Phil Spector's Pyrenees Castle: The Fairytale Castle that Became Home to a Nightmare
The beige castle with its red tiled roof lords over the town of Alhambra like the feudal fortresses of rural France. But in the valley below, instead of gray stone cottages and green farmland, there are stucco ranch homes and dingy strip malls. I drive up the hill, past middle-class homes with gruff, middle-aged men working in the yards, and park across the street from the high, dishwater colored wall that surrounds the wooded Spector estate. A strangely amateurish sign states that I am indeed at the "Pyrenees Castle." A security camera pointed at the gated entrance reminds me that I am not the first unwanted visitor to the neighborhood.
I crane my neck up and try to see any signs of life on the estate. But all I can see are the vague lines of steep steps and ornamental lights, through an unruly growth of massive evergreens, elms, cedars, pines and palms. I get back in my car and drive around the circular sweep of the property -- there is an overturned wheelbarrow, and a felled tree. I find a back entrance with a warning sign telling me to keep out, and behind it a long concrete outbuilding with peeling awnings and cobwebbed lamps. It seems the closer I get to the castle, the less I can see it. I feel like I am being watched.
A little brunette girl and a man in his fifties are in a driveway across the street, staring at me.
"Why she here?" The little girl tugs at the man's hand. "Why she here?"
I suddenly feel strangely ashamed, and get back in my car and drive down the hill. On the flat streets below, the castle itself again comes into view, perched high atop the town. Sometimes you can see most of it, sometimes only the red topped turrets peek above the trees. I think of the woman who supposedly now lives in the castle all alone, and of the woman who died there. I wonder if they can see me. From its inception, the castle was a building begging for a legend. Almost eighty years after its construction, it finally got its wish. And it got it in spades.
Au Revoir Las Enfants
We have enough trouble making a living and paying taxes without running a mystery house. --Henry Dupuy, The Los Angeles Times, 19391
Sylvester Dupuy (pronounced Doo-pwee) was born in his uncle's ranch adobe outside Los Angeles in 1878. The adobe was on land that had once been part of Rancho Rosa Castilla, and is now where Cal State L.A. is located. His parents had come from Pau, a lovely French town on the edge of the Pyrenees Mountains, to join the extended Dupuy family on their thriving sheep ranch in California. After his mother's premature death, the toddler Sylvester returned to France with his father and siblings. He spent his childhood in awe of the dream castles that dotted the French countryside. He never forgot these magical fortresses, even when he returned to a vastly changed Los Angeles at the age of 14, to herd sheep for his Uncle.
Within four years, his Uncle had returned to France, and Sylvester had control of the family business. He married a fellow French expat named Anna Candelot, and lived in the same adobe where he had been born. They had four children.
Sylvester leased land adjoining his property and "grew barley and oats and let the sheep graze on the stubble after the harvest." 2 Soon, his cattle and sheep "grazed over 15,000 acres in the Eastern suburbs of L.A.," some herds even grazing near the old downtown plaza. The family became wealthy, and Dupuy diversified into real estate and oil, helping found the town of Temple City with his business partner Walter P. Temple.
In 1924, while Temple was in the midst of building La Casa Nueva on the old Workman-Temple Homestead, Dupuy began constructing his own nostalgic retreat, which cost him $500,000 in cold hard cash. He hired local Alhambra architect John Walker Smart to design the 8,600 square foot concrete and steel castle of his childhood dreams. The castle had a Holland tile roof, an Italian marble foyer, ten bedrooms, and eight ½ baths. The continental style bathtubs had spigots on the side of the tub, instead of on the end. There were balconies where Sylvester could look over the old family homestead, and a wine cellar where the family made its own wine. There were fanciful secret passages, including a trap door in the breakfast nook that led to the wine cellar, and a passage leading from a bedroom to the attic.
The extended Dupuy family finally moved into "the house on the hill" in 1927. "My grandfather envisioned us all living together like the 1980s TV program Dallas," Sylvester's grandson explained many years later. "My father helped build it. The women of the family prepared French meals, and everyone pitched in to make wine." The children of the family loved running around the house, playing hide and seek and sliding down the laundry chute. The Dupuys were active in the surprisingly large French expat community. Anna helped throw a French BBQ at Plummer Park, and Sylvester sat on the board of the Lafayette Club. If the children became too loud, they could be unleashed outside to play a quick game of tennis, or swing at their custom-made playground, or simply run about the estate's lushly forested three acres.
But, as they often do, the fairytale soon revealed its warts. "Oh, it was a nice enough place to live, but it was just too big," recalled Sylvester's son, Henry. "The family had no servants, and 'the place was just too much work.'" 3 There was also the depression and financial calamities. Shortly before he died in 1937 of a stroke, Sylvester lost most of his money in bad oil investments. Anna was left land rich, but cash poor. The family's quiet, secluded life fueled rumors that had been circulating in Alhambra for years. In 1939, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times attempted to put the persistent rumors to rest. In an article titled, "Fables of the Alhambra Mystery Castle Explode", the reporter explained:
Because the owners who live in the Castle went about their business and talked to no one, an air of mystery developed about the place, giving it the glamour of a nudist colony without a knothole. The result was a series of fantastic legends about the place told about town by hairdressers and barbers to those who asked about the house of mystery. For instance, there is the story that the house is owned and occupied by a wealthy motor magnate who never permits himself to be seen entering or leaving the place. It is not true... Then there is the yarn that the place once was occupied by eastern gangsters. This is just a fable. Also there are tales of secret entrances, that a garage like structure in a side hill below the mansion leads into a tunnel beneath the building and an electric elevator takes you up to meet the mysterious owners-if you know the password. That one's wrong too.
The family laughed off the chatter, but by 1946, only Anna and a friend were left in the cavernous money pit. The castle was subdivided into eight apartments and sold to jeweler R.W. Wilson. Anna lived in one of the apartments until her death in 1949. "The Pyrenees Castle Apartments" became home to a variety of tenants, including Cal State professors, and the Morses, a couple who stayed there for over 20 years. A 1977 profile described the castle as shabby chic, "lost cause architecture," and so forested that traffic from the bustling street below could barely be heard. 4
The castle was eventually sold to an anonymous woman who wanted a home for herself and her 25 dogs. However, she never moved in, and the castle fell into the hands of vandals. It was also owned for a time by a mysterious Hong Kong businessman named Cris C. Y. Yip, who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars renovating it in the 1980s. The rooms were decorated with deep red carpets and red velvet curtains. An elaborate security system was also put in. But Yip barely spent any time there, and by 1994, the Bank of Hong Kong had ownership of the estate.
Murder at the Castle
I've bought myself a beautiful and enchanting castle in a hick town where there is no place to go that you shouldn't. -- Phil Spector, Esquire Magazine, 1999
Most of us already know the story of Phil Spector -- the Gollum-like, tiny genius from the Bronx who produced his first pop hit at 17, and was a millionaire by 22. He was the influential music producer of the 60s and 70s, who created the fabled "Wall of Sound," and was responsible for the production of classics like "Be My Baby," "You've Lost that Loving Feeling," "Stand by Me," My Sweet Lord," "Imagine," and "River Deep, Mountain High." Allegations about him abound. He was an abusive addict, whom ex-wife Ronnie Spector called a "psychopathic monster," who had an obsession with guns that was well documented over decades. 5 He was the man who drunkenly stuck a loaded pistol in Leonard Cohen's neck and slurred, "Leonard, I love you." "I hope you do Phil," the epically cool Cohen replied. 6
He allegedly fired a shot in a studio with John Lennon, brandished his gun at countless women, and waved a gun in the studio with the Ramones in 1980, during the recording of his final major album. He became a recluse, addicted to alcohol and pills, and haunted by the 1992 death of his son from leukemia. In 1998, he left the self-inflicted "hell" of his estate in Pasadena, and bought the "enchanting" Pyrenees Castle for $1.1 million. He was "invisible" to his middle-class neighbors, many who had no idea who he was. According to one neighbor, they only occasionally glimpsed the little man with the wig speeding by in an expensive car, "waving, the feudal lord to the serfs." 7
Inside the castle, he puttered around in his eccentric way, often with only his assistant there to carry the brunt of his moods, which ranged from rageful to "brilliant and sweet." 8 Profoundly lonely, visitors reported that he became paranoid about being left alone, and would often lock the gates of the castle to stop them from leaving him. He had been largely sober for ten years, and slowly began socializing more frequently. On the evening of February 2, 2003, he left his fortress for a night out in Hollywood. He went to several clubs, drunk as a skunk, before ending up at The House of Blues VIP Foundation Room in the early morning hours of February 3.
It was here that he met Lana Clarkson. A big, beautiful blonde, friendly and funny, Lana was a 6 foot-tall woman who had some success as a guest star on television and as a B-movie actress in Roger Corman movies. She was 40, allegedly addicted to pills, and having trouble paying the bills. She was hopeful that her job as a hostess at the Foundation Room would supply her with fresh contacts. Phil Spector was just such a person. So when he invited her to come back to his castle high on the hill, she agreed. But she was not naïve, telling Phil's driver, Adriano De Souza: "It's going to be fast. I would like to have only one drink." 9
Spector and Clarkson climbed up the steep steps into the castle, while DeSouza waited for Clarkson below, parked near a gurgling fountain. At 5 a.m., he heard a "soft popping sound" and, shortly after, Spector appeared, a revolver in his bloody hand. "I think I killed somebody," Spector said. 10
Soon eight Alhambra police officers were on the densely wooded property, cautiously approaching the castle, unsure of what they would find. A few minutes later, they were forcing a tasered Spector against the large staircase in the dim foyer, while music blared through the house. Lana Clarkson was sprawled out on an ivory brocade chair near the foyer's large front door, blood covering her once near-perfect face.
It wasn't long before all of Phil Spector's neighbors knew exactly who he was. Press descended on the quiet neighborhood that surrounded the castle. Helicopters hovered over the murder house, in which Spector holed up inside, after being released on $1 million bail. The press intrusion went on for years, during the two murder trials that followed. While his neighbors chafed at the constant media circus, Spector stayed indoors safely behind his high walls, often sitting for hours in his "Iguana room," staring at his three pet iguanas-Godzilla, Laurel and Hardy.
Jurors from both trials were brought out of sequestration to inspect the castle. During the first tour, in 2007, Spector greeted them in sweat pants and sandals. Bloody photos of Clarkson's body were displayed in the foyer and jurors slumped in a replica chair of the one she was found on, attempting to recreate her death pose. Spector was said to have initially been furious with the intrusion and what he considered to be the prosecution's attempt to tamper with the fountain, which the defense claimed was noisy enough to impede De Souza's hearing. In an email, he wrote to his attorneys:
"I won't allow it. It's still my [expletive] house." 11
It wouldn't be much longer. The first trial ended in a mistrial. At his retrial in 2009, Spector was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to 19 years to life at California State Prison in Corcoran. He left behind his lizards, his iguanas, his decorative suits of armor, his white piano, and his collection of garden gnomes -- all at his beloved Pyrenees Castle. But there was someone to care for all these precious mementoes -- the woman he married in the marble foyer of the castle in 2006, the very same place where he shot Lana Clarkson in the face.
Coming out of Her 'Chelle
"I ripped up the carpet. It was red and had stains I couldn't get out. I'm doing up the castle. Phillip hadn't done much to this place for years. I'm giving it a more feminine feel."
--Rachelle Spector, The Daily Mail, 2009 12
Spector invited Rachelle, another friendly blonde, over to his table at Dan Tana's Restaurant, a month after he shot Clarkson. She was a struggling singer from a broken home, working in a fast food restaurant, and sleeping on a friend's floor. She found Spector, 41 years her senior, charming and "childlike," a father figure who taught her about art and politics. 13 She soon moved into the castle and became his third wife, shortly before his first trial started. She was unwavering in her support during the two trials that followed, firmly believing that her Phillip couldn't hurt a fly. He supported her as well, finding time in between court dates to produce her first album, "Out of My Chelle." The album features her trombone playing, as well as love songs dedicated to Phillip, her "shining light."
Since Spector was imprisoned, Rachelle has lived in the castle all alone. "I come home and I think I hear him calling my name," she has stated. 14 She has kept busy, trying to jump start her music career, running Spector's vast music catalogue, and overseeing his appeal. She even got a private investigator's license. A reporter who visited her in 2010 mused:
It must, I suppose, be a lonely existence. She shares the vast home with six dogs, some cats, and two iguanas. A maid comes twice a week. Her other regular visitor is Esmerelda, her gardener's six-year-old daughter. The lawns of the Castle are brown and parched (she recently turned off the sprinklers, to save money and the environment), and even Phil's collection of garden gnomes could use a lick of paint.15
Every Sunday she drives to the State Prison to visit Spector, who now resides in a five by nine cell. Rachelle remains deluded or devoted, depending on your take on the situation. In 2012, Spector and Rachelle sued the city of Alhambra, claiming a construction project on the hill was damaging the castle's retaining wall. "I won't rest until my husband comes home to this house, where he belongs," Rachelle has stated emphatically. And what does her husband, once the Prince of the music business, think of this young woman who keeps the home fires burning in his castle on the hill?
"She's the fairy princess in my world". 16
Aditional Photos By: Hadley Meares
1 "Fables of Alhambra mystery castle explode" Los Angeles Times, December 3, 1939
2 "Castle had a large family life before Spector" Rasmussen, Cecilia. Los Angeles Times April 8, 2007.
3 "As Sleeping Beauty Was in the Fairy Tale, Alhambra Castle Is Being Awakened by Love" by Mary Barber, Los Angeles Times July 11, 1985
4 "Theres a castle for sale in Alhambra" Los Angeles Times, 1977
5 "I won't rest until Phil comes home"" by Caroline Graham, Daily Mail on Sunday L.A. September 10, 2009
6 "Inside story: The weird world of Mr & Mrs Phil Spector" Interview by Guy Adams, The Independent, August 21 2010
7 "Music Legend Phil Spector Arrested in Woman's Killing" by Geoff Boucher, Richard Winton and Andrew Blankstein, Los Angeles Times February 4 2003
8 "Behind Wall of Silence, Spector Busy With Suits" by Jessica Garrison, Los Angeles Times, May 24, 2006
9 "Sound of Gunfire Marks the Collision of Two Lives" by Jean Guccione, Carla Hall, Nita Lelyveld, Sam Quinones, James Ricci, Los Angeles Times, January 10, 2005
10 "Sound of Gunfire Marks the Collision of Two Lives" by Jean Guccione, Carla Hall, Nita Lelyveld, Sam Quinones, James Ricci, Los Angeles Times, January 10, 2005
11 "Tampering alleged in previous Spector trial" Harriet Ryan, Los Angeles Times, January 27, 2009
12 "I won't rest until Phil comes home"" by Caroline Graham, Daily Mail on Sunday L.A. September 10, 2009
14 "Mrs. Phil Spector on HBO's Al Pacino Film: 'It's Not Accurate'"
15 "Inside story: The weird world of Mr & Mrs Phil Spector" Interview by Guy Adams, The Independent, August 21, 2010