Preston Sturges and Harold Lloyd: A Tale of Two Houses

April 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Sturges House Today, Post-Renovation/Hope Anderson Productions

In 2009, I wrote about my search for Preston Sturges’s Hollywood house, which I assumed had been torn down in the late 1940s to make room for the 101 Freeway. After reading in Sturges’s memoir that, in lieu of demolition, he had the house cut in 3 pieces and moved to Vista Street, I immediately drove over, found the only house that matched its description, and took this photo:

The House in Sept. 2009/Hope Anderson Productions

I hadn’t been back until last week, after Steve Pond of The Wrap contacted me to ask if he could use my “before” photo in an article about the house, which in the interim had been bought and renovated by the actors/contractors Jeremy Renner and Kristoffer Winters. http://www.thewrap.com/movies/column-post/jeremy-renner-his-house-flipping-sideline-it-keeps-me-grounded-25878?page=0,0 I agreed, he linked my piece about the house, and I enjoyed a brief spike in traffic to this site. When I went by to take the “after” picture, I was impressed by the house’s handsome exterior. No longer clad in tired-looking white shingles, it boasts new clapboard, windows and metalwork, and a much nicer color scheme. It probably looks better now than when Sturges lived there, though without period photos there’s no way to be sure. 

According to Pond’s article, this is the latest in a long line of houses that Renner and Winters have bought and rehabilitated, but it will be the last for a while, given Renner’s acting commitments.   

Meanwhile, over in Windsor Square, the house once lived in by Sturges’s friend Harold Lloyd looks as horrible as it did when I wrote about it in June, 2009. https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2009/06/05/harold-lloyd-lived-here/ But I’m hoping that when the second-generation owners finally decide to sell, Renner and Winters will have time to work their magic on it.

The Harold Lloyd House in Windsor Square on 4/6/11/Hope Anderson Productions

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Mary Desti Dempsey: Preston Sturges’s Mother of Invention

October 6, 2009 § 2 Comments

Preston Sturges, ages one to fourteen. His mother, Mary Dempsey, appears in pictures two and three.

Preston Sturges, ages one to fourteen. His mother, Mary Dempsey, appears in pictures two and three./From "Preston Sturges on Preston Sturges," Touchstone copyright 1990.

Preston Sturges was born in Chicago in 1898 to a beautiful mother (and fabulist of the first order) named Mary Dempsey and an unreliable father named Edmund Biden, which seems straightforward but wasn’t, at least to Sturges in his early years. Because his  father left the scene when he was an infant, his mother led Sturges to believe his stepfather was his biological father. She also claimed to have been 15 when Preston was born–she was actually 27–and 16 when she entered medical school, which she wasn’t, and didn’t. But those fibs were mere warm-ups for the Big Lie: deciding she was descended from Italian nobility–on the grounds that Dempsey had to be a mispronunciation of the princely “d’Este”–Mary Dempsey opened a cosmetics business in Europe called Maison d’Este. After threats of litigation from the actual d’Estes, she modified the firm’s name to Desti and used it as her middle name. Sturges summed up the situation by writing:

My mother was in no sense a liar, nor even intentionally unacquainted with the truth…as she knew it. She was, however, endowed with such a rich and powerful imagination that anything she had said three times, she believed ferverently. Often, twice was enough.

When Mary Dempsey was between marriages, she took the 2 1/2-year-old Preston to Paris, where she ostensibly planned to study theater. On her first day in town, Mary met a Mrs. Duncan whose daughter, Isadora, was a dancer. Isadora Duncan and Mary Dempsey not only became instant best friends but maintained a lifelong bond that outlasted their many relationships with men.  Though Mary soon returned to Chicago to marry Solomon Sturges, she managed to exact an agreement to live with him only half the year. The remainder of her time–which often stretched well beyond six months–would be spent in Europe,  accompanying Isadora to Bayreuth and other venues.

The result was that Preston Sturges not only spent his formative years in Europe but at one point, after being left for a long period with a French family while his mother traveled, spoke English with a French accent. After his adored stepfather divorced Mary in 1911, he spent nearly all his time in Europe. By the time his mother had married a Turk, learned a secret Ottoman skin cream formula from her new father-in-law and started Maison Desti, Preston was a full-fledged expatriate child, fluent not only in French and German but able to fend for himself during his mother’s frequent absences. The culmination of his European childhood involved running her shop in Deauville as a 15-year-old on summer vacation. When WWI broke out in August, he packed up the business and got himself to New York just ahead of the fighting. (His mother had gone to the front to volunteer as a medic, citing her non-existent Chicago medical credentials.)

Eventually mother and son were united in New York, but the pull of Europe was too strong for Mary to resist. One night in 1915 they were seeing Isadora off on a ship to Italy when she called from the deck, “Mary! If you don’t come with me, I don’t know what I’ll do!” Despite having no money and only the clothes on her back, Mary Dempsey walked up the gangplank, saying to Preston, “Do the best you can, darling. Keep things going. I’ll send you some money as soon as I can!”

Anyone familiar with Preston Sturges’ heroines can see where he got his inspiration. His movies are loaded with smart, hilarious and devious babes who bedevil the hapless and innocent men who love them. In “The Lady Eve,” Barbara Stanwyck plays a shipboard fortune hunter who snags a rich but naive heir (and snake expert) played by Henry Fonda. Madcap adventures ensue. “The Palm Beach Story” features two Mary Dempsey-like characters, the gold-digging runaway wife played by Claudette Colbert and the talkative, much-married heiress played by Mary Astor. A key scene in the movie, in which Colbert leaves the rowdy Ale and Quail Club car and returns to find that it, along with her clothes, has been left on the tracks, was taken from Sturges’s life. As a boy traveling by train through Germany, Preston and his mother had left their compartment–and all their belongings, including two dogs, some canaries and a parrot–for the dining car and come back to find it gone.  This presented a problem, not least because–like Claudette Colbert–Mary Dempsey had left her purse in the missing car. Madcap adventures ensued. Fortunately,

…everything was straightened out when we pulled into Cologne, where a soldier with a bayonet was guarding our pile of stuff, with the parrot insulting him in French.

Preston Sturges inherited not only his mother’s enthusiasm for culture and her sense of humor but her impulsive nature. Like her, he married often and sometimes suddenly, as in the case of his third marriage, which occurred during a brief separation from another woman with whom he’d spent a decade. The maternal source of his behavior seems obvious, though apparently not to him. In his memoir Preston Sturges on Preston Sturges, he wrote:

And yet, except that she chose the schools in which I was placed and made a few wise remarks which I remember with pleasure now but thought totally inconsequential at twelve, Mother had absolutely nothing to do with my development or what I grew into. Strangely, Father, though he was not my true progenitor, had very much more to do with the shaping of my character than Mother ever had.

This jaw-dropping lack of awareness didn’t serve Sturges well in his personal life. He found domestic happiness only in his fourth marriage, which lasted from his early 50s until his death at 61.  He had a talent for alienating friends and co-workers, abruptly cutting off relationships that had lasted for years. His hasty departure from Paramount, home to all his hits, was a mistake from which he never recovered. By the time he died of a heart attack in 1959, Sturges was struggling to pick up the pieces of a brief but astonishingly fertile and lucrative career. Twenty minutes before his death, he wrote:

…I have suffered so many attacks of indigestion that I am well versed in the remedy: ingest a little Maalox, lie down, stretch out, and hope to God I don’t croak.  

Preston Sturges’s Hollywood House–and Its Two Locations

September 1, 2009 § 3 Comments

Preston Sturges/Courtesy Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Preston Sturges/Courtesy Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

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. 

The former Sturges property on N. Ivar/Hope Anderson Productions

The former Sturges property on N. Ivar/Hope Anderson Productions

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:

The House next to Sturges's Ivar property/Hope Anderson Productions

The House next to Sturges's Former Ivar Property/Hope Anderson Productions

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: 

Preston Sturges's Presumed House on Vista/Hope Anderson Productions

Preston Sturges's Presumed Relocated House on Vista/Hope Anderson Productions

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.

Howard Hughes, Ginger Rogers and the Property on Cahuenga Peak

June 16, 2009 § 5 Comments

howard hughesSoon 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:

IMG_0726

The access road to Cahuenga Peak would be built beyond this gate. Photo by Hope Anderson Productions

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.

Lake Hollywood from Wonder View Drive, below the Cahuenga Peak parcel

Lake Hollywood from Wonder View Drive, below the Cahuenga Peak parcel. Photo by Hope Anderson Productions

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.

Howard Hughes and Ginger Rogers at a film premiere, 1933/Courtesy Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Howard Hughes and Ginger Rogers at a film premiere, 1933/Courtesy Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

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.

When Harold Lloyd Met Preston Sturges: How a Career Comeback Became a Career Ender

June 10, 2009 § 3 Comments

Preston Sturges, circa 1940. Courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Preston Sturges, circa 1940. Courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Preston Sturges is revered in Hollywood as the writer and director of some of the wittiest comedies ever written; in an unparalleled winning streak between 1940 and 1943, he wrote and directed eight classics, including “The Great McGinty,”  “The Lady Eve,” “The Palm Beach Story,” and “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.” Sturges was also Hollywood’s first writer-director (and later, writer-director-producer), commanding such princely sums that at his career peak he was the third-highest earner in the film industry. (More on this period, as well as his madcap European upbringing, in future installments.) 

But by the late 1940s, Sturges was in a career slump. In 1944, he had left Paramount, the studio where he had all his hits, to team up with producer Howard Hughes in order to gain Chaplin-like filmmaking autonomy. The partnership–called Cal-Pix–instead deprived Sturges of both his stock company and the studio’s vertical integration. Instead of having access to Paramount’s expert crews, Sturges now how to hire every grip and makeup person–as well as favorite actors like William Demarest, who was under contract at Paramount and would have to be “borrowed” at huge cost.  

Sturges’s volatile personality met its match–and not in a good way–with that of Howard Hughes. (More on him later, too.) Hughes, who had suffered repeated concussions in car and plane crashes, was already displaying the paranoia and obsessive-compulsive disorder that would characterize his tragic end as a Las Vegas recluse, while Sturges had a talent for alienating everyone around him–bosses, co-workers, friends, wives and lovers. By 1945, he needed a slump-buster. Enter Harold Lloyd.

Harold Lloyd didn’t need an acting  job (see below), but the idea intrigued him. He was 52 and hadn’t been in front of the camera since “Professor Beware,” in 1938, though he stayed in the public eye via radio shows and the movies he produced for RKO. A man of considerable energies, Lloyd’s hobbies ranged from 3-D photography to chess to breeding Great Danes, but they couldn’t compare to his feat of making an average of 11 films a year between 1913 and 1929.

Preston Sturges was a huge admirer of Harold Lloyd, and Lloyd’s influence can be seen in the slapstick in his films. Sturges came up with an amusing story incorporating footage from Lloyd’s film “The Freshman,” that would trace the accidental football star’s life through thirty years of non-events, until forced unemployment leads him to take his first drink. Success and adventure, including the purchase of a circus, follow.

Harold Lloyd as Harold Diddlebock

Harold Lloyd as Harold Diddlebock

“The Sin of Harold Diddlebock” was plagued with cost overruns, hiring problems and creative differences between Lloyd and Sturges. Lloyd’s comedy style was physical and Sturges’s cerebral, with slapstick used mainly as a respite from copious dialogue. When the film finally wrapped, it was $600,000 over budget and 52 days late.

After releasing “The Sin of Harold Diddlebock” to mixed reviews in only a couple of theaters, Hughes pulled the film, cut it substantially and–after buying RKO–re-released it in 1950 as “Mad Wednesday.” That version didn’t work either; moreover, it provoked Lloyd into filing a $750,000 breach of contract lawsuit against RKO for removing his above-the-title credit. Lloyd settled the suit for $30,000 and never acted again.

Sturges directed three more films, including the underrated “Unfaithfully Yours,” but all were box office bombs. He spent what was left of his career writing scripts and died broke, at 62, in 1959. His passing was sudden and occurred in New York, where he was writing a new play and an autobiography called The Events Leading Up to My Death.

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