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We Shall Never Know: Murder, Money and the Enduring Mystery of Greystone Mansion

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  • Oil

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again... or was it Wuthering Heights, or Henry James' Bly House, home of the ghostly children of "Turn of the Screw?" No, it was not a fictional English country estate, filled with regrets and windswept gardens. And it was not a dream. It was Greystone, the awe-inspiring, grey-green estate built by the oil rich Doheny clan in the 1920s. Looking down on Beverly Hills, with its bright blue sky and terra cotta Mediterranean mammoths, this stone-faced Tudor mansion looms above a field of honeysuckle. This capitalist dream is now a public park, and the grounds are open year round, although the mansion's interiors are rarely subjected to mere plebeians, most probably for reasons of economy.

As if by design, the day I visited Greystone was one of those rare days of lovely Los Angeles gloom. It was drizzling and warm as I made my way up the winding hillside. I stepped into the rain, and into another world. Beautiful terraced gardens, more akin to the palaces of Europe than L.A., were filled with outstanding views, trickling fountains, towering trees and overgrown paths leading to cozy nooks. The house itself was silent, its grey walls of Indiana slate glimmering like an exotic pearl, slightly darker than the overcast sky. I peered into the windows of the mansion, trying to imagine which ground floor room was the guest bedroom where, on February 16, 1929, Ned Doheny and his best friend Hugh Plunkett died -- each man killed by a single bullet to the head.

But I was snapped out of my gothic reveries by the sound of children belting out the lyrics to the musical "Grease." A quick walk to the mansion's large circular driveway and further up to the filled-in Gatsby-esque Grecian pool revealed gaggles of children, the enthusiastic members of a local summer camp. They were practicing with the unfocused ease of children, shrieking and dancing, unaware and unafraid of their macabre surroundings. Life goes on even at Greystone, a palace of dreamlike beauty borne out of the deadly dealings of corrupt commerce.

Photo: Hadley Meares

Photo: Hadley Meares

Photo: Hadley Meares


Give Them Everything

He had developed the Midas touch. Gold flowed out of the grounds at his command.
-- The New York Times 1
Ned said to me at the dinner table, "Mama we could be awfully happy if we were poor couldn't we?" I asked him "Dear, dear little tot, why?" He said "Because Papa wouldn't go away so often."
-- Letter from Estelle Doheny to E.L. Doheny 2

The story of Edward Laurence Doheny is one of Wild West legend. The son of poor Irish immigrants, clever Doheny spent his early adulthood kicking around the rough and tumble mining towns of the West, searching for gold and other precious metals. By 1892, he was in his late 30s, broke, with a troubled wife, and a sickly daughter who would die that same year. But sadness over his personal life was matched by sudden professional success. That fall he struck liquid gold, when on a hunch he dug his first oil well in the sticky tar fields of Los Angeles. He was further overjoyed when on November 6, 1893, his wife Carrie gave birth to a son, E.L Doheny Jr., known to the family as Ned. Doheny viewed Ned as his second chance, "swearing that he would achieve great wealth to provide a secure life for the boy." 3

He made good on his oath. Over the next two decades, Doheny would become wealthy beyond his wildest dreams. In addition to virtually controlling the oil markets in California, he would make even more money at Tampico in Mexico, where he drilled some of the most productive oil wells in the world. Tampico was practically his own fiefdom, and he developed close and (according to many critics) questionable ties with the Mexican government. To his great sorrow, he lived apart from Carrie and Ned, who resided in San Francisco. The couple was divorced in 1899. E.L. soon married Estelle Betzold, a telephone operator whom he had fallen in love with over the phone lines. Carrie, always fragile, killed herself by ingesting battery acid, and Ned came to live with E.L. and Estelle. Estelle took the job of raising Ned seriously, and the pudgy boy was soon very attached to her. The two became close, playing games in their big mansion on Chester Place while E.L. was often away, overseeing his kingdom of oil.

Ned was educated at private Catholic schools, and spent a year at Stanford before graduating from USC. He grew into a spoiled, easygoing, funny and handsome man with a "heart of gold," who idolized his father and adored his step-mother. In 1913, while courting his future wife, Lucy Smith, he met a working-class young man named Theodore "Hugh" Plunkett. Hugh worked at the Smith family's gas station near Chester Place. They became great friends, and soon Hugh became one of the Dohenys' many servants, acting as chauffeur for the entire Doheny family. Both men served in the Great War. When they returned from service, Hugh acted as Ned's personal secretary, often traveling with him as he became more involved with his father's businesses. But according to Attorney Fredrick R. Kellogg, although Hugh acted as secretary to Ned, "their relationship was more than that of friends." Another associate, Dr. E.C. Fishbaugh, put it more succinctly -- "They were like brothers." 4

But, they were "brothers" with wildly different bank accounts. Upon their marriage, Ned and Lucy were presented with a mansion adjacent to the elder Doheny's Chester Place castle, while Hugh and his wife, Harriet, lived in modest accommodations. The younger Dohenys were L.A.'s elite darlings. Their exploits were often the lead story on society pages, whether sailing on the family yacht, Casiana, or attending a dinner at a table that "glowed with a handsome mound of Richmond roses." 5 They lived a life of refined excess, bankrolled by the Doheny millions. In 1919, even a car Ned purchased for Lucy was newsworthy. It was described as "the classiest creation of the year," custom made by Earl Automobile Works:

A silver engraved monogram inlaid in red enamel is mounted on each door. On the panel between the door over the little extra fender [there are] specially designed coach lamps; these lamps were designed and constructed by the Tiffany Company in New York City. These lamps give the car a very foreign touch. The car is upholstered in bright long-grain red leather, which forms a great contrast with the body and wheels which are painted Willey's battleship gray, with a satin finish. 6

Mr. and Mrs. E. L. Doheny, Jr., in Fancy-Ball Costume | Los Angeles Times, February 18, 1929But life for Ned Doheny was not all play and no work. In November 1921, Ned and Hugh checked into a suite at the Plaza Hotel. On the 30th, Ned walked into the New York banking house of Blair and Company. He withdrew $100,000 from a banking account he shared with his wife, and put the bills in a small black bag. He and Hugh then traveled to Washington D.C. where they met with Albert Fall, the Secretary of the Interior for the Harding administration, at the Wardman Park Hotel. Ned handed over the money to Fall, a friend of his father from the rough and tumble mining days. Fall handed Ned a promissory note. Within a month, Doheny Sr. had deposited $100,000 back into Ned and Lucy's account.

This simple transaction would turn Ned and Hugh's world upside down. E.L. Doheny was soon awarded the contract for the Elks Hill Naval Petroleum Reserve in Kern County, California. The exchange of money, which Doheny would call a loan to an old friend, and numerous government officials would call a bribe, was part of the infamous Teapot Dome scandal, which would consume the rest of the 1920s. In 1924, Albert Fall, fellow oil man Harry F .Sinclair, and E.L. were charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States. At a grand jury hearing in D.C. in May, Ned refused to answer questions regarding his role in the delivery, although he testified that neither he nor his father had done anything wrong. E.L. was acquitted in December 1926, with Estelle, Ned, and Lucy by his side. However, due to endless political duels in Washington, E.L. was soon charged again, this time with bribery.

In the midst of this chaos, doting (and perhaps grateful) E.L. decided to present Ned, Lucy and their five children with an extraordinary gift. Built on 429-acres overlooking the still sleepy village of Beverly Hills, Greystone was designed by Gordon Kaufmann, a prominent architect whose work included the Hoover Dam and the Los Angeles Times building. Begun in 1927, the 55-room mansion included a bowling alley with a hidden bar, walls made of leaded glass, a main hall of checkered Carrara marble, a personal switchboard, secret passageways, and grand rooms filled with European antiques. The exquisite grounds, including an 80-foot waterfall which could be turned on with a switch, stables, riding trails, a swimming pool, kennel, and the still awe-inspiring Renaissance inspired "Cyprus Lane," were designed by landscape architect Paul Thiene. According to Thiene's main designer Emile Kuehl: "The sky was the limit. I would ask Mr. Thiene what the client might want. 'Give them everything, was the reply.'" 7

Greystone, ca. 1928 | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

'Cyprus Lane' at Greystone, ca. 1928 | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Greystone, ca. 1928 | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library


Bitter Death

We know so little about another. Not a ninetieth part. In a moment of fever and excitement, this man was not himself and his moment came. We leave him in God's keeping.
-- Eulogy of Hugh Plunkett 8
But to have to say goodbye to one in the full flush of manhood, to have to stand at the grave of one in the full bloom of life-this, in sober truth, is bitter death!
-- Eulogy of Ned Doheny 9

It was to be Ned and Lucy's home, but it was Hugh who oversaw the construction of Greystone. Ned was frequently in Washington supporting his father through the Teapot Dome scandal. According to another family retainer, "Hugh often signed checks for Mr. Doheny totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars. He attended to most of the details of the new home and actually paid the contractors bills with checks made out in Mr. Doheny's name." 10

In the fall of 1928, with the house nearing completion, the Doheny faithful claimed that the once quiet, even tempered Hugh was starting to unravel. Some blamed trouble with his teeth, others a dependence on sleeping pills, the breakdown of his eleven year marriage, and other "unknown problems." What no one, including the Los Angeles Times, mentioned was that Ned and Hugh had been called to testify in the upcoming bribery trials of Albert Fall and E.L. Doheny. And although Ned had been assured immunity, Hugh had not.

Against this tense backdrop, the Doheny clan moved into Greystone before Thanksgiving. Ned and Lucy celebrated their first holiday season at Greystone with a thirty-foot Christmas tree adorned with piles of presents. They hosted a party featuring one hundred couples dancing to Christmas songs played by an orchestra sitting in a special gallery above the mansion ballroom. On Christmas Eve, Hugh supposedly suffered a complete "nervous breakdown," and was put in the care of the family doctor, Dr. Ernest Clyde Fishbaugh.

By February, the Doheny circle claimed Hugh was completely unhinged. According to Dr. Fishbaugh, on the afternoon of February 16, he, Ned, and Lucy confronted Hugh at Greystone. They urged him to take a "rest" at a sanitarium. Was this to get him mental help, or to exempt him from testifying at Fall's upcoming trial? Or both? We will never know. Whatever the case, the doctor claimed that "Hugh refused. He simply sat there. Almost shaking at times. Hands clenched. Jaw set at times. He said he would come out of it all right. I could see it was no use to push him further and so I left." 11

Ned Doheny with his mother and father | L.A. Times, February 18, 1929

According to the "official story," in the early evening of February 16, Ned and Lucy went to visit Hugh at his apartment, again urging him to get help. During this visit, Ned uttered some "impulsive remarks" that upset Hugh. Ned and Lucy left Hugh, and went to the theater. They returned to Greystone. As they were getting ready for bed, Hugh called. 12 He was at the garage at the gates of Greystone, and said he wanted to come to the mansion. Lucy implored him not to. A little while later, Hugh let himself into the main house with his pass key. Ned found him in the guest bedroom he often slept in, and sat down to talk with his troubled friend. An hour or so passed, and the two men had drinks and smoked cigarettes. Lucy was in another part of the house. According to Doctor Fishbaugh:

I received a call at the Hollywood Playhouse from my maid at 10:30p.m. and was told to go to the Doheny home immediately. Upon my arrival there, one of the watchmen, whose name I do not know, let me in the house ... As I entered, Mrs. Doheny was standing in the middle hallway approximately eight feet back from the door and greeted me. She said her husband was in a guestroom on the first floor, to the left of the hall leading from the front entrance. Both Mrs. Doheny and I started down the hall, side by side. A door, which partitions the hall, was slightly ajar, and I saw Plunkett walking toward it. 'You stay out of here,' he shouted at me and slammed the door shut. I then heard a shot. 'You go back,' I told Mrs. Doheny, and she returned to the living room, which was about 75 feet away from the guest room. I pushed the door open and saw Plunkett lying on his face opposite the door to the bedroom where I later found Mr. Doheny. Plunkett, to the best of my recollection, was fully clothed. The door to the bedroom was open, and when I looked in I saw Mr. Doheny lying on his back, a chair overturned between him and the bed. 13

Both men had been shot in the head and were dead. Frantic calls went out to Lucy's brothers-in-law, to D.A. Fitts, and to the Beverly Hills police. Old E.L. Doheny was awoken at his home at Chester Place, and rushed to the scene. 14 Doheny arrived at Greystone and refused to heed the advice of family members to not go to Ned's body:

"No, I must see Ned," he said with a bowed head as he walked down the hall that leads from the front entrance to the chamber where his son's body lay. "Yes, it is Ned after all. I had hoped against hope there was some mistake. "He staggered slightly, and then with a slow tread passed close to the head of his son's murderer, who lay in the hall close to the door of the chamber and walked into the room. He gazed at his son's body for a moment and then knelt beside it. He shook with emotion as he reached down and took young Doheny's right hand. "Ned, my Ned," he sobbed as he was half carried from the room. 15

Original caption reads: 'Photo-diagram below illustrates police officers' theory of the dual tragedy in which Theodore Plunkett killed his employer, Edward L. Doheny, Jr. and then committed suicide. According to the police theory, Plunkett held the gun at his waist and shot Doheny seated in a chair.' | Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

The ensuing, if brief, media storm cast Ned as a hero who had "died the finest kind of death," trying to help a troubled friend. Many in law enforcement, including forensic investigator Leslie White, doubted the pat story of murder-suicide. 16 While photographing and processing the scene, White found a smoldering cigarette in Hugh's fingertips, a curious thing for a man who had just killed his best friend in a fit of madness and was about to kill himself. The gun used in the murder lay under Plunkett's body, very warm, as if someone had heated it in the oven. Dr. Fishbaugh -- the main mouthpiece for the Doheny family -- was caught in several lies, including withholding the fact that Ned had been alive when the doctor burst into the room, breathing although already unconscious. White also observed that it appeared that Ned had been shot at very close range, while it seemed that Hugh had not.

The city of Los Angeles was titillated by this tragedy of titans. E.L.'s private security detail guarded Greystone, determined to keep lookey-loos away. Ned's funeral at St. Vincent's, the beautiful church funded by E.L. and Estelle, was filled to capacity. Hundreds stood outside the Catholic Church, held back by a special detail of traffic officers. Ned was buried at Forest Lawn in the magnificent temple of Santa Sabina, which once contained the bones of an Italian Saint of the second century. A day later, Hugh was buried only a 100 feet away from Ned on Sunrise Slope. Both his brother and sister collapsed at the graveside. Lucy Doheny sent a huge floral arrangement to Plunkett's funeral, and two of her brothers served as pallbearers.

After the huge explosion of coverage in the local papers, all reporting on the murder ceased within three days. And after promising a "sweeping investigation", District Attorney Buron Fitts proclaimed there would be "no inquest" and officially closed the investigation. Old E.L. was eventually acquitted of his bribery charge, but his heart had been broken. Rumors of a love affair between the two men, of a cover-up and bribes, linger to this day. A reporter at the Los Angeles Times summed up the whole saga within 48-hours of the tragedy, aware that this was a story already forever muddled by power and pride:

What transpired in the bedroom of that long, rambling mansion in its woodland setting, halfway up the side of the Beverly Hills mountainside, may never be known. Both Doheny and Plunkett are dead. 17

Diagram retraces the events that led to the deaths | Los Angeles Times, February 18, 1929


A Pleasant Kind of Palace

"I never got stuck," declared Tim Doheny. "But I dreaded it, really did. Nobody would hear you, and you would be a skeleton by the time you were found."
-- Los Angeles Times, 1985

Lucy stayed at Greystone with her five children, and life began again. She married investment dealer Leigh Battson in 1932, in front of the living room fireplace at Greystone.

Spring blossoms and American beauty roses decorated the room in which the wedding took place, and at the wedding breakfast which followed it ,the brides table was laden with white flowers, orchids, gardenias and lilies of the valley ... Her gown was simply made and it was set off by a single piece of jewelry, a baguette diamond and jade pin which was a gift from the bridegroom...While the wedding breakfast was in progress, Mr. C.C .Moseley, a family friend, flew low [in a plane] over the home and dropped a bouquet from himself and Mrs. Moseley upon the spacious lawn. 18

Despite its horrific beginnings, Greystone became a happy place, filled with opulent parties, and children scurrying across the expansive grounds or spraying away with a fire extinguisher in the attic gymnasium. Lucy and Leigh were regulars on the social scene, dancing at jet set balls, and hosting real European aristocracy at Greystone. Lucy was also heavily involved with charity work, and her daughter Lucy Estelle, called "Dicky Dell," was one of the "loveliest and most popular debutantes" of the 1930s. Her engagement, during a dinner party at Greystone in 1936, was straight out of a Noel Coward play:

Guests were informed of the betrothal when each was served a decorated plate on which was an oyster shell containing a large pearl. Under the shell was a gold card with the engraving- "The pearls of wisdom within these shells predict for Van and Dicky wedding bells." The bride to be found in her shell a solitaire diamond engagement ring... An orchestra played for dancing, and gaiety continued until late, with other amusements afforded guests. 19

After the children were grown, Lucy and Leigh found the giant estate burdensome and too large. Lucy sold it in 1955. In 1965, Greystone was bought by the city of Beverly Hills. It became an increasingly popular filming location, so it was fitting when AFI leased it from the city from 1969 to 1982. It is now a public park, and used for private functions. It continues to be a popular filming location, and numerous movies have shot scenes there. These include "The Holiday," "The Bodyguard," "The Witches of Eastwick," and fittingly, "There Will Be Blood," based on Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel "Oil!," which many say was inspired by the elder Doheny's rise to power. Greystone is indeed a place of dreams and illusions -- the sublime, the sophisticated and the just plain sad.

Photo: Hadley Meares

Photo: Hadley Meares

Photo: Hadley Meares

Photo: Hadley Meares

_____

1 Richard Rayner, "A Bright and Guilty Place"
2 Margaret Leslie Davis, "The Dark Side of Fortune"
3 Ibid.
4 "Doctor asserts madness caused double death" Los Angeles Times, February 18, 1929
5 "Luncheon Party" Los Angeles Times, September 18, 1914
6 "Some class to this body" Los Angeles Times, May 11, 1919
7 "Mansion's history rich, tragic" Los Angeles Times, August 25, 1985
8 "Brother and sister collapse at Doheny's aide's grave" Los Angeles Times, February 21, 1929
9 "Final tributes paid to Doheny" Los Angeles Times, February 20, 1929
10 "Plunkett rose from tire job" Los Angeles Times, February 18, 1929
11 "Doctor asserts madness caused double death" Los Angeles Times, February 18, 1929
12 "Doheny murder inquiry discloses controversy" Los Angeles Times, February 18, 1929
13 Ibid.
14 Ibid.
15 "No inquest on Doheny" Los Angeles Times, February 19, 1929
16 "Doheny lauded for friend aid" Los Angeles Times February 18, 1929
17 "Doheny murder inquiry discloses controversy" Los Angeles Times, February 18, 1929
18 "Mrs E.L. Doheny Jr., reweds" Los Angeles Times, February 19, 1932
19 "Spinsters engagement announced" Los Angeles Times, December 17, 1936

About the Author

Hadley Meares is a writer, actress and singer who traded one Southland (her home state of North Carolina) for another. Her debut novel "Absolutely" is now available on Amazon.
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