Real Estate

Drugs, Affairs and Secret Divorces: Inside the Scandalous History of the Holmby Hills Estate Once Owned by Tony Curtis, Cher and Sonny Bono

A new book spotlights 20th Century Fox co-founder Joseph Schenck's affair with Marilyn Monroe at 141 S. Carolwood and the separated Bonos' decision to live in separate wings because CBS threatened to cancel their show if either moved out.
Courtesy of Jeff Hyland

Kaufmann left Curtis in 1968, and that same year he became engaged to 23-year-old model Leslie Allen. In Unreal Estate, Allen tells Gross the house was too grand. "You could starve to death getting to the kitchen," she says. But by that point, the house had intoxicated another Hollywood star: Cher.

"We never knew how or why we got invited to a party at Tony Curtis' house. We'd never met him before," the singer wrote in her 1998 memoir The First Time. She recalls gasping when she and Bono first drove up to Carolwood in 1967. "We've never seen anything like it," Cher told Curtis. He responded: "Come tomorrow. I want to show you my other house."

EXCLUSIVE: Hollywood's Historic Taft Building for Sale

The couple ended up buying Curtis' previous house, 364 St. Cloud Road in Bel-Air -- now owned by Larry Flynt -- but she told Curtis to let her know if he ever wanted to sell Carolwood. She got her chance in 1972 when he offered it for $1 million. When Cher's lawyer made a lowball offer and Curtis insisted on more, she boomed, "I want that f--ing house!" The singing duo, flying high with The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, reportedly paid $750,000. But their marriage crumbled soon after they moved in when she confessed her love for their guitar player. The breakup was one of the nastiest in showbiz history, and for a year they lived in separate wings because CBS threatened to cancel their show if either moved out.

Cher's taste in furniture was a far cry from her "fur-vested hippie look," writes Gross. Her decorator went on buying trips to Europe, acquiring Louis XIV chairs and an 18th century buffet. "I guess we were trying to appear established. We were nouveau riche, but better nouveau than never," she wrote in her memoir. Cher eventually won the rights to Carolwood in her divorce from Bono. By then, she had already taken up with record executive David Geffen, who helped guide her solo career -- thankfully, his plans (as related in a 1975 Esquire story) to open up the house by installing a pyramid skylight never saw the light. Next up was husband No. 2, Gregg Allman, who entered drug rehab soon after they married. Writes Gross, "Cher would later recall her fury when friends of his snorted coke off her antique table."

Carpet-business owner Ralph Mishkin and his wife, Chase, bought Carolwood in 1976 from Cher for $950,000 and renamed it Owlwood, after the birds that inhabited the estate. "We restored the house completely. It hadn't been well cared for," says Chase Mishkin, now a successful Broadway producer (The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Memphis). "Cher whipped through and covered the walls in the master bedroom with a thousand yards of fabric. It was all pretty unattractive."

STORY: Why Hollywood Is Flocking to the Bird Streets Neighborhood

In 1978, the property passed to Aita. The $4.2 million sale, according to Coldwell Banker's Joyce Rey, who represented the seller, was at the time double the highest price paid for a house in California. Aita, a legal resident of Monaco who drove a purple Rolls-Royce, allegedly did business with Middle Eastern financiers later described as arms dealers. A year later, he grew the property to 8.5 acres by paying about $4 million for the neighboring 10600 Sunset from porn producer Bill Osco (Flesh Gordon). Gross writes that procurers kept Aita surrounded with beautiful women. In 1999, a few years after his name allegedly appeared in Heidi Fleiss' black book, he put both houses on the market for a combined $58.9 million.

Owlwood took four years to sell -- to a buyer who took pains to remain anonymous. He later was revealed to be Arnall, the owner of subprime mortgage lender Ameriquest. Arnall enlarged Owlwood even more, simultaneously buying Jayne Mansfield's legendary Pink Palace painted in the star's favorite color. (Originally the home of Vallee, it was owned at that point by singer Engelbert Humperdinck.) The three houses sold for $35 million, considerably reduced from the initial asking price of $63 million. At 11 acres, the combined property is the biggest estate in Holmby Hills, according to broker Jeff Hyland of Hilton & Hyland. Arnall razed the mansion at 10600 Sunset and is said to have bulldozed the Pink Palace (located at 10100 Sunset) without permits.

In 2006, Ameriquest, without admitting guilt, settled a lawsuit brought by 49 states and agreed to set aside $325 million to pay penalties and restitution. Arnall died two years later, and his wife now resides there. "The insane irony is that this great piece of real estate, one of the most sought-after houses in America, was paid for with the profits of a mortgage business that helped drive the American economy off a cliff," writes Gross.

What's surprising is that after eight decades, the house itself, despite its turbulent history, remains almost unchanged, according to Hyland, who toured the property three years ago. Its lasting character stands in contrast to the shifting tenure of its residents. "The house was a little bit like a Potemkin castle," says Kaufmann. "To me, it always felt temporary. People were always passing through it, like a very glamorous train station."