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WRITING HOME

Public lives, private oases

A new book features garden sanctuaries that are wildly creative and larger than life, just like their owners.

September 04, 2003|Janet Eastman | Times Staff Writer

Gardens in Los Angeles are more than flora and furnishings. They're stage sets. Columns come from Indonesia; kuba tablecloths from Africa; and grasses from Chile, South America and New Zealand.

In a place where almost everything grows, almost anything goes.

That's what photographer Erica Lennard discovered when she moved from Paris to Los Angeles -- "a city that is, in a sense, all about the garden," she says in the afterword to her new book, "Secret Gardens of Hollywood and Private Oases in Los Angeles" (Universe Publishing, $45).

"The idea for the book came when I realized that what brought people here to make films in the 1920s and '30s," says Lennard, "are the same reasons they built palatial homes from every architectural style and have every type of garden: It's the anything-is-possible philosophy. You can have whatever you want. It's 'Hollywood' to want it and to get it."

No one style dominates here, true, but in the 25 gardens featured -- from Mediterranean to exotic to native -- common themes emerged, says Adele Cygelman, who wrote the text: "Everyone named Lotusland in Santa Barbara and the succulent gardens at the Huntington in San Marino as their inspirations. Everyone had a statue of Buddha somewhere. All women mentioned the urge at age 40 to get their hands into dirt. And everyone thought of their garden as a retreat, a sanctuary, a place that transports them into a different world."

Jack LaLanne's former Hollywood Hills estate, which once was filled with statuary in the image of the fitness guru, is now rich with rare native succulents. Joni Mitchell's gardenia-scented property in Bel-Air pays homage to her spiritual side; there are nooks that hold figures of a Tibetan Buddha and the Virgin Mary. A blue-tiled lily pond built for Barbara Stanwyck near the Hollywood Bowl is outlined with miniature citrus trees. And "Independence Day" director Roland Emmerich's palazzo in Hollywood is a jungle, with 400 exotic palms in terra-cotta pots filling terraces.

Hollywood gardens are different. That's because so many of the people who own them work in lucrative and creative professions: acting, directing, writing, designing. And since few are on the job year-round, they have time to create these verdant escapes. "A lot of people in this town need a sense of calm," says Lennard, "an oasis to get away from hectic days."

Those living in the Entertainment Capital of the World also crave glamour, and they know the tricks to converting the humdrum into showstoppers. On a bluff in Malibu is a small-scale replica of the Torii shrine from Japan's Inland Sea. In Santa Monica Canyon, there's an arrangement of tropical plants inspired from the Majorelle Gardens -- the real one in Marrakech is owned by Yves Saint Laurent. High above Beverly Hills is a Balinese rain forest as seen through the eyes of the late Tony Duquette, theatrically flamboyant designer of interiors, furniture, Broadway and movie sets, costumes and jewelry for Bergdorf Goodman.

"No one," writes Cygelman, "was better suited to turn the everyday into the fantastic, the ordinary into the magical." And the magical element for Duquette consisted, he once wrote, "in juxtaposing works of art with the wonderful works of nature." His property, named Dawnridge and now owned by his business partner Hutton Wilkinson, has terraces inlaid with shells, tree branches painted to look like coral, spirits houses, pagodas and pavilions.

Lennard, who has written or photographed a dozen other books, had a hard time persuading East Coast publishers that gardens here were not overly manicured and so off-limits that they were looked at but never ventured into. As she found after lugging her Leica camera to hundreds of locations, Southern California living is outdoor-centric. Windows and doors are left wide over the seasons. Table settings are placed underneath tree canopies. And entertaining is seldom contained to the living room.

Over the years, when Lennard visited her friends Patrick Bauchau, the French actor, and his wife, Mijanou Bardot, sister of Brigitte, she almost never went inside their Mediterranean-style home in Whitley Heights. Their yard, abundant with fruit trees -- olive, lemon, pomegranate, guava, fig -- and bamboo, jasmine, lavender, passionflowers, was simply too seductive to leave.

"People can be more creative with gardens than interiors because gardens are in constant change," says Lennard, who wasn't interested in doing a celebrity book but one that captured the feeling of being in well-loved outdoor spaces. Lennard wanted to include Tim Curry's hillside property with its Inca pool, but she couldn't because the actor had moved. "That's a factor in L.A.," she says. "Some owners put in their gardens quickly and change homes often, so there is no history."

Then there's Joni Mitchell.

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