It's been 60 years since actress Carole Lombard rented a two-story French provincial house in the 7900 block of Hollywood Boulevard, threw wild parties and fell in love with Clark Gable. It's been 51 years since the vivacious blonde comedienne--by that point a resident of Encino--died in a fiery airplane crash near Las Vegas.
But when it comes to selling real estate--especially Los Angeles real estate--no span of time is lengthy enough to dissociate a house from a celebrity occupant. That is why real estate broker Cristie St. James is talking about ghosts.
St. James doesn't believe in ghosts--she wants to make that clear. But there are some people who believe that Lombard's spirit is present in the four-bedroom Hollywood home she rented from 1933 to 1937. And since St. James is trying to sell that house, complete with roomfuls of Lombard memorabilia, the ghost seems worth mentioning.
"A couple of psychics have come into the house and, naturally, they felt her presence here," St. James said with only a touch of sarcasm. "One said: 'I feel her here in the bedroom.' . . . One saw her walking down the staircase in a long, dramatic red gown, going to meet someone with dark hair."
You don't have to be telepathic to feel Lombard looking over your shoulder in this house. In most rooms, framed photos of the "Profane Angel" (as she was known because of her colorful vocabulary) stare down from the walls. Crammed with movie magazines and mementos, the place is something of a shrine. Many people find that charming, St. James said.
Sure, she admitted, "some people come in and say, 'Who died? It looks like a funeral home.' " The velvet-draped windows and the rich, jewel-toned carpeting (both chosen to mimic Lombard's original decor) are "very '30s, very Hollywood. Some people are more into it than others."
But whoever buys the house will probably have to be into Lombard, at least a little bit. After all, St. James said, "it still feels like she's really here."
Of all the big names that have been used to peddle shelter in the Southland, Charlie Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino are perhaps the most popular. One real estate agent knows of seven purported Chaplin residences and "at least six Valentino houses--even houses he allegedly lived in after he died."
Once the seed is planted, it doesn't take much to imagine a pair of famous feet on the stairs. And for some people, that's as valuable as the stairs themselves.
"It's the same as buying art. The provenance of a painting having come from a good collection is very important as a stamp of its value," said Barry Sloane, an agent with the real estate office of Dalton, Brown & Long in Los Angeles. Houses once occupied by stars often carry similar cachet.
When Sloane represented actress Jean Harlow's former home in Whitley Heights, he mentioned the blonde bombshell in the marketing. More than 250 people showed up at the open house--a great turnout, even though more than half were looky-loos.
One well-known actress (Sloane prefers not to say who; living stars tend to frown on having their names dropped) was discovered rubbing her body on the front of the house. "She said she could feel Harlow," Sloane said.
A good real estate agent is careful not to overdo it, Sloane said. When he put actor William Powell's former home on the market, Sloane listed it as the "William Powell-Carole Lombard love nest." (The couple married in 1931 and divorced two years later.) But those who took time to visit the house encountered only a single reference to the lovebirds inside.
"One subtle picture in a frame--enough to set the tone," Sloane recalled. "No one wants to live in a museum."
Real estate agents are not the only people who connect houses to their illustrious residents. When actress Marlene Dietrich died last year, several fans left flowers and cards on the doorstep of a Beverly Hills home where she had lived for about a decade during World War II. It didn't seem to matter that actress Rita Hayworth had once lived there, too.
Six years ago, when artist Mike McNeilly bought the Hollywood Boulevard house that Lombard had rented after she divorced Powell, he discovered that the actress's far-flung fans knew more about the dwelling than he did.
"I'd bought the house strictly as an investment. (Lombard) was not what motivated me to buy it," McNeilly said. But with the house came several photographs of Lombard in the house--reclining in the living room, working in the study. Soon, McNeilly received more tidbits about the actress in the mail.
"People from across the country would send me things or write, asking about her," he said. Even before the psychics toured the place (they contacted McNeilly, he says, not the other way around), he found himself wanting to find out more. "I just started to read up on it and all of a sudden I was caught up. . . . This thing with Carole is contagious."
In the basement (which St. James, McNeilly's broker, says is perfect for storing wine), McNeilly found velvet window treatments and amethyst crystal doorknobs. In an old movie magazine, he found an article that detailed how Lombard had decorated the home in six shades of blue. He resolved to restore the place to its former splendor.
Along the way, he heard some great stories. According to legend, Lombard once moved the furniture out of her blue-on-blue living quarters, filled them with hay and farm animals and threw an indoor barnyard party. Screenwriter Bob Riskin ("Mr. Deeds Goes to Town," "Lost Horizon") was said to do his most inspired writing on Lombard's back patio. And Gable--well, rumor has it he frequented the house long before he divorced his second wife. Gable and Lombard married in 1939.
McNeilly says he feels torn about parting with the place. Even if a buyer paid the full $595,000 asking price, he said, he would lose money (in 1991, he tried to sell the place for $885,000). In addition, McNeilly knows it is possible--maybe even likely--that whoever buys it won't give a damn about Lombard.
"But I entered it in the same mind . . . and the minute I got in there, I became one of her biggest fans," he said. "I'll put my money on Carole that she'll take over. My money would be that Carole would let her influence be known."