Inside LA - The Los Angeles Lowdown
Beverly Hills & The Stars Houses Tour
The name of Beverly Hills is synonymous with Los Angeles and the movie-star lifestyle. There probably isn’t a single visitor to Southern California who hasn’t heard of this small city, nestled on the slopes of the Santa Monica mountains, in the LA suburbs. It forms one of the four pillars of the city’s praetorian glamor guard, along with Hollywood, Santa Monica and Malibu – although Hollywood is part of Los Angeles, whereas the other three are separate cities. Of that quartet Beverly Hills has cornered the market when it comes to Stars’ Houses tours though. Much as visitors to Paris often make a beeline for the Champs Elysée, LA tourists will frequently want to do what’s now branded as a “celebrity homes tour”.
If you live in Los Angeles – as I do – then you know that these tours are considered a joke here (fairly or not). If we ever did a tour we know that we wouldn’t actually see any of these houses. Mostly we’d just see large hedges, unfriendly security guards and a lot of traffic. At best we might catch a glimpse of a roof, through the foliage, and spot some of the house staff coming or going. Finally, there’s no doubt in our minds that none of the famous people that we’d be told live in the houses do in fact actually live there. That’s mainly because rich people don’t buy property according to the limits of a tour bus driver’s itinerary. Los Angeles is big and there are many lovely and expensive neighborhoods. A wealthy person is really spoilt for choice here.
However, the lure of the “celebrity lifestyle” is strong. As one tour company puts it:
Our professional guides take you to the most exclusive and opulent estates in Beverly Hills, and the actual places where celebrities live, work, eat and play.
But why is the renown of Beverly Hills still so great? Bus tours of wealthy neighborhoods aren’t a thing in any other city in the world. Why are celebrity homes tours such a thing here? Well, it’s all bound up with the first part of the title – the “celebrity” bit. Beverly Hills is really ground zero for the birth of modern celebrity culture, which was born in Los Angeles in the 1910’s. In the minds of many people around the world all famous people live in Beverly Hills, they just do. And the possibility of seeing the mansions and – who knows – a world-famous person in the flesh, is too good to be turned down. It’s a shame in many ways, as BH has a far more interesting history than most visitors ever realize.
Early History of Beverly Hills
For aeons before anyone had ever heard the name Kim Kardashian the First Americans known as the Tongva occupied the land of present-day Beverly Hills. During that time the Los Angeles River crossed the wide plain below it, emptying into the vast Pacific where Venice is now, and forests covered the area. Several streams naturally arose in the Santa Monica mountains and ran down to the river via Franklin, Coldwater and Benedict Canyons. The place where the streams joined into one was a sacred site for the Tongva and when the Spanish seized California in 1769 the conquistadors took the previous name and translated it into Spanish – El Rodeo de las Aguas (the meeting place of the waters). That, of course is how the most famous shopping street in the world got its name. It’s First American, via the Spanish, into English. And then fired into the stratosphere of fame by U.S. made celebrity culture.
With the arrival of the Spanish Empire the pace of change rapidly increased for this hilly haven. The first big change was political – Mexico gained its independence in 1821 and Beverly Hills became part of Alta California. The second was a natural one. In 1825 torrential rain in the mountains led to a storm surge which broke the Los Angeles River’s banks, diverting it down to what’s now Long Beach. Over the following decade the old riverbed gradually dried up and the forests retreated. This had long term implications for the water-table below Beverly Hills but, for the time being, the land was made more suitable for ranching. Another consequence was that an alternative future in the multi-verse, where Los Angeles gradually spread out along its river to the sea, at Venice, was to be forever rendered an impossibility, in this universe at least.
In 1838 a forty-seven year old widow named Maria Rita Valdez Villa was granted the title to the 4,500 acre Rancho El Rodeo de las Aguas – modern day Beverly Hills. Valdez Villa was a granddaughter of Luis and Maria Quintero, who were two of the original forty-four settlers, known as the Pobladores, that had founded Los Angeles in 1781. Her great-grandfather was of African descent and had been a slave. Of course the neighborhood wasn’t as tony back then as it is now, but that’s still a significant bit of upward mobility. She built an adobe farmhouse on what’s now the corner of Alpine Drive and Sunset Boulevard, near where the Beverly Hills Hotel sits today.
More change was coming though as, in 1848, California became part of the U.S., with the conclusion of the Mexican-American War and its purchase by President Polk. Valdez Villa was able to establish her ownership of the Rancho but, in 1852, in true Wild West style there was an armed assault by several unknown assailants on the homestead. The details are murky, but the incident may well have persuaded Valdez Villa to sell the ranch to Benjamin Wilson and Henry Hancock for $4,000 in 1854. These were two wealthy landowners and developers in the Los Angeles area who both left their mark on their adopted home (Mount Wilson and Hancock Park).
El Rancho passed through several more owners’ hands, most of whom tried crop farming, but all of whom were ultimately unsuccessful in their plans. Funnily enough, none of them tried making wine and vineyards were abundant in the area at the time (hence the name of Vine Street in Hollywood). However, oil was found near downtown LA in 1892 and this kicked off a rush to discover new sources of the precious black gold.
In 1906 the Rodeo Land and Water Company (a division of Amalgamated Oil Company) bought the ranch, with the intention of drilling for oil. They didn’t find any, but they did discover underground aquifers. This may well have been a disappointment to the investors, but they altered their plans and decided to develop the land with housing. Burton Green, the president of the company, named the new development Beverly Hills, after a picturesque town near Boston (where he was from) called Beverly Farms. The development was to be Christian and white only. Just fifty years after it was owned by an Afro-Latina (although, it’s true, she was Christian).
Movie Stars Move into the Neighborhood
Green built the first mansion in Beverly Hills, but for years property sales were very slow. Potential buyers would need somewhere to stay, a place where their future lifestyle could be presented and they would be made to see beyond the acres of bare earth, to the earthly paradise beyond. Accordingly, Green approached Margaret Anderson, manager of the Hollywood Hotel a few miles away, to see if she would agree to take on the under-construction Beverly Hills Hotel. On the day it opened, in 1912, Anderson walked out of the Hollywood Hotel, closing it in the process, and took all the staff and guests with her to the new establishment.
After the Beverly Hills Hotel opened lot sales did pick up, but most of the area was still undeveloped, with a population of just a few hundred, when it was incorporated as a city two years later. Charles Chaplin writes in his autobiography of what a strange place it was at that time, with wiggly streets leading off in all directions into the distance, complete with streetlamps and sidewalks – but no houses. The reason why you have heard of Beverly Hills is because a good friend of Charlie’s bought a house in the city in 1918 – Douglas Fairbanks.
The early history of Beverly Hills and Hollywood (both the industry and the neighborhood) can be told in the stories of Douglas Fairbanks, his wife, fellow movie star Mary Pickford, and Charles Chaplin. Pickford was the first to come to Los Angeles, shooting a movie called In Old California in Hollywood itself, in 1910 (the first ever filmed there). At the time the nascent moving pictures industry was based in New Jersey and New York, however the aggressive enforcement of the thirteen patents then needed in movie production by industrialist Thomas Edison meant producers were looking for a new base of operations, one that wouldn’t be controlled by him.
In 1911 Nestor Studios took over an old tavern on the corner of Sunset and Gower as a production facility. It was the first movie studio in Hollywood itself, but soon dozens of other companies followed and within a couple of years Los Angeles and its suburbs had become the center of this new tech industry. Mary Pickford moved to the neighborhood in 1913. She had been known as ‘the Biograph Girl’, after the company she worked for (there were no post-film credits in those days, so no one knew her name) – now she became ‘America’s Sweetheart’ and the first major motion picture star.
She was followed by Charles Chaplin, a vaudeville comedian from London, later the same year. By the end of 1914 he too had become a global phenomenon, with his tramp character beloved by millions the world over. Finally, in 1915 Douglas Fairbanks came out West from New York, where he was a Broadway star, to try his luck in moving pictures. He rapidly found huge success in a series of light comedies (one of his most successful roles was ‘Coke Ennyday’, a cocaine-addicted version of Sherlock Holmes).
We’ve grown up in a world where stardom already exists, so it’s almost impossible to understand the impact that this first wave of Hollywood stars had on culture and society. Fame on this level just didn’t exist in anything like the same way before. Writers, such as Mark Twain, Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde had had huge success – but the vast majority of people had no idea what they looked like, didn’t know (or maybe even like) their work and they weren’t fascinated with every tiny detail of their life. Movie stardom was something different altogether. It involved a whole different level of fame and fascination.
A funny story about Chaplin illustrates this phenomenon perfectly. He’d arrived in Los Angeles on a contract worth $150 a week in December 1913 and spent several months learning the film-making ropes, nevertheless by May 1914 he was writing and directing his own movies and exhibitors were already begging his producer for more of his films, as they were so successful.
By 1917 he was ready to sign a contract with a group of theatre chains which would give him complete control over all aspects of the eight films he was to make for them and one million dollars. He was twenty-eight years old. News of the deal was widely reported, and it created a sensation – but the producers insisted that he was worth it. That’s how much money the industry was generating, even in those early years. Chaplin cabled his brother, who’d negotiated the contract in New York, and prepared to travel there to sign the paperwork.
He boarded a train to begin the five day journey across the U.S. Waking up the following morning, he went to the shared bathroom to shave as the train pulled into Yuma and heard a commotion outside. The door to the bathroom burst open and he was literally dragged, half shaven and still in his pyjamas, onto the platform where a three thousand strong crowd went wild to see the great star in front of them. He said a few words and got back on the train, but at the next stop there was a crowd of five thousand and so it went on, as the journey progressed, with bigger and bigger crowds waiting at every station.
It turned out that the cable operators who’d relayed the message to his brother had leaked the news that he was taking the train and it had, effectively, gone viral. In Chicago there were 50,000 people waiting to see him. In New York over 100,000 – so many in fact that Chaplin had to get off the train at the penultimate stop. The crowds had become so vast and animated that police were concerned about safety. This level of excitement was unheard of.
In 1918 Paramount Pictures agreed a deal with Fatty Arbuckle which paid him $3 million, probably equivalent to $100 million now. It just boggled people’s minds that someone that they’d never heard of just a few years before, could be making so much money from an industry that was still considered something of a novelty (sound familiar?).
The same year Pickford, Fairbanks and Chaplin went on a country-wide tour to sell War Bonds (the U.S. having entered World War One by that point) and the reception was phenomenal, with millions going to their rallies. It’s estimated that they raised over $180 million in total.
To get an idea of how much greater was the level of fame experienced by those early stars take a look at the photos below. Chaplin, Douglas and Pickford were due to give some short speeches in support of Wall Street selling more of the bonds. Over a hundred thousand people are there – on a Tuesday lunchtime, in a city not known for being easily impressed by anyone. Those are nearly all men – they had wives, girlfriends, daughters, mothers, who were all equally fascinated, if not more, than them. Then consider if any celebrity today could pull a crowd like it, especially considering most of the people there probably didn’t even consider themselves as being ‘fans’ as such of the three stars.
By this point Fairbanks and Pickford were already having an affair (they were both married to different people at the time). After returning from the tour Fairbanks moved out of his marital home in Hollywood and into an estate near the Beverly Hills Hotel, called Grayhall. Shortly after he bought a hunting lodge nearby, on Summit Drive, for his secret trysts with Pickford (remember that there was a strict moral code in force in the U.S. at the time and secrecy was vital, lest word got out).
When they married in March 1920 Fairbanks gave the lodge to Pickford, as a wedding present. They went on a Grand Tour of Europe and were mobbed in London and Paris, to the extent that Fairbanks had to put the diminutive Pickford on his shoulders to carry her out of the surging throng. To huge cheers from the public of course.
On returning to LA they soon demolished the existing lodge building and constructed a huge twenty-five room mansion, with guest houses, servants’ quarters, pool, courts, garages AND stables, on the eighteen acre property – the original celebrity home. It was christened ‘Pickfair’ by the press and during the 1920’s the numerous parties held there were legendary. Soon other stars, such as Chaplin, were following suit and buying plots to construct their own hillside palaces.
During this period the famous were the rich. Of course, there had been rich people before, but such vast fortunes had never been made as fast as this (even in the Gold Rush). And people hadn’t fallen in love with the Vanderbilts and the Carnegie’s on the silver screen. Readers of the many magazines and publications (some of which had morning, afternoon and evening editions) pored over plans, photos and lengthy descriptions of each new mansion. The image of Los Angeles had been one of a tropical paradise before, something like Florida now, but with these new developments it started to evoke a feeling more of a Shangri-La. Central to it all was Beverly Hills.
In 1919 Pickford, Fairbanks and Chaplin (along with D.W. Griffith and William Hart) formed their own Hollywood Studio, United Artists. From now on they would control even the production of their films. They were at the top of what was, at that time, a relatively small pyramid of fame. Everybody knew them and their films. If you were a guy you wanted to be Douglas Fairbanks, if you were a girl, you wanted to be with him.
Nowadays most people have never seen one of his movies, but every time you watch Iron Man or Batman you’re seeing Fairbanks – he birthed the superhero archetype when he appeared in The Mark of Zorro, in 1921. Animators were just starting to create these figures and they owe much to the great man in their need for a mask to hide their identity, in their physical courage, strength and agility – and with their cape. He invented the action-comedy film too. The genre didn’t exist before.
All of this helps to explain how the public became so fascinated with the small town in which he and his movie-star friends lived, to such an extent that the fame continues, unabated, to this day. When stars in the heavens die, we continue to see the light for millions of years, such is the power of the celestial source. Even so is it with our terrestrial versions; long after their deaths we’re still blinded by the power of that first great Big Bang of stardom. Still seeing the light a hundred years later.
By 1923 Los Angeles had been hungrily gobbling up more land and people over the previous decade and a half – and now it seemed like the city had its eyes on Beverly Hills. This expansion had been made possible by the city’s control of the most important resource of all – water. In 1910 Hollywood had voted to merge with its neighbor to get its hands on the precious liquid, the San Fernando Valley followed suit in 1915 and in 1926, with the integration of Venice, LA would reach the sea. It seemed like Beverly Hills wouldn’t put up much resistance and would soon be swallowed up.
However, Mary Pickford and others wanted to maintain the city’s independence, seclusion and friendly police department (who could be counted on to look the other way when their wild parties were in full swing). Pickford, Harold Lloyd and Rudolf Valentino went door to door to make their case to residents (they figured who wouldn’t open their front door to such huge stars as Lloyd, Valentino and Pickford).
This first involvement by celebrities in politics was successful as the proposition was defeated and Beverly Hills remained an independent city. This was made possible by the discovery of several wells below it. These remained a key source of water until 1976. Meanwhile, during the 1920’s, the population exploded from 675 in 1920 to nearly 18,000 residents by 1930 (now it’s 33,000).
Involvement in politics by the powerful residents of the area continues, Rupert Murdoch being a prime example. Interestingly he bought an estate with a vineyard in next-door Bel Air in 2013, proving the suitability of the climate for making wine. Unfortunately the vineyard was badly affected by wild fires in the area in 2017 – maybe climate change is real, Rupert?
Already by the mid-1920’s shops were selling postcards of the stars’ houses and by the 1930’s there were fully-fledged stars houses tours of Beverly Hills. So much of the immense fame of Los Angeles rests on its hosting of the entertainment industry that to this day, if you ask most people who haven’t visited what they think of when they picture the city, they’ll say “Hollywood, beaches and Beverly Hills”.
It’s such a powerful brand that convincing people that there are many different elements to LA and that, in fact, the entertainment industry is just a relatively small part of it, is very difficult. Partly that’s because people want to believe in the Hollywood Dream Factory – and as we’ve seen over the last few years, it’s very hard to convince people of something they don’t want to believe.
Beverly Hills Ends Discriminatory Housing Practices?
Since its founding Beverly Hills had had restrictive covenants covering land sales within the city, blacks and Jews were not allowed to purchase property there. Several African-American entertainers, including Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel, challenged these covenants in court in 1945. The lawsuit was defended by, amongst many others, Harold Lloyd, but the covenants were universally struck down by Judge Thurmond Clarke, who opined:
Members of the Negro race are accorded, without reservations or evasions, the full rights guaranteed to them under the 14th amendment
Referring to a “negro race” sounds like discrimination to me too, but this was a landmark decision that effected the whole U.S. Nowadays the proportion of white people in Beverly Hills is 82%, black residents make up only 2.2% and Hispanic/Latinos are at 5.7%, so change has been incremental at best. Bear in mind that within Los Angeles County the proportion of white people is 50%.
The Beverly Hillbillies Years
By the 1950’s the city was featuring in TV shows, like The Beverly Hillbillies, a hugely popular sitcom of the era. The titular hillbillies had made a fortune when oil had been discovered on their ranch in Texas, so they’d sold up and moved to that nouveau riche Mecca, Beverly Hills. Of course, its prim and proper residents weren’t ready for the red-neck tell it as it as it is Texans. Hilarity ensued. It seemed like BH was no longer a location for louche Hollywood debauchery, a la Pickfair, but it was still opulent and privileged.
Ironically, life began to imitate art in the 60’s, as so often happens in Los Angeles, when a large oil field was discovered. This led to numerous wells being dug under the city, many of which still produce today. There was a cluster of nineteen oil wells being drained right under Beverly Hills High School, which were the subject of a environmental lawsuit brought by none other than Erin Brockovich. Again, life imitating art, which would then be imitated by life. The wells were capped in 2021.
In recent years there have been two TV shows largely set in that very high school, including both iterations of 90210. I can’t see another one in the current climate. It would feel too safe, not diverse enough. And it seems like the concerns of a wealthy, elite group of kids wouldn’t really chime with a world in which there are so many bigger things going on. But what do I know? Maybe that’s exactly what people DO want. Escapism. It’s what Hollywood does so well. Look at Beverly Hills Housewives.
Beverly Hills Today
Nowadays, the rich and famous live all over the region. Probably more of ‘them’ (whoever ‘they’ are at any given moment) live in Malibu and Calabasas. Certainly the other two ‘B’s’ – Brentwood and Bel Air – are just as tony, but it matters not. It’s BH that the people want to see, even though the Fairbanks’s and Pickford’s have long faded into sepia-tinged photographs and their films are rarely seen outside of retrospectives at arthouse cinemas. Pickfair, the original stars’ home, was demolished (to considerable outcry) in 1989 by a real estate developer and Hollywood starlet.
Neither does the undeniable fact that Beverly Hills is so white bread and privileged dim the appeal of this small Southern Californian city. It’s as popular as ever. The tour buses and vans clogging up the curving, palm-lined streets with their versions of the stars’ houses – or celebrity homes – tours are usually full. For these visitors doing such a tour is what you do when you go to LA, “just to see it”. It’s the first thing on the checklist. No matter how much you might try to convince them that they probably won’t see a single celebrity home and that they would be much better off experiencing another part of this amazing city, they just want to see it for themselves. And, truth be told, I can’t blame them!
If you want to see BH take advantage of our self-guided tour of Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive.
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– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)