half-gasped like a schoolgirl being told she was the top student, “that’s really something.”

When Bill Goetz died, a portion of the art collection was sold for $3 million to pay estate taxes. When Edie died eighteen years later, the entire collection was sold at Christie’s for a record-breaking (at that time) $81 million.

Edie in her library. She never changed Billy Haines’ original designs or furniture and despite the formality of her evenings, the mood was always convivial and relaxed. Everybody, no matter who they were in the world, were simply A Guest of Mrs. Goetz, the ultimate hostess making everyone feel welcome and comfortable. Photo: Eliot Elisofon/Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin.

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