|Photo by Ted Soqui|
Years ago, I had to find a place to live in a hurry, so I moved into a penthouse apartment that a friend found for me in West Hollywood. I hated it. Oh, it did have a 180-degree city view from every window, and its tree-lined neighborhood along the rise of Kings Road consisted of nicely kept and newly upgraded condo buildings. But I couldn’t shake the feeling something was off. It didn’t help that, once a week, a silver hearse would pull up to the curb across the street, stop for five minutes as the passengers gazed at the nondescript apartment complex opposite mine, and then head down the hill.
One day, I flagged down the driver to find out what the deal was. “See that building over there?” he said, pointing to 1221 N. Kings Road in West Hollywood. “In 1976, actor Jack Cassidy died after falling asleep on the couch with a lighted cigarette. The entire penthouse caught fire.” Turns out my new street was a stop on L.A.’s ghoulish “Grave Line Tour.”
Suddenly, I knew why I’d never felt at home there: I’d been inadvertently channeling the father of David and Sean and ex-husband of Shirley Jones. That, and the fact that I loathed my landlord, finally energized me to look for another abode.
I visited apartment after apartment in a torturous process that took weeks and then months. Every place had insurmountable flaws. One day, the manager of one especially mediocre apartment took me to the balcony, pointed across the yard and said, “See that second-story window? F. Scott Fitzgerald used to live there.” I almost rented the place for that reason alone. But first I went home to verify that, yes, my favorite author had lived in an apartment at 1403 N. Laurel Ave. in West Hollywood, until a heart condition prevented him from climbing the stairs. (He went around the corner to live with his lover Sheila Graham and died not long after.) By the time I phoned the manager, the apartment was rented — no doubt to a more trusting soul in search of similar inspiration.
That’s the crux of apartment dwelling in Los Angeles: The good news is there’s so much Hollywood history, and the bad news is there’s too much Hollywood history. And all of it, especially the many back stories, is readily available on Web sites like www.seeing-stars.com.
In the entertainment business, the apartment has historically been home to the Industry’s underpaid underbelly. Success is celebrated with the purchase of a house — not an apartment, and not even a condo (unless you’re a soap-opera newcomer or under 21 years old). Just watch MTV’s Cribs, or VH1’s Fabulous Life of . . . to see who’s livin’ large. Alas, apartments are inhabited by the assistants, the D-kids, the striving screenwriters, the struggling comics and the indie wannabes. Little wonder that Jerry Bruckheimer, the rich-as-Croesus producer, once famously snarked, “If I made films for the critics, or for someone else, I’d probably be living in some small Hollywood studio apartment.”
But lately there’s a rental renaissance as young Hollywood hipsters hanker after old-Hollywood glamour. They’re in search of the same Mid-Wilshire and Westlake Park apartment and condo buildings that location scouts like Ken Campbell love for their period-perfect architecture, putting them in demand cinematically. Those elegant exteriors, grand lobbies, long hallways, high ceilings, crown moldings and hardwood floors simply can’t be duplicated cost-effectively for a movie on a sound stage, Campbell says.
A two-bedroom apartment in The Talmadge at 3278 Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles is so commodious, the living room compares favorably to a basketball court. When Joseph Schenck, then the president of United Artists and later the co-founder of 20th Century Fox, presented the 10-story, 48-unit residential palace as a gift for his wife, silent-film actress Norma Talmadge, it was praised as the finest apartment building west of New York. He not only named the building after her but moved them both to a top-floor pied-á-terre. The Talmadge was, and still is, one of the grandest of the Art Deco and Art Nouveau buildings erected during a construction boom between 1923 and 1929.
More Hollywood stars lit up the residential roster at the Los Altos Apartments at 4121 Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles, and today, the photos of famous residents like Bette Davis, Mae West, Douglas Fairbanks and Clara Bow still adorn the leasing office. Built in the Spanish Colonial–esque style, the Los Altos was one of the first co-op apartments, then went bankrupt during the Great Depression and fell into disrepair for decades afterward. The housing group Neighborhood Effort rescued the complex from demolition in 1993 even though it was so unlivable there were gaping holes that continued from the fifth floor down to the lobby. But the restorers obtained National Historic Site status for the building by hunting down original parts and design details, including doorknobs, trim, floor tiles and colors. Today, the Los Altos is considered a magnificent structure boasting very low turnover and a waiting list of 300.
Many of L.A.’s apartment buildings have played a leading role in Hollywood culture. When the House Un-American Activities Committee was going strong, the FBI investigating Judy Holliday’s suspected commie activity sent G-men to keep track of her comings and goings at the El Royale at 450 N. Rossmore Ave. in Larchmont, where the actress was living while making Born Yesterday for Columbia Pictures. Perhaps it’s just coincidence that the complex is now a sort of dormitory for Hollywood agents.
Among Hollywood’s seamier sites, few compare to the Beverly Hills duplex apartment where agent Jennings Lang and actress Joan Bennett used to meet for nooners. Until 1951, that is, when Bennett’s husband, producer Walter Wanger, confronted Lang in a parking lot and shot him in the genitals. (The scandal was supposedly the inspiration for Billy Wilder’s The Apartment.) Then again, there was probably a lot more sex taking place at 4524 Vista Del Monte in Sherman Oaks, where a one-bedroom was Norma Jean Baker’s first home of her own. Or inside the apartment at 8573 Holloway in West Hollywood, which Marilyn Monroe (as she became known) shared with Shelley Winters.
L.A. apartments have been the scene of grisly Hollywood suicides, murders and accidents. The condo complex of 875 Bundy Ave. in Brentwood became famous after Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman were found knifed to death on June 12, 1994. (After O.J. Simpson stood criminal and civil trials for the murders, the large numbers of looky-loos caused the condo association to change the street number to 879 and change the appearance of the entrance.) Inside an apartment at 139 Fraser St. in Santa Monica, model-actress Margaux Hemingway committed suicide with an overdose of pills on July 2, 1996, the same day her grandfather Ernest Hemingway took his life 35 years earlier. In 1981, actor William Holden was found dead in an apartment at Shorecliff Towers at 535 Ocean Ave. in Santa Monica after falling, striking his head and then bleeding to death. In an apartment at 86575 Comstock Ave. in Westwood, 22-year-old comic sensation Freddie Prinze committed suicide by shooting himself in 1977. In 1976, Rebel Without a Cause co-star Sal Mineo, 37, was robbed and stabbed to death in the carport of his apartment building at 8563 Holloway Drive in West Hollywood. The daughter of TV host Art Linkletter (Kids Say the Darndest Things) jumped to her death from her sixth-floor apartment at 8787 Shoreham Drive in West Hollywood. And one of the biggest crimes in Hollywood took place in 1922 when silent-film director William Desmond Taylor was shot in the back of the head in his bungalow apartment in Alvarado Court on S. Alvarado St. in Westlake Park. The murder sent shock waves through the film community because Taylor was a celebrity, several movie figures were implicated and the neighborhood was affluent. Not only was the murder never solved (sound familiar, O.J. and Robert Blake?), but, as with most historical spots in L.A., that apartment complex is now a parking lot.
On the other hand, several modern-day Hollywood apartment landmarks are thriving as tourist attractions. In TV land, at 3500 The Strand in Hermosa Beach, visitors and residents alike often do a double take when they pass the beachfront apartments that Kelly, Donna and David of Beverly Hills, 90210 fame shared while attending “California University.” Same thing happens when people come across the Spanish-style apartment building at 4616 Greenwood Place in Los Feliz, where exteriors for Melrose Place were shot.
Few movie locations are as famous as the modest Alto-Nido apartments at 1851 N. Ivar St. in Hollywood, which was home to Joe Gillis before he moved into that luxurious mansion with Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. But, without a doubt, the movies’ most frequently filmed housing complex because of its surfeit of towers and turrets is the Castle Green apartments at 99 S. Raymond Ave. in Pasadena, featured in The Little Rascals, Bugsy, Sneakers and Wild at Heart.
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