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LOST L.A.

Mr. Un-Modern Fred MacMurray

Modesty, simplicity and constancy were the themes in the actor's traditional Brentwood home.

October 01, 2011|Sam Watters
  • The living room of Fred and Lillian MacMurray in 1946. Lillian decorated imagining the family huddled around the hearth.
The living room of Fred and Lillian MacMurray in 1946. Lillian decorated… (Maynard L. Parker / Huntington…)

Fred MacMurray was a 26-year-old, square-jawed guy from Beaver Dam, Wis., when he became a Hollywood star, signing a contract with Paramount Pictures in 1934. Two years later he'd earned enough money to marry his sweetheart, model Lillian Lamont. They had what Mommie-Not-So-Dearest Joan Crawford called "one of the few happy and well-adjusted marriages."

MacMurray was a straight shooter, a hard-working, All-American success who batted the ball out of the park in a 50-year film and TV career. He made dozens of movies including the noir murder classic "Double Indemnity" with Barbara Stanwyck. He famously pinched his pennies and saved his way to wealth. He loved his wife and went home after work to play with the kids.

In 1945, Fred and Lillian bought a house on Evanston Street in Brentwood Heights. A year later magazine writer Marva Shearer published a homey picture of the MacMurray living room, taken by Maynard Parker, L.A.'s star photographer. She wrote that Lily and Bud, as they were known to friends, stood for "the great American dream -- the good each one of us expects success to bring him -- happier, better family living in a secure good home that is as unaffectedly livable as it is gracious."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, October 07, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
MacMurray house: In the Oct. 1 Home section, a Lost L.A. column on the house of actor Fred MacMurray misspelled the last name of actress Margaret Sullavan, the home's previous co-owner, as Sullivan.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, October 08, 2011 Home Edition Home Part E Page 5 Features Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
MacMurray house: In the Oct. 1 Lost L.A. column on the house of actor Fred MacMurray, the name of actress Margaret Sullavan, the home's previous co-owner, was misspelled as Sullivan.

And what was the house that such a couple called home after the Depression? It was a 10-room, two-story white Colonial on a shady street where neighbors were fellow actors. Bachelor Jimmy Stewart from Pennsylvania was renting down the block, and nearby was Nebraska-born Henry Fonda, married to socialite Frances Ford Seymour, mother of Jane and Peter.

Along the driveway to the MacMurray place was a sweet-smelling deodar pine. Out back pepper trees shaded a sunny yard. A picnic table and barbecue were near a swimming pool, an extravagance left by the previous owners, the high-living agent Leland Hayward and his wife, actress Margaret Sullivan. Fred thought the pool was Hollywood flashy but added real estate value.

Lillian collected Americana. She learned from her mother to recognize old-fashioned craftsmanship and appreciate real value. New stuff was like a new car, un- reliable and worth 20% less the day you left the store. Lillian's collection of rockers, coffee grinders, shoemaker benches and tankards decorated the house painted in blues, greens and white. She and her designer George Hall just wanted classic, out-of-the-can colors, none of the shocking pinks and acid greens coming into fashion.

When it came to the living room, Lillian imagined her young family huddling around the hearth. She used practical braided rugs, calico prints and chintz, warm pine and cheery maple finishes for a cozy feel. She particularly liked dimity cotton curtains. She could throw them in the GE washer and have them back up in a day.

The year the MacMurrays finished their home sweet home was 1946, placing it within the chronology of Pacific Standard Time, the extravaganza of Midcentury California art and design. This cultural steamroller uses Martha Stewart-style branding with museum and gallery authority to lure you back to Midcentury Modern. Exhibitions across the region will revisit the buildings, furniture and tchotchkes of a mythic halcyon time when Americans finally woke up to the genius of 20th century design, casting aside failed traditions for Formica futures.

So powerful was the modernist assumption of progress in the postwar American home that celebrated historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock could rejoice in 1952 that traditional was "dead if not buried." Charles and Ray Eames, Raymond Loewy and their acolytes were bringing democratic values to the world through mass-manufactured tables and chairs, orange juicers and cocktail shakers. Before two world wars, only the rich lived well. Now the middle classes, who had fought the battles that toppled kings and dictators, could do the same.

What actually got "buried" in this modernist tale are the stories of Americans who didn't belong to the boomerang table and plywood set. They, like the MacMurrays, found reassurance in decorating that began with George Washington, not George Nelson, during a century shaken by poverty and global violence. For them, living better with new conveniences, but decorating with old furniture and fabrics, made a house a home. There was no East Coast versus West Coast design. There was just American taste. Democracy was the freedom to choose between the old and the new.

Bud and Lily lived by the values they associated with the Colonial Revival they collected: modesty, simplicity and constancy. They decorated their Brentwood Mount Vernon to be forever the MacMurray family manor. One marriage in one home for life.

This is how it turned out, but not as the MacMurrays had planned. In 1953, Lillian died at 43 with Fred at her side. A year later, bereft, he sold their Brentwood house and bought another Colonial from singer Nelson Eddy. Today only the deodar stands at the entrance to the Evanston Street place.

The day he closed the door on his family dream house, Fred MacMurray understood that in real Pacific time, there was never a standard design for life and living.

--

home@latimes.com

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