It began with Harry Haldeman, a big, jovial Chicagoan with a passion for Cuban cigars, hard liquor and good times.
In 1913, the grandfather of Watergate figure H.R. (Bob) Haldeman became the driving force behind an influential band of revelers known as the Uplifters Club. Its members bought part of a canyon in Pacific Palisades, christened it Uplifters Ranch and built secluded getaways around an elaborate clubhouse.
Nearly half a century after the exclusive men's club was dissolved, its legacy is a dreamscape, an odd assortment of three dozen fanciful cottages and lodges tucked in a remote canyon near Will Rogers State Historic Park.
Like sentinels of an earlier age, they are both whimsical and mysterious. A few have huge ballrooms. Some are log cabins hauled in from the set of an early silent film. Others sport fanciful card parlors and Prohibition-era "basement bars."
Serene, almost magical, the ranch is said to be the last place in town where one can find a creek that hasn't been filled, lined with concrete or funneled into drainage pipes. Rarer still is a small grove of 70-year-old redwoods.
"There's no other place quite like it," says Robert Winter, an architectural historian who views the ranch as an oasis in a metropolis quick to demolish its past.
In a corner of Rustic Canyon below where Sunset Boulevard slices past the former estate of Will Rogers, the ranch is a lush, almost rural, residential sanctuary washed by spring fogs and cool ocean breezes.
Its centerpiece, the former clubhouse, with its shaded, plaza-like grounds, has been a park since 1953 when a wealthy socialite bought it from a Greek shipping tycoon and donated it to the city. The tycoon, who had bought the clubhouse from the Uplifters, had tried to operate a private racquet club there after World War II.
The war, growing debts and shifting social attitudes led to the club's demise in 1947, closing the book on a playground of the privileged, where the right crowd could play polo with Walt Disney and Daryl F. Zanuck or swap yarns with Harold Lloyd and Busby Berkeley.
Today, the ranch remains a haven for writers, actors and others.
Aldous Huxley lived and wrote there for a time. Earl Warren spent his summers there. At different times, Meryl Streep and Wilt Chamberlain rented the same shingled cottage.
Then there are the Uplifter descendants, whose dwindling presence has helped to preserve the peculiar spirit of the place--offbeat, intellectual, a bit arty.
They are living links to a generation of flamboyant movers and shakers who, on the political side, were usually conservative to the core.
"I remember the reaction of one of the (Uplifters') wives in '32 when FDR defeated Hoover," recalls 82-year-old Susan French, the daughter of an Uplifter. "She just sighed and said, 'Well, maybe someone will shoot him.' "
An offshoot of the Los Angeles Athletic Club, formed in 1880 by businessmen and professionals, the Uplifters owed their existence to the gregarious Haldeman.
The head of a plumbing supply company, he came to Los Angeles via San Francisco, where some of his friends belonged to the all-male Bohemian Club, with its Russian River retreat known for sometimes funky behavior.
The two dozen or so kindred spirits Haldeman recruited from the athletic club were drawn from the ranks of the rich, the powerful and the notable: Marco Hellman, who owned a string of banks; Sim W. Crabill, an executive of the Times Mirror Co., which publishes the Los Angeles Times; Ralph Hamlin, a bicycle manufacturer, who was reputed to have owned the first motorcycle west of the Rockies; Ernest R. Ball, who joined the group later, author of the tune "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling"--although he had never seen Ireland.
For a name, they turned to L. Frank Baum, author of the Oz books, who is said to have pounded back a few before coming up with "The Lofty and Exalted Order of Uplifters."
Its creed: "To uplift art and promote good fellowship."
But without Prohibition, the ranch might never have existed.
For several years, the Uplifters had held an annual bash, called Hijinx, at such spots as Lake Arrowhead and Del Mar. Away from wives and children, they drank, cavorted, staged ribald plays and engaged in outdoor sports.
After the federal ban on booze took effect in 1919, however, they established a retreat in Rustic Canyon, below where future member Will Rogers would soon buy a sprawling estate. The group bought 120 acres and built a Spanish Colonial-style clubhouse with tennis courts, a swimming pool, trapshooting range, amphitheater and dormitories.
In 1922, members began to build weekend and summer getaway cottages and lodges on land leased from the club. A club edict specified that they remain rustic and be painted either brown, green or gray.
Many of the homes reflect the Uplifters' determination not to let Prohibition spoil their fun.
One, on Latimer Road, has a German beer hall downstairs, complete with kegs built into the wall.
Another house, razed in the '50s, had a bar hidden behind a push-button door. Angela Lansbury, who once lived there, is said to have used it as a projection booth.
Rare is the neighborhood veteran who hasn't turned up a stash of Uplifter liquor.
Character actor Lloyd Bochner found a dozen bottles of champagne inside a wall of his Haldeman Road bungalow while remodeling in the '60s. "The corks had dried out considerably," he said. "It tasted like fine old sherry."
Tipping the bottle at the ranch was never really a problem during Prohibition, explained David Brunson, 72, whose father and uncle were Uplifters, "because, more likely than not, the leading lights among local law enforcement were part of the merrymaking."
The ranch, said Randy Young, an amateur historian who has co-authored a book about Rustic Canyon and the Uplifters, "was meant to be a kind of Utopia."
It still is.
Latimer and Haldeman roads--the principal streets--are narrow, shady lanes with no curbs and only a few street lights, much as they were during the Uplifter era.
The place is so concealed that even police and emergency vehicles have had trouble finding it.
"I'll never forget the day the man died of a heart attack on the tennis court," recalls Wayne Graves, the retired director of the city recreation center that occupies the former clubhouse. "You could hear the ambulance going up one street after another trying to find us."
But the isolation is part of its charm.
"People are fiercely protective of this place for good reason," says Dale Norman, a resident of Latimer Road for 24 years. "We love it here."
In the 1970s, neighbors turned back a local government plan to enclose part of the creek with concrete. A few years ago, they rose up to prevent movie producer Steven Tisch from expanding his property, despite an Uplifter-era easement.
During Watergate, there was a brief push to rename Haldeman Road. Others don't like the speed bumps on Latimer Road. The bumps were a '60s response to Rusty Hamer, who played Danny Thomas' son on the TV show "Make Room for Daddy," and who as a teen-ager liked to lay rubber in his souped-up car.
The cottages are a blend of the fanciful and the curious.
There is a fairy-tale bungalow built by early cinematographer Charles Rosher that has a room said to have been designed for his lover, actress Anna May Wong.
Hellman, the banker, brought in three log cabins from the set of the 1923 film "The Courtship of Miles Standish." One of them, at 38 Haldeman Road, was the summer retreat of Earl Warren, former governor and Supreme Court justice, during the late '40s and early '50s.
"The cabins were brought in from Lake Arrowhead and reassembled using code numbers you can still see on some of the logs," says Dorothy Cheney, who has lived in one for 40 years.
Neighbors still talk about the house on Latimer whose only inhabitant for almost two decades was a mannequin named Maude, left behind by good-humored, if not eccentric, owners who, after buying the place, moved away and rarely saw it.
A real estate broker who unlocked it in the early '60s found the dust-covered Maude on a sofa.
Dr. Frank McCoy, a '20s diet king whose nonalcoholic health regimen was popular with movie stars, built a hillside lodge at 35 Haldeman Road. It is unusual for its circular card room and the 128 steps that lead from the street to the front door.
"The bedroom of the McCoys' (teen-age) daughter is said to have been furnished with Rudolph Valentino's former bed," says Francie Allen, who lives there with her husband. Allen, an animation artist, uses the room as a studio.
The house where Emil Ludwig and, later, Aldous Huxley, once lived, was torn down in the '50s, and the home of the late Hal Roach has been remodeled beyond recognition.
But memories live on.
"It was the best place you can imagine for a boy growing up," recalls Ernie Ball, 63, a San Luis Obispo guitar string manufacturer. His family moved to the ranch during the Depression after the death of his Uplifter grandfather, who owned the house at 49 Haldeman Road.
Among his pals were the sons of Agnes Christine Johnstone Dazey, who wrote the Andy Hardy series.
The boys played at the stables, flew kites on the polo field, patrolled the creek. And in the afternoons they lolled around the clubhouse pool, where Johnny Weismuller, a.k.a. Tarzan--who lived across the street at 2 Latimer--often swam.
The clubhouse, with its grand ballroom, drinking halls and "library"--actually a poker parlor--was a year-round adult sanctuary.
Once, however, at age 9, Ball received an urgent call from his father to come there right away.
Entering a room filled with men, Ball found his father talking to a cherubic figure seated on a stool. "He said to me, 'Son, I want you to meet Babe Ruth.' "
French, an actress-artist, has similar memories.
Her father, Lloyd Moultrie, was a lawyer whose clients included many of Hollywood's early stars. Some were regular visitors to the family's distinctive English-style cottage at 44 Haldeman Road. The first movie she ever saw, a silent version of "The Wizard of Oz," was projected against a bedsheet in L. Frank Baum's garage.
"I couldn't have been more than 3, because I remember toddling up to the screen and trying to grab the little dog, Toto," she said.
After living in New York for many years, she returned to the ranch in the early '50s, and now lives a few doors away from her childhood home.
"There's something about the place that makes you not want to leave," she said.
George Rice III would agree.
The son and nephew of original Uplifters, he has lived in the same Latimer Road bungalow for 54 years.
An octogenarian who prefers not to reveal his exact age, among canyon residents he is considered to be the last living Uplifter, having joined not long before the club's demise.
"It wasn't meant to be perpetuated forever," he said. "We simply enjoyed each other's company."