On Friday the Wall Street Journal reported that one of the great old mansions from silent-era Hollywood has come on the market for an asking price of $13,800,000. For me, this was exciting news as I have always considered the Spanish-styled estate, located at 345 St. Pierre Road in Bel-Air, to be one of the quintessential silent movie star homes. After all, it was home to one of the quintessential silent movie stars – Colleen Moore.
Although she may not be as well remembered today as she should be, Colleen Moore was one of the brightest and biggest stars in the Hollywood firmament of the 1920′s. A thoroughly charming and talented performer, Moore was the screen’s biggest box office draw for the years 1926-1927. By the time she had retired a wealthy woman in 1934, Moore had appeared in more than 60 productions including such major films of the day as Sally (1925); Orchids and Ermine (1927); and Lilac Time (1928). In pictures since 1916, she managed to attain full stardom with 1923′s Flaming Youth and with it she helped to usher in the era of the flapper with women everywhere copying Moore’s thoroughly modern bobbed haircut. If you have never seen a Colleen Moore film I highly recommend you rent Ella Cinders (1926). Like the exceptional Show People (1928), it is a Hollywood “in” joke chronicling Ella’s rise from hapless small town beauty contest winner to Hollywood superstardom. It’s a fun little romp and you’ll see why Moore was so popular.
Ironically, Moore’s highly successful career in motion pictures almost didn’t happen at all because of her eyes – you see, one was blue and the other brown. Fortunately, for all concerned they both photographed the same in black and white. However, you can guess though she probably never bought any stock in Technicolor. Moore’s biggest years of success occurred while she was under contract to First National. So large loomed Moore, she was one of the rarefied few to have that ultimate Hollywood silent era status symbol - her own specially built bungalow on the studio lot.
A smart and savvy lady, even at the dizzying heights of stardom Moore never lost sight of how fickle fame can be and handled her enormous salary with great care, making sure to put most of it away for the inevitable rainy day. As such she spent the bulk of her starring career in a series of charming, but relatively modest homes in the Wilshire District, more suitable to a well-to-do banker than an internationally acclaimed movie star earning $12,500 a week.
Finally, in January 1929, she decided it was time to “go Hollywood,” and she and her husband, John McCormick, First National’s VP in charge of production, purchased a grand three-acre estate in the most exclusive section of the most exclusive district of Bel-Air at 345 St. Pierre Road. The Hollywood version of the story is that Moore and her husband saw the mansion while it was still under construction and simply had to have it with a reported $250,000 involved to get the current owner, Chicago businessman C. Fred Stewart, to find his dream home elsewhere. While this sounds a bit press agenty (after all, McCormick had been a press agent before rising up the studio ladder) this was in fact how the scene played out. (Imagine a Hollywood legend that’s true!)
The not-yet-completed estate had been designed by the busiest L.A. architect you’ve probably never heard of – Theodore J. Scott. Sometimes referred to as T.J. Scott or Theo Scott, the prolific architect designed hundreds, possibly thousands, of homes throughout Southern California during the 1920′s, sometimes entire neighborhoods at a time as with Walter G. McCarty’s subdivision of the old Beverly Speedway property or H.L. Miller’s development of a large tract off Kenneth Road in Glendale that called for 1,500 Scott-designed houses. Scott was adept at all the popular “revival” styles of the period, particularly the Spanish, often employing Missionesque arched arcades/loggias running along the length of at least one section of a house. For the Stewart commission, Scott created a large two-story U-shaped residence that evoked the haciendas of the old Spanish Dons.
The fact that the house was still unfinished at the time of her purchase presented Moore with an opportunity. In her charming little memoir, Silent Star, Moore relates how she got the house tailored to her tastes. On the hunt for someone to do her bathroom she was introduced one day to a young man named Harold Grieve, husband of fellow silent star Jetta Goudal and a studio art director who had the intention of opening his own interior design business. In spite of his lack of experience, Moore went ahead and asked him to do the bathroom, but he confidently told her “Either I do your whole house, Miss Moore, or nothing.” Impressed by his chutzpah, she gave him the job and as such also giving a major boost to his nascent interior design business. Grieve would go on to a highly successful career with many famous Hollywood clients including Bing Crosby, Raoul Walsh, Hal Roach; Lily Pons; Howard Greer; Zeppo Marx; Earle C. Anthony; Irving Thalberg & Norma Shearer, among many others.
Moore had such confidence in her new decorator she claimed she fired T.J. Scott and turned the completion of the house immediately over to Grieve and contractor Clarence Cox. “He pushed out walls, closed in the sixty-five foot loggia,” she related. “Off the loggia, between the U of the house, he built a large flagstone patio. At one end of the U he added a guest house, at the other end a theater. We bought another acre below the house and put in a tennis court and swimming pool with a pool in between.”
There was also a guest suite upstairs in the main house between John’s suite at one end and mine at the other, each with sitting room, bedroom and bath. In my suite there was also an office off the bedroom for my secretary.
Harold did my suite in yellow and turquoise, with heavy silk pile turquoise carpeting made in China, which really did make me feel like a movie star. The bathroom was done in yellow onyx and mirrors, some of them with scenes painted behind the glass.
Colleen’s husband John took as great of interest as his wife in the decorating of his sanctum sanctorum and had very specific ideas on how his suite should be decorated. In spite of Moore and Grieve’s pleadings, McCormick insisted his suite be done in very dark blue. McCormick also insisted on an indulgence in what Moore called “Grand Rapids Department Store” furniture with Grieve having the unenviable task of trying to balance antiques and mass-produced items for a harmonious effect, a task he appears to have accomplished.
However, odd colors and department store knockoffs were to be the least of Moore’s concerns over her husband. For years, McCormick had been battling alcohol addiction, a battle he continued to lose, which put more and more pressure on the marriage until it finally broke. In spite of his best efforts, including a male nurse attendant, McCormick wouldn’t, or couldn’t, beat his drinking binges and took to hiding bottles in strategically placed spots around the mansion and the three acre grounds. “As I drove up to the front door one day,” she recalled, “I saw a bottle on a string outside his bathroom window. It was hopeless.” But her decision to finally end it nearly got her killed when she asked for a divorce while he was drunk. Enraged McCormick grabbed his wife by the throat and began choking her. Had it not been for the intervention of the chauffeur, it might have truly been the end.
Moore kept the Bel Air house as her property after the divorce and it became a regular gathering spot for her many famous friends with a regular round of social events both grand and intimate faithfully covered in the gossip columns of the day. When not in town for any length of time, the shrewd Moore would rent the estate out, often to notable friends. Marlene Dietrich (who Colleen claimed was the best house keeper who ever lived there) took over the house in 1934. Later the home was rented by studio executive B.P. Schulberg and then to the Countess Dorothy di Frasso. Dorothy ran with a very interesting and eclectic crowd that ranged from royalty to gangsters, the latter category included the handsome rogue Benjamin ”Bugsy” Siegal who lived in the guest house for a time during di Frasso’s residence there. It was actor Bruce Cabot who was to cause Moore the most trouble, hosting a series of wild parties in his time there that not only scandalized the neighbors it brought on an international scandal when at one such soiree in 1942 Errol Flynn was accused of rape by a young lady who claimed the actor locked her in “The Blue Room.” When the horrified Moore heard the news she immediately knew two things (1) The infamous “Blue Room” was her former husband’s bedroom and (2) The girl was lying. The lock on the door had been broken for years.
After Moore had given up her long time Bel Air base it passed into other hands including the Stack family, socially prominent California pioneers who had a son in the movie business – handsome young Robert Stack who made the house his home in the late 1950′s – 1960′s.
In 1978, the estate was purchased by Steven J. Fogel, founder of Westwood Financial who paid $1.3 million for the property. Fogel had originally purchased the grand mansion for the exact reason Colleen Moore had – to show that he had “arrived.” Now, after more than three decades in the home, Fogel told the WSJ he is ready to move on saying he will miss the memories, but not the upkeep.
Over the course of time, Fogel updated and remodelled the old house and today it stands at some 13,000 square feet with 7 bedrooms and 12 bathrooms. The three acres of original grounds are long gone, but the house still sits on a comfortable .66 acre lot. Fogel told the WSJ that he has preserved many of the original elements of the house including arches, the original projection room and the guest house, which is currently used as an art studio. The house is listed at $13,800,000 and is being handled by Mauricio Umansky of The Agency. Listing with many more photos can be found here.
Here are a few more “Then” photos and some “Now” photos of this historic estate.
Years later, when I was renting the house, Greta Garbo came to look at it. When she saw the bathroom she said, “Ah Colleen, those were the good old days.” – Colleen Moore