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From John Gilbert to Elton John, the Stars Called It Home : Beverly Hills Estate Owned by Celebrities

January 04, 1987|CHARLES LOCKWOOD | Special to The Times: Lockwood is the author of several books about American architecture and cities. and

"Only a few stars ever live in the same house for years and years," Beverly Hills real estate broker Jeff Hyland declares.

"Instead, most show business personalities jump from property to property because of frequent marriages and career swings up and down. As a result, some Beverly Hills estates have intricate 'genealogies' just like Europe's royal families, with one star following another at the same address."

Probably no other Beverly Hills residence saw more stars come and go than a mansion, now demolished, at 1400 Tower Grove Road, a narrow, winding street in the still-rural eucalyptus-and-chaparral-covered hills behind the Beverly Hills Hotel.

In the 60 years prior to its demolition, this house had no less than five successive celebrity owners, each of whom adapted the house to his or her needs and tastes. Some just redecorated the house for a more up-to-date look; others added rooms or moved existing walls to change the floor plan.

The intriguing tale of this Tower Grove Road property begins in the mid-1920's, when actor John Gilbert built a two-story Spanish-style home on this hillside, complete with tennis court and swimming pool.

Major League Earnings

Gilbert, the dark-eyed, dark-haired romantic lead, reportedly earned $10,000 a week at the height of his career when he starred in MGM's "La Boheme" with Lillian Gish in 1926, and in "Flesh and the Devil" with Greta Garbo the following year.

For a silent-screen idol, Gilbert's original decorating taste was surprisingly modest, especially when compared with the showplace mansions of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd in nearby Benedict Canyon.

An entrance hall and a large party room occupied the first floor; living room, dining room, kitchen and master bedroom were upstairs and provided a spectacular view of the city below.

Department store sets of carved walnut reproduction 17th-Century Spanish furniture filled the rooms, reflecting the decorating tastes of many middle-class homes in Los Angeles during the time.

'Quite a Production'

But the Gilbert house was to change quickly and lavishly. "When Mr. Gilbert started seeing Greta Garbo in 1926, I installed black marble walls and a sunken black marble tub with gold fixtures in the master bedroom," recalls Harold Grieve, a Hollywood art and set decorator, who became an interior decorator shortly after completing work on the original "Ben Hur" movie in 1926.

"This bathroom was quite a production, but Garbo complained that the marble glistened too much. So workmen fluted the walls to remove the shine." The Garbo bathroom reportedly cost $15,000.

"Apparently, John Gilbert believed all his publicity about being 'screenland's perfect lover,' " Grieve continues. "Gilbert collected girls the way some people collect coins. And every time he had a new girlfriend or got married, his business manager would call me, and I'd go up to the house and redo the bedroom and bath, yet always leave the Spanish-style living and dining rooms alone.

Hopkins Next Owner

"For the stage and film actress Ina Claire, for instance, I installed a pink marble bathroom and redecorated the bedroom in blue and white with Early American-style furniture. Although John Gilbert never showed any interest in the continual redecoration, it seemed that I practically lived off him and that house for a few years."

Following Gilbert's death in 1936, stage and movie actress Miriam Hopkins bought the property. Since Grieve recently had refurnished her studio dressing room, she asked him to redecorate the house.

"First off, I removed the wrought iron and other Spanish clutter in the living and dining rooms," recalls Grieve. "Then I redid the entire house in the Art Moderne style. Very simple and very contemporary.

"In the living room, for example, I changed the baronial-like fireplace to a clean rectangular opening, and I painted the walls a soft blue-gray. A sofa sat on either side of the fireplace, and the rest of the furniture was a mixture of Art Moderne and antiques. And on the walls throughout the house, I hung some of Miss Hopkins's beautiful paintings--Matisse, Picasso, Renoir, things like that."

Transformed the House

The next resident at 1400 Tower Grove Road was David O. Selznick, the producer whose credits include "Gone With The Wind." He rented the house from Miss Hopkins in 1945, following a separation from his first wife, Irene. Selznick purchased the property just prior to his 1949 marriage to actress Jennifer Jones. In the next few years, he completely transformed the house.

"Out went the Moderne furniture," recalls Tony Duquette, who was the interior decorator for the Selznicks. "I redid the 35-foot-long living room with large bronze velvet sofas on either side of the fireplace, a yellow Chinese rug and a Japanese screen over the fireplace. At the far end of the room, I installed a projection room behind a wall of bookshelves so that the Selznicks could show movies in the living room.

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