It takes a certain amount of moxie to quote an anti-bourgeois German novelist to a $150-a-plate lunch crowd in the wilds of Beverly Hills. But the speaker in question is mayor of this town and she had a point to make -- “In the words of Hermann Hesse, ‘Every miracle has a beginning,’ ” she said, referring to the Beverly Hills Flower & Garden Festival.
This particular miracle, which occurred last weekend at the Greystone Mansion off Loma Vista Drive, had its beginning, it would seem, in a chance request made by Mayor MeraLee Goldman’s daughter. As Goldman related the story to the crowd, the family was on its way to Belgium after an African safari, and the girl looked at a map and said, as children will, “Oh, Holland is so close. Can we go there?” She was reading about Anne Frank at the time, so off they all went to Amsterdam, which was, as luck would have it, right in the middle of its Tulip Festival.
“It was so wonderful,” said Goldman, “that all I could think of is: I want this. I want this at home. I want this in Beverly Hills.”
Meanwhile, Beverly Hills was immersed in a decades-long quandary about what to do with Greystone, the 55-room Tudor-style mansion built in 1928 by Ned Doheny. It was, at the time of Goldman’s Amsterdam epiphany, essentially vacant save the occasional wedding or film crew. Purchased by the city in 1965, the grounds had been made into a public park, but the house and its lovely terraced gardens were a perpetual source of conflict. Almost any suggestion to turn it into a self-supporting concern -- a museum, a high-end conference center -- met with opposition from neighbors and preservationists concerned about, well, all those people you know and their dreadful automobiles.
And so Goldman decided to wed two desires -- a flower show and a fund-raiser -- and a festival was born.
“We’re the only place in the country where you can have a flower festival in November,” she said. She was speaking Wednesday at the “gala preview” of the event. Two hundred or so men in suits and women in hats sat in the silvery courtyard at tables blooming with pink roses whose stems nested in submerged cherries. They sipped champagne and ate sandwiches plucked from beds of wheat grass on the nearby buffet table.
Many had already wandered through the first floor of the mansion, which had been transformed into a swanky marketplace. Local vendors -- including Tiffany -- had been invited to decorate half a dozen rooms with their wares. A harpist played in the corner of one entryway and every room was infused with the smell of wealth -- leather and fine old furniture, the sandalwood perfume of embroidered silks, the fragrant breath of arum lilies, roses, lavender and the heady citrus of really good aromatherapy candles.
Every surface of every room was covered with lovely things, precious things, gleaming, glistening, promising things, like a Christmas bazaar for princes or a rummage sale of kings. Through all of this a coterie of impossibly tall and slender young women wandered, various flawless surfaces of their bodies exposed, the rest clothed in Badgley Mischka and La Perla. There was a silent auction in one room, there was cake decorating in the atrium, and in the kitchen, fruit and vegetable carvers had turned a watermelon into a bouquet of roses, carrots into feathers, beets into chrysanthemums.
A far cry from the creaking parochial school floors, the hand-crocheted toilet-paper cozies and smeary red velvet cakes that might mark a similar fund-raising event in another community. “It’s so good to see the house looking so well,” one woman said to another.
“I’m from Camarillo, and I didn’t even know this place existed,” said Jennifer Sleeper, who had brought an assortment of her antiques and vintage textiles to sell at Greystone. “But I told my girlfriend I was coming and she’s from the Valley and she said she used to come here all the time to neck. ‘It’s haunted,’ she told me, but she didn’t say by what.”
By the man it was built for, many would say. Doheny only lived in the mansion for four months; in February 1929, he and his secretary, Hugh Plunkett, were found dead there, victims of a probable murder-suicide.
Doheny’s widow, Lucy, remarried and stayed on for 26 years. She sold most of the acreage in 1954 to developer Paul Trousdale, and a year later, the house and remaining land went to Chicago industrialist Henry Crown, who also owned the Empire State Building. He never moved in. Ten years later, he was about to tear it down and subdivide the property when horrified locals organized a “Save Greystone” campaign. The city bought the property and installed a 19-million-gallon underground water reservoir there.
From 1969 to 1982, Greystone housed the American Film Institute. But for almost 20 years, it stood empty. There was the occasional private or corporate function and a summer day camp, but mostly it was haunted, if not by ghosts then by irony -- in a land of fabulous homes, in a city known the world over for its wealth, a storybook castle moldered, doomed by poverty and nervous neighbors.
In this town, any self-respecting building in reduced circumstances has only one alternative -- Hollywood. And Greystone served as location for many films, including “Ghostbusters” (I & II), “The Loved One,” “All of Me” and the Bette Davis classic “Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte.” Of course there was also “Dead Ringer,” “Phantom of Paradise,” “The House of the Damned” and “Picture Mommy Dead” -- but then it’s so easy to get typecast, isn’t it?
Valley kids were not the only ones who fooled around in its shadows. Heidi Fleiss, then 19, launched a four-year affair with 57-year-old financier Bernie Cornfeld at Greystone, where Cornfeld was hosting a fete. From Cornfeld, Fleiss went on to director Ivan Nagy and from there to, well, infamy.
Last year, the city approved a $4-million renovation plan, which began in November 2001. Meanwhile the house is becoming a cultural center of sorts. A classical concert series was launched in the mid-'90s, a Music in the Mansion series began three years ago, and this year there were high teas and an audience-roaming murder mystery. All these events, however, were offered on a residents-first basis; the Flower and Garden Festival was the first time the city’s most splendid manor house and its gardens were open to the non-Beverly-Hills-residing public. Almost 3,000 people came, braving Saturday’s rain.
The Friends of Greystone hope the festival will add not only to the maintenance coffers but to public imagination. On Wednesday after lunch, many guests toured the gardens, which had been redone for the festival. (There were, inexplicably, no tulips.) Picking their way up the many stone steps, they looked out over the roofs and terraces of the house. All of Los Angeles was at their feet, but silently, shrouded by a silvery late-afternoon haze that moved up the hill, fluttering in places like something torn loose. Of course there are ghosts here, because ghosts live wherever people live, wherever conflict and transcendence live. In a haunted house, at long last thrown open, Hermann Hesse would have been quite at home.