And now we continue with story of Jack Donovan and The House(s) That Jack Built. This is Part V. If you’d like to read the first parts just click on them here: Part I, Part II, and Part III and Part IV. The concluding Part VI, will appear here Sunday.
From Casa Grande to the Chewing Gum and Ash Tray Palace…
Jack and Jeanette Donovan were in Santa Monica when the California Supreme Court handed down its ruling on December 23, 1931 in favor of Mae Murray. Although she had technically won, one cannot imagine she found much joy in the decision. By then her once brilliant star had gone into total eclipse and, although she did not know it at the time, she had made her last movie. Murray’s haughty behavior combined with spectacularly bad judgment in both business and personal affairs hastened her complete downfall. As the quintessential silent movie star, it is highly unlikely Murray’s career would have survived the talkies anyway, but at least she might have retired a wealthy woman. As it was, she spent mammoth amounts of her time and money suing seemingly everybody who looked askance and askew at her (and being sued in return), which did nothing to win her friends in Hollywood. And Murray needed friends. In 1927, she had committed the ultimate Hollywood sin by walking out on her MGM contract at the insistence of her husband, “Prince” Mdivani, thus earning the undying enmity of Louis B. Mayer and that, as you might imagine, was not a good thing.
Murray’s costly dustup with Jack Donovan over 13047 San Vicente came as the result of her believing the house he had built was not of the kind of quality she expected, but when she built one for herself, a seaside villa in Playa Del Rey, she fared little better with problems involving not only the home’s construction but legal issues as well. In the end, the benighted “Villa That Mae Built” was way more of a disaster than “The House That Jack Built.” At least 13047 San Vicente didn’t wash out to sea (well, partially out to sea to be technical). But by that time, Murray had long since lost it to foreclosure. It was eventually knocked down and no evidence of the villa, located at 6300 Ocean Front Walk, remains today. The following years were a tragic time for the once great star, losing her career, her husband, her fortune and even custody of her only son, and winding up virtually destitute. Eventually her plight drew the attention of those who could help her and she lived out her remaining years in relative comfort in a series of apartments in Hollywood, a colorful eccentric, a relic of bygone days in a town where she was once hailed as a queen.
The Donovans had no less a dramatic ride in the ensuing years, but theirs was to come later. While the 1930’s proved a nightmare for Murray, the Donovans lived out the decade in seemingly placid comfort at their Spanish showplace residence at 136 Georgina Avenue. Instead of Legal Notices, the Donovans names popped up only in the Society columns of the L.A. and Santa Monica papers, with regular events such as yachting parties held on Jack’s boat the Lyra, events at the Miramar and Shangra-La hotels and the Riviera Country Club. The Donovan home, which was dubbed “Casa Grande,” was the setting of some very impressive social affairs throughout the decade attended by some very impressive guests. A review of some of the parties held at Casa Grande during this time shows a glittering parade of titled aristocracy, Santa Monica and Los Angeles political figures and Hollywood stars including Mayor and Mrs. Edmond Gillette of Santa Monica, Los Angeles County Sheriff and Mrs. Eugene Biscailuz (who had presided over the foreclosure sale of Mae Murray’s seaside villa), Count and Countess Thorne-Rider, Baron and Baroness de Barkow, Admiral and Mrs. Eugene Tricou, Count and Countess Segurlo, Dr. A.P. Giannini (founder of Bank of America), Valentine Perrera and Grace Moore, Winfield Sheehan and Maria Jeritza, Gladys Swarthout, Leiland Atherton Irish, Elissa Landi, and Ramon Novarro, among others.
In reviewing the available information on the Donovans during the 1930’s, one is again struck by the question of where the money was coming from. The Depression had put an end to Jack’s architectural practice and his film career remained spotty at best, yet like Elmer Fudd, millionaire, he could maintain a mansion and a yacht and throw a swirl of festive parties that no doubt cost at least a few dollars to boot. There is a mention in the Los Angeles Times of 1932 that “Jimmy Holmes…has taken over the Cafe DuBarry from Jack Donovan…” This indicates that Jack was involved in other business ventures, but to what extent is not presently known. Again, somehow, they managed to do it. But, in spite of the outward trappings of success, there was something going on beneath the surface that was soon to bubble up. The Donovans had found another source of income and Santa Monica liked it not one bit.
As it turns out, while social doyen Jack was entertaining his stellar guests downstairs, upstairs, architect Jack was secretly remodeling Casa Grande into a series of apartments, dividing the grand rooms into rental units as a means of bringing in much-needed cash. No part of the mansion was spared and even the garage ultimately became three separate apartments. As there was apparently not a lot of money to be had for the work, the changes were done with whatever materials Jack could scrounge up. Jack’s most imaginative addition was the conversion of the roof terrace into a “penthouse” apartment constructed of “movie prop bamboo, matting, fish nets, and travel adds (sic).” Needless to say, Jack did not want to bother the City of Santa Monica over getting formal permits for his interesting additions.
The conversion of the house into apartments did not happen all at once with Jack adding a unit here and there over the course of a decade, but by 1944, the Donovans had managed to squeeze an impressive 24 units out of their former mansion, which they rechristened “Casa Manana Apartments.”And they found ready tenants too. Location. Location. Location. Just a block from the ocean in a high-class district. This scenario brought in a steady and quite respectable $1,400-$1,600 a month, more than enough to keep them afloat, and once again, the clever and resourceful Donovans had found a novel way to make money and one they enjoyed doing as well. Being sociable by nature, they loved having their home filled with people, but not everyone, as it turned out, liked what the Donovans were doing.
With its exuberantly over-the-top Spanish architecture, the Donovan place was already one of Santa Monica’s most distinctive landmarks, but with Jack’s unique reworking of the house into apartments combined with years of deferred maintainence, Casa Manana nee Grande was becoming ever more “distinct,” a sort of West Coast Grey Gardens without the racoons. And then there were the crowds. By the time the City of Santa Monica finally managed to shut down the Donovan’s apartment house adventure there were some forty people living on the property, twenty-two of them children. And whereas in the 1920’s and 1930’s, those coming from and going to the house were a parade of titled aristocracy and movie stars, 1940’s denizens of the Donovan’s were quite a few pegs down the social register. On at least one occassion, the police had to be summoned to deal with rowdy tenants, a situation that could not possibly have been a welcome one for the Donovans well-heeled neighbors. And while the Donovans called their place by the whimsically romantic name of Casa Manana, the neighbors had other, less flattering appelations such as “The Chewing Gum and Ash Tray Palace,” “Donovan’s Flats,” and “The Georgina Blight.”
Assuredly complaints must have rolled in to the authorities over the colorful doings at Casa Manana, but for years, it appears that Santa Monica did nothing about it. Perhaps, the Donovans still had their friends in the highest places in Santa Monica city government. But by 1944, the climate had changed dramatically and the City took what they thought was decisive action, ordering the Donovans to immediately reconvert their place back into a private residence. The Donovans, of course, had no intention of doing so. They believed for any number of reasons that they had every right to maintain their apartment and they used every available resource to defend their claim. And thus began what became known as “The Battle of Santa Monica,” an all out war between the Donovans and the City that would make anything that transpired with Mae Murray look like child’s play.
Be sure and stay tuned for the thrilling conclusion of The House(s) That Jack Built Part VI – “The Battle of Santa Monica” – coming Sunday.