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Lewis & Clark of the Celebrity Domicile

When a Map to the Stars' Homes Just Isn't Enough

August 08, 2004|MARK EDWARD HARRIS

It was only a matter of time before we outgrew the map to the stars' homes. Just as the discerning cinephile has moved beyond the MGM classics, say, to B-grade horror flicks, so it goes with celebrity residences: At some point, Pickfair is just too obvious. With the book "Movie Star Homes: The Famous to the Forgotten" (Santa Monica Press), co-authors Judy Artunian and Mike Oldham have taken the "Ramon Novarro slept here" inquiry to the next level.

As it happens, Pickfair didn't make it into "Famous to the Forgotten," given that Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks' original Beverly Hills mansion is no longer standing, a requirement for inclusion. Along with greatest hits such as Mae West's penthouse in the Ravenswood Apartments in Hancock Park, "Famous to the Forgotten" excavates more obscure star domiciles from the silent era to the present day. These homes may not be glitzy enough for coffee table books or magazine spreads, but they're pay dirt for the insatiable Hollywood archeologist.

In 2000 Artunian, 52, a freelance writer from Newport Beach and a 10-year member of the Los Angeles Conservancy, noticed a listing for Lillian Gish while going through old Los Angeles city directories at the library downtown. (She was researching her own mother's family.) "I knew it was the Lillian Gish because she was listed as a photo player, which is what they called film actors in those days." City directories, she points out, listed professions during an era when not everyone had a phone. She began the book project a year later after a chance encounter with Irvine resident Oldham, who got hooked after they went to the Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax Avenue to see a Buster Keaton movie with live organ accompaniment. The pair began scouring libraries and historical societies. "Every time you solve one of these 'where did they live' mysteries, it's really neat and sometimes kind of spooky," says Oldham, 46, a managing partner of a chemical wholesale distributorship.

Some required cunning detective work. Beverly Hills listings for Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch of the West of "The Wizard of Oz," led to lots where the original homes had been leveled. But Oldham discovered that Hamilton's son lived on the East Coast and called him. "He told me about an apartment where he lived with his mother and father in the late '30s. Using his father's name, I found a listing in Santa Monica."

Thanks to such painstaking excavation, we can now visit the former home of Karl Dane, an established actor in the 1920s whose strong Danish accent doomed his transition to talkies. Dane had to give up his home on Elm Drive in Beverly Hills, at one point selling hot dogs outside MGM to get by. In 1934 at the age of 48 he shot himself to death in his Burnside Avenue apartment in the mid-Wilshire area, surrounded by clippings exalting his earlier fame. Then there's the quiet Santa Monica home where silent-era star Mary Miles Minter was beaten during a robbery in 1981. (Minter had also been involved in a love/murder triangle that made the front pages in 1922.) And we now know that Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle lived on West Adams Boulevard, and that Rudolph Valentino did time in the Westlake area. "He had gotten divorced and he wasn't thrilled with the way his career was going," Artunian says. Stardom followed, though, and in 1925 Valentino moved to his famed "Falcon Lair" estate on Bella Drive.

Tempestuous celebrity marriages are a mother lode for the star-home cartographer. As Oldham points out, Buster Keaton moved out of his mansion because he was separating from his wife, and he wasn't the only one. "Hedy Lamarr's mother said her daughter changed houses as often as she changed husbands," Oldham says. "Hedy was married six times."

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