‘She builds what she wants to, when she wants to . . . ' : A Grande Dame Kicks Up a Flap

Times Staff Writer

Elin Vanderlip loves to walk people around her estate, explaining how this garden came to be--"I only plant big flowers"--or how that collection of trees emerged: “Twenty years ago, I planted olives; now I have an arbor.”

And she has a lot to talk about.

Her 11 1/2-acre Villa Narcissa estate overlooking the sea is a kind of “what might have been” if the pioneering Vanderlip family--which once owned most of the Palos Verdes Peninsula--had realized its dream of transforming the Peninsula into an Italian Mediterranean paradise of villas and villages.

Water gurgles from fountains, terra cotta statues watch over the gardens, tree-lined walks and roadways lead to fanciful tile-roofed cottages--one of them patterned after an Italian roadside chapel. Cypress-lined brick steps climb to a curving classical colonnade that has been dubbed “the temple.”


The villa itself--made of stucco with a tile roof--is decorated with delicate Lucca della Robbia porcelain medallions of angels and the madonna and child. A large bougainvillea climbs its walls. Inside, the ceilings are painted wooden panels. The formal dining room has a 15th-Century credenza that was once in the villa of Pope Julius III.

“You would think you were in the middle of Italy or Spain or something,” said a neighbor, retired Army Col. Francis (Cisco) Ruth.

Rancho Palos Verdes Councilwoman Jacki Bacharach says that Vanderlip--who has lived on the estate for much of the last 40 years--"brings our history to us.”

But at a vigorous 69, Vanderlip lives life very much in the present, along with the former Hollywood producer she has lived with for more than 25 years. She spends half the year traveling, mostly to promote efforts to preserve French art.


Somehow, she still finds time to tangle with city officials and neighbors over construction on her estate. The Rancho Palos Verdes City Council will hear about one such dispute this week.

A next-door neighbor, brother-in-law John M. Vanderlip, said he won’t speak to her, and some other neighbors resent her.

“She imagines herself queen of the hill,” said neighbor Alyce Snell.

For her part, Vanderlip says the people who don’t like her don’t know her and are jealous: “I don’t know why. Most of them are far richer than I.”

The Norwegian-born Vanderlip--born Elin Regine Brekke--remembers how, in 1946, she came to be the bride of Kelvin Vanderlip, one of the six children of family patriarch Frank Vanderlip Sr.

After breaking off an engagement to actor Sterling Hayden, Vanderlip by chance met Charlotte Vanderlip Cox, another Vanderlip child. “She told me, ‘I want you to meet my brother and I want you to marry him.’ ” Two months later, she did.

She called Kelvin Vanderlip, who died of lung cancer in 1956 at the age of 42, “a prince of a husband” and a man with a vision for the Peninsula. Through the family land company, he helped in the construction of the Wayfarers Chapel and the former Marineland aquatic park.

They appear to have lived a charmed life during the decade they had together, playing tennis, riding horses and entertaining actor Charles Laughton and other neighbors.


Old friend Lois Jester, who met Vanderlip almost upon her arrival on the Peninsula, remembers the costume parties with food, drink and musicians: “They went on all day long and into the evening. People would have the most wonderful and imaginative costumes.”

In the last decade, Vanderlip has focused her life on Friends of French Art, a foundation she created to raise money to preserve French buildings, art and books ravaged by time. The group has raised $2 million in 10 years. She calls the Friends “butterflies who flutter by and help with a small amount in many places.”

The project has created friendships with the nobility and aristocracy of France that have gained her--and donors of $5,000 or more, whom she takes on whirlwind art tours every year--access to private chateaux, castles, libraries and art collections that the public never sees.

A French count barbecued lamb chops for one of her groups. Vanderlip said she has lunched or dined at 440 French chateaux or museums during the past 10 years.

Entertaining is fairly lavish at Villa Narcissa, too, where Vanderlip gives several large parties a year for friends and charities. “They are lovely, beautifully thought out,” said old friend Harriet Medve.

Garden tours drop in on the villa, and sometimes it is used as a background for fashion layouts--with the fees going toward Friends of French Art.

She has entertained the king of Norway, the queen of Jordan, and when he was running for president in 1968, Robert Kennedy and his mother, Rose. “I invited all the high school students,” she recalled. “All of their parents were Republicans, but I wanted them to hear the Kennedys speak.”

But after a recent luncheon for nearly 70 people on the villa’s sun-flooded terrace, where French was spoken as much as English, Vanderlip confessed that giving large parties makes her nervous. She said quiet hours of reading and cooking are more to her liking.


“Gardening is my great love,” she said. “I have figs, oranges and tomatoes to eat. I just picked my first macadamia nut from trees that have been growing for four years. I’ve planted 1,000 trees this year--stone pine, cypress, olive.”

Despite her elegant life style, Vanderlip insists she is not the rich woman she usually is presumed to be. When her husband died, she said, most of his money went to their four children in trust, not to her.

“My jet-set life is due to my companion of 25 years,” she said, referring to motion picture veteran Lee Katz, who was assistant director on the legendary “Casablanca” and went on to produce such films as “Moby Dick” and “Topkapi.” He currently is a consultant with a film bonding company.

Vanderlip and Katz met after she returned to Europe for a few years with her children following her husband’s death.

“After my wife died,” Katz said, “Elin and I gravitated to each other.”

They spent a year in Rome while Katz dealt with artistic problems during production of “Man of La Mancha,” and three months in the Philippine jungle when “Apocalypse Now” was having financial problems. Said Katz: “We were in a wooden tent structure way out by itself. She sat under a waterfall all day or she would knit, read and write.”

In 1986, Katz worked on “The Last Emperor” in China, and the estate now boasts Chinese carpets of vivid reds and blue, cloisonne horses and screens.

Vanderlip’s manner is cordial, but firmness underlies her modulated voice. Friends describe her as candid, even blunt. Said Katz: “Once she had made up her mind, rarely if ever can it be changed.”

High Standards

Even well-heeled guests on her art trips to France--used to getting their own way--sometimes experienced her firmness. “She expects people to behave, to be a credit to their country, to themselves and to everyone else,” said Katz. “She has had to tell a few people she felt they had not done so.”

Not unexpectedly, Vanderlip elicits strong feelings--positive and negative.

Said Medve: “She is a brilliant woman, really, a generous woman, a loving woman to her friends.”

But her immediate neighbor, her brother-in-law, criticizes her for building and renting out cottages on what was conceived as an estate for one family. There also have been disputes over upkeep of the private Vanderlip Drive that serves both properties.

But the heart of the difficulty is a wall that Elin Vanderlip built between the two properties, which John Vanderlip says cuts off his view: “She kept building fences in front of our living room picture window.”

Elin Vanderlip retorts that he never had a view in the first place.

One of her cottage tenants, financial planner Maria Robinson, said: “I have a lot of respect for her. She’s a neat lady, a Francophile, and a self-starter, so I respond to those traits.”

The 11 Villa Narcissa cottages have created a curious and longstanding dispute between Vanderlip and the city, which is coming to a head at a City Council hearing on Tuesday.

Candid About Building

Vanderlip is candid about knowingly constructing nearly half of the buildings without permits, or with permits obtained for other structures, such as a stable or storage room. Construction began after a 1972 brush fire destroyed outer buildings that had been servants’ quarters. There are eight tenants, paying between $850 and $1,500 a month; other units are occupied by servants.

Vanderlip said she built the cottages to produce income to maintain the costly estate--ticking off such annual costs as $24,000 for caretakers, $8,400 for water and $4,000 for trees. She said that if she had gone through city channels, she would have faced restrictions and higher building costs.

City Planner Greg Fuz said that, unlike people who obtain proper permits and conform to zoning, Vanderlip “builds what she wants to, when she wants to, where she wants to without asking anyone.”

Vanderlip contends that she was “made a promise” by previous city officials that if she enlarged her property from 8 acres to its present 11 1/2 acres--which she accomplished by buying land from the Vanderlip family--her buildings would be legal under city density regulations. She claims that current officials have reneged on the promise.

‘Years of Harassment’

“There have been years of harassment . . . that have cost $140,000 . . . buying land, doing surveys,” she said, adding that she has “paid the price” for what she did.

Fuz said that the land purchase solved the density problem, but said the units may not meet health and safety code requirements.

“We are trying to do this in a reasonable way,” Fuz said.

At issue before the council is a variance approved by the Planning Commission to legalize the buildings, subject to a number of conditions.

Vanderlip objects to most of the conditions, calling them unnecessary, costly or an invasion of privacy. She has appealed to the council and is talking about suing.

“I’ve been decorated by the cities of Paris and Bordeaux,” she declared, “but in this city, I’m considered a criminal.”