Elin Vanderlip loves to walk people around her estate, explaining how this garden came to be--"I only plant big flowers"--or how that collection of trees emerged: "Twenty years ago, I planted olives; now I have an arbor."
And she has a lot to talk about.
Her 11 1/2-acre Villa Narcissa estate overlooking the sea is a kind of "what might have been" if the pioneering Vanderlip family--which once owned most of the Palos Verdes Peninsula--had realized its dream of transforming the Peninsula into an Italian Mediterranean paradise of villas and villages.
Water gurgles from fountains, terra cotta statues watch over the gardens, tree-lined walks and roadways lead to fanciful tile-roofed cottages--one of them patterned after an Italian roadside chapel. Cypress-lined brick steps climb to a curving classical colonnade that has been dubbed "the temple."
The villa itself--made of stucco with a tile roof--is decorated with delicate Lucca della Robbia porcelain medallions of angels and the madonna and child. A large bougainvillea climbs its walls. Inside, the ceilings are painted wooden panels. The formal dining room has a 15th-Century credenza that was once in the villa of Pope Julius III.
"You would think you were in the middle of Italy or Spain or something," said a neighbor, retired Army Col. Francis (Cisco) Ruth.
Rancho Palos Verdes Councilwoman Jacki Bacharach says that Vanderlip--who has lived on the estate for much of the last 40 years--"brings our history to us."
But at a vigorous 69, Vanderlip lives life very much in the present, along with the former Hollywood producer she has lived with for more than 25 years. She spends half the year traveling, mostly to promote efforts to preserve French art.
Somehow, she still finds time to tangle with city officials and neighbors over construction on her estate. The Rancho Palos Verdes City Council will hear about one such dispute this week.
A next-door neighbor, brother-in-law John M. Vanderlip, said he won't speak to her, and some other neighbors resent her.
"She imagines herself queen of the hill," said neighbor Alyce Snell.
For her part, Vanderlip says the people who don't like her don't know her and are jealous: "I don't know why. Most of them are far richer than I."
The Norwegian-born Vanderlip--born Elin Regine Brekke--remembers how, in 1946, she came to be the bride of Kelvin Vanderlip, one of the six children of family patriarch Frank Vanderlip Sr.
After breaking off an engagement to actor Sterling Hayden, Vanderlip by chance met Charlotte Vanderlip Cox, another Vanderlip child. "She told me, 'I want you to meet my brother and I want you to marry him.' " Two months later, she did.
She called Kelvin Vanderlip, who died of lung cancer in 1956 at the age of 42, "a prince of a husband" and a man with a vision for the Peninsula. Through the family land company, he helped in the construction of the Wayfarers Chapel and the former Marineland aquatic park.
They appear to have lived a charmed life during the decade they had together, playing tennis, riding horses and entertaining actor Charles Laughton and other neighbors.
Old friend Lois Jester, who met Vanderlip almost upon her arrival on the Peninsula, remembers the costume parties with food, drink and musicians: "They went on all day long and into the evening. People would have the most wonderful and imaginative costumes."
In the last decade, Vanderlip has focused her life on Friends of French Art, a foundation she created to raise money to preserve French buildings, art and books ravaged by time. The group has raised $2 million in 10 years. She calls the Friends "butterflies who flutter by and help with a small amount in many places."
The project has created friendships with the nobility and aristocracy of France that have gained her--and donors of $5,000 or more, whom she takes on whirlwind art tours every year--access to private chateaux, castles, libraries and art collections that the public never sees.
A French count barbecued lamb chops for one of her groups. Vanderlip said she has lunched or dined at 440 French chateaux or museums during the past 10 years.
Entertaining is fairly lavish at Villa Narcissa, too, where Vanderlip gives several large parties a year for friends and charities. "They are lovely, beautifully thought out," said old friend Harriet Medve.
Garden tours drop in on the villa, and sometimes it is used as a background for fashion layouts--with the fees going toward Friends of French Art.
She has entertained the king of Norway, the queen of Jordan, and when he was running for president in 1968, Robert Kennedy and his mother, Rose. "I invited all the high school students," she recalled. "All of their parents were Republicans, but I wanted them to hear the Kennedys speak."