“A Good Life in the Hollywood Hills” by John Weaver – April 1970

Or, “How old should a child be before his parents tell him he lives in the valley?”

The cliffdwellers cling precariously to the brush-covered slopes of the Hollywood hills, sharing the common perils of fire and flood. In the late fall, when the humidity drops and a warm wind whips through the canyons, the hills may suddenly explode with flame. In the rainy season, when the naked cliffs crack and slide, the mortgaged wickiups come tumbling down. But the true cliffdweller always returns to his wildlife refuge. He trades in his charred Porsche, patches his pool, rebuilds his house-with-a-view and again settles down to enjoy the comforts of his mountain lair.

He has the best of two urban worlds. He is minutes away from the city’s offices, shops and restaurants, but when his day’s work is done, he comes home to down his tot of gin in a green and private place where ruby-throated hummingbirds flutter in the bottle-brush and quail skitter across his lawn. Mule deer drink from his pool and foxes feed from his garbage pail. His children are turned loose to climb trees, collect snakes and chase rabbits.

“We who live in our peaceful hills will enjoy the contrast of this feverish machine-age-minded picture,” the editor of the Canyon Herald smugly commented in reviewing Chaplin’s Modern Times in 1936, and a generation later, visiting New Yorkers still marvel to find defectors from the East Seventies living within walking distance of the Beverly Hills Hotel and awakening at night to the keening of coyotes. One canyonite had to stop using an electric blanket because a family of raccoons would sneak through his cat door on cold nights and curl up on his bed.

The hills were discovered by early film celeb­rities who found seclusion and social status in Renaissance palaces screened from the peasantry by groves of pine and eucalyptus trees. When Douglas Fairbanks heard the rude cries of a hot-dog vendor outside the pleasure dome decreed for Mary Pickford, he ordered the royal mason to build a wall which, even today, still protects Miss Pickford’s privacy. She lives within sugar-bor­rowing range of Fred Astaire and Danny Kaye.

On summer Sunday afternoons, the narrow, winding streets of the hill country are clogged with cars from Colorado, Kansas and Texas, crawling bumper-to-bumper along a route laid out for gawkers in a “Guide to Starland Estates and Mansions.” Its compilers are hard-pressed to keep up with revisions made by death, divorce or default on the monthly payments. Long after a star has departed, however, his old address persists not only in the maps hawked along Sunset Boulevard but also in the community’s folk memory.

“It’s just past the Gable ranch,” dinner guests are told when they ask directions, or “turn left at the old Bogart place.” It was “Hedy Lamarr’s place” before Humphrey Bogart acquired it (he later moved to Holmby Hills ), and now it’s Ann­Margret’s. A millionaire inventor luxuriates in the Bel-Air mansion pointed out to sightseers as “the Warner Baxter place.” The actor lived there for a few years in the 1930’s. He died a Beverly Hills flatlander in 1951.

When the wife of a wealthy Congressman died recently, the Los Angeles Times noted that she had occupied “a Coldwater Canyon home once owned by actress Myrna Loy.” Actually, twenty-seven years had gone by since Miss Loy quitted the premises and turned up in a Reno divorce court sporting a “victory bob” designed to help win World War II by cutting down on the use of hairpins.

The hogback ridges of the Santa Monica Mountains, rising to heights of three thousand feet, divide the San Fernando Valley on the north from the Los Angeles basin on the south. At the foot of the hills on the valley side, the main east-west artery is Ventura Boulevard, an agree­able place to shop, have dinner, take in a movie. Its equivalent on the south side is Sunset Boule­vard, a raunchier, more diverse thoroughfare, which begins with the tacos stands and civic edi­fices of the pueblo’s Old Plaza and ends with the pizza parlors and beach pads strung along the Pacific Coast Highway.

In addition to Cahuenga Pass on the east and the San Diego Freeway on the west, commuters who make their home in the valley and their living in the basin use four canyons in driving to what is loosely called the Hollywood hills (the term technically means those near the actual boundaries of Hollywood, but is loosely applied to the entire foothill area from Griffith Park to Bel-Air ). Each of the through canyons—Laurel, Coldwater, Benedict, Beverly Glen—has its own distinctive personality.

Laurel is Southern California’s semi-tropical version of Manhattan’s East Village. Mediter­ranean villas dating back to the first hoarse days of talking pictures are hemmed in by dilapidated shacks owned by absentee landlords. The can­yon’s natural fire hazards have been intensified of late by shaggy young nomads who turn on in the blackened ruins of burned-out mansions where Theda Bara may once have dined. The daily life of the community swirls around a small shopping center, “The Square,” which boasts the old-fashioned Canyon Country Store and a pleasant cafe, the Galleria.

Coldwater and Benedict are more sedate and affluent ( their watering hole is the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel ). When a newcomer to the community set out to cast his vote in the last municipal election, he was somewhat taken aback to find his polling place was a home in the $150,000-to-$200,000 class. The booths faced the pool.

“I half-expected to have my ballot served by the butler,” he recalls.

One of the most curious sights of his new surroundings, he has found, is the dawn patrol of stockbrokers and speculators who, because of the three-hour time differential between the East and West Coasts, can be seen silhouetted against the sunrise as their Cadillacs and Continentals lum­ber down the hills in time for the first ticker-tape reports from Wall Street.

The privacy of the hill country attracts celebrities like the Rolling Stones who, when in Los Angeles, stay in a plush pad (for rent to Big Names only) in otherwise sedate Coldwater Canyon. (Photo: Bud Lee)

To the west, near the sprawling campus of the University of California at Los Angeles, lies Beverly Glen, the friendliest of all the canyons, as tourists discover when they stop for dinner at its charming wayside inn, the Four Oaks. The Glen has the feeling of a sycamore-shaded resi­dential street in a rural college town. Associate professors and graduate students live cheek-by­jowl with a mixed lot dominated by the profes­sions and the arts.

“The Glen defies any kind of rational analysis,” says Jack Thompson, veteran leader of its homeowner organization. “Take the houses on my street, for instance. They’re occupied by a com­puter sciences teacher, a rock singer, a furniture man, an attorney, a sprinkler equipment sales­man, an actress and a clinical psychiatrist.”

Historically, the hills have been hospitable to the indulgence of individual tastes, no matter how bizarre, but at times one man’s life style en­croaches on his neighbor’s, as the Benedict Can­yon Association discovered when it began to get complaints from members who found themselves living downwind of a stable. In Coldwater, the neighboring canyon to the east, homeowners banded together to block Frank Sinatra’s applica­tion for a private helistop. The singer finally gave up on Los Angeles and headed for the desert.

“The air isn’t fit to breathe, so I’m clearing out,” he an­nounced in the fall of 1968, and a year later he got support from, of all places, the coroner’s office. The body of a young woman, stabbed to death, was found in the hills not far from Sinatra’s abandoned retreat. The dead girl was new to Southern California, the coroner deduced, because her lungs showed none of the ill effects of smog.

The cliffdwellers are less troubled by smog than the flatlanders spread across the San Fernando Valley floor, and less rigidly bound by convention. The valley is a straight, neatly bar­bered world of Rotary luncheons and American Legion essay contests. It is the butt of hill-country humor (cur­rent sample: “How old should a child be before his parents tell him he lives in the valley?”).

A throwback to the 1880’s, when God-fearing, midwestern asthmatics and dirt farmers crowded into emi­grant trains bound for the New Eden, San Fernando is a jumble of tract homes built on old beanfields and walnut groves. The owners tend to be middle-class conservatives unashamed­ly in love with the aging boy next door, Ronald Reagan. In the hills, especially in the uninhibited reaches of Laurel Canyon and Beverly Glen, sports cars tool around, flaunting the impudent bumper sticker, HAPPINESS IS A NEW GOVERNOR.

When a black city councilman ran for mayor of Los Angeles against a shopworn white incumbent last year, he did well in the hills but lost the valley, and with it, the election. In the tolerant atmosphere of the can­yons, a man is free to live as nature intended, whether it be as a white hustler or a black artist. No burning crosses flared on the front lawn of Sammy Davis Jr.’s house when he took to the hills with a white bride some years ago, and when Diahann Carroll moved into Benedict Canyon recently, the only objections the neighbors heard came from children who were disappointed to learn that Julia wasn’t really Corey’s mother.

Not every hill-country breast is certifiably free of bigotry, but it is the price of land rather than prej­udice that keeps the canyons pre­ dominantly Caucasian. Few blacks can pony up $40,000 for a quarter-acre of bare ground. The tab on a house with a spectacular city view is likely to be in six digits, especially if the front door opens onto an expanse of terrazzo and if the kitchen is mod­ern, the bath Roman.

Canyonites are resigned to the inconveniences of hill-country life (driving the children to school, de­scending two miles of mountain road to buy a loaf of bread) and to its perversities. If a dinner guest is an important client from out of town, he can be counted on to make a wrong turn somewhere along the way and wander through the hills for an hour or more in his rented car before showing up in a dark mood just as the other guests have begun to get stoned. On the other hand, relatives and creditors never seem to get lost in the hills.

When a hillsider starts planning a large party, the view will be dazzling, the lights of the city shimmering diamond-white, but on the night of the bash, if it doesn’t rain, a damp fog will draw a heavy black curtain across the picture window. Cliff-dwellers are extremely sensitive about their views. “What a cute view,” the wife of an old friend chirped on her first visit to the new hillside house of an insurance executive and then sat down with her back to his breath­taking vista of city lights. It was the end of a lifelong friendship.

“After three months you’ll get tired of it,” a flatland real estate broker told a young couple when they bought a hillside house because of its airplane view of the city, stretching across the reclaimed desert from far-off moun­tains to the sea. Ten years later they still exult in the constantly changing lights and colors, the awesome dawns, the alternating moods of sun and rain—never quite the same from one day to the next, never static, never dull.

Laurel was the first canyon to be developed. In 1909, when Hollywood was a quiet, sober suburb ( it was laid out by a Kansas Prohibitionist), a real-estate promoter looked at some pictures of Swiss trams, then formed what he called the Laurel Canyon Utilities Company Trackless Trolleys. The trolleys could accommodate ten passengers, each of whom paid a dime for a one-way trip from Sunset Boulevard to Lookout Mountain Avenue.

“At Lookout Mountain one sees an empire at his feet, with its cities, fields, oil wells and railways,” a Los Angeles Times reporter wrote in 1912, three years before the trolleys gave way to Stanley Steamer buses.

Laurel Canyon, the hippiest of all the canyons, is home to the songbird Mama Cass Elliot and her daughter, Owen Vanessa. (Photo: Bud Lee)

Once the rural hideaway of screen­writers and what the city directory called “photoplayers” (Bessie Love lived at 8229 Lookout Mountain), Laurel Canyon now swarms with young rebels and vagrants. The air above its cluttered goat-trails is fra­grant with the scent of burning grass and the hills are alive with the sound of Hondas and acid rock. Some of the older canyonites grumble about the longhaired army of occupation, uni­formed in love beads, Indian head­bands, fringed buckskin jackets and skintight jeans; others are wryly amused by the thought that in their day they were the campus rebels, grappling with coeds in rumble seats and getting high on bathtub gin instead of Acapulco gold.

On the eve of the 1920’s, when Douglas Fairbanks prepared a bridal bower for Mary Pickford, he selected a secluded twelve-acre site above Bev­erly Hills. The location of what came to be dubbed Pickfair accelerated the westward migration of the film col­ony from Laurel Canyon to Coldwater and Benedict. The migration is still going on. The generation gap be­tween pot and Scotch, blue denim bellbottoms and tailored pants-suits is embodied in the Sunset Strip.

A mile-long stretch of county ter­ritory with a gamey history (it was Hollywood’s place to drink and gamble during Prohibition), the Strip has become a children’s playground where middle-aged tourists in slow-moving Gray Line buses peer out in horror at the outlandish getups of the young, many of whom have fled the same wall-to-wall certainties about soap and success to which the tourists will return, unchanged. (Mother, to Aunt Martha: “They looked half-starved, poor things. Goodness knows what they eat.” Father, to Uncle Fred: “The girls wore these little skirts up to here and blouses you could see Through, and not a thing underneath, not a thing.”)

Homes in the hills above the ac­tion, once the property of men with ulcers and wall plaques attesting to their ability to peddle cars or endow­ment policies are now sprouting For Sale signs. (In the Sunday papers they are advertised as “Swinger’s Pad,” “Artist’s Retreat” and “Funky Mediterranean.”) Large areas are be­ing surrendered to motorcyclists, call girls and young couples of every known sexual persuasion (the enclave is referred to in heterosexual circles as “The Swish Alps”).

The Strip has become a buffer zone between the hippie communes of Laurel Canyon and the marble resting places of moneylenders and paving contractors who look down on Bev­erly Hills from the majestic heights of Trousdale Estates. The Beverly Hills border separates young swing­ers who are making out from elderly plastics who have it made.

The two generations live side by side in the high-priced sidestreets off Coldwater and Benedict Canyons, where Charlton Heston works out in the pool of his stone fortress and Harold Lloyd plays golf on a multi­million-dollar estate a brisk canter from Tom Mix’s old spread. Valen­tino tried to win back his second wife by sinking a borrowed fortune in a hillside place where, he said, he wanted his friends “to remember me as permanently fixed on a set at last.” His Falcon’s Lair, now the property of Doris Duke, is a short walk from the Benedict Canyon estate where Sharon Tate, three friends and a young passerby were slaughtered last August.

The separate worlds of Benedict Canyon and the Sunset Strip coexisted on Sharon Tate’s rented estate. The international film crowd bounded up Cielo Drive in sports cars to groove in the main house (“In my house there were parties where people smoked pot,” Miss Tate’s husband said after­wards. “I was not at a Hollywood party where someone did not smoke pot”).

“The poshest homes on the quiet­est lanes of all of the better canyons are often as not, symbolically, board­ing houses, whose leases or titles are written in a kind of quick-fading ink,” Charles Champlin, the Los Angeles Times entertainment editor, wrote after the tragedy. “They are way-stations on the way up or down, in or out.”

“The stars move out,” a Beverly Hills realtor once remarked to a New York Times reporter, “and the den­tists and psychiatrists move in.”

An Ohio physician plays tennis on Charles Boyer’s old court, and just below the doctor’s tile-roofed, stucco mansion, the young general counsel of a computer software company clears chaparral from a hillside facing the eucalyptus grove, which doesn’t quite manage to hide the Spanish pile where John Barrymore, in 1929, installed his bride (Dolores Costello) and his friend Maloney (a king vulture).

Free spirits move to the hills to be let alone, then find that they can en­joy their privacy only if they join with their neighbors in defending it against acts of God and man.

“We hillsiders stick together when we are in trouble, and we are almost always in trouble,” runs the motto of the Canyon Crier, the cliffdwellers’ weekly paper, which, in 1944, took over from the shortlived Canyon Her­ald as “the voice of the hills.” The voice echoes throughout the marble maze of City Hall, protesting the despoliation of the hill country.

In the old days the cliffdwellers were left to live as they pleased, like remote islanders who could be spared the civilizing advantages of clothes and churches because they had no natural resources worth exploiting. But the development of new earth-moving machines and building tech­niques during World War II, coupled with southern California’s explosive postwar growth, made it both pos­sible and profitable to subdivide mountain sites once considered un-buildable (they used to be given away as radio quiz-show prizes).

Magnificent ridges have been lev­eled to make room for ricky-tacky boxes, canyons have been filled in and gently sloping foothills carved into stairstep building lots. A forest of power poles has been allowed to ob­scure panoramic views of the city from Mulholland Drive, which winds along the crest of the Santa Monica Mountains. The disfiguring of such a priceless municipal treasure would be punished as an act of vandalism in any well-ordered community, but a recent proposal to add still more (and larger) poles was enthusiastically backed by the City Planning Depart­ment.

In a city so vast that the G.I.’s made its boundaries a running joke as they fanned out over Europe and the South Pacific, the hill people have managed to preserve something of a small-town way of life. Next-door neighbors exchange house keys and when one is away from home, the other takes in the mail and waters the house plants. When a storm strikes, neighbors grab shovels and sandbags, carry children and invalids to safety, and then break open the good whiskey.

To defend themselves against the wiles of land speculators, the cliff-dwellers have organized neighborhood home-owner groups, which, in turn, have united to form the Federa­tion of Hillside and Canyon Associa­tions. The Federation’s unpaid volun­teers have worked with city officials to improve ordinances governing grading in the hills and the clearance of hazardous native brush, but most of their time is taken up with a never-ending fight to prevent sub­dividers from packing more people into the canyons than their narrow, winding access streets can safely accommodate.

Between City Hall skirmishes, when there is no immediate need to raise funds by putting on a block party or a rummage sale, the natural exuber­ance of the canyons finds expression in an art fair or a day set aside for tree-planting. But like pioneer an­cestors who slept within reach of their flintlocks, the cliffdwellers keep their sentries posted, their home guard armed and alert. Nothing is so vulnerable to attack these days as a quiet place where birds still nest in trees that could be turned into patio tables and small animals scamper across ground that could be used for a filling station. ◊

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