How Fame Came to Beverly Hills: Why Old Hollywood Moved In

Issue 12 FEA Beverly Hills – H 2014

Issue 12 FEA Beverly Hills – H 2014

Exactly 100 years ago, a mere 550 people lived in the newly incorporated town, home only to bobcats, bean farmers and a brand-new pink hotel. But that was before Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and every boldface name built homes there.

This story first appeared in the April 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The motivation for creating Beverly Hills -- which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year -- wasn't as a city for Hollywood stars to call home. Originally, founder Burton Green and his partners hoped to strike oil when, just after the turn of the 20th century, they paid $1.2 million for the 3,055-acre Hammel and Denker Ranch's former bean fields.

Cromwell and Sothern on the Beverly Hills bridle path in 1934.

To salvage their investment after they failed to strike black gold, the company was reorganized as the Rodeo Land and Water Co. And to attract a select set of citizens to the new neighborhood, Green enticed the mother-and-son team of Margaret and Stanley Anderson, at the time the managers of the Hollywood Hotel, a hub for the burgeoning film industry, to helm the creation of The Beverly Hills Hotel in 1912. Two years later, in 1914, the city was incorporated with a population of 550. Today, it's about 35,000.

PHOTOS: Vintage Photos of Hollywood Stars in Acapulco

But Stanley Anderson did more than simply welcome guests to the hotel. He lured one of the period's biggest stars to become a resident, helping Douglas Fairbanks find a hunting lodge near the hotel. Once Fairbanks leased the property (which doubled as a rustic aerie for assignations with Mary Pickford), the actor then invited friends such as Will Rogers -- who would become the new city's honorary mayor -- and Charlie Chaplin to his hideaway.

Veronica Lake and Joel McCrea filmed the satiric comedy Sullivan's Travels in Beverly Hills.

Fairbanks and Pickford were so taken with the neighborhood they bought land and commissioned Pickfair, one of the world's most celebrated homes -- a 56-acre estate, crowned by a four-story, 25-room mansion designed by architect Wallace Neff. Others in Hollywood joined the mega-estate building boom: Comedian Harold Lloyd purchased a 15-acre property nearby that became Greenacres, while Buster Keaton's elaborate 20-room Italian Renaissance-style mansion was built just three blocks behind the hotel in 1926.

After that, the floodgates opened, as Hollywood stars and filmmakers -- Ronald Colman, King Vidor, Jack Warner, Marion Davies, Harry Cohn and Rudolph Valentino -- started to build homes on land where only coyotes and bobcats had been before.

Rita Hayworth at The Beverly Hills Hotel pool in 1940.

By the 1940s and '50s, a second wave of stars, including Lucille Ball, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Jack Benny, Sammy Davis Jr. and George Burns and Gracie Allen, swept into the area with its unique curvilinear streets, some say modeled after the shape of Theda Bara's torso.

Many of them became fixtures of the city: Fred Astaire routinely tap-danced up and down the Beverly Hills Post Office stairs; actors Richard Cromwell and Ann Sothern could be seen riding horses along the bridle path that once ran along Sunset; Marilyn Monroe was a regular at The Beverly Hills Hotel, where she lived between husbands and home renovations during the '50s and early '60s. And after decades of Los Angeles having awards-show glamour all to itself, Beverly Hills welcomed the Golden Globes to The Beverly Hilton in 1961.

Marilyn Monroe.

One hundred years later, what stands out is that Beverly Hills did not become celebrated -- it was famous from its very beginning.

Nancie Clare is the author of the new book In the Spirit of Beverly Hills (Assouline).