Princess Mae and Her House of Horrors…
In July 1926, about seven weeks after her quickly arranged purchase, Mae Murray officially took possession of 13047 San Vicente. At first glance, everything seemed to be just fine. It wasn’t. To say Princess Mae had an instant case of buyer’s regret would be a serious understatement. Now, it wasn’t quite like the ceiling collapsed on her when she first stepped through the door…that happened later.
Mae’s first hint that her dream house wasn’t what it was cracked up to be was the unpleasant discovery that upon attempting to descend into the basement she found instead what appeared to be an indoor swimming pool, or more accurately, an indoor swamp. “I hadn’t bargained for an aquarium,” she later declared, her humor at least still intact. As it turned out, “master” architect Jack Donovan had neglected to provide for adequate drainage in his design and rainwater rushed right into the home from both the street and the poorly constructed roof above. This, of course, did a number on the plasterwork, which began cracking into interesting patterns and falling off at the most inopportune times and places. At the same time, the hardwood floors began to take on a fascinatingly wavy appearance, which eventually devolved into full on buckling. And when she inspected the handsome new addition she had contracted with Jack to build for her she found more shoddy workmanship including a balcony off the servant’s quarters that was so rickety it looked like it belonged in a fun house.
This was unnerving enough for Murray, but it was only half of the horrors that unfolded for her in “The House That Jack Built.”One of the biggest selling points for Mae was that the beautiful antiques in the home conveyed with the purchase particularly an Empire bed and an ancient shrine from an old church out on the patio. While these items appeared to still be there, on closer inspection (and you didn’t need to look that close) they looked oddly different. In fact, they looked like machine made copies of these items, which, as it turned out, they were. To Murray, it appeared that the Donovans had pulled the old switcheroo substituting forgeries for the originals Murray admired and thought she had bought. In their defense, the Donovans stated that they never agreed to selling the altar as it was a family keepsake, having been used during the funeral of Mr. Donovan. The bed was replaced by a copy, according to Mrs. Donovan, because she found the original was falling apart. She thought she was doing Murray a favor by replacing it. Murray, however, didn’t buy it (if you will) and, according to one of Murray’s maids, she and Donovan had a “big row,” mostly over the altar. In the end, Murray estimated that only about 20% of the furnishings were genuine antiques and the rest “imitation junk.” When appraisers were brought in to assess the true value of the house and furnishings she learned to her horror, but not her surprise that the house, although outwardly looking perfectly fine, was, at heart, a poorly constructed affair, cobbled together with the cheapest materials and lowest quality workmanship. At best, it was determined, the place was worth about $25,000, less than half of what she paid for it and in 1926 $25,000 was a lot of money.
Not unexpectedly, Murray was absolutely livid when she got this unsettling news and when she got angry she got proactive. After all, wasn’t Hollywood still abuzz over her pummeling Erich Von Stroheim’s chest with her tiny fists all the while screaming “You dirty Hun!” on the set of The Merry Widow (1925)? Jack Donovan beware! But rather than get physical and calling him “You bad architect!,” she instead took to the courts to air her tale of woe. Courtrooms were becoming as familiar territory for Murray as studio soundstages during this period with Murray either suing or being sued in cases ranging from a few hundred dollars to an enormous $1,750,000 lawsuit against Tiffany-Stahl. She was, in fact, involved in literally dozens of suits over the next five years with many going at once. A suit against Jack and Jeanette Donovan was simply part of the legal goldmine being reaped by her attorney, prominent Los Angeles lawyer W.I. Gilbert.
“Now I have to start all over again,” Murray decried to the press when her suit was announced in March 1927, referring to the fact that she had to practically rebuild 13047 San Vicente Boulevard from the ground up in order to make it the house she thought she had been buying. Although the team of carpenters and plasters managed to make the house good as new (because now it was!), to her it was a poisoned well and she just wanted to ditch the place. She and her new husband, Prince Mdivani were already working on building a grand new seaside villa down in Playa Del Rey at 6300 Ocean Front Walk, a home that would ultimately turn out to be more trouble for Murray than 13047 San Vicente. Murray’s complaint against the Donovans took up twenty pages, claiming fraud and misrepresentation and demanding $32,295, the balance between what she paid and the home’s true value (plus interest of course). But the Donovans proved to be up to the fight and together they engaged in a battle royale that became a field day for the press and a disaster for the litigants financially.
The trial, which began on May 24, 1928 in Judge Ballard’s court promised to be a circus with giddy movie-fans battling for seats. They weren’t disappointed. Both litigants made colorful and entertaining witnesses and Murray’s claim she had been “dearied” into buying the house was found to be highly amusing. But it was Donovan who brought the house down (if you will) when, in describing the musical entertainments during Murray’s ill-fated visit to the house, that he was a highly skilled piano player and had been performing for about five years. “By hand?,” asked his attorney. “No, electrically,” replied Donovan straight-faced. In the end though, the house spoke for itself, and the court found in Murray’s favor with Donovan ordered to pay the $32,295. But this, as it turned out, was just Round One. In spite of the preponderance of evidence against him, Donovan immediately announced an appeal. His ferocious defense may have had to do with the fact that he didn’t have $32,295 or anything close to it. He had apparently spent it all and then some. The situation was already so grave that even before the trial, Donovan desperately tried to raise cash, putting his house, its furnishings and even his beloved De Lage up for auction, but there were no takers. He had no choice, therefore, but to keep on fighting.
And fight he did, physically too, at one point punching Murray’s attorney, W.I. Gilbert, after accusing him of calling Mrs. Donovan a liar. The hearing for a new trial did not go Donovan’s way and his request was denied. But just when it looked like Donovan was licked he came out of nowhere blasting from both barrels. That October, the case broke wide open again when Donovan swore out an arrest warrant against Murray for having broken into his home at 136 Georgina on March 15, 1928, while he and his mother were away. Surprisingly, Murray admitted she had, in fact, been at the house, but claimed she had been invited (not likely) and that she was only in the patio area (Why?). And the sensational charges didn’t stop there. Donovan also accused Murray of witness tampering by kidnapping and drugging his chauffeur, James Kay, and forcing him to testify against Donovan. At the same time, Murray’s former butler, J.E. Davis, was arrested on burglary charges and Donovan asked for a search warrant to see if Davis had been secreting the furniture and other items Murray had claimed had been taken by the Donovans after she bought the house. And, as if this wasn’t enough, Donovan also took Murray to small claims court charging she never paid him for a Great Dane, Omar Pasha, and demanded $50 in damages (This had actually come up in the first trial). Even Jeanette Donovan got in on the action, suing Murray for $37 for a screen and dressing table. Like a bolt out of the blue, Mae Murray suddenly found herself in a new, unusual and serious situation. Witness tampering, perjury, kidnapping, forcible entry, dog-napping – the “Gardenia of the Screen,” sure was sounding pretty hardboiled! On October 13th, dressed in a “modish” gown, the celebrated film star surrendered to the police and was released after posting $500 bail. “How absurd!,” she declared to the horde of reporters and the morbidly curious gathered at the station.
Absurd it may have been, but Jack Donovan had managed to stir up a whole hornet’s nest of trouble for Murray sending both her and her attorneys scrambling to refute these wild new charges. Like a scene from a highly melodramatic movie, Donovan declared that there would be a surprise witness appearing before the grand jury – none other than J.E. Davis, former butler to Mae Murray, now out of jail, who would testify that Murray had lied under oath in the first trial when she claimed her signature on an inventory of furnishings was a forgery. A hush filled the packed courtroom as Davis took the stand, but his much anticipated testimony proved to be absolutely worthless and the perjury accusations against Murray fizzled before he even skulked off the stand. Almost all at once, Donovan’s house of cards against Murray began collapsing. Down too went the kidnapping charges when Donovan’s chauffeur recanted his accusations. Even the dog, Omar Pasha, failed to appear in court and the $50 suit was dismissed. But one charge didn’t unravel as hoped by Murray and it was the truly serious one – the supposed forcible entry into the Donovan home. The District Attorney did not believe the charges as “absurd,” as Murray did and she was ordered to stand trial. This was the 1920’s equivalent of Jennifer Aniston being accused of breaking and entering. The fans, the press and the attorneys all loved it. Only Murray was not happy.
Fighting for her freedom in her short but sensational (naturally) trial on October 23rd in Police Judge Spencer’s court, Murray vehemently denied she and “unknown persons” had forcibly entered the Donovan home and that the charge was merely an attempt by the actor/architect to harass her. She identified the “unknown persons” as being her husband, Prince Mdivani and her attorney, R.H. Purdue of the W.I. Gilbert firm. She claimed they were given entry into the patio (Court of the Birds) by a Donovan maid, looked around and left. The explanation was sketchy enough for Murray to actually fear a guilty verdict. Frankly, it was more than a bit odd. Why would Donovan have invited her to his house on the eve of the trial and, if he did, why wasn’t he there when she arrived? One of Murray’s complaints was that not only were certain items forgeries there were also missing items that had been promised to her in the sale including a desk and a harp. It is this writer’s opinion for what it’s worth that Murray did gain access to the patio uninvited in an effort to find evidence that these items were hidden away at the Donovans new home. Just a theory but it makes about as much sense as anything else in this tangled mess.
The trial was short, lasting only until just after the noon recess. At the appointed time, Judge Spencer ordered the defendant to rise while he pronounced sentence. Everyone held their breath. Would the famous star be thrown in jail? The words “Not Guilty,” had barely escaped Spencer’s lips when Murray, having heard her cue line, let out a moan and fainted dead away. But the grand performance didn’t go quite as scripted and on her way down her head connected with a chair with a resounding crack, receiving what Police Matron Margaret O’Brien stated was a “severe blow to the head.” It is a miracle, the courtroom “audience” did not burst into applause at the conclusion of this impressive performance. The great star, now moaning for real, was carried into the room of the clerk of the court, where she was placed on the nearest sofa. With his tongue planted firmly in his cheek, the witty staff correspondent for the Los Angeles Times covering the drama wrote, “Mae Murray did not murmur the orthodox, ‘Where am I?’ when she returned to consciousness in the arms of Prince David Mdivani, her husband, and a Prince of Georgia, but instead cried out in good American, “’Baby, baby, don’t leave me.’” Mae had nothing to worry about on that score. He wouldn’t leave her. He wasn’t finished with her yet. After he completely destroyed her career and bankrupted her, only then would he leave her.
Was it over in the epic battle between Jack Donovan and Mae Murray? Oh, no, not by a long shot.
Stay tuned for the final Part IV of “The House(s) That Jack Built,” coming to a blog near you very soon.