When a Los Angeles socialite named Nellie McGaughey Durfee died more than two decades ago, her West Adams district mansion, like Durfee herself, passed from the secular world into the hands of God.
But the 93-year-old mansion that now is Villa Maria, a residence for the Brothers of St. John of God, had an air of anything but sanctity. In its heyday, it had been the site of legendary parties, a shooting and a suicide.
West Adams was home to the rich and powerful in 1908, when lumber baron William E. Ramsey hired architect Frederick Roehrig to design the mansion.
Roehrig built the 42-room, 10,000-square-foot home with a Tudor Revival exterior, a Craftsman interior and large bay windows overlooking the garden and a coach house.
However, the Ramsey family didn't live there long. After many lavish parties, quarrels, a shooting and a suicide--of which no details survive--they moved out. That was just a few years after the house was completed.
Not until 1920 did the house regain some notoriety. That's when novelist, playwright and film director Rupert Hughes--an uncle of Howard Hughes--and his second wife, Adelaide, leased the place. Soon producers and directors, Rupert Hughes' friends, came to film their wedding scenes on the grand stairway landing, where light filters through Art Nouveau stained-glass windows. Charlie Chaplin shot scenes for a silent film on the front lawn.
But when Hughes' wife died of an apparent drug overdose on a 1923 ocean cruise, he moved out. Then the Durfees moved in.
Born in Tennessee with a silver spoon in her mouth, Nellie was 9 years old in 1884 when she arrived in Los Angeles with her mother, Elizabeth Gates McGaughey, a woman of great wealth and an equally great interest in breeding horses.
A decade later, Nellie's mother married Nicola Antonio Bonfilio, an Italian immigrant. Her money and social connections helped Bonfilio become a prosperous banker.
By society's standards, 32-year-old Nellie was an "old maid" when she met William Durfee. He, too, was 32, and her mother's horse trainer, a harness racing driver, a gambler, married and the father of two.
Soon Nellie's money, charm and headstrong spirit won him over.
But their affair had a stormy start. As they spent a weekend together in San Francisco, Durfee's wife appeared and caused a scene. Determined not to let anyone, not even Durfee's wife, stand in the way of happiness, Nellie paid the woman off, giving her a check for an unknown sum and a deed to a piece of property--both negotiable only after the divorce was final.
In the meantime, Nellie's mother did everything she could to keep the lovebirds apart. As she lay dying in 1911, she wrote to her daughter, asking the by-then 36-year-old spinster to stay on and take care of Bonfilio. Nellie did--but four months after her mother's death, she married Durfee. He soon moved into the Figueroa Street mansion Nellie's mother had shared with Bonfilio.
The following year, Durfee won the Kentucky Futurity and continued to make a name for himself in harness racing.
In 1917, Nellie decided she no longer wanted to share her husband with racing, and demanded that he give it up. They traveled to Europe and Africa on art-buying sprees. On one trip in 1923, they took along Bonfilio, who died while they were in Switzerland.
His death meant Nellie no longer had to depend on income from a trust fund. She found that Bonfilio had added millions in property, a laundry business and income as director of the Bank of Italy and Merchants National Bank to her mother's fortune. The couple sold Bonfilio's Figueroa estate and purchased the West Adams mansion for $105,000, filling it with rare art objects purchased abroad.
Although the Jazz Age had bypassed the Edwardian mansions of West Adams, the house at 2425 S. Western Ave., in an area later known as Sugar Hill, was perfect for the Durfees. Nellie sketched and painted while attending classes at the Otis Art Institute.
But in 1927, only a few years after moving into their first and only home, Nellie's husband of 16 years died after eating poisoned fish he had caught on a trip to the Columbia River.
Hundreds of their racing-crowd friends attended the funeral at the mansion, where Durfee's racing sulky stood, covered with flowers. Durfee's former wife showed up with their two children and stood sobbing behind the sulky.
Dogged by loneliness and depression, Nellie tried to take her own life with poison. Rescued by a servant, she was hospitalized but recovered and fled. She changed her clothes in a phone booth as she called her chauffeur to pick her up.
Months later, she tried to starve herself to death. A woman who was called in to care for her, former World War I nurse Mary Margaret Bowen, became her lifelong companion and friend.
Nellie evidently reconciled herself to living, painting and hanging her works on the mansion walls. She carried a roll of cash in a pocket of her smock, dispensing extra money to the staff. Even after she and the cook argued and the cook quit in the middle of the night, Nellie paid the woman's rent for the rest of her life.
She welcomed few visitors. Her late husband's clothes still hung in the closet, and she kept the key to his room strung around her neck, never taking it off. When she did travel, she called home each night to speak to her dog over the phone. She left $7,500 in her will for her cat "Kit Cat," but she outlived both pets.
Paranoid and obsessive, Nellie took to carrying a gun around the house, "alternately terrorizing and captivating her staff with her emotionalism. One chauffeur died of ulcers," according to writer Kilbee Brittain in a 1977 historical magazine. After the Long Beach earthquake hit in 1933, she slept for weeks in her Pierce-Arrow, parked in the driveway.
Although she contributed generously to charities and animal shelters, Nellie was a bitter opponent of tax-exempt institutions and organized religion, including her next-door neighbor, the St. John of God Retirement and Care Center.
In the 1950s, after the courts had struck down restrictive racial covenants, Nellie watched her upscale neighborhood change as middle- and upper-class blacks moved into Sugar Hill. Then, in the early 1960s, the St. John of God center began to expand and the wrecking ball destroyed the "White House," another turn-of-the-century mansion next door to hers.
She was quite old when she had cataract surgery, but she undid the doctors' handiwork when she returned home after the operation. There she found that the servants had cleaned out her husband's room and retrieved the $25,000 in cash she had stashed under a carpet. Her rage damaged her eyes further, and she was blind for the rest of her life.
She died in 1976, a few months shy of her 100th birthday.
Executors of her estate found the grand old house full of surprises. Prohibition whiskey and rare 1890s wines and champagnes were found in a vault hidden in the wine cellar.
Another secret room was stacked full of Nellie's paintings of beautiful nudes, as well as a portrait of her mother--turned face to the wall. The mansion itself was sold to the religious order next door whose beliefs Nellie Durfee had so despised.
The current residents of Villa Maria are very different from the high-living crowd and the eccentric woman who lived there before them.
But the mansion still captivates filmmakers. Under the brothers' care, it has been used as a backdrop in such Hollywood films as "The Winds of War," "True Confessions," and two films touching on religion: "The Thorn Birds" and "Sister Act II."