June 16, 2009 § 5 Comments
Soon after I started production on my documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign” in 2006, news broke of a spectacular property by the Hollywood Sign that was going on the market. That a piece of Cahuenga Peak was for sale came as shock to almost everyone; even LA City Councilmembers assumed the entire Peak was part of Griffith Park. As it turned out, a 138-acre parcel to the west of the Sign–five lots–was private. The land had been part of Howard Hughes’s estate and was sold to Fox River Financial, a Chicago property developer, in 2002. Fox River, which paid $1,675,000 for it, put the parcel on the market for $22 million.
The City of Los Angeles, caught unawares, managed to raise less than $6 million of the purchase price. Horrified residents, freed to imagine a clutch of McMansions–or one enormous pimp palace–to the left of the letter H, wondered how this had come to pass.
What I wondered was this: who would want to buy property in the middle of a city park, with no access or utilities? Here’s what I found out from my research of the property’s history:
Howard Hughes bought the parcel in 1940, when he was engaged to Ginger Rogers. His intention, after their marriage, was to build a castle with sweeping views of Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. In order to do so, he would need a road as well as utilities–electricity, gas and water–where none existed. When the City tried to prevent him from building a road, Hughes sued–and won.
Meanwhile, Ginger Rogers was having second thoughts about the marriage. She no doubt had encountered Hughes’s “eccentricities”–his paranoia, which was exacerbated by his use of painkillers and by his deafness, which he refused to acknowledge or treat, and a severe case of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, which manifested itself in germ phobia and the compulsion to do things like sort and count the peas on his plate. She confided to friends that she feared he would hold her prisoner on their Cahuenga Peak estate.
The catalyst of their breakup, however, was Hughes’s usual pattern of wildly indiscreet infidelity. Rogers dropped the bomb on Hughes as he lay concussed in the hospital after crashing his car head-on into another car, returning all his gifts of jewelry in a basket before hurling her emerald engagement ring at his bandaged form.
After Rogers’s departure, Hughes abandoned the Cahuenga Peak project but not the property, probably because he had more pressing concerns. The 1940s were arguably his busiest decade: in addition to running Hughes Aircraft and developing new civil and military planes, he continued a parallel Hollywood career, producing movies with Preston Sturges (see below) and buying a studio, RKO, in 1948. He was awarded a Congressional Medal for his aviation work in 1941 and received a contract to produce his giant military transport plane, the Spruce Goose, in 1942.
He also had two nervous breakdowns, the first in 1944 and the second, in which he locked himself in a screening room for 4 months while subsisting on chocolate bars, milk and movies, in 1947. In addition to his emotional injuries, there were devastating physical ones. In 1946, Hughes suffered major trauma when the XF-11 reconnaisance plane he was test-piloting developed engine failure. His attempt to crash-land on the Los Angeles Country Club golf course failed, setting fire to and destroying two houses. It was his second near-fatal plane crash (the first occurred during the filming of “Hell’s Angels” in 1929) and would leave him in severe, permanent pain. Addicted to codeine and increasingly crippled by OCD, Hughes withdrew from public life in 1950, though he continued to run his businesses by telephone.
When he died of renal failure in 1976, Hughes’s 6’4″ frame was so wasted by malnutrition that he weighed 90 lbs. Coroners found pieces of hypodermic needles in his arms. He left a mismanaged estate whose value, once estimated at $2 billion, was pegged at $360 million. The parcel on Cahuenga Peak was a tiny part of a fortune that included Hughes Aerospace, the Howard Hughes Medical Center, four hotels and six casinos.
At this writing, Cahuenga Peak property is still on the market at $22 million. Interested buyers should contact Teles Properties in Beverly Hills.