Tuesday, November 30, 2010
If these walls could talk...
The Ghosts of L.B. Mayer, Peter Lawford,
The Beatles, J.F.K. & Marilyn Monroe
Houses exist all over Los Angeles that were once occupied by a Hollywood mogul or star, but there is one that was home to an astonishing string of famous and infamous people. Owned by Louis B. Mayer, then by Peter Lawford and his wife Patricia (sister of John F. Kennedy), it was the scene of trysts between J.F.K. and Marilyn Monroe and was later rented by The Beatles.
Still standing at 625 Palisades Beach Road (ocean front) and the Pacific Coast Highway in Santa Monica is a Spanish style beach house. Unassuming looking today, it was built in 1936 for movie mogul Louis B. Mayer (co-founder of MGM), the most powerful man in Hollywood at the time. He purchased an empty ocean-front lot in Santa Monica, hired architect H. Libbert and told the builders (Carpenter Brothers) to “hurry up.” Using floodlights at night, construction went on 24 hours a day, seven days a week – the 20-room Spanish style house with a red tile roof was finished in a remarkable six weeks. The house is distinguished, then as now, by a two-story semi-circular section that projects toward the swimming pool and beach.
The 5-bedroom structure was lavish without being ostentatious. Not a mansion by any description, the house nevertheless had bathrooms fitted out in onyx and marble, and the exterior walls were a foot thick. Naturally, there was a private projection room, and Mayer installed his father in the gatekeeper’s apartment. The ocean-front swimming pool, it is said, would often fill with sea water during a storm. Mayer entertained guests only on Sundays, when he hosted his legendary open houses that included supper, drinks and a movie. Even Greta Garbo showed up.
Born Lazar Meir in Russia in 1885 as an impoverished Jew, Mayer became a titan of the film industry after making his way to Los Angeles. A most notable achievement was his founding of the Academy Awards in 1927. Mayer’s annual compensation during the depression was well over a million dollars, making him the highest paid person in the United States.
Mayer’s beach home was strategically located close to Culver City, the base for MGM Studios (Hollywood, home to other studios, was 14 miles inland). Mayer entertained lavishly while at his beach house and heavily promoted the careers (and controlled the personal lives) of his stable of MGM stars. When scandal threatened to expose Van Johnson’s (1916-2008) homosexuality, Mayer arranged for a cover-up marriage that saved the star’s career.
Van Johnson with co-star Esther Williams
Mayer’s MGM studio machine taught up-and-coming stars how to dress, walk, talk, dance and sing. He conceived the Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland series of musical films and gave Judy Garland an especially felicitous pool-side birthday party in this house in 1939.
Below: Peter Lawford in MGM's "Picture of Dorian Gray" 1945
When Mayer divorced his wife Margaret in 1947, the Santa Monica house became part of her settlement. Nine years later this home became the notorious pad of Peter Lawford, actor, rat-packer and peripheral Kennedy in-law. Although born in England, Lawford spend his childhood in France and was never formally educated. Lawford’s film career began at age eight in British films. He grew to be a handsome and suave young man and was being groomed for stardom by MGM in the 1940s. Lawford had the distinction of being the first actor to kiss Elizabeth Taylor on camera. An MGM contract player during WWII, his career peaked in the 1950s. At the height of his popularity, Lawford married John F. Kennedy’s sister Patricia, a union that lasted from 1954-1966. It was during these years that the house entered its stage of infamy. Lawford had bought the house in 1956 for $95,000; living in the former beach home of MGM founder L.B. Mayer and being the brother-in-law of the President of the United States must have been twists of fate to savor.
On the occasion of J.F. K.'s 45th birthday celebration at NYC's Madison Square Garden in 1962, Lawford introduced Marilyn Monroe before she sang "Happy Birthday" to the president. In hindsight, his words were eerily prescient. When he uttered "The late Marilyn Monroe!," he was referring, of course, to her tardiness, not her fate just nine weeks later.
In the 1960s this beach house was the scene of trysts between J.F.K. and Marilyn Monroe, who were introduced to each other by Lawford. In fact, J.F.K, who “officially” stayed at the Beverly Hilton while in Los Angeles, spent so much time here that the house was given the title of "The Western White House." An oft-told tale is that Lawford became a U.S. citizen just in time to be able to vote for his brother-in-law. Several of Monroe’s trysts with R.F.K. also took place here. Lawford spoke by phone with Marilyn Monroe twice on the evening she died (August 4, 1962); first he called to invite her to a dinner party being given at 625 Palisades Beach Drive. When she did not arrive, he called her back around 8:30 pm and noticed that her voice was slurred. Eventually she stopped talking without hanging up the phone. Lawford called his lawyer to arrange for someone to go by to check up on Marilyn. The official time of Monroe’s death was established as 9:30 pm.
Lawford was to marry three more times before he died on Christmas Eve 1984 of cardiac arrest complicated by kidney and liver failure, after years of drug and alcohol abuse.
This last known photo of John Lennon and Paul McCartney together was taken by John Lennon’s girlfriend May Pang at this very house, which Lennon was renting in March 1974. When John decided to produce Harry Nilsson’s “Pussy Cats” album, Lennon thought it would be a great idea to have everyone who was working on it living under one roof. John and May took the master bedroom. When John first saw it, he said, “So, this is where they did it,” referring to John F. Kennedy and Monroe. The other bedrooms were occupied by Keith Moon, Harry Nilsson and Klaus Voormann (the artist who had designed the cover for The Beatles’ album “Revolver”) The library, complete with official portrait of President Kennedy on the wall, was converted into a bedroom for Ringo Starr.
The house is still visible from the cliffs of Palisades Park, between Palisades and Alta Avenues. This neighborhood was once called Rolls Royce Row, as Hollywood’s founding royalty took up residence here: Mayer’s business partner Irving Thalberg, Norma Shearer, oil man J. Paul Getty, comedian Harold Lloyd, silent film star Marian Davies (mistress of publishing magnate William Randoph Hearst), Mae West, Darryl Zanuck, Samuel Goldwyn, Harry Warner, and leading man Douglas Fairbanks and wife Mary Pickford, to name a few.
To this day celebrities live all over Santa Monica, not just in this area. Well-known residents have included Sean Penn, Jane Fonda, Arnold Schwarzenegger, June Lockhart, Tobey Maguire, Robert Redford, Jeff Bridges, Jamie Lee Curtis, Ted Danson, Judge Reinhold and Tom Selleck.