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Marion's Playground: The Story of the Annenberg Community Beach House

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Learn how Southern California's idea of the beach was shared with the rest of the world. Watch Lost LA "Beach Culture."

I'll admit it. I was predisposed to love the Annenberg Community Beach House. In no particular order, here are some of my favorite things in the world: the beach, pools, movie history, democracy, memories of my childhood country club, children frolicking, old beach houses, guided historical tours, outdoor cafes, art galleries, balconies and porches with views of the ocean. I love it even more when these things are free. Opened to the public in 2009, the Annenberg complex boasts all these delights. Even on a Monday afternoon, the feeling was one of relaxation and easy, breezy California cool with a twist of glamour.

Easy access to a government amenity of such progressive style and ingenuity is a great treat. Although the original Julia Morgan designed pool -- long and thin -- was closed, the center was quietly humming with life. Children played at an outdoor waterworks playground as mothers in expensive linen pants chatted with each other. Folks sat at picnic tables working on laptops, and workmen quietly trimmed exquisite white roses. The new main building, built in the footprint of the original Marion Davies Mansion, was opened and empty. I was in hog heaven as I went from room to room. There was a community room that was perfect for wedding receptions, a small gallery with a little exhibit of porcelain mixed media, and a large deck with amazing views of the sunny sea.

I made my way past a charming outdoor art installation to the only building left of the original estate, a lovely white Georgian Revival. Now called the "Marion Davies Guest House," it was often home to Marion's family, and later a summer house for stars like Marlene Dietrich and Florence Ziegfeld. It was open and elegant, with minimal furniture and a bright aura of utility and elegance. There was a sea breeze and exquisitely decorated tiles, original cedar closets, and relaxed tour guides who didn't care if you tracked sand onto the wood floors. Most interestingly, pictures of Marion Davies were everywhere -- pictures of her at parties surrounded by famous friends, and snapshots of her beaming at longtime love William Randolph Hearst.

Everybody looked like they were having a very good time.

Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares

The White House of the Gold Coast

"Marion was always warm and gay. Even in repose she seemed about to burst out laughing." -- David Niven, "Bring on the Empty Horses"
"There were 20 people to lunch, 40 were added in the afternoon to swim in the Venetian pool of white marble which separated the house from the ocean, and 40 more were added for the buffet supper served on the porch overlooking the pool." -- Actress Louise Brooks, recalling a typical day the Beach House in 1928. 1

Most people know at least some of the story of Marion Davies and William Randolph Hearst. He was a media tycoon, the original yellow journalist, an insanely prolific collector of European treasures, and the master of San Simeon. She was the effervescent young showgirl from Brooklyn, discovered by middle aged Hearst, who gamely went along with his effort to make her a movie star. He never divorced his wife. She lived the strange life of a private mistress and a public star, whose real gift for light comedy is well displayed in silent films like "The Patsy" and "Show People." They were together until he died in 1951. She had a drinking problem; he was a control freak. And of course, there is the little issue that the greatest movie of all time, "Citizen Kane," was through-a-glass-darkly based on the couple.

By the 1920s, Marion was appearing in successful movies for Hearst's Cosmopolitan Pictures on the MGM lot. W.R., as he was called, was busy collecting influence and entire rooms from faded European castles. Kind and fun loving Marion collected something infinitely more valuable -- friends. Marion had thousands of friends, from studio grips to the elite of Hollywood. In 1922, thanks to the city of Santa Monica's decision to not buy a stretch of beachfront property on the Pacific Coast Highway, many of Marion's more well-heeled friends began building "dignified" mansions on the sandy strip.

In time Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, Mae West, Louis B. Mayer, Samuel and Francis Goldwyn, Norma Shearer and Irving Thalberg, Anita Loos, Bebe Daniels, Jack Warner, Cary Grant, Clark Gable, and Paulette Goddard would all have homes on what was dubbed by some "The Gold Coast." Others called it "Rolls Royce Row," because of the line of chauffeurs who could be seen polishing "nickel appointments" on one luxury car after another in front of the garages on the PCH every Sunday morning.

Meshing his love for ostentatious displays of wealth with Marion's love of people and partying, W.R. decided to give Marion a play palace of epic proportions on "The Gold Coast." He began to buy up choice ocean front lots, fifteen in all. The humorist Will Rodgers, determined to teach Hearst that he couldn't always get what he desired, refused to sell him a tiny corner lot until Hearst agreed to pay an astronomical sum for it. W.R. hired art director and production designer William Flannery to design the fairytale-worthy main mansion. Julia Morgan, Hearst's favorite architect, was pulled away from her main projects of San Simeon and the Wytoon retreat near Mount Shasta, to design the 110 foot long pool and the large guest house. Construction began in 1926.


When it was finished, the white, columned Georgian Revival main mansion boasted over 100 rooms, 37 fireplaces, and 55 bathrooms. Its grandeur was such that it was often compared with Buckingham Palace or, in reference to Hearst's political ambitions, the White House. The interior was mostly Hearst acquisitions -- the dining room was from Burton Hall in Ireland; the banquet room was originally the sitting room of the Duchess of Northumberland; the ballroom was from a 17th Century Venetian palazzo; there was a complete 15th Century tavern from Surrey. Outside there were several guest and servants' cottages, gardens, tennis courts, lockers and changing spaces for a multitude of guests, volleyball nets, and the great salt water pool. Until 1933, when the construction of the Santa Monica breakwater dramatically changed the shoreline, the ocean practically lapped into the pool during high tide.

Marion soon transformed the stately mansion, called simply "the Beach House" or "Ocean House," into Hollywood's wildest and most happening private club. During the '20s and '30s, everyone from Winston Churchill to Marion's good friend Charlie Chaplin frolicked at Ocean House. Affairs bloomed -- Pola Negri and Rudolph Valentino fell in love while dancing the tango, the actor Arthur Lake (best known for the Dagwood serials) wooed Marion's niece Patricia. For a time the actor David Niven and two bachelor friends rented one of the guest cottages. Ever the good-natured landlady, Marion would often visit, and the men threw such raucous parties that Carole Lombard nicknamed the cottage "Cirrhosis-by-the-Sea." But their parties were nothing like the parties thrown by their hostess. These massive soirees were probably the most legendary in Hollywood history, and Niven remembered them thusly:

The parties at Ocean House ... were strictly Marion, and there with gaiety, generosity, and bubbling fun she entertained her multitude of friends. Each year she gave a costume ball on W.R.'s birthday. There was a 49'er party; a kid party, when Gable came as a boy scout and Joan Crawford as Shirley Temple; an early American party, when Hearst dressed as James Madison, a your favorite movie star party, which saw Gary Cooper as Dr. Fu Manchu and Groucho Marx as Rex the Wonder Horse. But the most lavish of all was the circus party. Two thousand guests assembled. Cary Grant and Paulette Goddard dressed as tumblers and ... made a most impressive entrance cartwheeling across the floor. Henry Fonda came with a group of clowns; Bette Davis was a bearded lady ... I don't remember what Marion wore, but I do remember thinking, in spite of his noble profile, how forlorn and self-conscious W.R. looked as the ringmaster. 2

Even Marion's charitable functions took on absurd proportions. Uber-gossip columnist Hedda Hopper reported on a tea thrown at Ocean House in 1938 for over 600 ex-service women:

Took me half an hour to get through the front door ... Worked my way through visitors to butler's pantry, where Princess Pignatelli [gossip columnist] was typing her story in the most frightening confusion. In the kitchen, watched Bob Cob ... owner of the Brown Derby, help twenty-five of his men turn out sandwiches, salad and coffee ... Marion served a four-course meal. After they'd gone, Marion sat down, rested her feet in a bowl of hot water. Treated us to the same thing. 3

But this frantic fun was not to last. The Hearst empire dwindled, "Citizen Kane" debuted, and Hearst became ill. He and Marion retreated to a palatial spread in Beverly Hills. In 1945, Marion, who was a very smart investor, sold the Beach House during a property tax dispute. She dismissively referred to it as a "White Elephant," but one wonders if thoughts of times past were simply too painful for her to bear. 4 Hearst died in 1951, and Marion, without her great love and in an ever-increasing fog of alcoholism and illness, died in 1961. But memories of the magic she and Hearst created lived on in the minds of those who were entertained. Years after the house was sold, the usually puritanical Hopper mused practically poetically about the times she had there, and the times that were no more:

Today the problems of the world weigh heavily on shoulders that used to carry nothing heavier than a spray of orchids and diamond clips. 5

Pay to Play

The grass skirted native girl on the invitations to the Sand and Sea Club's luau, employs her "lovely hands" to bid members welcome in the poetic sign language of the island. In answer to this charming custom, more than 500, to be clad in sarongs and colorful Polynesian shirts, have made reservations for dining and dancing. 6
Sunbathers grabbed the last of the day's light, silver haired bridge players dealt the final hand at poolside. A busboy in a white jacket collected cups against the backdrop of the gently rolling surf. The serenity seemed inviolable even as rush hour traffic edged by in a cloud of fumes along the Pacific Coast Highway. 7

Where one good time ends, another begins. The new owner of the estate, Joseph Drown, a real estate magnate, spent almost one million dollars renovating the main house. In 1948, he opened Ocean House, a luxury hotel, and the adjacent Sand and Sea Club, a member's only private country club which used and expanded the estate's recreation amenities. While the Sand and Sea Club flourished, the hotel languished. In 1955, everything in the main house 'from shingles to basement, including furnishings, tapestries, paneling-even the huge colonial columns and bathroom fixtures," were sold to the highest bidder. 8 Shortly after, the main building and some other Davies era structures were torn down. The Julia Morgan guest house and pool remained and were used by the club.

In 1959, Drown sold the entire acreage to the state of California, who leased it to Santa Monica, who in turn leased it back to Drown. This confusing arrangement set in motion a battle over the private club's use of public lands that would last decades. In 1965, Drown wanted out of this unprofitable arrangement and so Douglas Badt, a volleyball player at the Sand and Sea, became the club's manager.

This was a golden era for the economically privileged members of the Sand and Sea. Unlike the other private clubs that surrounded it, Sand and Sea catered to all people regardless of race or religion. A large number of active, progressive Democrats and Jewish families were members, including the actor Kirk Douglas, comedian Don Rickles, and the wealthy Annenberg family. The club's volleyball and paddle tennis teams were some of the best in the country, stocked with former Olympians and former players from USC and UCLA. In 1970, the Sand and Sea volleyball team played a highly publicized series of games against the Windjammers, which included basketball legend Wilt Chamberlin and the Lakers' Keith Erikson. Sand and Sea won two out of three games.

Sand and Sea club members cavort in surf after plotting activities for all ages for Labor Day weekend | Los Angeles Times, September 6, 1966
Sand and Sea club members cavort in surf after plotting activities for all ages for Labor Day weekend | Los Angeles Times, September 6, 1966.

The summer seasons saw a plethora of activities. There were dinner dances, swim lessons, children's arts and crafts, cocktail parties, sports tournaments, and fireworks on the 4th of July. Romances bloomed and children roamed. The Julia Morgan guest house was often used as a home for the club's manager, who had a large brood of sons. Tales of teen boys riding mattresses down the stairs and epic parties (the Tiffany chandeliers had been put in storage) would no doubt have met with Marion's hearty approval.

But the battle over this elitist fun taking place on public lands began to heat up in the turbulent 1970s. In 1974, it was alleged that Governor Ronald Reagan himself had influenced the state's decision to let the club keep leasing the land. He had received a letter from his old friend, Anita Kay May, widow of the founder of the May Company and longtime club member, who wrote:

"Dear Ronnie: please believe that I do hate to bother you with anything for I know how much you have on your mind but this really means so much to me..." 9

And so began the two decade fight over the usage of the prime property. Critics alleged the club was a relic of a bygone era, elitist, paid very little rent, and was being rewarded by like-minded politicians for its liberal membership. The club countered that it was inclusive, and often opened its facilities to charitable organizations. By 1982, the club had the "sword of Damocles" over its head, and was staying open on a month to month lease. As the city council debated for years over what to do with the property -- a community center, hotel and restaurant were all proposed -- the Sand and Sea worked on a proposal that would make the club half-public, half-private and offer the general population a chance to use the amenities.

In 1988, the city council finally accepted a bid from hotelier and liberal donor, Michael McCarty, to build a multi-million dollar luxury hotel, restaurant, and community arts center on the site. The backlash, heartily encouraged by many Sand and Sea members including manager Douglas Badt, was swift and extreme. This proposal, along with many others, made many in Santa Monica nervous that the shore was about to become a new Atlantic City or Miami Beach. The issue was put on the ballot in November, 1990. In the months leading up to the referendum, the fight reached a fever pitch. McCarty walked out of a "raucous" public meeting, claiming that the mayor had stacked speakers against the hotel. Assemblyman Tom Hayden came out against the proposed $300 a night hotel, pitting himself against McCarty, who had donated to his campaign fund. In the midst of all this mess, the Sand and Sea was quietly shut down and taken over by the city in anticipation of the November vote. On Election Day, the citizens of Santa Monica voted with 62% of the vote to kill McCarty's plan.

Marion's fun time estate now sat empty and unused. A "white elephant" once again. And after the 1994 Northridge earthquake caused extensive damage, it was a red tagged white elephant.


Wallis and the White Elephant

"I remember having great days as a girl at the beach when it was the Sand & Sea Club. I'm delighted that families from all walks of life will be able to enjoy our beautiful coast and make their own fond memories." -Wallis Annenberg 10
"We don't want to call it a club, it's a community beach house. We want to create a place that's unconditionally welcoming for everyone." 11

In 2005, Wallis Annenberg, "TV Guide" heiress and head of the 1.6 billion dollar Annenberg Foundation, got tired of driving by the shuttered club where she had spent so many happy childhood days. In April of that year, she pledged $21 million dollars to make the state and city's long held, little funded dream of a first-class beachfront community center into a reality. As "devoted to Big Ten football as she is to high culture," Annenberg helped steer the vision of a top notch, progressive public space that would meet the needs of a large and varied public.

Frederick Fisher and Partners was hired to design the environmentally friendly main structures. Landscape architects Mia Lehrer & Associates, Charles Pankow Builders, and artist Roy McMakin were also brought into the project. While designing the public buildings on the site, Fisher stated; "A strong idea came to me early on, to create a ghost of a mansion." 12 In homage to the original mansion, the main community center was built in its footprint and concrete pillars reference the Grecian columns that adorned Ocean House. A white line runs across the property, noting the original high tide mark. The historic pool is now heated by solar power.

In 2009, the community center opened to great fanfare and even better architectural reviews. The public must make reservations to use the pool, but the children's play area, beachside café and other amenities are open daily, with no reservations needed. And every year the center celebrates the birth of Marion Davies, who is barely mentioned during tours of Hearst's San Simeon, with a swing dance. It is all part of the plan, according to docent Kay Pattison; "We're going to bring her out of the shadows, and put her back in the sunshine on the beach where she belongs." 13

Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares

Additional Photos by: Hadley Meares


1 "In their day, they were stars" Los Angeles Times, September 29, 2006
2 Niven, David Bring on the Empty Horses
3 "Hedda Hopper's Hollywood" Los Angeles Times, September 23, 1938
4 "In their day, they were stars" Los Angeles Times, September 29, 2006
5 "Hedda Hopper: Looking at Hollywood" Los Angeles Times, May 12, 1948
6 "Sand and Sea Club expects more than 500 at Luau" Los Angeles Times, August 15, 1955
7 "King holds court it was dusk and sand and sea" Los Angeles Times, September 1985
8 "Fformer marion davies mansion up for sale" Los Angeles Times April 22, 1957
9 "Letter regain results in favor for private beach club" The Letter Oct 2, 1974
10 "Still Grand on the sand" Los Angeles Times, April 2009
11 "Former haunt of stars" Orange Country Register, April 2009
12 "Still Grand on the sand" Los Angeles Times, April 2009
13 Ibid.

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