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There's a small pavilion hidden in the far corner of Mary McDonald's Hollywood Hills property. It's almost inaccessible from the rest of the garden, tucked at the top of a steep, grassy incline, and even though you can see it only from the kitchen sink and master bathroom windows, McDonald, an interior decorator, keeps the outdoor room lavishly appointed with a constantly rotating assortment of tables, chairs, orchids and artwork 12 months a year.
Even on a damp night when the wisteria branches framing the garden pavilion are winter bare, and dinner guests are clustered inside near the fireplace, the unseen stage is lighted by wall sconces that illuminate a table set with double-layer linen tablecloths and miniature potted topiary trees.
For McDonald, who gardens in Manolo Blahniks and with cherry-red manicured nails, practicality has never been high on the list. Instead, she's one of the city's youngest old-school decorators, perfectly at ease with keeping alive a Chanel No. 5-spritzed existence lived amid gilded mirrors and massive floral arrangements.
"I've always been kind of fancy," says McDonald, who routinely brings her particular brand of ultra feminine fanciness to clients such as Renée Zellweger, Elliott Gould, 20th Century Fox executive Jennifer Nicholson Salke and other Hollywood players whom she can't reveal.
Like the garden pavilion, the rest of the house is a testament to offhanded elegance.
There's the ornate 19th century silver fruit stand she uses as a vitamin tray in the kitchen; a tufted divan in the master bathroom; and in almost every room, sofas and chairs upholstered in ivory and ecru, despite the fact that frequent houseguests come with dogs and red wine. In the guest bathroom, which she's painted a dramatic charcoal black, McDonald has crusted enough shells onto a mirror to make it look as if it were retrieved from the Titanic.
But it's exactly these details, and the casual, almost careless way they're executed, that make McDonald a singular presence.
"This is not a big deal," she says, referring to the 3,000-square-foot, three-story home that she calls a Barbie house because it's tall and wide but not deep. "I bought it as a spec house and then got lazy. It was just something to redo." Drawn to the property four years ago because it was one of only a handful in the Hollywood Hills with a backyard, McDonald has transformed it from an awkward '40s house with '80s tube railing into a breezy hideaway fit for a screen legend.
With the help of her longtime boyfriend, developer John Bercsi — who has restored celebrated properties such as the Buster Keaton estate — she replaced sliders with French doors, updated the kitchen and built the garden pavilion. Along the way, she planted palm and banana trees that now reach two stories, as well as more than 60 kinds of English roses. And then she got down to what she does best: creating opulent rooms of bygone luxury that have inspired magazines such as House & Garden and House Beautiful to run cover stories on her work.
Throughout the house luxurious textiles — Colefax & Fowler linen, Brunschwig & Fils cotton, Pierre Frey silk — swath chairs and windows, canopied beds, skirted ottomans. In the first-floor guest bedroom, McDonald tented the ceiling and walls in bolts of a Manuel Canovas beige-and-white stripe "to make it cozy for anyone who stays in there."
But photos of her precisely ordered dove-gray bedroom, which she designed to look like the Dior shop in Paris, or her cream-on-cream living room sprinkled with yellow silk throw pillows, fail to capture the home's crowning presence: McDonald's seemingly endless, occasionally manic energy. It's only on candlelit nights like these, when she's surrounded by friends, with Sinatra singing in the background and hired servers taking coats and bringing cocktails, that her version of the high life finds its purest expression.
"My dinner-party pet peeves are bad lighting and tense hosts," says McDonald, while Bercsi phones in a backup order of Diet Coke and mixers from Pink Dot.
"Everything doesn't have to be perfect," she says, which doubles as her motto for decorating and life in general.
Tonight, she has invited 14 people to the L.A. trunk show for Rome-based fashion designer Soledad Twombly, wife of sculptor Alessandro Twombly and daughter-in-law of artist Cy Twombly. McDonald is formally dressed for the evening in a full-length black skirt with strapless top, Italian sandals and strand after strand of hand-painted bead necklaces. She combines Madeleine Stowe looks and Auntie Mame panache with her own distinctive laugh, one that carries across sisal-covered wood floors, up the stone staircase and through French doors before it disappears somewhere down toward Sunset Boulevard.
The guests include fellow alumnae from Marymount High School, the Brentwood girls' school that McDonald attended, as well as clients who have become friends, and fellow designers such as Lizzie Dinkel. McDonald rejects requests to take people on tours through the house. "It's too much work," she says, and then tells the curious to see for themselves. When her friend and occasional client Jill Roberts is introduced to another friend, costume designer Danielle King, McDonald says by way of an introduction, "Jill is the person whose wallpaper I messed up."
Even if her most common response to servers' questions is, "Don't worry about it," the effortlessness is partly an illusion. She carefully planned the table the weekend before, selecting green and eggplant as the theme, with five kinds of wine goblets and her grandmother's silver candelabra. Throughout the living room, potted daffodils and orchids are scattered on mirrored side tables and antique buffets.
This kind of lush life might not represent the mood of the moment. But if the current zeitgeist favors sage-hued restraint over full-tilt glamour, McDonald is the last to care. "Everyone wants to be minimalist," she says. "I've always had good style, but I'm not hip. I don't follow what the new thing is."
To be sure, there aren't many thirtysomething decorators using Wedgwood accents and botanical prints, or who can pull off pink pearls — at least not without a heavy dose of irony. But if she's injecting youthful energy into old-lady staples, it may be because McDonald, a third-generation Angeleno raised in Brentwood, had always dreamed of being an ambassadress of high style rather than simply a resource for sofas and sconces.
Her brand of feminine elegance reaches its pinnacle in the third-floor master bedroom, her favorite in the house. It's full of revived luxuries such as a marble fireplace she had installed, silver brush sets and an opulent canopy bed with cotton piqué pillows stacked four deep against an upholstered headboard.
Like the rest of the house, there's hardly a horizontal surface in the bedroom that doesn't support its share of silver-dipped seashells, carved bone pagodas, porcelain vases filled with camellias from the garden or stacks of coffee-table books on subjects such as Bulgari jewelry and iconic style arbiter Cecil Beaton. In the closet, more than 400 pairs of shoes are not so neatly stored on shelves.
"I once bought 20 pairs of sandals during a trip to Capri," McDonald says in the way a gambler might recount a weekend binge. Nearby, hundreds of necklaces hang on hooks above bowls and baskets that brim with brooches, chandelier earrings, cocktail rings and Bakelite bangles.
"I can't stop buying things. I'm always pulling over to look at something," says McDonald, who collects by color. There was a red phase and a mustard period. Right now, she's in the midst of a Tiffany turquoise and Chinese yellow obsession, although she adds that whatever the current craze, "I'll always have something pink."
The profusion upstairs, however, is nothing compared to what lies below. Friends consider a trip to her basement a rite of passage. Antiques dealer Nathan Turner said it took more than a year before he gained entry to the bottom-floor room that is crammed with art, antiques, silver, lamps and furniture, both purchased and inherited.
The bounty at least makes entertaining a breeze. With more than 10 full sets of china, McDonald estimates she can serve 400 without washing a dish.
Cocktail hour lasts for two, and just before 10 o'clock, guests start to look for their names on little silver shells that hold place cards. In the kitchen, Mary Cleary, a professional chef and fellow Marymount alum, plates the first of four courses.
The meal ends with Stilton and pears, two kinds of crème brûlée and flourless chocolate cake. There's coffee and cordials and after-hours conversation by the fireplace until people start thinking about the baby-sitter, and head for home.
Not one of them has seen the pavilion, which still sits portrait-perfect, wall sconces on, bamboo banquet chairs braving the cold, waiting for warm-weather nights when the party will migrate outside.
Stow it, hang it, stack it, hide it
Mary McDonald admits it: "I have too much stuff." Here's how she handles the excess:
Hooks and crannies: I use any bare wall or door I can to hang hooks onto or to install shelves. In my closet, I even have hooks hanging on the underside of shelves. On the back of doors, you can put tons of hooks for things like necklaces, hats.
Open and shut case: If organizing units are in the closet, I prefer them to be open so I can see what's there. If it's out in a room, I prefer things like buffets and armoires where everything is closed.
Basket case: In my office, I have everything organized in baskets on shelves with a label on them. I got them out of the Hold Everything catalog. You have to get the right size and it's better if you get all the same kind. A bunch of different cockamamie baskets don't look good together.
Color coding: I collect and organize by color as opposed to by item or status. In my closet, I organize from warm to cool colors. I do the same with my costume jewelry.
Label-conscious: I'm in love with my P-Touch Label Maker. I label everything. I even have my pantry labeled: jams, jellies, olives, capers, tuna, sardines. Everything has its place in the cupboard. I love it. You need a P-Touch. Everyone must label.
Master of disguise: Plastic is not pretty but it's the most practical for storing things like fabric. It keeps out all the critters. If you want the stackable boxes, have them covered in fabric that matches your closet or room and it takes that hideous plastic edge off. Or have them spray-painted. I get those stackable boxes with drawers at places like Bed Bath & Beyond.
Junk stored: I have a box called Inspiration in my office. It's full of things with no value, just things I like, like junk mail if I love the color of the envelope.