Sorry for the absence of posts, but it was a CRAZY week this last week…
And now we continue with the amazing story of Jack Donovan and his equally amazing
houses, which began with my post from last week. It’s been so long you might want to refresh your memory by clicking on the link here.
Mae Murray and “The House That Jack Built…”
On the evening of Wednesday, April 28 1926, Mae Murray, one of Hollywood’s reigning movie queens, alighted from her Rolls Royce limousine at the front entrance of 13047 San Vicente Boulevard and stepped into the parlor of Jack and Jeanette Donovan. “The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips,” as she had been dubbed in the press, had come merely to pay a social call, but the friendly visit, as it would turn out, would ultimately wind up costing both her and the Donovans, much, much more.
By all accounts, the evening was an absolute delight with the Donovans at their most beguiling. Jack, charming as ever, no doubt pulled out the finest selections of the family store of pre-Prohibition wines and liquors while Jeanette charmed with an impromptu concerto on the pipe organ. Throughout the visit, laughter and song wafted out of the open French doors across the lushly landscaped grounds before disappearing into the moonlit night. Murray found herself captivated by her delightful hosts and their equally charming home. As it turned out, the Donovans’ famous guest held some very strong feelings on the subject of home. She was, in fact, a near neighbor, renting a house just down the street at 220 South San Vicente. But while her current place was perfectly fine on the surface, to Murray it was just a house, and somebody else’s at that, and not a home. Now, here, as she sat on a finely upholstered antique divan, surrounded by beauty and elegance wherever her eyes alighted, Murray believed she had found just the kind of place she had long dreamed of. When she told the Donovans how she felt about their lovely home, Jeanette absolutely insisted that she be given the full tour. As she oohed and ahhed her way through one beautiful antiques–filled room after another, Murray confided her wish that she too could have such a place. As it turned out she could…
Based on what happened next, it would be very tempting to conclude that the Donovans purposely set the whole evening up just to scam Mae Murray out of lots of her hard-earned movie queen money. This, however, does not seem very likely. In reality, Jack and Jeanette Donovan were not scam artists so much as they were the consummate opportunists. Whenever it knocked they flung that door wide open and on this night it knocked and knocked loudly. Murray was rich, highly susceptible to flattery, wildly impulsive and, frankly, based on other important decisions she made, not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Besides, she really was in the market for a house and the Donovans were only doing what they did best. According to Murray’s later testimony, it was Mrs. Donovan who laid it on the thickest, calling her “dearie” and declaring that Murray needed just such a restful home as this. When Murray demurred that she couldn’t possibly imagine them selling their own home and exquisite furnishings, Mrs. Donovan said that because it was her and only because it was her they would be willing make such a sacrifice. Murray was definitely tempted but she somehow managed to get out the door with her checkbook intact.
But it was not for long. The very next day the Donovans went in for the kill. That morning Murray received a call from Jack Donovan telling her that there was another offer on the house and if she wanted it she needed to act quickly. Murray took the bait and hopped into her Rolls Royce limousine for a second call to 13047 San Vicente. Throughout her visit she was reminded that the home was built of only the most solid and finest materials available and that the beautiful furnishings, which were authentic antiques including many rare family heirlooms, would convey with the house. Within an hour Murray had heard enough. A deal was made on the spot for $50,000 for the house plus an additional $6,000 added in for certain alterations including a two-bedroom addition and some added landscaping that Donovan declared he would complete “at cost.” At this point, both parties were thrilled with the deal, sudden as it was. Murray got her “perfect” home and the Donovans got an enormous payday, which they could not wait to spend on yet another house.
And so they did…Within two weeks after sealing the deal with Mae Murray, Donovan took out a building permit for a brand new hacienda, this one on a far grander scale than their present abode, which was to be built on a prime double lot in Santa Monica’s exclusive Palisades Tract at 136 Georgina Avenue. Coming in at a reported cost of $80,000 upon its completion in late 1926, the latest Donovan home was a veritable orgy of Spanish Colonial styling spread out over fifteen large rooms arranged around a central interior courtyard to be known as the “Court of the Birds.” A profusion of arches copied in style from the San Gabriel Mission, fountains, patios, tile roofs, wrought iron balconies and grilles, colorful tile work, a dozen fireplaces and virtually every other conceivable Spanish stylistic element was employed by Donovan in the creation of his newest estate. Donovan declared that all of this “will lend the atmosphere of early Dons to this unique residence.” Adding to the uniqueness of the home were a series of “found” elements that Donovan had picked up in his travels such as a set of carved doors salvaged from demolished mansions, a bell from a burned church, old fire escapes reworked into Spanish grilles; even movie props were incorporated into the house making it a true “stage set” for Donovan and his mother. The landscaped grounds, surrounded by palms and other lush foliage, included a separate nine car garage with a three-hundred gallon gas tank to properly house Donovan’s fleet of expensive automobiles including a rare French De Lage as well as room for his mother’s Rolls Royce limousine.
The home’s interior was no less incredible not only for its exuberantly Spanish architecture, but as the repository of Jeanette’s extensive and eclectic collection of paintings and antique furniture. Among the most notable were two Murillo paintings, a crystal chandelier said to have once been Brigham Young’s, a slipper chair owned by Lady Jane Grey, a 150-year old prayer bench, and a bible that once belonged to Robert Burns. Gilded mirrors, statuary, richly hued oriental carpets, gold brocaded sofas, heavily carved tables and other fine pieces filled the rooms of the Donovan hacienda. Among the many canvases adorning the walls could be found a number done by Jeanette herself, a talented artist who had studied art during the family’s days in Paris.
While all of this was going on, Murray was busy too. On the evening of Thursday, June 24, 1926, she fell down a flight of stairs at 220 South San Vicente, bruising her right arm and hip. After “fainting” from the pain (Murray fainted a lot), she reached out for help, not from any of her household staff or longtime friends, but to a man she had met just three weeks before at the birthday bash Pola Negri had thrown for Rudolph Valentino. The young man, David Mdivani, an aspiring actor who claimed to be in reality a Georgian Prince, rushed right over. On the way back from the doctor’s office they stopped by the marriage bureau and that Sunday he became the fourth husband of Mae Murray. As noted before, Murray was both highly impulsive and perhaps not so bright. With her rushed together wedding, the former Ziegfeld Follies Girl was magically transformed into a “Princess,” eclipsing both Pola Negri who was merely a Countess and Gloria Swanson, just a Marquise, in the process. For the “Gardenia of the Screen,” (as Murray was also known) everything was coming up roses, a handsome young Prince and the perfect stage set home for her “happily ever after.” But, titles and title deeds are not always what they seem as it turned out.
Stay tuned for the thrilling Part III of The House(s) That Jack Built when its Jack vs. Mae in an epic court battle royale.