Tuesday, April 11, 2022. A bright, sunny day, yesterday in New York; although on the cold side. There are a lot of us in this town anxious for the “warmer” weather. It seems like this is a colder Spring. I don’t know that as a fact but several of my friends had remarked about it being colder this year. All of us who share those feelings happen to be older and remember many Springtimes before.
Today we’re running a Diary that we’ve run before — for those of you who’ve read it — about the Doheny murders that happened in Los Angeles in the late 1920s. I was first aware of the story when I lived out there in the ‘70s and ‘80s. I was first aware of the estate in Beverly Hills in which it occurred, the first time I visited L.A. in the summer of 1970. I was a guest at a house on a hilltop in Beverly Hills overlooking the Doheny estate. I noticed it because it was bigger than grand. It was an imperious statement, better than a movie set. At the time I didn’t even know of its family, nor had I ever heard their names.
When I moved out there in the late 1970s, I came to live in the hills nearby on Doheny Drive. The entire area — much of the hillsides of West Hollywood, in the earlier part of the Los Angeles century was known as the Doheny Ranch, and had long before been a weekend retreat for members of the family and their friends and associates. I learned that the Doheny name was powerful in Los Angeles.
I also learned that the mansion which sits majestically on a well landscaped hillside overlooking Beverly Hills had a palatial grandeur about it. It was a statement of power, and had been built by the elder Mr. Doheny for his son and his wife and children. It was well equipped for fun and pleasure all around the property; a veritable playground. And the mansion was a veritable palace in every way including a magnificent view of the Los Angeles basin and hills to the south where Mr. Doheny’s oil wells were pumping back then and even almost a century.
I also learned that the house which was finished for occupancy in the autumn of 1928 was the scene of the double murder in February of 1929. The victims were the son, Ned, and Hugh Plunkett whom he had known since they were teenagers, and who worked for the old man.
Here’s the story:
Greystone, the Doheny mansion which sits on the hillside above Doheny Road on the eastern edge of Beverly Hills, is now a park, so named officially in 1971. When it was built, in the late 1920s, it was the second largest house (56,000 square feet) in California after Hearst’s castle at San Simeon.
In the 1920s, all of that area — which includes what is now Trousdale Estates and the adjacent Doheny Drive properties, extending westward and upwards into the foothills of the range that is known as the Santa Monica Mountains — belonged to the Dohenys, and most specifically Edward L. Doheny Jr., known as “Ned,” son of E.L. Sr., who first struck oil in the Los Angeles area in 1892. At the beginning of the 20th century, the elder Mr. Doheny was pumping enough oil to rival only one other oilman of consequence in America, John D. Rockefeller.
In those early days, the family lived where all the rich of Los Angeles lived, in the southwest part of the city (Beverly Hills and the western sections like Holmby, Bel Air and Brentwood had yet to be developed), in the vicinity of West Adams Boulevard, Chester Square and Lafayette Square.
Sunset Boulevard around what is now Doheny Drive wasn’t much more than a bridlepath (and often used as one). What is West Hollywood now was then poinsettia fields in an area known as Sherman. The Dohenys used their land in the hills now known as Trousdale, as a ranch — a place to get away — out of town, for horseback riding, hiking and other healthy outdoor activities.
By the early 1920s, young Ned, with his wife Lucy and their five children occupied a large and stylish house up in these hills, as did several of their relatives with young families like them.
By the early 1920s, E.L. Doheny Sr. was one of the richest men in the world with hugely productive oil fields in the southwest and in Mexico. His wealth made him a very powerful man politically, and he used that power to ingratiate himself with, and even create, national political leaders, such as presidents. One president whose administration was profoundly affected by old man Doheny was Warren G. Harding.
President Harding had a Secretary of the Interior named Albert Fall who was a very close friend of the senior Mr. Doheny. In fact, Mr. Doheny once gave Mr. Fall $100,000 to help him along (that’s about $10 million in today’s dollars).
In return — out of gratitude of course, as it so often is with our politicians — Secretary Fall made it possible for Mr. Doheny to secure oil drilling rights to a large deposit of oil on federally owned lands, particularly one rich one which was called the Teapot Dome because its vastness was shaped like … a teapot.
The Teapot Dome was to become the nemesis in the downfall of Warren G. Harding and his administration, as well as the greatest political scandal in American history until Watergate, a half century later. Albert Fall was disgraced and went to jail. Mr. Doheny escaped a prison sentence by the skin of his teeth and an incident which caused his family fortunes to take a far more tragic turn.
The $100,000 cash bribe to the Secretary of Interior Fall had been hand delivered in a black valise, by Mr. Doheny’s son Ned, who was then in his early thirties, and a boyhood friend of Ned’s who was then employee of the family, Hugh Plunkett. That single act — carrying that black bag and handing it over to Secretary Fall — was to seal the fate of both young Doheny and his friend Plunkett in a most terrible way.
In the early 1920s while all of this political mischief was going on with men in high places in Washington, Ned Doheny, an only child, decided to build his dream house on the ranch land in the hills. The original design by architect Wallace Neff was inspired by the Petit Trianon at Versailles, and, like Rosecliff in Newport, it became a massive project, dwarfed only by the activities of William Randolph Hearst, who was building his castle around the same time farther up the coast at San Simeon. Neff’s design was rejected and Gordon Kauffman was hired to create the main house.
The property of pines and barren hillside was transformed and planted and replanted to make way for a sprawling stone mansion with broad terraces overlooking the city (which at that time was mainly bungalows and clusters of stores amidst a lot of vacant land) as far south as the family oil wells on Signal Hill, just north of Long Beach. Hollywood was several miles down those almost remote roads to the east, and what is now Downtown L.A. was about forty-five minutes away by car.
As the house was abuilding, Ned Doheny and his wife Lucy (daughter of a local gas station owner) 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 (or a hundred times that today), Greystone was finished. Huge, regal, a kind of neo-Tudor confection, solid and substantial, it was equipped with all the luxuries any young modern family could want or need, including stables, athletic facilities, tennis courts, gyms, swimming pools, screening room, ballroom, bowling alleys. It even had its own switchboard and telephone system.
It was the largest house in Los Angeles and it commanded a legend by the time of its completion. Later generations of Los Angelenos called it Dragonwyck, after the movie that was said to have been inspired by the property.
The house was completed for occupancy in the late summer of 1928. The family, Ned and Lucy Doheny, their five children and fifteen in staff, moved in in the autumn of 1928.
The son’s 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 at his quest to finally hit one of the biggest oil strikes on the North American continent that would make him rich and powerful. And now, at the completion of the son’s palace, he, and — because of him — the son, was also in trouble with the Feds. Because of Teapot Dome.
A bribe is a bribe is a bribe. And a hundred grand to a White House Cabinet member? All this, not to mention Hugh Plunkett, the Dohenys’ retainer, the trusted confidant of young Ned — so trusted that he signed many of the checks in the construction of Greystone — was in trouble with the Feds, too. The black bag with the hundred grand that the two pals delivered that day to Secretary Fall was under investigation.
At the same time the young Dohenys were the golden couple of Los Angeles society with their elevated Eastern social and political connections. When they finally moved into the big house with its palatial splendor, with the world at their feet, so to speak, the matter of the Teapot Dome had begun to cast its looming shadow.
Congress was calling for blood. Secretary Fall went first: indicted, convicted and sent to jail. And the bribers? They were next. But who were they? Were they the two young men who delivered the black bag of cash? Young Ned Doheny and his cohort Hugh Plunkett? Or was it the man with the money, E. L. Sr.?
The world was about to find out because a Senate investigation had been launched, and the guilty were going to be dealt with. Now a pillar of the community and an elder; one of the world’s richest men, Doheny couldn’t fathom the ramifications. A pious Roman Catholic as well because of the religious fervor of his second wife (his wife killed herself by drinking battery fluid), a generous contributor to the community and most especially the Roman Catholic church in Los Angeles, guilt was in the old man’s mind, outside his purview, yet now under his skin.
Speculation going on in the national press: what would happen to E. L. Doheny when he had to testify under oath before the committee? Would he fold? Would he incriminate himself? Was this the end of the line?
The world was about to see. It started first with the two men who carried the black bag of cash: Ned Doheny and his buddy Hugh Plunkett. The family was in turmoil. Neither father nor son had any plans on taking the rap. They intended to protect themselves. Hugh Plunkett, however, was a different story. He was involved also; guilt by association. And his relationship to the family was so close that there could be a case made for his taking matters into his own hands — and getting them dirty.
This reality became apparent to Plunkett as the date of testifying in Washington drew nearer. His own behavior, as revealed in later testimony became unhinged to the point that his friend Ned Doheny suggested he be institutionalized until he calmed down.
He did not calm down, however. And as young Doheny pulled away from his boyhood friend, the unhinging took a sharper turn for the worse. Finally, on a Saturday night in early February 1929, only four months after the young family had moved into their new house, a very troubled Hugh Plunkett drove up to Greystone from his apartment in Hollywood. A familiar figure on the property, he was let through by the gatekeeper at the big gate (still standing) on Doheny Road.
Just exactly what his movements were after that will never be known precisely. However, Plunkett did let himself into the big house (he had his own key), and made his way to a bedroom in the east wing of the house, a room which might have been available for his use. It was there, according to the news reports, that through the switchboard he called his friend Ned in another part of the house, and asked if they could talk.
Ned Doheny, a good looking man of thirty-five with dark hair, sharp dark eyes, a Black Irish bearing and not infrequent alcoholic demeanor, made his way, in his silk dressing robe, across the long corridors of the house to meet with Plunkett.
What happened thereafter remains mere speculation seventy-eight years later. The newspaper accounts at the time generally went like this:
Lucy Doheny had been sitting by herself in the library reading magazines when about 11 o’clock she was reported to have heard a gunshot. According to press accounts, she didn’t look for the source of the gunshots, nor did she call the police. Instead she called the family doctor who was with his wife at the movies in Beverly Hills. Paged at the theater, the doctor immediately drove up to the house (about a ten minute drive from downtown Beverly Hills). There he was greeted at the imposing front door (see photos) by Lucy Doheny who led him immediately to the east wing where she claimed to have heard the gunshot.
At that point, as the doctor and Mrs. Doheny were approaching the room from where Plunkett had called Ned, Plunkett emerged from the room in a state of anguish, and with a gun in his 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.
Mind you, this, according to the official story, occurred more than twenty minutes after Lucy Doheny had heard the first gunshot.
Then the doctor and Mrs. Doheny entered the room where 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 gunshots were said to have occurred between eleven-thirty and midnight. Whatever occurred afterward is obscured by time and testimony. Around two a.m., or more than two hours later, the police were called. However, in the hours before the call to the police, several of Lucy Doheny’s relatives who lived nearby had showed up at the house. Called, obviously by someone. What went on during those hours before the arrival of the police is unknown although it was later admitted that the bodies had also been moved before the police could see and photograph them.
The Dohenys were the richest family in Los Angeles. Their oil wells were everywhere including in many neighborhoods. The sudden death by gunshot of the only son and heir was big news. Everyone wanted to know what happened?
Two days later the local DA’s office, however, closed an inquest on the deaths. It was officially concluded 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. Forensics determined that Plunkett, the alleged murderer, had been found face down (with a cigarette in his hand underneath him) just outside the bedroom door. The bullet wound determined that he’d been shot in the back from a short distance. Ned Doheny was on the floor in the bedroom, an overturned chair and an emptied glass of whiskey nearby as if he had the glass in hand when he bullet entered his head at very close range, leaving the detritus of gunpowder on his forehead.
Ned Doheny was buried with pomp and circumstance a few days later. His stepmother Estelle Doheny, was one of the biggest contributors to the Roman Catholic church in Los Angeles (she owned the Gutenberg Bible, acquired many decades later by Bill Gates). Curiously, Ned was not buried in a family plot in the 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 perhaps by his own hand — a mortal sin in the eyes of the Church.
After a much simpler ceremony, without pomp or public clamor, 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 had been lovers, and that the quarrel which had ensued that night in the big house had to do with their relationship. The implication that both men were at some time engaged in a homosexual relationship became the leering note of interest in the case, and remains so to this day. Nothing was ever written in the newspapers pointing out that Hugh Plunkett was, along with Ned Doheny, a participant in the bribery of Albert Fall, and was scheduled to testify before the Senate investigating committee, after which the elder Doheny would be next to testify..
Instead it was assumed that the mystery of their deaths had to do with a sexual drama. On the face of it, the idea that two men in their thirties who had been friends since their early teenage years were having a sexual relationship is almost absurd. The idea that Hugh Plunkett might have been terrified and enraged that he was going to be “hung out to dry” and face jail time in the case of delivering the bribe money to Secretary Fall, is another matter entirely.
However, none of that came to the surface. The two men were buried days later, and everyone’s life went on. The sympathy for the father of the dead man, Ned Doheny, was so great in Washington that the Congressional investigation was called off and he was forever relieved of having to testify.
Lucy Doheny, a little more than a year later, almost to the day, married a man named Leigh Battson, a stockbroker whom she and her late husband had known for some time. Six years later E.L. Doheny Sr. died allegedly of a — “of a broken heart” according to the papers.
The Battsons lived at Greystone for the next 26 years, raising her children, until 1955 when Mrs. Doheny Battson decided the big house 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 that ran along Schuyler Road.
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” has been the scene of some of the greatest parties in America in the 1980s and 1990s.
Lucy Smith Doheny Battson lived to a very great age, over a hundred. At the end of her life, she moved to a large (5000 square feet) and luxurious condominium on the Wilshire Corridor. Always a formidable character, at the very end of her life, she would arise each morning, get herself dressed up for a luncheon engagement, place herself in a wingback chair in her living room, her handbag on the floor at her side, and sit. And wait.
Her grandchildren would visit the intimidating dowager. It was said that even her grandchildren, ever curious, were afraid to ask her “what happened” in the big house on that fateful night in February 1929. 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, the very devout Roman Catholic lady, waiting for her Maker to come a-calling. Was she worried about the Judgment Day, the believer that she was? Did she have reason to suffer guilt? Was it because of what really happened to Neddie and Hughie on that fateful February night almost seventy years before?
These are their ghosts of Greystone. JH, with his Digital taking in the architectural details one afternoon, and on hearing the story, he thinks so. His comments reminded me of the house that sat on the top of the hill behind Greystone, visible through the giant pine trees still standing.
That house, built in 1927, belonged to Gypsy Rose Lee in the 1960s. She died there in 1970. Later owners of the house claimed that Gypsy’s ghost was active in the house, so much so that they sold it to another party. That buyer became so exasperated by her ghost that they too sold it. The third new buyer, aware of the ghostliness of the property, tore the place down and built a new house in its stead.
A tour of Greystone produces a curiosity that has no direction and no conclusion. There is a vibe about the place. Most visitors have no idea of the house’s story or the economic importance of the Dohenys in Los Angeles, or the scourge of the political scandal that destroyed at least two young lives. The house however, 78 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. It remains, however, lifeless, a hapless reminder of great wealth, without a hint of spent lives.
The story of Ned Doheny ended up in rumor to be linked with Hugh Plunkett, his boyhood friend. 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.
When E. L. Doheny died in 1935, his widow Estelle buried 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, he drank too much, as was the fashion during his time (Prohibition). It might have been a relief, it has been suggested more than once, that Ned was gone. That way Lucy could have a decent life, good life, with a man who respected her. Which is what, apparently, she did. At least until the very end when she was old and frail, and dressed and waiting, for the Judgment Day.