When I moved to Los
Angeles a year ago, I swore that I would never be caught dead on a
celebrity-homes tour. I couldn't care less whether the Kardashians lived
in a mansion with an infinity pool or a gingerbread house constructed
by sugarplum fairies. The buses cruising the streets reminded me of the
way hawks circled the desert for jackrabbits.
avoided this dreaded fate -- until my lady's sister and her cousin from
France came to visit. Suddenly, I found myself on a red Starline
open-top bus, putting on headphones and buckling my seatbelt. That it
was Memorial Day weekend made the excursion feel even more superficial.
Weren't we supposed to be remembering at least one of the millions of
soldiers killed in World War II, delivering food to homeless Vietnam
vets or placing flowers on local monuments? And were we seriously paying
$44 each to stalk celebrities?
Our tour guide, Mick, drove our
group of 12 away from the madness of Hollywood Boulevard and into the
hills. With his thick English accent, Mick told us he was a retired
sergeant in the British army and a former Beefeater at the Tower of
Now we were climbing above the city. The farther we drove,
the more it felt like we were entering another universe: Homes were
their own galaxies, fire hydrants were not red but platinum, and every
person was a potential celebrity. Below us, Los Angeles was spread out
like the inside of a computer's hard drive.
Our first stop was
actor Jason Statham's house, which was under construction. Mick said he
saw Statham driving around in his Porsche quite a bit but never once
witnessed Statham smile. Mick stopped the bus in the middle of the road,
and we watched Statham's driveway, waiting for him to make an unsmiling
appearance on the granite carpet.
When a car behind us beeped, we
continued along the ridges of the hills. It was one of those
too-perfect days in California; the sky was so blue, you would swear it
was manipulated by computer graphics.
Mick went over some rules.
First, whenever you see an expensive car -- Mercedes, Ferrari, luxury SUV
-- make sure to peek into the tinted windows. Especially Range Rovers.
(He never explained why Range Rovers in particular, but I imagined they
were pushed upon celebrities by some mysterious and conspiratorial
marketing firm, led by a Don Draper type.) Second, have your cameras
ready. He also made sure we understood that celebrities are generally
friendly, except for Al Pacino. Mick called him The Lion.
myself diligently peering into celebrity-esque cars. Despite my
discomfort with the setup, I couldn't help but want to be the first to
see someone famous and yell out, "Thar she blows!" And the French
cousin, Audrey, was eating it up. I thought French people were supposed
to like avant-garde jazz and hate Justin Bieber. But she loved every
second of our tour.
Audrey started snapping pictures as we drove
past Tom Cruise's fortress off Alpine Drive. We could see only the top
of the buildings and an American flag.
"In Beverly Hills," Mick said, "the less you can see of the home from the road, the more famous the person is."
Mick started talking about Larry King, the former CNN host. He was the
celebrity Mick saw most on the tour, and so far we'd had no sign of a
celebrity. It was like going whale watching and staring into the ocean
for two hours and seeing jackshit. So we turned on North Highland and
stopped in front of Larry King's house.
Mick instructed us to peep
into a Range Rover pulling out of the driveway. And so the entire bus
of people leaned to the side -- somehow failing to notice the group of
children and their fathers playing basketball in Larry King's driveway.
They were laughing, screaming and shooting the ball with unbridled
happiness, until they noticed us ... staring.
We looked at them,
and they looked at us. And for a moment, our worlds collided. Then the
basketball game went back to normal, and we drove away. It was totally
awkward -- and we didn't even see Larry King.
I didn't think the
tour could get any worse. But then Mick mentioned we were heading to one
of Paul McCartney's homes. I love the Beatles. And "Hey Jude" started
playing over our headphones.
We came to a bend in the road and
stopped at a red light. Mick pointed to a room with one window above
Paul McCartney's gigantic house.
"That room there," Mick said, "is where George Harrison died."
all Mick's skills as a tour guide, there's little evidence that
Harrison died anywhere near Paul McCartney's real estate. But that's
still where it hit me.
We visit celebrity homes for their stories.
We visit them to remember the tales of cold-blooded murder, adultery,
psychotic breakdown, sexual abuse, fortunes won, fortunes lost. Think of
how many people still drive to Brentwood to look at O.J. Simpson's
home, or the 10,000 roses sent to Michael Jackson's grave at Forest Lawn
These tabloid stories feel as relevant to our
lives as Abraham and Isaac, or Paul Revere and his midnight ride. What
is the difference, really, between seeing Paul Revere's house in Boston
and the room where George Harrison just might have died? Celebrity
culture has become our mythology, and their homes our monuments.
the rest of the drive, Mick showed us where River Phoenix died and
where fans of Elvis Presley wrote notes on his security door. We never
did see a single celebrity, but I found I could no longer turn away from
the mansions, from the cars, from the people eating dinner in fancy
restaurants on Sunset Boulevard. I now understood. But I still didn't
want to be caught looking.