A real life Hollywood story

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Pious in the sky. Photo: JH.

Thursday, March 18, 2021. A little warmer (41) yesterday in New York with not much Sun. But it was St. Patrick’s, and although there was no parade the traffic on the Upper East Side was one big slowly moving jamb. But it’s just a few days from Spring sprunging and warmer temperatures in the forecast for all of us.

Two friends from back in the day, Philip Carlson and Steve Harrison.

I had dinner last night at Sette Mezzo with my old friend Philip Carlson whom I first met when we were actors together here in New York in the mid-60s. My story of that venture is too short to be told, but Philip has been a man of theatre (so to speak) all his life, and even from childhood when the interest occurred the way they do for us in those childhood years.

NYSD readers have already heard ad nauseum how much I loved L.A., having lived there for a number of years. Dyed in the wool New Yorkers (and many others) have no idea why I am so enthusiastic about the place, but I am. It has never lost its allure.

Philip’s career, however, blossomed. He starred in an Off-Broadway play “Until The Monkey Comes” which led to more work as well as a Hollywood contract with Universal Studios, and moved out there with his new wife, Patty Sauers, an actress who grew up out there (her father was an actor named Joe Sawyer who appeared in hundreds of films often identified as cops, coaches, cowboys — a face you were familiar with).

It was through Philip that I met another Hollywood persona, Erik Preminger, who worked in New York for his father Otto (who had offices on both coasts). It was in the summer of 1970 when my wife Sheila and I first visited in August 1970, Los Angeles, staying with Erik and his wife Barbara. 

Erik Preminger and his mother, Gypsy Rose Lee.

In retrospect it turned out to be more than a trip to visit. Coincidentally before the trip, I had just read Nathanael West’s Day of the Locusts, which made a deep visceral impression on my imagination. And so, I was amazed to find, almost immediately, how much the place felt like the book; or rather the book felt like the place. Everything about it — the air, the light, the vibes, unreal, even fantastic and also with a sunny yet gritty dark side.

Erik’s mother, Gypsy Rose Lee had died earlier that year and left her estate to Erik, her only child, her house, a kind of Spanish/Norman villa surrounded by thick green lawns and palms and gardens that Gypsy had planted and cultivated to beauty all by herself. The interior was bountifully decorated to within an inch — but not quite — of being a Hollywood palace. It was a trip, an elegant yet quirky one, and everything a civilian first-time visitor would dream a star’s house to be, and Gypsy, who was highly creative and able, chose and participated in the décor.

Built in 1927 on a hilltop overlooking Beverly Hills, looking out toward the ocean, all the corners of the rooms were rounded as was the house’s center, with a winding stone staircase that led finally to the third floor, and a large and round guest room, with curving bookcases filled with books (Gypsy was a big reader — and writer of course). And in the east/center of the room stood a large, round, king-size bed covered in maroon velvet. From the casement windows to the west you could look across the canyon to Rock Hudson’s house, and to the north to the house of D.K. Ludwig. All this was exceedingly impressive to this easterner.

The entrance to Gypsy’s house.
The view of the house on arrival at the top of the entry access steps.

I knew from that first experience visiting that I would one day have to live here. Of course, I had experienced Los Angeles in a very intimate, most fortuitous way, staying in the house of a famous person. And for Gypsy Rose Lee, fame was a job: she was a showman through and through. The house was filled with very good high Victoriana, French Regency and occasional middle mid-American furniture — tributes to the aforementioned styles.

And an art collection. Joan Miro, Chagall, Malvina Hoffman, Dorothea Tanning, her husband Max Ernst, Picasso — all personal gifts from the artists — and quite a lot of a little known painter today, Julio de Diego, who was Gypsy’s third and last husband (she never married Erik’s father Otto Preminger). Famous to friends and family for being extremely tight with a buck, all of the art were gifts to the ecdysiast, as the French referred to her.

A taste of Gypsy’s over-the-top Hollywood style.
A corner of Gypsy’s bedroom.

The first morning after arrival, I came down for breakfast and Barbara Preminger told me she had just “seen” Gypsy at the bottom of the staircase. What? Barbara was coming downstairs to prepare breakfast and there, she said, was Gypsy, just standing there (she’d died about four months before), big as life.

“What did you do?” I asked, not really believing my friend telling me she’d just seen a ghost.

“I said ‘good morning Gypsy,’” the way she would speak to her mother-in-law, with deference.

“And what did she do?”

“That was it,” Barbara said; “and she was gone.”

While Barbara was and remains to this day, an entirely credible person, I found it impossible to believe my trusted friend actually saw the ghost former chatelaine of this very exotic house. Just a few minutes before!!?? I have never known Barbara to be one who embellished or exaggerated, let alone lied, but still …

Portrait of Gypsy Rose Lee, by Rudolf Bernatschke.

Eventually Erik sold his mother’s house and many of her eclectic and precious contents. Several years later I read in one of the tabloids (probably the National Enquirer) that the couple who bought Gypsy’s house wanted to sell it because it was “haunted.”

Gypsy, they claimed, was always about, often slamming doors and knocking pictures off the wall, or leaving the frames askew. They’d tried everything to get rid of her ghost but tenacious lady that she was in life, she refused to go. Defeated, they sold the place. 

About ten years later, I was living then in Los Angeles, and I took a friend up to look at the place. I’d heard from a realtor that the next owners also had similar problems with Gypsy’s ghost. They too, put it on the market. For a long time it languished, was vandalized and neglected until it became a wreck and a relic. Finally it was sold. The buyer knocked the place down, leveled off the hilltop, and built a contemporary concoction twice its size.

I don’t know where Gypsy’s ghost went, but this is Hollywood, there have always been ghosts, and where do they go?

Little Mary Pickford, the first movie star, circa 1920.

Hollywood, Hollywood, Follywood. When I was first living out there, in the late ’70s, one night I was invited to a dinner given at a restaurant by Ross Hunter, a very successful movie producer in the 50s and 60s (“Airport,” “Midnight Lace,” “Lover Come Back”). Ross loved Hollywood lore and over dinner he told me about Mary Pickford, the movies’ first star, who also had a famous marriage with Douglas Fairbanks, the action adventure hero of the silents. It was Pickford, Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin, then the three biggest stars in the movies, who had the foresight (and temerity) in the early years of the industry to create their own studio — United Artists, which for years after was an important studio.

Fairbanks left the fabled marriage for a beautiful European beauty, Sylvia Ashley, which devastated little Mary (she was something like four feet eight). She was a survivor, however, and she married a younger, handsomer movie swain of some stature (although nothing like Fairbanks’) named Buddy Rogers, and remained “happily married” for the rest of her long life. 

Although, according to Ross Hunter, who claimed he was given the story by a nightwatchman who worked in the Goldwyn Studios over on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood, little Mary never quite recovered from her swashbuckler’s abandonment.

Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.

According to the nightwatchman, (according to Hunter), right up to the end of her life (she died in 1979) there were nights, very very late – after midnight, when Mary would be driven with her nurse, in her big black limousine, from her famous estate, Pickfair way up in Beverly Hills, down to the studio on Santa Monica Boulevard. 

There, with her nurse by her side, she would make her way over to one of the soundstages where both she and Douglas Fairbanks had worked when they were the United Artists. And on that soundstage, on these dark, late, solitary nights, lit only by a single standing lamp, little Mary Pickford would wander about tentatively and call out his name: “Douglas … Douglas … It’s Mary … I’m here …”

Mary Pickford’s long gone now, as is Buddy Rogers, and Ross Hunter, and the studio night watchman. Mary’s famous house Pickfair was bought by Meshulem Riklis for his once-upon-a-time wife Pia Zadora and handed over to New York designer Peter Marino who transformed the Wallace Neff residence into something that had nothing to do with Pickford, Fairbanks, Wallace Neff or anybody else, even Zadora and Riklis.

And so, like Gypsy Rose Lee, as it is in Hollywood, as Norma Desmond demonstrated so concisely, it’s all been long replaced by tomorrow.

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