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AFTER THE FIRE

A spirit rekindled

An art-filled salon in the Hollywood Hills is back -- with gusto.

September 20, 2007|Craig Nakano | Times Staff Writer

RING the bell, and Laurie Frank soon appears with a gracious smile, delivering the warmest of welcomes before uttering so much as a word: She swings open an arched door dotted with 25 star-shaped windows, and shafts of sunlight sweep across the entry floor like little hands beckoning you inside. By the time you reach the living room, the urge to kick off your shoes takes hold. The rippled teak floor underfoot, the intriguing silhouettes by artist Qingnian Tang that stir the imagination, even the painstakingly selected shade of taupe paint warming the walls -- it's all so peaceful yet revitalizing, pleasant in the most flattering sense of the word. It's so pleasant you hate to mention Oct. 27, 2004. But you must.

The fire, you say. How did it start?

Frank pauses. The smile -- the gentle one that can make strangers feel as though she is a long-lost friend -- ebbs from her face. She rises from her chair, walks to the kitchen with shoulders stiff and returns with a pack of Camels. "By the time I got here, there were seven firetrucks," she says after one puff, shaking her head. "It was surreal." Surreal to her, and news to anyone who recalls Home's previous cover story on Frank. She was profiled in 2003 as a Martha Stewart-meets-Marie Curie party alchemist, throwing together an unlikely mix of friends and strangers for fabulous soirees at her home in the Hollywood Hills. Entertainment-industry connections from her days as a screenwriter mingled with a circle of artists from her new life as owner of Frank Pictures Gallery at Bergamot Station. Neighbors sipped martinis with Frank's old Yale pals.

Guests remember the parties well.

"Bacchanal orgies, excellent coke," says "Georgia Rule" and "About Schmidt" producer Michael Besman. "Kidding! No, she just would have this gathering of interesting people -- some you knew, some you didn't, some you hadn't seen for ages. It was just a really fun, relaxed atmosphere."

Slate blogger Mickey Kaus declared at the time, "I realized half the people I knew in Los Angeles I met in this room."

Back then, the cover photo showed a dinner host's dream: candlelight and fine food, guests lost in conversation. The 1926 Mediterranean once owned by Maurice Chevalier glowed with good cheer.

Sixteen months later, the home was gone.

--

A passing jogger was the first to notice something amiss and knocked at the neighboring house. Frank Newcomer answered the door.

"I opened it and a woman fairly calmly said, 'Did you know the house next door has black smoke rising from it?' " says Newcomer, who went out in stocking feet to investigate.

An electrical short in a clock had turned Laurie Frank's kitchen into an orange ball of fire, something Newcomer only half-jokingly compares to the "Backdraft" set at Universal Studios. He summoned neighbor Ed Trillo for help, broke into the house and beat back the flames until the fire crews arrived to finish the job.

Meanwhile, the calls went out: Where's Laurie? Neighbors phoned friends, friends called party acquaintances, and word spread through Frank's vast network of dinner companions. The subject of their frantic search, it turns out, was on her way to the now-defunct L.A. restaurant Alto Palato for friend Ana Roth's birthday party, and not even Frank knew that her cellphone battery was dead.

By the time she arrived at the restaurant, Roth was waiting with the news. The two drove back to Whitley Heights together, arriving to find the flames already subdued.

"It didn't look that bad from the outside," Roth says. "But the water damage was the worst. When she went inside, it was devastating."

Representatives from insurance adjusters and building contractors had already descended on the scene with business cards in hand, Frank says, still shuddering at the thought.

Dozens of friends and neighbors who had heard about the fire converged on Whitley Heights too, lending their support. In some ways it was a classic Laurie Frank get-together, except the party was more like a wake, the poached salmon and caviar potatoes replaced by soot and smoke.

Ever the hostess, Frank fell into her usual routine. "I didn't know what to do," she says, "so I just started introducing people to each other."

--

THE year that followed was no less bizarre. The devastating loss was offset by the relative pleasure that came with moving into a bungalow at the Chateau Marmont, courtesy of her insurance company, while plans for rebuilding took shape.

Frank began collecting replacement furniture and stored it at her art gallery. Visitors began flocking in specifically to see her latest decorating purchases, and some asked to buy her epic sofa designed by Julia Winston Adams or the hand-soldered, hand-painted metal dresser, a "completely bizarre" piece that Frank says is her new favorite.

"I could have sold that maybe 20 times," she says, still with disbelief.

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