"In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure dome decree."
Ever since William Randolph Hearst built his own Xanadu at San Simeon, California has laid claim to some of the nation's most ostentatious expressions of wealth. From Lynn Atkinson's "House of the Golden Doorknobs" to David Geffen's self-described "act of grandiosity," Los Angeles' four great estates are all that remain of a time and a place when glamour and grandeur knew no limit.
Bellagio House, Bellagio Road, Bel-Air. The former home of hotelier Conrad Hilton last sold in 1980 for $12.4 million to billionaire David H. Murdock, chairman and CEO of Pacific Holding Co. and Dole Food Co. The 64-room, 35,000-square-foot Georgian mansion on 12 acres was the first $10-million-plus sale in Southern California. It has since been the dramatic setting of many a black-tie gala. As the story goes, one party guest was once overheard telling Murdock, "Are you sure it wasn't one of [Hilton's] hotels?" to which the host modestly replied, "It's very comfortable."
If the walls of this 1938 house could talk, they'd tell one of Los Angeles' most compelling cautionary tales about the pitfalls of truly wretched excess. Hilda Olsen, a frumpy hospital nurse, in 1920 married a widowed millionaire who was a patient. When he died nine years later, she inherited his fortune and promptly took up with the chauffeur, whom she married. Trying to pass high society's white-glove test, she spent $2 million during the depths of the Depression on her mansion, which included walk-in silver, fur and wine vaults, his and hers master suites, massage rooms, a grand, semicircular staircase, a gallery and fine wood paneling in the living room, dining room and card room. She bought a sterling silver service for 80 and a gold-trimmed tea set that had been made for a czar, hired a dozen house servants and and threw lavish parties. Gambling debts and bad investments drained her fortune after World War II, and she sold the house to Hilton for $225,000 in 1950. Soon after, she lost everything at the racetrack and killed herself.
While the current owner's roots are equally humble, Murdock, a high school dropout who once worked as a ditch digger, has fared far better socially and economically. He is a distinguished GOP power broker, horse breeder, arts patron and orchid grower. Some consider Bellagio House to be the finest home west of the Mississippi. At any given time, according to local lore, 40,000 flowers are blooming on the grounds, perched on a hillock overlooking the Bel-Air Country Club.
The Knoll, Schuyler Road, Beverly Hills. Others consider this 35-room Georgian mansion to be the finest home in the West, or at least a close second to Bellagio House. It includes a billiard room, storage vaults, a 48-foot swimming pool and two guest cottages at the front gate--one of which was rented by musician Lionel Ritchie.
Billionaire oilman Marvin Davis, who briefly owned Twentieth Century Fox Studios, the Beverly Hills Hotel and just about everything else, paid country singer Kenny Rogers $20.25 million for the estate in 1984--a record that held for just four years. But it was Dino De Laurentiis who made the real killing on this property: He paid a record $2 million for the Knoll in 1976; six years later, Rogers came to visit, looking for decorating ideas for his library. He fell in love with the house and paid $14.5 million for it--also a record at the time. De Laurentiis now makes his home on one of the highest hilltops overlooking Benedict Canyon and Beverly Hills. But Rogers didn't make much, if anything, on the house. After pumping $6 million into it, he sold it to Davis.
Lucy Smith Battson created the Knoll in 1955 after she and her second husband tired of the family's outdated Greystone mansion, scene of a mysterious murder-suicide involving her first husband, Ned Doheny, and his secretary. (Greystone, now owned by the City of Beverly Hills, stands vacant.)
The Warner Estate, Angelo Drive, Beverly Hills. The big enchilada at $47.5 million, the most money ever paid for a residence. It also is one of the city's longest-running construction projects; currently the grounds are being redone. Billionaire entertainment mogul David Geffen bought the neoclassical mansion and 10-acre estate in 1990 upon the death of Ann Warner, widow of Warner Bros. studios founder Jack Warner. She, according to legend, once turned down an offered $25 million, saying she'd live there until she died. After her death, Geffen snapped up the hotly coveted mansion by persuading the estate's lawyers to delay putting it on the market for 10 days while he arranged his considerable finances.