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Too much is never enough

Mary McDonald is unapologetically reviving the notion of glamorous excess. 'I can totally appreciate minimalism for what it is, but that's not really what's fun for me.'

March 11, 2004|Alexandria Abramian-Mott | Special to The Times

There's a small pavilion hidden in the far corner of Mary McDonald's Hollywood Hills property. It's almost inaccessible from the rest of the garden, tucked at the top of a steep, grassy incline, and even though you can see it only from the kitchen sink and master bathroom windows, McDonald, an interior decorator, keeps the outdoor room lavishly appointed with a constantly rotating assortment of tables, chairs, orchids and artwork 12 months a year.

Even on a damp night when the wisteria branches framing the garden pavilion are winter bare, and dinner guests are clustered inside near the fireplace, the unseen stage is lighted by wall sconces that illuminate a table set with double-layer linen tablecloths and miniature potted topiary trees.

For McDonald, who gardens in Manolo Blahniks and with cherry-red manicured nails, practicality has never been high on the list. Instead, she's one of the city's youngest old-school decorators, perfectly at ease with keeping alive a Chanel No. 5-spritzed existence lived amid gilded mirrors and massive floral arrangements.

"I've always been kind of fancy," says McDonald, who routinely brings her particular brand of ultra feminine fanciness to clients such as Renee Zellweger, Elliott Gould, 20th Century Fox executive Jennifer Nicholson Salke and other Hollywood players whom she can't reveal.

Like the garden pavilion, the rest of the house is a testament to offhanded elegance.

There's the ornate 19th century silver fruit stand she uses as a vitamin tray in the kitchen; a tufted divan in the master bathroom; and in almost every room, sofas and chairs upholstered in ivory and ecru, despite the fact that frequent houseguests come with dogs and red wine. In the guest bathroom, which she's painted a dramatic charcoal black, McDonald has crusted enough shells onto a mirror to make it look as if it were retrieved from the Titanic.

But it's exactly these details, and the casual, almost careless way they're executed, that make McDonald a singular presence.

"This is not a big deal," she says, referring to the 3,000-square-foot, three-story home that she calls a Barbie house because it's tall and wide but not deep. "I bought it as a spec house and then got lazy. It was just something to redo." Drawn to the property four years ago because it was one of only a handful in the Hollywood Hills with a backyard, McDonald has transformed it from an awkward '40s house with '80s tube railing into a breezy hideaway fit for a screen legend.

With the help of her longtime boyfriend, developer John Bercsi -- who has restored celebrated properties such as the Buster Keaton estate -- she replaced sliders with French doors, updated the kitchen and built the garden pavilion. Along the way, she planted palm and banana trees that now reach two stories, as well as more than 60 kinds of English roses. And then she got down to what she does best: creating opulent rooms of bygone luxury that have inspired magazines such as House & Garden and House Beautiful to run cover stories on her work.

Throughout the house luxurious textiles -- Colefax & Fowler linen, Brunschwig & Fils cotton, Pierre Frey silk -- swath chairs and windows, canopied beds, skirted ottomans. In the first-floor guest bedroom, McDonald tented the ceiling and walls in bolts of a Manuel Canovas beige-and-white stripe "to make it cozy for anyone who stays in there."

But photos of her precisely ordered dove-gray bedroom, which she designed to look like the Dior shop in Paris, or her cream-on-cream living room sprinkled with yellow silk throw pillows, fail to capture the home's crowning presence: McDonald's seemingly endless, occasionally manic energy. It's only on candlelit nights like these, when she's surrounded by friends, with Sinatra singing in the background and hired servers taking coats and bringing cocktails, that her version of the high life finds its purest expression.

"My dinner-party pet peeves are bad lighting and tense hosts," says McDonald, while Bercsi phones in a backup order of Diet Coke and mixers from Pink Dot.

"Everything doesn't have to be perfect," she says, which doubles as her motto for decorating and life in general.

Tonight, she has invited 14 people to the L.A. trunk show for Rome-based fashion designer Soledad Twombly, wife of sculptor Alessandro Twombly and daughter-in-law of artist Cy Twombly. McDonald is formally dressed for the evening in a full-length black skirt with strapless top, Italian sandals and strand after strand of hand-painted bead necklaces. She combines Madeleine Stowe looks and Auntie Mame panache with her own distinctive laugh, one that carries across sisal-covered wood floors, up the stone staircase and through French doors before it disappears somewhere down toward Sunset Boulevard.

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