What looks like a storybook fortress on a forested hilltop above Sunset Boulevard is a stone replica of a medieval Normandy castle.
This snugly insulated abode is one of West Hollywood's curious architectural secrets. A grizzled prospector, a "fairy lady," a stripper, a dentist, a famous palimony lawyer and a noted actor have made it their home.
The estate off North Sweetzer Avenue once encompassed more than four acres and fronted on Sunset Boulevard. Its ornate gate bore the name "Mount Kalmia," which means mountain laurel. Now, its gate gone, the estate sits hidden in fairy-tale fashion among oaks, eucalyptus and bamboo.
In the 1930s, it was known as the "Fairy Lady's Castle" for its builder, Hersee Moody Carson. She was an eccentric philanthropist who opened her home and heart to disadvantaged children.
Carson's story has been pieced together from old newspaper accounts and an interview with a man whose father helped build the castle.
In 1915, Hersee Moody Moore, 37, came west. A former Louisiana schoolteacher, she said she was the only child of a wealthy Mississippi family.
"When I got here, I bought a piece of land far west of town, where the bullfrogs were croaking," she told a Los Angeles Times reporter in 1933. The location of the property is unclear, but it quickly became valuable. This "piece of luck," as she called it, foreshadowed her business success in buying and selling properties.
In September 1924, she married wealthy Beverly Hills businessman Peter Gross, who had 11 children by two previous wives. But in October, shortly after the honeymoon, Gross' former housekeeper-lover sued him for breach of promise, demanding $150,000. Unable to face his new wife and his jilted lover, Gross shot himself in the head on the living room couch. His suicide note read, "Good-bye everyone. Death is a treat."
The widow battled his children and his former lover in court for a share of his $250,000 estate. She said in the 1933 Times interview that his death left her a very wealthy woman.
Meanwhile, prospector-inventor George Campbell Carson made front-page news for winning $20 million in a 19-year court fight.
"Justice Pours $20 Million From Copper Firm's Tills Into Hands of 'Desert Rat,' " a Times headline blared in 1925.
Carson was a 55-year-old bachelor with a second-grade education who had spent 30 years mining and wandering around the country. His lucky strike came after he sued several copper companies for infringing on the patent of his smelting furnace. Even after his court victory, it took three more years before he saw a penny.
How he met the widow Gross is unclear, but perhaps Carson's lament to a Times reporter caught her attention:
"I never shined up to a girl in my life that I didn't get the mitten" slapped, Carson said. "It is not my nature to please the ladies.... All I want is a room overlooking the [San Francisco] bay, enough money to fix up a laboratory where I can 'speriment."
Carson and Hersee Gross wed in San Francisco in 1927. "I saw that despite his inventive genius he was nothing but a boy and that he needed a woman to take care of him, so we decided to get married," she told a Times reporter after the ceremony.
The next year proved eventful: The newlyweds moved into Hersee's Los Angeles home on Sunset Boulevard, three blocks west of where the castle is now. She always was impeccably dressed; he wore a beat-up straw hat and overalls and slept outside under the stars.
Soon, his wife became concerned about his sanity. She alleged he had tantrums and had him committed to a mental hospital. But when he started receiving letters from other women seeking to lure him away, she reconciled with him; he was freed within a week.
"My wife is innocent of any premeditated schemes against me," he told a Times reporter after his release.
"I didn't understand Georgie's condition at the time ... but it's all right now," Hersee Carson told the same reporter.
Within months, Carson began receiving his lawsuit winnings, and his wife started collecting expensive antiques and art.
Also in 1928, she held the first of her Christmas parties for hundreds of orphaned and disadvantaged children, mostly of Chinese descent.
"I have always been interested in foreign children, especially the Chinese," she said in the 1933 interview. Her Chinese cook donned a Santa Claus suit and handed out presents.
In 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression, she hired 100 workers to build her three-story castle. It would have 16 rooms, nine bathrooms, 125 stained and leaded glass windows and a chimney -- but no fireplace. She supervised daily construction for more than a year.
The castle cost $500,000, about $7.1 million in today's dollars. It included hand-painted wallpaper with pastel-colored birds, an underground conveyor belt from the street to the kitchen for deliveries, and a conservatory ceiling painted the way the sky looked the day Hersee Carson was born in 1878.