"In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure dome decree."
Ever since William Randolph Hearst built his own Xanadu at San Simeon, California has laid claim to some of the nation's most ostentatious expressions of wealth. From Lynn Atkinson's "House of the Golden Doorknobs" to David Geffen's self-described "act of grandiosity," Los Angeles' four great estates are all that remain of a time and a place when glamour and grandeur knew no limit.
Bellagio House, Bellagio Road, Bel-Air. The former home of hotelier Conrad Hilton last sold in 1980 for $12.4 million to billionaire David H. Murdock, chairman and CEO of Pacific Holding Co. and Dole Food Co. The 64-room, 35,000-square-foot Georgian mansion on 12 acres was the first $10-million-plus sale in Southern California. It has since been the dramatic setting of many a black-tie gala. As the story goes, one party guest was once overheard telling Murdock, "Are you sure it wasn't one of [Hilton's] hotels?" to which the host modestly replied, "It's very comfortable."
If the walls of this 1938 house could talk, they'd tell one of Los Angeles' most compelling cautionary tales about the pitfalls of truly wretched excess. Hilda Olsen, a frumpy hospital nurse, in 1920 married a widowed millionaire who was a patient. When he died nine years later, she inherited his fortune and promptly took up with the chauffeur, whom she married. Trying to pass high society's white-glove test, she spent $2 million during the depths of the Depression on her mansion, which included walk-in silver, fur and wine vaults, his and hers master suites, massage rooms, a grand, semicircular staircase, a gallery and fine wood paneling in the living room, dining room and card room. She bought a sterling silver service for 80 and a gold-trimmed tea set that had been made for a czar, hired a dozen house servants and and threw lavish parties. Gambling debts and bad investments drained her fortune after World War II, and she sold the house to Hilton for $225,000 in 1950. Soon after, she lost everything at the racetrack and killed herself.
While the current owner's roots are equally humble, Murdock, a high school dropout who once worked as a ditch digger, has fared far better socially and economically. He is a distinguished GOP power broker, horse breeder, arts patron and orchid grower. Some consider Bellagio House to be the finest home west of the Mississippi. At any given time, according to local lore, 40,000 flowers are blooming on the grounds, perched on a hillock overlooking the Bel-Air Country Club.
The Knoll, Schuyler Road, Beverly Hills. Others consider this 35-room Georgian mansion to be the finest home in the West, or at least a close second to Bellagio House. It includes a billiard room, storage vaults, a 48-foot swimming pool and two guest cottages at the front gate--one of which was rented by musician Lionel Ritchie.
Billionaire oilman Marvin Davis, who briefly owned Twentieth Century Fox Studios, the Beverly Hills Hotel and just about everything else, paid country singer Kenny Rogers $20.25 million for the estate in 1984--a record that held for just four years. But it was Dino De Laurentiis who made the real killing on this property: He paid a record $2 million for the Knoll in 1976; six years later, Rogers came to visit, looking for decorating ideas for his library. He fell in love with the house and paid $14.5 million for it--also a record at the time. De Laurentiis now makes his home on one of the highest hilltops overlooking Benedict Canyon and Beverly Hills. But Rogers didn't make much, if anything, on the house. After pumping $6 million into it, he sold it to Davis.
Lucy Smith Battson created the Knoll in 1955 after she and her second husband tired of the family's outdated Greystone mansion, scene of a mysterious murder-suicide involving her first husband, Ned Doheny, and his secretary. (Greystone, now owned by the City of Beverly Hills, stands vacant.)
The Warner Estate, Angelo Drive, Beverly Hills. The big enchilada at $47.5 million, the most money ever paid for a residence. It also is one of the city's longest-running construction projects; currently the grounds are being redone. Billionaire entertainment mogul David Geffen bought the neoclassical mansion and 10-acre estate in 1990 upon the death of Ann Warner, widow of Warner Bros. studios founder Jack Warner. She, according to legend, once turned down an offered $25 million, saying she'd live there until she died. After her death, Geffen snapped up the hotly coveted mansion by persuading the estate's lawyers to delay putting it on the market for 10 days while he arranged his considerable finances.
Geffen, described as "Hollywood's richest man" after he sold his Geffen Records for 10 million shares of MCA stock, auctioned off about $11 million worth of original furnishings, which he deemed too musty and museum-like. But he did keep an imported wood floor--said to be the one upon which Napoleon proposed to Josephine--as well as the paneled walls supposedly carved by a Chippendale.
Geffen bought the Warner Estate as an investment and had planned to sell it, but plunging real estate values changed his plans. "This is really an act of grandiosity on my part, but the fact of the matter is that I own it, " Geffen told The Times three years ago. "And it's a privilege to be able to live there."
It promises to be one of the grandest homes in the United States, if not the world, when completed.
The Kirkeby Estate, Bel-Air Road, Bel-Air. Also known as home to "The Beverly Hillbillies." Jerry Perenchio, movie producer and former partner of Norman Lear, bought the Kirkeby Estate for $13.6 million in 1986, then bought three adjacent lots for about $9 million, expanding the grounds to 11.5 acres. (The comparatively modest ranch house of former President Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan is his only remaining neighbor.) Perenchio also reportedly invested another $9 million refurbishing the 18th-century French neoclassical mansion he purchased from the estate of widow Carlotta Kirkeby.
Built over five years during the 1930s by millionaire bridge contractor Lynn Atkinson, the house with the copper roof, limestone walls, marble staircase, ballroom and two-story reception hall cost $2 million. An oft-told but disputed story goes: Atkinson had planned to surprise his wife, Berenice, by throwing a massive housewarming party. But, as he expectantly walked her through the house and a band played under the Baccarat crystal chandelier, she sniffed: "Who would ever live in a house like this? It's so grandiose." Atkinson was crushed. They left, and the grand mansion stood empty for years as Berenice Atkinson refused to move there. It sold in 1945 to Arnold Kirkeby for $200,000, though some versions of the story say it really was collateral on an uncollected loan.
The estate's facade and gardens are familiar to millions of television viewers as the home of "The Beverly Hillbillies." Later, Carlotta Kirkeby would rue the day she allowed the house to be filmed, as tour buses and looky-loos clogged Nimes and Bel-Air roads.