Wednesday, August 24, 2022. A lovely, warm and sunny day in New York.
The following piece was filed on August 25, 2003, our fourth year into the NYSD. JH and I had made a trip to L.A. for reasons I can’t recall although any reason to go there was good for me. And because Southern California was new to JH, he shared my enthusiasm.
NYSD readers have already heard ad nauseum how much I love 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.
I first visited with my wife Sheila in August 1970, staying with a friend, Erik Preminger and his then wife Barbara. It was my first trip to Southern California and to what I always thought of, since I was a kid, as Hollywood.
Coincidentally, I had just read Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust 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; everything — the air, the light, the vibes, unreal, even fantastic and yet also with a sunny, yet gritty, dark side.
Gypsy Rose Lee had died earlier that year of our first visit, and left her estate to her son Erik, her only child. Her house, at the very top of a cul-de-sac called Cerrocrest Drive, a kind of Spanish/Norman concoction 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 of – but not quite – being a style once known as a whore’s palace.
It was a movie-glamorous confection, an elegant yet quirky one, and everything a civilian first-time visitor would dream a star’s house to be. Gypsy had taste, refinement and all with a healthy dose of kitsch. The results of a unique personality and intelligence.
It was built in 1927 on a hilltop overlooking Beverly Hills (and just above the Dohenys’ “Greystone” which was a-building at the same time), looking out toward the Pacific.
The corners of the rooms were rounded as was the house’s center tower, with its winding stone staircase leading finally to a third floor, and a large and round guestroom, with curving bookcases filled with books (Gypsy was a big reader — and writer, of course) — and in the east/center of the room — 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 (a now forgotten billionaire tycoon). All of this was exceedingly impressive to this easterner.
It was even better than I could have imagined it to be.
I knew from that first experience visiting that I would one day live here. Of course, I was experiencing 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. Her villa was filled with very good high Victoriana, Art Nouveau, French Regency and occasional middle mid-American furniture — tributes to the aforementioned styles.
And the lady had an art collection: Joan Miro, Chagall, Malvina Hoffman, Dorothea Tanning, her husband Max Ernst, Picasso and quite a lot of a little known painter today, Julio de Diego, who was her third and last husband (she never married Erik’s father, the director Otto Preminger). Famous to friends and family for being extremely tight with a buck, all of the art were gifts of the artists to the now immortalized (thanks to her own marketing ability) ecdysiast, as she was known in France.
The first morning after our arrival, I came down for breakfast and Barbara Preminger, standing at the stove preparing the scrambled eggs, told me she had just “seen” Gypsy at the bottom of the staircase.
Barbara explained she was coming downstairs to prepare breakfast and there, she said, was Gypsy, just standing there (she’d died about four months before), at the foot of the staircase, 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,’” she said, 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, an entirely credible person to me, I found it impossible to believe my trusted friend actually saw the apparition of the 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 …
Eventually, in settling his mother’s estate, Erik sold the house and many of its 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 including using an exocist. But the tenacious lady that she was in life, she refused to go. It’s not surprising, she died at a young age – 58, and she’d loved her home. Defeated, the new owners sold the place.
About ten years later, I was living here in Los Angeles, and I took a friend up to look at the place. I’d heard from a realtor that the following owners also had similar problems with Gypsy’s ghost. They too, put it on the market.
For a long time it languished, vandalized and neglected, until it became a wreck and a relic. Finally it was sold, and the buyer knocked the place down, leveled off the hilltop, and built a contemporary concoction twice its size in its place.
I don’t know where Gypsy’s ghost went, but this is Hollywood, and there have always been ghosts, and so where else can those celluloid images go?
When I first lived out here, in the late 70s, one night I was invited to a dinner at a restaurant by hosted 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 was telling me about Mary Pickford, the first movie star in the history of the industry and “America’s Sweetheart,” 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 business, who had the foresight (and temerity) in the early years of the industry to create their own company: United Artists — which for years after was an important studio.
After their famous marriage, the first couple of the movies, with their famous estate Pickfair up on Summit Drive in Beverly Hills where they’d entertained royalty and presidents (and movie stars of course), Douglas Fairbanks left the fabled marriage for a beautiful European beauty, Sylvia Ashley, and devastated little Mary (she was something like four feet eight).
Mary Pickford was a survivor, however, and not long after, 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 night watchman who worked in the Goldwyn Studios (which had originally been the Pickford-Fairbanks Studio, then United Artists) over on Santa Monica Boulevard and Formosa Avenue in Hollywood, little Mary never quite got over her beloved swashbuckler’s abandonment.
According to the night watchman, according to Hunter, right up to the end of her life (she died in 1979 at age 87) 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 on Summit in Beverly Hills down to the studio in Hollywood.
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 two of the United Artists. And on that soundstage, on those 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. 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 Pia 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.
Meanwhile, back to our Saturday late morning real life, JH and I drove down to Santa Monica to get some breakfast and visit the Promenade on Third Street where they have the Farmer’s Market set up every weekend until 2 in the afternoon. The Promenade is closed off to cars and under the bright blue sky and the warm sun, Los Angelenos fill the streets, shopping, walking, looking, exhibiting themselves (often like characters out of Nathaniel West) and having a good time.
Afterwards we took a long and leisurely stroll on the pathway in Palisades Park when runs on the western side of Ocean Avenue, on the cliff overlooking the Pacific.
It was this part of Santa Monica, the beach, where the early moguls of the film industry built their houses. It was known as the Golden Mile and all the big names were there — the Mayers, the Zukors, the Laskys, the Zanucks, the Thalbergs, the Talmadges and most of all William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies who occupied a 114-room beach house right on the sand where they entertained the famous and the infamous (although W.R. didn’t have much truck for infamous other than in his papers’ headlines) and even Winston Churchill and George Bernard Shaw.
The Marion Davies beach house, as it was called by the public (but to the neighbors it was Mr. Hearst’s house), was without peer as the most fabulous house in Hollywood, but it became a white elephant by the 1940s and was eventually sold for a sum in the low six figures having cost ten times as much, and then it was mostly torn down.
There are a couple of outer buildings that remain and belong to a beach club. The Louis B. Mayer house, which was built in the mid-1920s and was where he lived fulltime (the family moved to the Ambassador Hotel in the winter) until the 1940s when his daughters Irene and Edie had grown up, married (David Selznick and Bill Goetz, respectively) and moved out, and then Mayer left his wife and moved out.
After Margaret (the first Mrs.) Mayer died, the house was purchased by Peter Lawford and his wife Patricia Kennedy, sister of the President. It was on this site that JFK, in town for the Democratic Convention of 1960 where he was nominated for the Presidency, visited and made his famous foray, bare-chested and in bathing trunks, into the Pacific while mobbed by hundreds of “fans” (and photographers).
The Mayer house is occupied to this day by another family who’ve owned it for quite a few years.
JH, who is an enthusiastic newcomer to the experience of Los Angeles, was enthralled by the weekend scene, the people, the views and the astonishing beauty of this place, and shares his thrall in these pictures of our Saturday afternoon.