Preston Sturges’s Hollywood House–and Its Two Locations
September 1, 2009 § 3 Comments
I discovered Preston Sturges in the early 90’s, when I first saw “The Lady Eve” on video and became a huge fan of his movies. In 1998 I found myself celebrating his centennial at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which put on retrospective of his films. The crowds that showed up for opening night included such comedy luminaries as Paul Rubens and Steve Martin, as well as his widow, Sandy, and their sons. Even Eddie Bracken, star of “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” and “Hail the Conquering Hero” was there.
It was around that time that I read Preston Sturges’s biography by James Curtis, Between Flops, (Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich, 1982) and learned that he had lived in the Hollywood Dell at 1917 N. Ivar, just north of Franklin. Though Sturges didn’t build the house, he certainly made it grand. In his posthumous memoir, Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges (Touchstone, 1990), he writes:
“Minutes after Bianca and I and a couple of servants moved in, I had construction started on a swimming pool, a barbeque house and a badminton court for the backyard. The place was in an uproar all the time with the racket of steam shovels, trip hammers, and concrete mixers, not to mention the carpenters and the dogs racing around between their legs, barking at the lot of them. The neighbors didn’t enjoy it and neither did we.”
That was in 1937, when Sturges was among the highest paid screenwriters in town. He was also under contract as a director at Paramount, where he pulled down $2,500 a week and would soon earn much more. Nevertheless he was always strapped for cash, not least because he owned two money-losing businesses, a restaurant on Sunset called Snyder’s and the Sturges Engineering Company, which made a “vibrationless” diesel boat engine for which there was no apparent demand. (Sturges, a keen yachtsman, inherited his avid entrepreneurialism from his mother, a madcap expatriate whose cosmetics business, Maison Desti, was an intermittent success in Paris, Deauville and New York. Mary Desti Dempsey was also famous as Isadora Duncan’s best friend; she not only gave Duncan the silk shawl that, caught in a moving car wheel, would break her neck but designed and manufactured it, too. But that’s another story.)
Although as a money pit the Ivar house would be far surpassed by The Players, Sturges’s future theater/nightclub/restaurant, it was an expensive place for a relentless spender to own. Sturges writes:
“When I hired some tree surgeons to shuffle around the trees in the backyard of my house to make room for the pool, I discovered an even faster way to get rid of money.”
When I learned the address in 2000, I went up Ivar to investigate. What I found was not only no house but a non-existent property: where 1917 should have been, there was a tunnel running under the 101 freeway.
As Curtis’s book doesn’t discuss the fate of the house, I assumed it was torn down when the 101 was built. Then yesterday I read in Sturges’s memoir about the property’s seizure under eminent domain:
“…one day in 1950, the state did indeed condemn the property for the public weal and gave me six months to remove from it my house, the barbeque house, the small garage, the three-car garage with apartment, and some trees, and paid me $130,000.” The following year, “the house, cut into three sections…inched through the streets of Hollywood on the backs of huge flatbed trucks to the new lot Sandy and I had found at Franklin and Vista.”
Although Sturges didn’t give the address of the relocated house, I had read a description of it in Curtis’s book and knew what to look for: a rambling wood frame affair. I assumed it resembled the two shingle houses south of the tunnel on Ivar, one of which is pictured below:
Today I took a camera over to Vista Street. Driving north of Franklin to the edge of Runyon Canyon Park, I saw one shingle house, but it was single-story and newer than the ones on Ivar. Then, heading south, I saw this house on the southeast corner of Franklin and Vista:
Although its shingles are now white and its condition somewhat dilapidated, it matches the Ivar houses in vintage and spirit and is the only one of its kind on the block. I’m certain this is the Sturges house and had never noticed it before, as I always go north off Franklin, rather than south. Preston Sturges, who died 50 years ago last month, seems all the more vivid to me now.
As for the tunnel, a friend who lives on Ivar recently told me a story about it. Without knowing anything about the Sturges connection (or possibly about Sturges), he said the tunnel was so haunted that a few years ago, a certain religious group conducted two exorcisms on behalf of the neighbors. Though first exorcism didn’t work, the second, extra-strength version apparently did the trick.