When L.A. Was Young
Los Angeles exploded in the 1930s and 40s as Jack Warner, Lew Wasserman, Darryl Zanuck, and other film-industry titans built their empires, and a host of stars, from Fred Astaire to Jimmy Stewart, settled in. In an adaptation from his memoir, Robert Wagner recalls his youth in that bygone Hollywood, his ascension to the A-list, and the houses where it all happened: the feuds, the affairs, and the fun.
In 1934, Frank Lloyd Wright declared that Southern California’s “eclectic procession to and fro in the rag-tag and cast-off of the ages was never going to stop.” This was his way of declaring defeat; he had been trying to class up the joint by designing several homes in the area: the Hollyhock House and three other concrete-block Mayan-style houses, planned and built in the 1920s. They’re splendid examples of Wright’s mid-career style—and they’re all still standing—but they only added to the stylistic confusion of L.A.
At the time, Los Angeles was exploding in all directions. The population had grown from 576,673 in 1920 to more than 1.2 million in 1930. Four hundred thousand of those people had arrived in the space of just five years. All those newcomers had to live somewhere, and the Southern California real-estate boom was quite probably the largest and most loosely managed in history.
Meanwhile, areas farther west, such as Brentwood and Pacific Palisades, had begun to attract some movie people as Beverly Hills started to be afflicted with tour buses and gawkers. Will Rogers had come to dislike the town because it was getting too congested for him—the population that had been all of 672 in 1920 was 17,429 in 1930. A one-room schoolhouse at Sunset and Alpine had been torn down, and a one-car trolley on Rodeo Drive had also vanished. A great debate raged for a time about whether or not a dime store should be allowed to open on a street south of Santa Monica Boulevard; ultimately the issue was decided in favor of the dime store.
All this was too much for Rogers. He sold his house on North Beverly Drive and bought a ranch that encompassed several hundred acres at the far reaches of Sunset Boulevard in Pacific Palisades, where he lived for the rest of his life, and where he built one of the finest polo fields in the West.
Years later, I would buy a place of my own just around the corner from Rogers’s ranch, which by then was the Will Rogers State Historic Park. I lived there with my daughters and my wife, Jill St. John, for more than 20 years, and that land was a great healing force for me, just as it had been for Will Rogers.
When Rogers bought his property, he was pretty much alone out in Pacific Palisades—which was just the way he liked it—if only because it was a long drive to the studios, which were in Hollywood (Paramount, RKO, Columbia) or the San Fernando Valley (Warner Bros.).
A lot of the people at Warner bought places near Burbank and North Hollywood, because of their proximity to the studios. Bette Davis purchased a two-story red-brick Tudor house behind a wall in Glendale, which was only about 10 minutes from the studio. This meant she could sleep for an extra hour in the morning—no small thing when you have to be on the set, in wardrobe and makeup, by eight A.M.
Until the 1950s, relatively rural places like Sherman Oaks, Encino, and Tarzana were mostly barley fields and orange groves, with a smattering of chicken ranches. For those who liked country living, these were choice locations. Clark Gable and Carole Lombard had a 20-acre ranch in Encino, fronted by a white-brick-and-frame Colonial. It was all very homey, with Early American furniture and a room set aside for Clark’s collection of rifles—he was an excellent skeet and bird shooter.
The House That Jack Built
By the late 1930s and 1940s, a lot of incredibly opulent houses had begun to be built in Bel Air and, just outside its limits, in Holmby Hills. One of the first stars to move to Holmby Hills was Jean Harlow. Her Georgian mansion was all crème and gilt, and it was also huge—but then, her mother and her mother’s husband also lived with her. William Powell, with whom Harlow had the last serious relationship of her life, thought the house was ridiculous and her relationship with her mother destructive; he urged her to get rid of the place and save some money before her mother drove her into bankruptcy. She followed his advice and rented a much cheaper house, but she died before she was able to put down any roots.
Without question the most opulent house I have ever been in was Jack Warner’s. It was an immense neoclassical mansion, more than 13,000 square feet, sitting on nine acres of property. It had two guesthouses, terraces and gardens, three—count ’em, three—hothouses, a nursery, and a nine-hole golf course. Harold Lloyd, Jack’s next-door neighbor, also had a short 9-hole golf course on his property, and Jack built a bridge between the two properties so guests could play 18 if they so desired.
The interesting thing about Jack’s estate—“house” doesn’t begin to cover it—was that Jack put it together piece by piece over a 10-year period. He originally bought three acres in 1926 and built a 15-room Spanish mansion. But three acres felt insufficient, so Jack added another parcel of land, and then another.
The grounds were completed in 1937, at which point Jack turned his attention to his house. He hired Roland Coate to enlarge and completely redesign the old Spanish mansion into a new, neoclassical mansion, and Coate went to town on the assignment.
When he was done, besides the house itself and the guesthouses, there were gas pumps and a garage where repairs could be done on Jack’s fleet of cars. But everybody agreed that the pièce de résistance was the golf course. The holes were on the short side—pitch-and-putt, really—but that wasn’t the point. The point was that Jack had enough power and money to customize a golf course on some of the most valuable real estate in the world.
If you didn’t already know that Jack was a rich and powerful man, the entrance to his mansion would have told you. Past the iron gates was a winding driveway lined by sycamores. You ended up at a brick-paved motor court by the portico—all white and classical. Across the way was a fountain, and beyond that were landscaped terraces decorated with statues and urns.
Needless to say, the interior of the mansion maintained the same impression of grandeur. Jack hired William Haines to do the decoration. Haines liked big houses.
Billy filled the house with antiques befitting the setting—authentic George III mahogany armchairs, writing desks, 18th-century Chinese-wallpaper panels. (At this stage of his career, Haines liked French and English antiques with chinoiserie accents—an odd kind of Regency effect. In later years, he modernized his style to something more aerodynamic and Scandinavian-looking.)
The front door opened into a two-story hall with a parquet floor. Sweeping up the side was a curving cantilevered staircase. On the wall as you ascended the staircase were paintings by Arcimboldo, the eccentric artist—well, I’ve always thought he was eccentric—who made portraits out of fruit and vegetables.
The library was where Jack spent the most time, because it had been converted into a screening room where he watched movies with his executives. When you twisted the head of a Buddha, paintings would rise and a screen would emerge.
The library, which held a collection of scripts from Warner Bros. films, was largely decorated in orange, from the couches to the curtains. Because of the color scheme and the low furniture—so heads wouldn’t get in the way of the projector’s beam—it had a more modern feel than the rest of the house, except for some Louis XV-style panels that broke up the walls and drapes.
I recall that, somewhere in the house, over a mantel, there was a portrait of Ann Warner painted by Salvador Dalí. The bar had a large wooden floor and more orange accents, with Tang-dynasty pottery and a couple of huge candlesticks that I seem to remember came from a Mexican cathedral. Behind the bar was a statue of the Buddhist deity Kuan Yin, which Ann had insisted reappear in various places throughout the house.
I always wanted to ask Jack what he thought about Buddhism. Maybe he figured a little Buddhism on the side amounted to hedging his bets, but the truth is I don’t think Jack Warner ever believed in anything except Jack Warner.
Overall, the house was more like an architectural museum than a place where you’d actually want to live. When you had the privilege of dining at Jack’s house, the silverware wasn’t silver but gold, and a footman stood behind every diner at the table.
Ann Warner was a very upbeat lady, vivacious and full of life, even though theirs was a difficult marriage. In the silent days, she and Jack had had an affair, which eventually resulted in his divorcing his first wife and her divorcing her husband, Don Alvarado, one of the many actors who vied for Rudolph Valentino’s public after Valentino died. (To give you some idea of the incestuous nature of Hollywood, Don Alvarado later went to work for Jack at Warner Bros., using the name Don Page.)
Ann had at least one other serious affair after that, with Eddie Albert. As for Jack, monogamy was not part of the marital deal as he understood it. Yet he was mortally afraid of his wife. I’ve never understood why, but there it is. Whatever their private compromises, they stayed married for the rest of their lives.
There was an intense clannishness on the part of the Warners. For that matter, that same clannishness played a part in the character of almost all the men who formed Hollywood. That and an extreme competitiveness.
For instance: in the 1950s, Jack euchred his brother Harry out of the studio. Jack had suggested to Harry that they sell out and retire to enjoy their families and the fruits of their labors. TV had rolled in, the audience was declining, they were both getting older, and it wasn’t any fun anymore. The argument was convincing, and Harry went along with it.
But Jack was bluffing—he had no intention of retiring. After their combined shares were sold to a group of investors headed by financier Serge Semenenko, Jack bought back the shares in a pre-arranged sweetheart deal. (Semenenko had a coarseness all his own; my wife Natalie once told me that when she had met Semenenko for the first time he stuck his tongue down her throat. Even Jack wasn’t that crude.)
Warner Bros. was now the sole possession of Jack Warner. Harry had a stroke soon afterward and was never the same man. When Harry finally died, Jack didn’t go to the funeral, but then, he probably would not have been welcome. Sixty-odd years later, Harry’s side of the family rarely, if ever, speaks to Jack’s side of the family.
Clan loyalty dies hard.
I played a lot of tennis at Jack’s house. The tennis court was professionally lit, so you could play at any hour of the night. He didn’t have the appearance of a tennis player, and God knows he didn’t act like one, but Jack was a very good player, as was Solly Baiano, his executive in charge of talent. But you had to be wary of Jack on the court—his calls about a ball being in or out of bounds could be highly questionable.
Did Jack cheat? I wouldn’t put it like that. But I would say that his competitive nature led him to make consistently dubious decisions. Let’s just say that after playing tennis with Jack Warner you had an increased respect for what Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, and Jimmy Cagney had to go through for all those years.
After Jack died, in 1978, Ann stayed on at the house until her death, in 1990. At that point, David Geffen purchased the estate and the furnishings for $47.5 million. Jack’s house was perhaps the last entirely intact estate to be sold in Beverly Hills, and the money Geffen paid set a national record for a single-family residence.
Geffen is a man of taste, so I’m sure he’s maintained it as Jack and Ann would have wanted, but somehow I can’t imagine that house without those two around to liven it up.
More Stately Mansions
In stark contrast to Jack’s house was that of Lew Wasserman, the head of MCA Universal. Lew was of a different generation from Jack and had very different politics—Lew was a Democrat, while Jack was a conservative Republican—so it’s not surprising that Lew had a very different temperament as well. If he liked you, he was warm and accommodating, but to those people toward whom he was indifferent, or simply in business with, Lew could be one cold fish.
Lew’s house was quite modern and was an authentic reflection of his personality. It featured stark lines but also art that he understood, including paintings by Vlaminck and lots of Impressionists. Lew would usually entertain at Chasen’s, but he would also occasionally invite guests to his home. In either case, black-tie was called for, because that’s the sort of couple that Lew and Edie Wasserman were.
Interestingly, the homes of the great movie moguls didn’t seem to have much direct relationship to their personalities as reflected in the movies they made. The contrast between Jack Warner’s house and Jack’s films, for example, was staggering. Warner Bros. movies typically featured snarling mugs like Cagney, Bogart, and Eddie Robinson and tough women like Bette Davis, but his home was the height of rarefied style. If I had to take a guess, I would say that his movies represented Jack as he actually was—dapper, smiling, and cracking cheap jokes—and the house represented him as he wished to be.
Joe Schenck ran United Artists and was the chairman of Twentieth Century Fox. There is a Yiddish word for Joe Schenck: haimish. Joe was a rabbi to everybody in the movie business. He was round, unassuming, unpretentious, and wise.
After Norma Talmadge divorced him because she was having an affair with Gilbert Roland (later, she would marry George Jessel—there’s no accounting for taste), Joe bought an Italian Renaissance mansion on South Carolwood Drive, just west of Beverly Hills. There he spent the rest of his life entertaining beautiful young women, including Marilyn Monroe. Joe died in 1961, and subsequent owners of the house included Tony Curtis and Sonny and Cher.
Darryl Zanuck, who gave me my career, built one of the last great homes to be constructed along the Santa Monica stretch of beach. Darryl’s movies were evenly divided between light entertainments in garish Technicolor (such as Betty Grable’s films), grim films noirs (Nightmare Alley, Call Northside 777), and Westerns that could have been films noirs (My Darling Clementine, The Ox-Bow Incident). Darryl was always an innovator, a ceaselessly active man—I can barely remember him standing still.
Darryl’s house at the Santa Monica beach, 546 Ocean Front, was a three-story white clapboard house that could have been transplanted intact from New England or upstate New York. Darryl and his wife, Virginia Fox, hired Wallace Neff to design the house; when the job was finished, in 1937, Virginia hired Cornelia Conger to do the interiors.
You would never know that it was the home of one of the most dynamic moguls of his time, for there was nothing theatrical about it. Virginia’s collection of Staffordshire dogs and English china was displayed over the fireplace, and the whole house had a restrained En-glish feel to it. The furniture was Chippendale and Old English; the wallpapers were hand-painted—Virginia had excellent, refined tastes.
I suppose you could characterize the style of the Santa Monica beach house as predominantly Virginia’s, but RicSuDar, Darryl’s other residence (which he named after his children, Richard, Susan, and Darrylin), in Palm Springs, was not really any more in keeping with his own personal style—which was, in a word, swashbuckling. Darryl was a man’s man, a ladies’ man, and extremely competitive at everything to which he turned his hand.
Darryl raised his family at the Santa Monica house, and some of his favorite employees were nearby—Ernst Lubitsch, for one, had a place a little farther down the Pacific Coast Highway. Darryl’s Santa Monica home was a perfect place for entertaining, and Virginia hosted many elegant Sunday-afternoon buffets. She was a very gracious woman—that seems to have been a job requirement for the wives of the moguls—and I liked her tremendously.
The house at 546 Ocean Front clearly meant a lot to the Zanucks. Darryl’s son, Richard—who used to be handed over to me to babysit, and who grew up to be a great producer in his own right—eventually bought the house from his mother and lived there for years with his own family.
Dick Zanuck was a remarkable man in so many ways—the obstacles he had to overcome in order to carve out his niche! He once told me the story of how he took over Fox. It was after The Longest Day, and the studio was in the doldrums. Dick went to Paris to be with his father, who was thinking of coming back and taking over the studio . . . again.
“You know all these young people,” Darryl told him. “Do you know anybody who could run production? Here’s what I want you to do. At dinner tonight, bring me a list of people who could run the studio.”
That night, Dick handed his father a note. On it was just one word: “Me.” And that was the beginning of Dick’s reign as a studio head.
Dick sold 546 Ocean Front some years before he died, in 2012, but I’ll always remember it as the Zanuck house. And I’ll always remember Darryl and Dick Zanuck. They’ll always be in my heart.
As my own career began to flourish and I began circulating among my fellow movie stars in areas full of money, I encountered a number of surprises. For instance, James Cagney’s house on Coldwater Canyon.
The house itself looked like an unpretentious Connecticut farmhouse. It had two stories—the exterior of the first story was finished in fieldstone, the second floor in shingles.
It was not large, with only six or seven markedly small rooms, and a warm, rustic interior. Jim’s study was very masculine, with roughly finished boards, lots of books, a card table, and a piano. The house had been completed just before World War II, and that’s where Jim lived when he was making a movie in town. Otherwise, he was in the East, at either of his farms in Dutchess County, New York, or on Martha’s Vineyard.
The Beverly Hills house wasn’t exactly a cottage, but it seemed incomprehensible as a residence for a great star like Cagney. But then, Jim wasn’t your typical great star. He always felt that Jack Warner was taking advantage of him, but he was never really successful away from the studio. He broke away a couple of times—once, briefly, in the 30s, and later, during the war and after, when he set up Cagney Productions with his brother Bill.
But the pictures Jim made for himself showcased him not as his fans wanted to see him—snarling, taking on the cops and the world with a gun in his hand—but as he wanted to see himself: in literary material such as Johnny Come Lately or The Time of Your Life, in which he played a quiet, reflective man in transition. Those pictures would disappoint, and he would troop back to Warner, grumbling the entire time.
There were very few personal touches in Jim’s Hollywood house. One of them was a track that he had constructed right on Coldwater Canyon—his property encompassed six acres—where I would jog his trotters when I was a teenager. I got the job through the Dornans, a prominent political family, who were good friends of his. There weren’t a lot of grooms around Hollywood at that point, so I lucked into the job.
I was just a kid at that point, so he didn’t have to be nice to me, but he always was. That’s the kind of man Jim Cagney was. He liked people, he was very open, and he was very compassionate about animals. If you cared about animals, Jim was your friend. Since I was young and loved horses, I was one of his people. Ten years later, I died in his arms in What Price Glory—one of the great thrills of my life.
Inside Jimmy’s house was a dance studio with a wooden floor and a record player where Jimmy would practice, either to make sure he could still do the steps he’d been doing since his days as a chorus boy in New York or to lose weight for a movie. Dance was Jimmy’s main exercise.
There were never any parties at Jimmy’s home; he and his wife kept to themselves, and I don’t remember him socializing much at all, except for the occasional night out with the Irish mafia—Pat O’Brien, Frank McHugh, et al.
Jim never displayed much affection for the town of Hollywood—he seemed to regard it as a necessary evil, the financial basis for his real identity as a horse breeder and farmer—but he kept that house till the end of his life. Every winter, when the weather back East got nasty, he and his wife would return to California and get in touch with their small circle of friends. It was something of a pain—Jim wouldn’t fly, so they had to drive across the country—but by that time the Coldwater Canyon home had become a refuge for an elderly couple.
Men like Jim didn’t usually hop around when it came to real estate. Likewise Fred Astaire—he built his house in 1960, some six years after his beloved wife, Phyllis, had died, and he lived in it for the rest of his life, first with his daughter, Ava, and his mother. When Ava left home to get married and his mother died, he lived there with a housekeeper. And he continued living there after he married Robyn Smith, in 1980, until he died, seven years later.
Fred’s home was tastefully done but not what you might expect—classy but in a slightly bloodless way. It had designer written all over it, which I suspect was a function of Phyllis’s not being around to personalize it. In addition to books, the library had Fred’s Oscar and his Emmys, but it also had a pool table and a backgammon table. Over the fireplace was a portrait of one of Fred’s prize racehorses. (Half the people in my life have loved horses; the other half have loved dogs.) The dining room was done in period English furniture and had Georgian silver.
Fred’s artwork was particularly interesting, as most of it had been done by friends or family rather than by professional artists. Over a cabinet in the dining room was a painting by Ava, and Cecil Beaton had contributed a painting of Fred’s sister, Adele. I remember a couple of paintings of birds that had been done by Irving Berlin. They were quietly witty and charming, just like their owner.
The Hollywood Parties
There was an interesting way of determining social standing in the parties of that era. Contrary to cynical popular belief, if your box-office popularity fell off, you weren’t suddenly dropped from A-list parties; once you were in the group, you were in the group. If you were coming off a long list of flops, you might not be seated at the A table, but you’d still be in the A group. In that respect, I don’t think the movie business is really much different from any other business.
The great hostesses of Hollywood were more domestic entrepreneurs than they were chefs. Very few of them would spend much time in the kitchen; most contented themselves with planning and executing their soirées, or perhaps making a special hors d’oeuvre that they knew they could do well.
But there were a few exceptions. Connie Wald, Jerry Wald’s wife, did most of the cooking for her parties herself, and Jerry took a lot of pride in his wife’s abilities in the kitchen. Jerry, of course, was a huge promoter and had a great ability to put the pieces of projects together.
Jerry didn’t make great pictures but, rather, commercial ones that were solid entertainment. He was supposedly Budd Schulberg’s inspiration for What Makes Sammy Run?, although that implies a guy with more hustle than talent, and I always found Jerry to be a genuine hands-on producer. Connie, who was always at his side, lived to a very ripe old age, and when she died, in 2012, she left instructions that she didn’t want a funeral; instead, all the people who loved her were to have a great dinner—cooked and served in her house.
Another couple who were among the greatest party givers of that period were Bill and Edie Goetz. After World War II, as a young producer, Bill Goetz started a production company called International Pictures. A few years later, he merged International with Universal and became a wealthy man.
From the outside there was nothing special about the Goetzes’ house. It was two stories, was painted a light gray, and had a wrought-iron porte cochère—just another house in Holmby Hills with interiors by William Haines, one of dozens in the neighborhood.
It was only when you stepped inside the house that you realized you were someplace special, for the walls were covered with the most spectacular display of Impressionist art outside the Musée d’Orsay. Bill and Edie had one of the finest private art collections in America. That was why Edie always entertained at home—it gave guests a chance to appreciate the collection, and it gave her a chance to show it off. Bill and Edie’s attitude toward their extraordinary assemblage of art was low-key. They weren’t so presumptuous as to offer a guided tour, but if you had half a brain you’d ask them about some of the paintings—and how they’d gotten their hands on them. They wanted to share their objects of beauty with people.
The living room alone featured Cézanne’s La Maison du Pendu, Bonnard’s Portrait of a Young Woman, Manet’s Woman with Umbrella, Renoir’s Nature Morte, Fleurs et Fruits, and Picasso’sMaternité. A Degas bronze ballerina sat on a table. I remember touching its skirt with awe and hoping nobody noticed me.
Over the fireplace in the sitting room was van Gogh’s Étude à la Bougie, and the dining room contained a Sheraton table and Georgian silver. The walls featured Degas’s Two Dancers in Repose and a Bonnard called Le Déjeuner. Elsewhere there were a Monet, a Sisley, and, if I remember correctly, a Toulouse-Lautrec, which were all mounted on a wall that rose to reveal the projection room that was a standard feature for producers of Bill’s stature.
It was the screening room that drove people up the wall—to raise a Monet to watch a crappy movie, or even a good movie, struck some as the height of nouveau riche behavior. Irene Mayer Selznick, Edie’s sister, would tell everyone what poor taste she thought it reflected, even though the art itself was beyond reproach—well bought and well displayed.
Edie and Irene were the daughters of Louis B. Mayer, and they never really got along, mostly because they were extremely competitive. Each of them married an aspiring producer—Irene to David Selznick, Edie to Bill Goetz. David achieved greatness; Bill achieved success. There was, needless to say, a great deal of tsuris in the family, of jostling and unease.
Irene would eventually divorce David over his affair with Jennifer Jones, while Edie and Bill stayed married—quite happily, I believe. I met Irene only once or twice, just long enough to sense how very different the sisters were. To put it in a nutshell, Irene was intellectual and Edie was social. Each of them understood the movie business backward and forward, although in different ways—Irene creatively, Edie in terms of politics and power.
I found Edie to be a very open person—if she liked you. If she didn’t, she simply didn’t bother with you. But it would be unfair to call her a snob; I always found her to be a gracious and generous woman, in attitude as well as spirit.
Frankly, with the art the Goetzes owned, the food and the company could have been drawn from skid row and it wouldn’t have diminished my appreciation. But Edie and Bill were strictly A-list—their guests were the Gary Coopers, the Jimmy Stewarts. Edie’s invitation would tell you whether to wear black-tie or just a business suit. The atmosphere was formal but not stiff. That is to say, if you knew Edie and the other guests, you’d be fine. If you didn’t, I imagine it would have been intimidating.
Edie’s staff was up to the standards of her guests. She always let it be known that her butler had once buttled for the Queen Mum at Buckingham Palace. Edie always had the finest of everything—food, wine, crystal, china.
Edie Goetz was the hostess of her generation—her only true competition was Rocky Cooper, Gary’s wife—and the women who came to Edie’s parties knew it. The women would trot out their best clothes, predominantly from couturiers. I remember a lot of Jimmy Galanos dresses, and I remember a lot of stunning jewelry—the real thing, not replicas.
Edie and Bill’s house was no place for false fronts. The paintings were real, the success of the guests was real, and so were the accoutrements of that success. The women wore their finest because they were part of an evening of special people, and they were proud to show off their best. (In line with that, drinking was rarely a problem at A-list parties of this period. People were expected to know their limits and behave accordingly, and if they didn’t, they would very quietly be steered in a different direction or, in extreme cases, steered home. Unseemly behavior was rare.)
Bill Goetz was a funny, jolly man, with a deep, throaty voice like Ben Gazzara’s. He was a Democrat, although politics wasn’t what drove the wedge between him and his ardently Republican father-in-law. In 1952, Bill co-sponsored a fund-raiser for Adlai Stevenson with Dore Schary, who had deposed Louis B. Mayer from MGM, the studio he had founded and that carried his name. Mayer begged his daughter to intervene and prevent what he considered to be further crushing humiliation at Schary’s hands, but she felt she had to remain loyal to her husband.
Mayer never forgave either of them. By the time he died, five years later, he’d cut Edie and her children out of his will.
After that, the temperature between Irene and Edie never got much above freezing; it was the divided halves of the Warner family all over again. These men could forge empires, but the forging of functional families did not seem to be in their skill sets.
Bill Goetz died in 1969, and Edie hung on for nearly 20 years after that, although the parties gradually dried up. When Edie died, in 1988, most of her estate consisted of the art collection on the walls. It was auctioned off for $80 million.
Today, just one of those paintings would bring $80 million, or close to it. I shudder to think what the entire collection would bring, not that anybody but a Silicon Valley entrepreneur could afford it.
Garden of Delights
Very few stars’ houses were as grand as the Goetzes’. Jimmy and Gloria Stewart’s Tudor-style house, on Roxbury Drive, in Beverly Hills, was quite homey and unpretentious. Jimmy did what I thought was a very classy, not to mention telling, thing: he bought the house next door, tore it down, and planted a garden. He and Gloria would be out there all the time, supervising the gardeners or harvesting flowers and vegetables.
Inside the house, the piano in the living room was covered with pictures of family and friends, only some of whom were famous. Other than that, it was a comfortable home, with splashes of orange in the furnishings, but otherwise unremarkable. It could have been the home of a banker in Chagrin Falls.
The only room that told you who owned the house was the library. There was a niche that held Jimmy’s Oscar, as well as his certificate from the New York Film Critics Circle for Best Actor of 1939 for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. There was a citation from the air force—Jimmy flew many combat missions during World War II—and lots of photos. Oh, and one other thing—there was a small statue of a rabbit in there as well: Elwood P. Dowd’s old friend Harvey.
Some of the photos were stills from movies, although interestingly they weren’t necessarily shots from films regarded as classics—there was nothing from Rear Window or Mr. Smith, for instance. Instead, Jimmy featured shots from Winchester ’73, The Stratton Story, and The Glenn Miller Story. The others were simply family photos: Jimmy’s beloved twin girls; Jimmy’s father’s hardware store in Indiana, Pennsylvania; Jimmy visiting Vietnam. In that sense, the house was a true reflection of the man Jimmy was: a family man who was as much a product of Pennsylvania as of Hollywood.
Toward the end of his life, Jimmy and I were shooting a promotional film for Saint John’s Hospital, the charity to which Jimmy devoted so much time and energy. After we finished the scene, we were walking away from the camera crew when an old wino staggered down the street and saw who was coming toward him.
“Hey, Jimmy,” he said. “Where’s Harvey?”
And without missing a beat, Jimmy, with his inimitable stutter, said, “Why, H-H-Harvey’severywhere!”
In his will, Jimmy named me to replace him as a director of Saint John’s, and I’ve continued on the board down to the present day. It’s the least I can do to show my love and gratitude to such a great actor, such a superb human being.
When people think of beautiful Hollywood women, they think of movie stars, but there were extravagantly lovely women who were not actresses. Billy Wilder’s wife Audrey, for instance, was one of the chic-est women I’ve ever seen in my life.
When I knew them, Billy and Audrey had an apartment on Wilshire that was overflowing with his splendid modern-art collection—Schiele, Klee, Braque, Miró, Balthus, Picasso—all the artists whom Billy had admired when they, and he, were starting out in Europe but whose work he didn’t have the money to buy until he became successful in Hollywood. There were also a couple of comparative latecomers to Billy’s collection—Saul Steinberg and David Hockney—but they were friends, so they were in on a pass.
A few years before he died, Billy decided to sell off some of his art and made more than $30 million at auction—more than he’d ever made in the movie business. Not only that, but Billy said that the art was a lot more fun than the movie business, which is always like pushing a huge boulder uphill.
The Wilders’ apartment wasn’t really big enough to entertain more than a handful of people, so most of Billy’s parties took place at Chasen’s or at L’Escoffier, at the Beverly Hilton. When Billy and Audrey threw a party, it was a particularly delicious affair, because their level of taste and style was so high. These affairs were strictly black-tie, and they tended to be centered on Billy’s or Audrey’s birthday or their wedding anniversary. There would be a small orchestra, and the guest list always included Jack Lemmon and his wife, Felicia Farr.
Billy was an adorable man, a combination of the acerbity of Berlin, where he worked as a newspaper reporter in the Weimar era, and of the far more benevolent Vienna—he was born in Austria. If you asked him, he would talk about his old pictures, but you had to ask him. When he did discuss them, it was with a remarkable level of objectivity, probably because he wasn’t the sort of man who dwelled in the past.
Billy didn’t go through his long life wondering about why one picture was a hit and another picture was a flop. Maybe he should have used Cary Grant instead of Gary Cooper; maybe the problem was the script; maybe the problem was the director (both jobs often filled by Wilder himself). He would shrug his shoulders and say, “The hell with it!”—about success and failure alike.
By the 1950s, tastes had definitively changed, and the vast Spanish and Italianate mansions seemed permanently passé. They were also incredibly expensive to run, so it became cheaper to tear them down, as was the case with Marion Davies’s beach house at Santa Monica. The destruction of the great mansions sped up over the succeeding years. Even Pickfair, the original movie mansion, was leveled in 1990.
The years of the great parties were beginning to fade as well. There were many reasons for that. I had usually hung out with a crowd that was 10 to 15 years older than I was, so as those people aged they had less to celebrate. Some died, and some just left Hollywood, so the nucleus got smaller and smaller. And the business got more diversified. TV people worked much more and longer hours than movie people, so they tended to go to bed earlier. Finally, the great restaurants that had hosted so many great parties began going out of business.
It was a classic generational shift.
It was a lesson to me that nothing lasts forever. Except the movies.