‘The House That Mame Built’ Gone : Fires: Malibu home of writer Jerome Lawrence, once the site of literary conferences, playwriting workshops and musical soirees, is destroyed.
Friends called it “The House that Mame Built.” The man who built it preferred “Walden West.”
By any name, it is gone.
On a slope above Las Flores Canyon, Jerome Lawrence watches firemen dousing “hot spots.” All that remains of his four-story chalet-styled home is the ocean view of Malibu, which once served as theatrical backdrop for literary conferences, playwriting workshops and musical soirees.
Gone is the circular staircase modeled on the steps climbed by Angela Lansbury in the musical “Mame.”
Hirschfeld drawings based on characters created by Lawrence and his writing partner Robert E. Lee--Paul Muni’s attorney from “Inherit the Wind,” Rosalind Russell’s eccentric in “Auntie Mame,” Henry Fonda’s Supreme Court justice from “First Monday in October"--are gone.
Lawrence’s collection of signed first editions by friends Dorothy Parker, Somerset Maugham, Henry Miller, Tennessee Williams, Lillian Hellman, Will Durant and Christopher Isherwood are now ashes.
His art collection--a Picasso, two Degas, a Matisse, a Chagall, a Lichtenstein--is gone.
The Steinway piano that Vladimir Horowitz played, and against which Judy Garland once leaned while crooning at a Lawrence party, is vaporized.
“A firestorm!” Two days later, Lawrence still marvels at this natural “Dante’s Inferno.” “3000 degrees Fahrenheit, roaring through the canyon and over the hill and melting everything. Everything--gone.”
Lawrence had escaped the fire with only three possessions: his passport, bank books and the latest draft of “Whisper in the Mind.”
“It was the only copy,” Lawrence says of the play he’s revising with Lee, his writing partner of 52 years. “This was our next play, and I wanted to move forward. You look at tomorrow--not yesterday. . . .”
A single man, he has temporarily moved to the new Shutters on the Beach hotel in Santa Monica.
But now, watching friends rake through the ashes, the 78-year-old Lawrence’s thoughts go back to 1968. “Mame,” Lawrence and Lee’s musical adaptation of their hit stage comedy “Auntie Mame,” was still running on Broadway after two years. It provided Lawrence the economic freedom to construct a house perfectly suiting his own personality.
The two-acre lot cost $25,000. Lawrence coached architect Frank Hendler in the importance of stage effects (such as the “Mame” staircase replica), and the house was shaped around the stage designs of his plays and musicals. By 1970, the four-story, cedar-wood house with its two-story floor-to-ceiling windows clutched the hillside--at a total cost of $150,000.
Two decades later, in a depressed real estate market, Lawrence was offered $3 million for the structure. But in a fire area, the maximum insurance Lawrence could get was $500,000. Insurance companies refused to protect homes in his area.
“I don’t like to talk about this in a monetary way,” he sighs. “This was the literary spot in Malibu, because many, many international theater conferences were held here. Everything in that house was either from someplace I’ve been, or from a play I’ve worked on, or a person I loved. Angela Lansbury was all over the house, in photographs, play posters, Hirschfeld cartoons.”
When Lawrence learned on Wednesday night that his home was gone, Lansbury consoled him. She understood how he felt--her Malibu home had been consumed in a 1970 fire.
“We lost our photographs, our memorabilia,” Lansbury told Lawrence. “But the memories of the things you had will always remain in your mind, and you’ll see them extraordinarily clearly, and that’s all that matters.”
Lawrence remembers entering through high wooden doors. Visitors immediately faced three seats from the Empire Theatre in New York, torn down in 1950. These were the critics’ seats, Row J on the aisle. On the first landing, a very rare Noel Coward painting graced a wall. Below, a line-up of autographed photographs and priceless treasures from theater history, such as original Spectator newspapers from the 17th Century, Cruickshank and Rowlandsen illustrations from the 18th Century, Punch comics, a self-portrait by Katherine Hepburn.
From the ashes, a friend retrieves a scorched coffee cup, wipes off soot: “Mame” appears through the black film. A large Chinese B.C. bronze, scorched from the fire, is dug out--Lawrence recognizes it as a gift from the late acting coach Stella Adler.
An intact Native American pot is found. Lawrence rolls it between his hands, seems to listen to it. “Greer Garson gave me this pot in Santa Fe when she replaced Rosalind Russell as Auntie Mame on Broadway.”
A pre-Columbian statue is uncovered. “This used to belong to Charles Laughton,” he whispers, studying the fierce, blackened warrior. “Now it really looks pre-Columbian.”
A masked digger shouts and lifts from smoking debris a heavy object resembling a meteorite. Lava-like crusts are chipped off and the object is carried ceremoniously to Lawrence.
“The first typewriter ever made!” Lawrence exclaims. “It was plated in gold and turquoise--all burned and melted now. I was leaving this to the Dramatists Guild.”
A burly, exhausted fireman asks Lawrence about the typewriter. The conversation grows animated. The Kern County fireman says he’d wanted to be an actor, and in high school had performed in musicals such as “Music Man,” “Oklahoma!” and “Mame.”
“No kidding! I wrote that!”
The stage-struck fireman’s excitement at meeting the author of “Mame” is contagious.
“We’re gonna do it again!” Lawrence suddenly announces in the same determined tones that once bellowed from a heroine named Mame Dennis after losing everything in the Depression. “We’re going to start collecting tomorrow! And we’re gonna build a retreat for playwrights and composers of the future! Right on this spot!”