There is a fence up now. A very tall fence, not uncommon in Hollywood, reinforced with fabric like a blackout curtain, built atop a low ivy covered stone wall. The sidewalk lining the fence is dark and cold and one can feel security cameras and occasional human eyes watching your every move. Once you cross to the other side of Franklin Avenue the mood changes dramatically. You are now on the teeming downtown block of Franklin Village, where I have spent a good chunk of my adult life.
Countless times I have been sitting at Birds, or La Poubelle, or browsing at Native, or standing in the interminable lines at UCB, and looked up above the fence at the towering white Norman castle that dominates the skyline, so bright it dims light on the sunny side of the street. Countless times over glasses of champagne or Pabst, my friends and I have had hushed conversations about what goes on in that seven-story structure, which has been Scientology's Celebrity Centre and auditing headquarters since the church bought the building for one million dollars in 1973. I once even accepted an audition to act in one of the church's innumerable instructional films just so I could go inside. As I passed through the gates, I entered a beautiful garden where good-looking people sipped on espresso. I stepped into the lobby surrounded by soaring molded and gilded faux-French design, only to notice how faded and utilitarian everything felt -- like a great house taken over by soldiers during a war.
And there were soldiers of a sort there. Men and women in the militaristic uniforms of the Sea Org, two of whom took me into another small Louis XIV inspired room for the audition. For all the banality of the audition, which was much less odd than many I have been on, I was uneasy. As I was led out of the room, I saw a young girl in civilian clothes being led upstairs by a Sea Org member, a plastic to-go container in her hands. It was school time on a weekday and I wondered what she was doing there. I let that mystery carry me out of the gates and back to my home a few short blocks away, my imagination running wild.
What I didn't know then is that this building has been inspiring romanticized conjecture since its construction began in 1927. And the first time, at least, all the rumors proved to be 100% wrong.
You could say it all began on a boat, but the true story would be short-changed. Firstly, it was a 280-foot yacht called the Oneida, and secondly it began forty-two years earlier with the birth of Thomas Ince.
Thomas K. Ince was a flashy and charming self-made man who helped make Hollywood. Born on November 16, 1882 in Rhode Island, he climbed his way from part-time actor to director of some of the first Westerns and Civil War pictures. His wife, St. Louis native Elinor "Nell" Kershaw, was an actress whom he had met on the Broadway stage. Nell often helped write and edit his early films, and in 1911 they moved to California. Ince quickly set about revolutionizing the movie industry. He is credited with developing the first detailed shooting script and for creating the first modern studio -- the 460-acre ranch in the Pacific Palisades known as Inceville. At Inceville, he developed the studio unit system, with producers controlling different shingles, and later founded the studios that went on to become MGM and Paramount.
But the memories of all these accomplishments were to be subsumed in the legend of a greater man.
That man was William Randolph Hearst -- newspaper tycoon, art collector, war-maker, and slavish lover of longtime mistress Marion Davies. Few understood the large old man with the icy blue eyes' hold over the kind, bubbly actress, and rumors of infidelities abounded. Whatever her flirtations, Marion really loved old "W.R.," and he did everything to keep the highly social blond happy.
On November 16, 1924, a mirthful group of friends partied with the couple on Hearst's boat, Oneida, moored in San Diego. The party included Charlie Chaplin, Hearst gossip columnist Louella Parsons, and Dr. Daniel Goodman. They were waiting for the guest of honor, birthday boy Thomas Ince, who was late due to negotiations with Hearst's film company. After Ince arrived they celebrated dinner, replete with plenty of illegal liquor. Later that evening Ince suffered acute indigestion, often the sign of a heart attack. His condition worsened, and Dr. Goodman sent him on the first train back to L.A. Ince felt so ill that he got off at Del Mar, where Nell rushed to join him. Forty eight hours later he was dead of heart failure.
The story exploded. The Hollywood rumor mill, as well as Hearst's enemies in the publishing world, quickly came up with new nefarious versions of what happened on the Oneida. The most popular theory was that Hearst had suspected Marion and Chaplin of having an affair and, having caught them in the act, brandished his gun. In the following melee Ince had accidentally been shot. Another version had Hearst mistaking Ince for Chaplin as he and Marion discussed his upset stomach, and shooting him in cold blood. The image conscious passengers aboard didn't help by issuing contradictory statements, and excitable servants fuelled the fire with tales of a bullet ridden body with a bloody head.
Nell was left with a large fortune, three young sons, and the truth. She had been with Ince when he passed away and by all accounts was horrified and broken-hearted by the rumors. After Ince's funeral she went to Europe (which gossips claimed was paid for by Hearst). When she returned to Los Angeles, she began reorganizing her life and her late husband's estate. In 1926, after the $1,600,000 estate was settled with equal portions going to her and her three sons, Nell built the now iconic Villa Carlotta Apartments on land she had long owned. A year later, construction began across the street on the $565,484 Chateau Elysee.
Designed by architect Arthur E. Harvey and built by the Luther T. Mayo Company, the chateau was to be an apartment house and long-term grand hotel for both the Hollywood and international elite, supplying daily housekeeping and fine dining. For recreation, the grounds included a moat, formal gardens, tennis courts, and rooftop and patio entertainment spaces. Nell enlisted it-girl interior designer Marjorie Requa, the willowy blue blood who decorated Pickfair, to create sophisticated interiors inspired by Louis XIV, Piccadilly, and French-Norman styles.
The wags immediately claimed that the Chateau had been built with hush money from Hearst. What they failed to acknowledge was that Nell was a shrewd businesswoman who would deal in real estate for the rest of her life. No morose widow (she would briefly remarry in 1930), she would also actively participate in the high-toned, often madcap social life that would make the Chateau one of the West Coast centers of 1930s café society.
Send in the Clowns
Surely New York has come to Hollywood!-- Jeannette MacDonald, The Los Angeles Times, March 27, 1932
Stage and screen operetta star Jeannette MacDonald made these polite exclamations to columnist Grace Kingsley while attending a soiree typical of the chic early years of the Chateau. The party, thrown for NYC columnist Ward Moorehouse, was hosted by the erudite, genial character actor Edward G Robinson and his sparkling wife, Gladys, in their luxurious apartments on the second floor. "The Robinson's knew all of Broadway, and all Broadway seems to be here tonight, as well as a lot of Hollywood!" Jeannette, wearing a blue sport suit with a small white silk hat, continued, "and the New York tea hour is being imported, too!"
Indeed, an atmosphere more like the great apartment buildings of New York and Chicago was aspired to at the Chateau. Innumerable sorority brunches, farewell bridge parties, engagement teas, orchid dinners, and society weddings were held there, including the 1929 marriage of Ince's eldest son William, a medical student, to Ada Williams, erstwhile Miss USA. Tennis tournaments were also popular, featuring competitors like Gloria Swanson and Ralph Bellamy receiving trophies from pretty starlets.
With all this activity, the Chateau quickly became an accepted place to stay for the "season," with many out of town upstarts from Washington to Cincinnati announcing their tenure at the coveted address. Some simply blatantly courted Hollywood, like a Mrs. Edith Hughes, who threw a cocktail party so that her 79 year old parents could experience the thrill of meeting celebrities like Walt Disney and Frank Morgan, known to posterity as the Wizard of Oz.
Thanks to the particular dramas of the recently famous and long-term rich, episodes at the Chateau often seemed like scenes out of a screwball comedy (many of the screwball greats including Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and Carole Lombard actually lived there for a time). In one room you could find the Czech Baroness George Daubek, known by her stage name Jarmila Novotna, preparing for her role in "La Traviata" at the Hollywood Bowl. In another apartment, the married socialite May Christie, "a genius for collecting bachelors," hosted the very single and very handsome Italian consul Duke Roberto Caraccilolo. Then there was Maceline Day, an ingénue who suffered a nervous breakdown in her apartment, and Count Emanuele Castelbarco, a portrait painter in town for his exhibit at the Stendhal Gallery. Dueling Irish actors Nancy Kelly and Edmond O'Brien, who eloped in Yuma after a row which lasted two weeks could be heard screaming in their suite. And in the garage, the irascible Errol Flynn would play poker with the off-duty chauffeurs.
The farcical atmosphere of the Chateau was well illustrated by a party given by the Lord and Lady Marley in 1937. Here the talk ranged from "international affairs to frivolous repartee." The hosts were credited with easily remembering the names of so many new friends, including the actress Jean Arthur and literary couple Cedric and Molly Belfrage, who were described as professional "escapeologists." Lady Marley charmed, pointing to her corsage of orchids and stating, "Americans do the most beautiful things with flowers." Stealing the show was the impeccably mannered child star Freddie Bartholomew, who admitted he could not focus on anything, not even the brewing war in Europe, until he got his driver's license.
When not dealing with her own problems, like the brief Parisian disappearance of her sister, actress Willete Kershaw, Nell Ince was attending functions at the Chateau and seeing to its day to day operations. In 1942, she was drawn into a divorce suit brought against eccentric Australian capitalist and admitted bigamist James Bartram by his legal wife, former actress Juliette. "I'm in a pack of trouble," a friend recounted Bartram venting, "I have two wives on my hands and I don't know what to do!" Perhaps confused by his dual lives, at one point Bartram had entered the lobby of the Chateau dressed as a hobo. "I didn't think that he was Mrs. Bartram's husband because of his clothing," Ince testified. "So the management called to make sure he was her husband before we told him where she was."
Tragedy seemed to stalk Nell Ince. It wasn't easy raising boys on her own. In 1936 her 20-year old daredevil son, Richard, entered a motorcycle race to finance a plane ride to elope with 18-year old Charlotte Buford. After discovering that her husband still lived at home, Charlotte quickly pushed for an annulment with help from Nell, who testified that Richard had "never worked a day in his life" and was not ready to be a husband. Two years later Richard was killed in another motorcycle race on the Pacific Coast highway, leaving behind a second wife, Barbara, whom he had married 10 months earlier at the Chateau Elysee.
Nell sold the Chateau in 1943. Throughout the '40s the Chateau continued to be a coveted address, though women's clubs and charity meetings took the place of titled soirees. In 1951, the home was converted into a luxury retirement home called Fifield Manor. According to preacher's wife and founder Helen Ramsay Fifield, the nonprofit, nondenominational manor was "for those in their autumn years who have known gracious living and wish to continue without responsibilities." It seems the correct clientele were courted, since that year the Times reported that the elderly blue blood Major Curtis B. Winn and his wife, recently returned from a freighter trip to South America, were to move into Fifield Manor shortly after their golden wedding anniversary.
By the time the Manor was bought by Scientology in 1973, Nell Ince had been dead for two years and the once grand building was slated for demolition. After extensive renovations in the 1990s, the property is now thought to be worth upwards of $75 million, the most valuable asset in the church's $300 million-plus Los Angeles real estate portfolio. And thus, the glittering stories of the old Chateau, and the once scandalous myth of its origins and construction, have been subsumed into the now greater legend of the Church of Scientology.
And isn't that just the way Hollywood goes.
Top: Scientology Celebrity Center today. Photo by Hadley Meares