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Writer Michael Gross knows a thing or two about the back stories of the rich and famous, and now, in his latest book, he has turned his laser-like focus to the history of some of the great mansions in L.A. “Real estate is the means to an end, the endlessly fascinating means to an end,” he says. Among the multitudes of characters in “Unreal Estate: Money, Ambition, and the Lust for Land in Los Angeles” (Broadway Books) are silent film star Harold Lloyd (who owned the rights to his own films and was a savvy real estate investor); Bel Air founder Alphonzo Edward Bell; Howard Hughes’ attorney Neil Steere McCarthy; hotelier Conrad Hilton; mutual fund man Bernie Cornfeld; Jayne Mansfield; Tony Curtis; George Hamilton, and Cher.
Gross says that working on “Unreal Estate” was a pleasure, and that he was received in a friendly manner almost everywhere. That was a big change after his experience with his last project, “Rogues’ Gallery: The Secret Story of the Lust, Lies, Greed, and Betrayals That Made the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” which came out in 2009. While working on “Rogues,” he “was the focus of so much overt hostility, my sister Jane said to me, ‘This isn’t worth it. Just return the advance,’” he recalls. “But she said it just about a week too late for it to have the right effect. I already knew that I had a great story.”
“Unreal Estate,” in fact, is Gross’ second book about property; the first was “740 Park: The Story of the World’s Richest Apartment Building,” published in 2005.
For many, the most remarkable of the California mansions is the Hilda Olsen Boldt Weber residence at 10644 Bellagio Road in Bel Air, aka Casa Encantada and Bellagio House; its genesis is one of the odder — and sadder — stories in the book. “Isn’t that something?” Gross asks. Hilda, a rather plain-looking nurse, had married a millionaire widower, Charles Boldt, whom she’d taken care of after he’d had a heart attack. They lived lavishly, but within their means; then he died. Hilda promptly married her chauffeur, Joseph Otto Weber, and went into real-estate overdrive, buying two huge lots in Bel Air, then building a 35,000-square-foot mansion, finished in 1938. Designed by James E. Dolena and with furnishings by Terence Harold Robsjohn-Gibbings, it was beautifully proportioned and extraordinary. But it didn’t bring her the social recognition she had wanted, and cost her enormous amounts of money, as did some bad investments and a gambling problem. Within a few years, she couldn’t afford to keep it. Hilton bought the house for a relative song, $225,000, in 1950, and owned it until he died in 1978. Hilda herself took an overdose of sleeping pills shortly after the sale.
Subsequent owners have included Dole Food owner David Murdock, who bought Casa Encantada from the Hilton estate and startled design buffs by removing the built-in furnishings created by Robsjohn-Gibbings and changing the facade, and Gary Winnick, the Global Crossings founder, who paid a staggering $94 million for it. Winnick, whom Gross calls “the ultimate corporate loser-as-winner,” has turned out, surprisingly, to be a good steward for the property and has restored it to its former glory, even going so far as to buy back Robsjohn-Gibbings’ original furnishings and to re-create them when they don’t exist.
Gross ends his book with Stewart and Lynda Resnick, who own PomWonderful, FIJI Water, Teleflora, Paramount Farming — and 9481 Sunset Boulevard, Sunset House, in Beverly Hills. That dwelling is a 16,621-square-foot house originally built for Francisca Botiller, the wife of an heir to a Spanish land grant fortune, and designed by the French architect Lourdou. In 1949, McCarthy bought it for $50,000 from his paramour Dolly Green, daughter of Burton Green, said to be a co-founder of Beverly Hills, who had owned it only briefly. It went to the Resnicks in 1977. Lynda, Gross says, had initially agreed to talk with him — and then withdrew her consent. “That’s OK, because fortunately the Resnicks have left a very good record behind them,” he says. The two have no shortage of detractors. However, Gross says, “I think there’s a great deal about them that’s admirable, even as they are pugnacious and litigious. They learn from their mistakes; they try to do good. These are qualities that you don’t run across in your average billionaire.
“I could have done just one house,” he notes. “But that would have been a leaner book in terms of narrative. It wouldn’t have had the epic sweep of my books. One fair criticism of my books is that they’re too fricking much — too many characters, too much scope....[They’re] Christmas trees, full of ornaments and stars and angels and maybe even some devils. But there is a plumb line running down the center of each of them.”
And his fascination with real estate isn’t over. Next, Gross will return to New York with “House of Outrageous Fortune: 15 Central Park West.” “Movin’ on up to the West Side,” he sings.