Nowadays, it’s the price tag that makes a house famous. The most expensive U.S. home ever sold, a single-family Connecticut house bought by a company, recently went for $120 million.
It used to be the owners who made the house famous.
Which made Beverly Hills’ Pickfair, after the White House, perhaps the most famous house in the country as the home of moviedom's Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks.
The next owner of Pickfair rose in the pantheon as well: Jerry Buss, who made the L.A. Lakers one of the winningest franchises in NBA history. Pickfair was where Buss' daughter and now Lakers President and co-owner Jeanie Buss spent her late teens and early 20s. When I interviewed her for a recent Patt Morrison Asks column, I asked her about it.
“My dad really had no idea the implications of that home when he bought it. It was a great real estate thing -- 5 acres of land in Beverly Hills,” Jeanie Buss said. “When we went through it, I’ll never forget -- [Pickford's] Oscar was still sitting there.”
When Jerry Buss bought the mansion in 1980, for $5.3 million -- a shade above half the asking price -- the probate judge observed that “it must be a fixer-upper.” The tabloid nickname “Bussfare” didn’t stick, but the Busses did. The family spent eight years there, a long time when the average American moves every five, and Buss reworked the plumbing and electrical and the woodwork.
Being the masters of Pickfair meant that the Busses went from the sports pages to the entertainment and society pages. "What a great opportunity for me, because I was a fan of" Pickford and Fairbanks," Jeanie Buss said. "They were the biggest stars of their time.”
Such was Pickfair’s status that it was in demand for high-end visitors and high-end fund-raisers. “It was like living in a museum, like a public property," she said. "I’d be studying for school, and they’d be doing a sound check on the lawn for a party. It was such an attraction that at any event we’d raise $25,000, $50,000, and that was back into the '80s.”
Like any old house, it was a pain as well as a pleasure. “It would have been cheaper to tear down the house and build a new one." But her father, she said, "restored the house to pretty much the way it was and made it really great.”
The “great” ended in 1988, when Buss sold the house to singer Pia Zadora and her producer husband. Pickfair had gone from hunting lodge to California mansion -- and now it was on its way to teardown, like so much of L.A.’s pop-up-knockdown architecture.
The new owners called in the wrecking ball because the place was termite-ridden, according to Zadora. But more recently, Zadora told a “celebrity ghost” TV show that the real reason was because the place was haunted. She said she even tried an exorcist, but it didn’t work at Pickfair, which now belongs to a company owned by businessman Corry Hong, who bought it from Zadora and her husband.
Does Zadora still have the exorcist’s business card? Maybe Jeanie Buss and the Lakers could give it a try, to exorcise this last season.