Gloria Swanson in Hollywoodland: A Silent Star’s Hideaway

June 22, 2011 § Leave a comment

Swanson--Fashion Icon and Silent Film Star--in an undated portrait

Gloria Swanson is best known for her blockbuster role as the 50-year-old, over-the-hill film goddess Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard,” but her early, wide-ranging Silent film career deserves equal notice. Unlike most actresses of her era, Swanson excelled in both comedic and dramatic roles, beginning in comedies as a 17-year-old at Essenay Studio in Chicago. She soon moved to Los Angeles, where Mack Sennett turned her into a Keystone star. But Swanson wanted to be more than a comedienne: she was determined to be a romantic leading lady. In Cecil B. DeMille’s 1919 hit, “Don’t Change Your Husband,” she became one.

She was only 20 when DeMille made her a dramatic star, but she had already been married and divorced, having entered a disastrous 2-month marriage (at 17) to Wallace Beery. Beery not only raped her on their wedding night but, upon discovering she was pregnant, gave her an abortion-inducing drug. She would soon embark on the second of six brief marriages, only the last of which, undertaken in her late 70s, lasted longer than five years.

Joseph P. Kennedy: Patriarch, Ambassador and Failed Film Producer

Nevertheless, it was her not-so-secret romance with Joseph P. Kennedy, circa 1927-1930, that cemented Swanson’s reputation as a femme fatale off-screen as well as on.  Kennedy was not only a permanently married Catholic but a father of seven children (with two yet to come). Such was Swanson’s appeal that he rapidly became not only her paramour (she was married at the time to the poshest of her husbands, the Marquis Le Bailly de la Falaise de la Coudraye) but her film producer and business partner. Swanson and Kennedy’s most famous collaboration, “Queen Kelly,” was considered a disaster upon its release but later grew to be considered one of Swanson’s best films.

Swanson in "Queen Kelly"

When the couple split in 1930, it was over money–Kennedy’s flagrant spending of Swanson’s, which the actress complained about throughout her life. Fortunately, Swanson was a canny investor in real estate. In addition to her magnificent Beverly Hills home–the 22-room King Gillette mansion at 904 N. Cresent Drive–she at various times owned valuable properties in London, New York and Portugal, and seems never to have owned fewer than two houses at a time. 

She also had a secret home in Los Angeles: this mid-twenties Norman manor in Hollywoodland.

Swanson's Storybook Hideaway/Hope Anderson Productions

Although it was never her official residence, Swanson certainly spent time at the house, a fact confirmed by an elderly neighbor when the current owner bought it during the 1970s. It seems more than likely that the house was a love nest for Swanson and Kennedy, a place for them to enjoy each other’s company out of the public eye. She couldn’t have chosen a better location: even if her neighbors knew about the affair, they were unlikely to have gossipped about it–privacy having been a hallmark of Hollywoodland since its beginnings in 1923.

Marie Russak Hotchener and Moorcrest: The Theosophist Opera Singer and Her Architectural Fantasia

July 6, 2009 § 7 Comments

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Moorcrest/Photo by Hope Anderson Productions

Moorcrest stands on a hill overlooking Beachwood Drive. Its hybrid Moorish-Mission architecture, imposing size and prominent location lead many people, even Beachwooders, to assume it is a public building rather than a home. When I was working on my documentary, “Under the Hollywood Sign,” people kept asking if I had filmed the “temple”  on Temple Hill Drive. They were surprised when I told them it was called Moorcrest and always had been a private home. (The Theosophical Society’s actual temple–the Temple of the Rosy Cross–is now part of the Krotona Apartments on Alta Vista Street, just to the south.)

Those who know Moorcrest is a home tend to call it  “The Charlie Chaplin House.” While Chaplin did briefly live in Moorcrest, he was a renter and soon moved on, to a house he had his set builders construct for him (the infamously nicknamed “Breakaway House”) in Beverly Hills. 

If Moorcrest must be nicknamed for one of its owners, it should be called the Mary Astor house. Though it was her parents’ home, it was  Astor’s money that paid for it. (More on that, and the lawsuit her parents brought against her for Moorcrest’s upkeep, in a future post.) But no one ever calls it that. Perhaps Moorcrest should be nicknamed for its designer, who–along with Julia Morgan–was one of the few women of her generation to practice architecture. Unlike Morgan, who was trained in engineering at Berkeley before she went on to be the first woman accepted at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Marie Barnard Smith Russak Hotchener, a Krotona Colony founder, had no formal architectural training. Like that of many Theosophists, Hotchener’s path to Beachwood was circuitous and colorful, but none surpassed hers in originality. The daughter of a Northern California judge, Marie Barnard studied music at Mills College and–as Marie Barna–became a Wagnerian opera singer whose career led her to Boston, New York and Europe.
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Her 1899  marriage to a New York investment banker and society figure called Frank Russak apparently was the wedding of the season in Newport, R.I. A lengthy New York Times write-up describes the lavish ceremony and bride’s ensemble (“a gown of white satin faille covered with mousseline de soie and pointe d’aiguille lace, richly embroidered in pearls”) but makes no mention of her previous marriage, to a Justin H. Smith.

Retiring from the stage, Marie Russak began a new life as a rich Upper East Side matron but soon turned her sights to the wider world, moving to Paris with her husband in 1901. She had become a Theosophist in 1898 and deepened her commitment by relocating to the Theosophical Society’s headquarters in Adyar, Madras, India in 1906. (No word on what happened to her marriage, as Frank Russak seems to have stayed in Paris.) Her four years in India, where she studied under Annie Besant, not only schooled her in Theosophy but sowed the seeds of a new avocation: architecture.  

In India, Marie Russak no doubt saw magnificent examples of the Mogul style that would inspire the Theosophist buildings of Beachwood. The arches, keyhole windows and domes of the Krotona Colony are directly inspired by India’s Islamic architecture of the 16th-18th centuries, the best-known example of which is the Taj Mahal. The Theosophical Society’s headquarters in Adyar, Madras (now Chennai), a hybrid of Indian and British Colonial styles, probably inspired the ecclecticism of the Beachwood’s Krotona Colony, whose buildings were as much Italianate and Spanish as Islamic in their derivation.

After leaving India, Marie Russak helped found the Krotona Colony, which broke ground in 1912. Her role in building Krotona was substantial; in addition to co-founding the Temple of the Rosy Cross, Marie designed a number of houses for Theosophists, including this one at 6106 Temple Hill Drive.

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Marie Russak’s architectural career was aided by a fellow Theosophist, Henry Hotchener, a real estate developer whose purchase of a tract from the Albert Beach Company made it possible for the Society’s wealthier members to build new homes by the Krotona Colony.  In 1914, Hotchener built a house for Marie Russak at 6101 Scenic (below) and, after Frank Russak died that later that year in Paris, married her.  

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Moorcrest was completed in 1921. Apparently the Hotcheners did not intend it to be their home and soon rented it to Chaplin. After he moved out, they sold it to Mr. and Mrs. Otto H. Langhanke, who relocated from Chicago and New York in pursuit of their daughter Lucile’s acting career. Lucile, soon renamed Mary Astor by Jesse Lasky, would have an illustrious career in the movies and a rather tragic personal life. The latter was abetted–in court, no less–by her parents’ insistence on living on Astor’s dime in Moorcrest which, Astor testified, was a “white elephant.” 
Later  Moorcrest sank into decripitude, hitting bottom during the 90’s. A woman I know recounts wandering the vacant property, enchanted by Moorcrest’s architecture but alarmed by the extent of its neglect. The grounds had gone unwatered for so long that many of the mature trees in the garden had died. Finally the house was bought; the new owner undertook a major renovation in the early 2000’s and put it on the market in late 2006 for $9 million. That’s when I got inside and took these pictures:
One of the small sitting areas, with red lotus windows

One of the small sitting areas, with red lotus windows

Porte Cochere

Porte Cochere

Living Room

Living Room

Moorcrest's Atrium

Moorcrest's Atrium

Keyhole doorway

Keyhole doorway

In his otherwise excellent study of Krotona architecture, “The Surviving Buildings of Krotona in Hollywood,” (Architronic vol. 8, 1998), Alfred Willis bemoans Marie Russak Hotchener’s lack of architectural training, dismissing her proportions as “awkward” and her interiors as “rather garish.” Further noting that all her houses were “somewhat vulgar,” he concedes that they reflect “their designer’s own middle-class taste but also the vulgarity increasingly evidenced in the commercial and domestic buildings of boomtime Los Angeles in the 1920’s.” That the hardly middle-class Marie Russak Hotchener was reaching for an architectural style as unique and hybridized as Theosophy itself apparently never occurred to him.

Harold Lloyd Lived Here

June 5, 2009 § 4 Comments

Harold Lloyd in "Safety Last," 1921

Harold Lloyd in "Safety Last," 1923

Harold Lloyd was a Silent Era superstar whose 200+ films outearned those of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, his competitors in comedy. He invented a quintessential American character, an Everyman in round glasses whose encounters with cars, pretty girls and technology were endlessly compelling. People who draw a blank at his name have seen his most famous stunt, in which he hangs off a skyscraper from the hands of a huge clock in “Safety Last.” (In Hollywood, the scene is memorialized on the side of the Best Western on Franklin Avenue, alongside the warning, “Last Cappuccino before the 101.”)

A handsome young actor from Nebraska who came to Hollywood in the teens, Lloyd teamed up with the director Hal Roach to make such Silent classics as “The Kid,” “Grandma’s Boy,” and “Safety Last.” He entered the Talkies with a huge hit, “Welcome Danger,” (written by Felix Adler, profiled below) in 1929.

Unlike many movie stars of his generation, he was financially shrewd, owning the rights to most of his movies and investing in real estate in a new made-for-actors tract development called Beverly Hills. By the close of the Jazz Age, Lloyd owned his own movie studio (the site of which he later sold to the Mormons for their Los Angeles Temple) and was an extremely wealthy man. He weathered the Crash of ’29 and continued to act in, as well as direct and produce, films and radio shows.

Early in his career, when he was star but not a tycoon,  Harold Lloyd lived in this Italianate house in the exclusive Windsor Square neighborhood of Hancock Park.

Courtesy "Hollywood 1900 to 1950 in Vintage Postcards" by Tommy Dangcil

Courtesy "Hollywood 1900 to 1950 in Vintage Postcards" by Tommy Dangcil

The house still stands, an eyesore in a neighborhood transformed by 20 years of incessant renovation. I lived around the corner for 16 years and walked my dog (and after he died, another) by the house every day, longing for the time when it would be restored. In another city, there would be a plaque on it that read, “Harold Lloyd lived here.” But not in Los Angeles.

Harold Lloyd's Hancock Park house today. Photo by Hope Anderson Productions

Harold Lloyd's Hancock Park house today. Photo by Hope Anderson Productions

Throughout the ’90s, the house continued its decline.  Outside there were dead trees and a dead lawn. Dead cars were parked in the driveway. The only things that thrived were weeds.  Passersby showed their displeasure by turning the grounds into a public toilet for their dogs and, apparently, themselves.

When her dog turned up a mouthful of human feces, one of my neighbors reached out the people who have owned and lived in the house for two generations. They agreed to employ a gardener. He cut the weeds and hedges to a manageable level, sprinkled some grass seed and turned on the feeble old sprinklers to irrigate them. That was the sum of the improvements, such as they were. After the husband died, his rusting van was left for years the driveway as a kind of memorial.

These pictures were taken yesterday:IMG_0714
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As for Harold Lloyd, his story could hardly have had a better outcome. In 1926, he began building a magnificent new home on 16 acres in Beverly Hills. Called Greenacres,  the 44-room mansion was based on the Florentine Villa Gamberaia. Here’s a link to pictures: http://www.haroldlloyd.com/news/featurette.asp 

Inside the house were 16 bathrooms, a pipe organ and a theater with a 35mm projection booth. Outside there was an Olympic-size swimming pool, a clock tower, a child-sized cottage with electricity and running water, and extensive gardens. There were greenhouses, stables, a 9-hole golf course, a reservoir and a farm. Lloyd and his wife, his co-star Mildred Davis, raised three children as well as a grandchild at Greenacres, which was staffed by 15 servants and 16 gardeners. They lived in a manner that defined the word swell.

In addition to acting and producing, Lloyd became an accomplished still photographer, taking beautiful portraits of a nude Bettie Page and a clothed Marilyn Monroe. He celebrated Christmas in spectacular fashion, lashing several huge evergreens together to make a single monster Christmas tree, which he strung with thousands of ornaments. One year he purchased the entire Christmas display at Saks, tree included, to augment Greenacres’. Meanwhile, his compound tree became more and more opulent. When the project became too vast to disassemble, Lloyd fireproofed the thing and celebrated Christmas all year long.

He died of cancer at 78, in 1971. Greenacres was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, after its grounds were subdivided and the estate reduced to six acres. The mansion, however, is intact and renovated. Its current owner is supermarket tycoon/ex-Bill Clinton bachelor buddy Ron Burkle, who apparently enjoys Greenacres just as much, if in rather different style, than Lloyd did. 

I’m sure Harold Lloyd is watching over his beloved Greenacres from an even greater paradise. As for his starter house in Hancock Park, I’m praying for a gut renovation before the place falls down, followed by a lavish landscaping job. And after that, a plaque with his name on it.

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