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

The following story first appeared in the current issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

"Who'd have thought I'd end up in that house? … Just to say 'Carolwood' is mind-boggling," Tony Curtis said in an interview six months before he died in 2010, recalling the grandest place he ever lived. "Some day, we're going to live right here," Cher told husband Sonny Bono in 1967 the first time they visited the Holmby Hills estate, known for most of its existence by its address, 141 S. Carolwood Drive.

In the impossibly high-priced world of L.A. real estate, the Italian Renaissance mansion has ranked -- from the day it was built at the height of the Great Depression -- as one of the area's most coveted houses.

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Erected in 1932, the six-bedroom house has been inhabited by 20th Century Fox co-founder Joseph Schenck, Superior Oil founder William Keck, Curtis, Cher and Ghazi Aita, a shadowy businessman who surrounded himself with model-actress-whatevers. It is now in the hands of the widow of Ameriquest founder Roland Arnall, an architect of the subprime mortgage meltdown. "Writing about it was irresistible," says Michael Gross, author of Unreal Estate (Broadway, $30), a look at the uppermost echelons of L.A. real estate. (Gross penned a book about a famed New York building, 740 Park, in 2005.) Beginning with the founding of the neighborhoods that comprise the so-called Platinum Triangle of Holmby Hills, Beverly Hills and Bel-Air, the author tells the story of fame, wealth and social striving in L.A. through the inhabitants of 16 of the area's great mansions.

Among the remarkable houses are the Knoll in Beverly Hills, whose owners have included Dino De Laurentiis and Marvin Davis, and Greenacres, built by silent-film star Harold Lloyd and now the property of billionaire Ron Burkle. But 141 S. Carolwood Drive stands out for its famed owners and their stories of trysts, broken marriages, dissolution and predatory capitalism. Designed by architect Robert Farquhar (also responsible for Beverly Hills High School), it was commissioned by Florence Quinn, the former wife of department store mogul Arthur Letts Sr., the visionary behind the creation of Holmby Hills. Named after his family's Holmby Lodge in Northamptonshire, England, the community -- carved out from Letts' purchase of 3,296 acres in West Los Angeles -- followed in the footsteps of Beverly Hills and Bel-Air. In contrast to the latter, Holmby Hills was founded without restrictions on selling to Jews or showbiz types.

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Lots began to sell there in 1925, with enormous mansions springing up on nearly barren hills. Carolwood cost $150,000 and was touted in the Los Angeles Times as the largest residence built that year. Quinn's red-tile-roofed, L-shaped mansion clocked in at 12,000 square feet (big for its time, not large by today's McMansion standards) and sat on four acres of lawns, gardens and fountains. A sweeping staircase still dominates the vast wood-paneled reception hall. Crooner Rudy Vallee was Quinn's neighbor, and her son Arthur Letts Jr. lived nearby in a Gothic-Tudor house now known as the Playboy Mansion.

In the mid-1940s, it passed through the hands of Hotel Bel-Air founder Joseph Drown, who sold the house to one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, movie mogul Schenck. "He furnished it in a manner described as spare -- perhaps because he considered the stars, starlets and Hollywood players he filled the place with sufficient decoration," writes Gross of the first president of United Artists and, later, chairman of 20th Century Fox.

Schenck's most renowned decoration at Carolwood was Marilyn Monroe. "Though no one alive can say for certain, it seems reasonably clear that he began an affair with [her] there," writes Gross. "According to legend, she spotted him leaving the studio in his limousine, flashed him a flirty smile and got his card and a dinner invitation in return." She became a regular at his parties, home screenings and poker games, standing behind his chair while he played. Soon, she was living in the guesthouse. She was 21 and recently had been dropped from her contract at Fox, with only a few small movie roles under her belt. The cigar-chomping Schenck, whose first and only wife was actress Norma Talmadge, was nearing 70. Anthony Summers described him in his 1985 book Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe as "a weathered bear of a man."

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Although Monroe denied to an interviewer that she and Schenck had been intimate, her biographers describe it as an affair that encompassed sex -- "Sometimes it took hours. I was relieved when he fell asleep," Monroe is said to have confided to a friend -- and long-lasting friendship. In 1948, Schenck got Harry Cohn to sign her at Columbia Pictures. Fox wasn't a career option for her; Fox co-founder Darryl F. Zanuck dismissively referred to Monroe as "Schenck's girl." (Monroe eventually returned to Fox to make All About Eve).

Schenck sold the house in 1956 to Superior Oil's Keck, who added an indoor swimming pool and gold bathroom-sink fixtures shaped like oil derricks. Curtis bought it a decade later, seven years after his now-classic turn in Some Like It Hot. The actor, writes Gross, "did remember Carolwood as he'd dated [Monroe] when she was bunking in [the] guesthouse." The mansion, then worth $300,000, was a symbol for the actor of finally having made it, trading up through a series of ever-more-impressive houses."In my heart, I was the Count, and these houses became cloaks," Curtis once said. "When I pulled them on, they became me, not the other way around."

He moved in with his second wife, then 21-year-old German actress Christine Kaufmann, whom he met on the set of the 1962 film Taras Bulba, and their two young daughters. At Carolwood, they entertained the likes of Gregory Peck, Roman Polanski and Jean Renoir. But as Kaufmann tells THR, Curtis, who grew up poor in the Bronx, was plagued by insecurity: "John Calley once said to me that Tony thought by marrying me, he could sort of take up European culture -- that it would become part of him. But it didn't. I don't think his childhood ever left him." Curtis often worried the cloak would fall off. "I'm not going to say Tony didn't know how to use forks and spoons, but the bigger the house, the bigger the fear," says Kaufmann.

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