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Noir splendor

At Greystone Mansion, a monument to sun-drenched dreams of wealth and power, shadows of mystery and scandal still lurk.

October 23, 2003|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

"I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn't care who knew it.

I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on $4 million."


The mansion Philip Marlowe is about to enter at the beginning of Raymond Chandler's classic 1939 Los Angeles mystery novel, "The Big Sleep," holds many secrets, both real and fictional.

Marlowe -- played by Humphrey Bogart in the film noir version -- finds inside its massive doors a dark world fueled by jealousy, blackmail and murder. It is proof that money does not buy happiness -- but it can buy an incredible hilltop manse.

Chandler's model for the palatial home, according to mystery buffs, was the Greystone Mansion that has loomed castle-like over Beverly Hills since 1928, when it was built by the oil-rich Doheny family on a 12-acre lot carved out of a 400-acre ranch. Its cost at the time: $4 million. Inflation would boost the figure to about $43 million today, but the actual amount to replicate a structure of such grandeur would probably be far greater, making it a contender for the most expensive residential estate in Southern California.

The Aaron Spelling mansion in Holmby Hills, completed in 1988, is larger -- 56,000 square feet compared with Greystone's 46,000 -- and the cost reportedly was $48 million. But what would make Greystone almost unthinkable as a construction project today are the materials used, including 3-foot-thick walls of Indiana limestone and a roof of Vermont slate.

"Just the cost of bringing in those materials would be incredible," said architectural historian and author Charles Lockwood, who in 1984 prepared a history of the house for the city of Beverly Hills, current owner of Greystone. "Everything was the best money could buy."

Money can't buy atmosphere, but Greystone has it as much as any noir creation. It would be hard to find a home more steeped in the Los Angeles lore that embodies both the sun-drenched promise of a bountiful life as well as its dark underside of mystery and scandal.

Greystone has been unoccupied for more than 20 years, but by no means has it been abandoned. Millions around the world have seen its interiors and exteriors without knowing it, because Greystone is one of Hollywood's most popular residential film locations.

Steve Martin danced with Lily Tomlin in the great hall, the witches of Eastwick concocted brews in the kitchen and the Green Goblin plotted against arch-nemesis Spider-Man on the marbled landing.

"There is not a location manager in this town who has not scouted Greystone, and probably most of them have had something shot there," said Steve Dayan, a veteran location manager who now represents them as a Teamsters business agent. "The place is a treasure, and not just because it's a great place to shoot. People back East like to think we don't have any great houses here. I take them to Greystone."

Archivist Katherine Hyman, who works at the Getty Research Institute, has been doing research on her own for several years for a book she hopes to write on Greystone. "I was born in France and I used to go see my grandfather -- he was a chef -- at chateaux not far from Versailles," she said. "I think that's what drew me to Greystone -- the look of it reminded me of places I saw when I was a little girl."

Greystone has always been much more than a dwelling: It is a brooding declaration of power and privilege.

Edward Doheny struck oil in a mostly hand-dug well near the current Belmont High School in Los Angeles in 1893, the same year his son Ned was born. The discovery was a springboard that took the Dohenys from dire poverty -- they were at the time living in a downtown boarding house and were several months behind on the rent -- to presiding over a financial empire that made them one of the most wealthy and influential families in the country. Greystone was built for Ned and his family.

"Of all the lavish gifts Edward Doheny gave his beloved son, the 55-room baronial castle was, by far, the most extraordinary, considered to be the most luxurious private residence south of William Randolph Hearst's spectacular estate at San Simeon," wrote Margaret Leslie Davis in her Doheny family biography, "Dark Side of Fortune."

After waging a competition between two of the top Los Angeles residential architects -- Gordon B. Kaufmann and Wallace Neff -- Edward Doheny chose the London-born Kaufmann, who later would become world-famous for his designs of Hoover Dam, Santa Anita racetrack and the Los Angeles Times building. But for Greystone, the look was to be largely English Tudor.

"Spanish Revival was the trend here," said Lockwood, "but they were looking eastward toward the look of old money. They wanted something out of Main Line Philadelphia or the north shore of Chicago."

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