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Among the Mansions of Eden: Tales of Love, Lust, and Land in Beverly Hills
Synopses & Reviews
Chapter One The Billionaires' Horseshoe
How did it happen? What transformed five and a half square miles of dusty bean fields and low and Southern California mountains into America's Palatine Hill, the sacred high ground where its demigods — movie stars, industrialists, Wall Street Wizards, rock icons, media and fashion moguls — took up residence in some of the most lavish, phantasmagoric mansions the world has ever seen?
Certainly there was nothing particularly remarkable about this small patch of land on the western edge of the Los Angeles basin when Beverly Hills was conceived in the early years of the twentieth century. The hills themselves were part of the Santa Monica Mountains, a low coastal range that stretched from the center of the L.A. basin to Malibu at the northern tip of Los Angeles County. And the Santa Monicas were part of a network of coastal ranges — the Santa Margaritas, the Santa Anas, the Santa Ynez, and the Santa Lucia — that extended from the Mexican border to Monterey, just south of San Francisco. Four hundred and fifty miles of hill after hill, each one much like the next: their lower slopes carpeted with silverwhite oats and blue lupine; their ridgelines — never higher than two thousand feet — shaded by stands of sycamore, Oak, and eucalyptus.
The key to the elusive charisma of Beverly Hills lies in real estate. Not in the land itself, but in the men and women who peddle it — the wily entrepreneurs who first managed to weave a little blue sky, sunlight, and parched earth into a dream that has captivated the American imagination for the better part of a century.
The Beverly Hills real estate hustler has always been a fascinating breed. On theone hand, they are manipulative cynics who prey upon their clients' overblown egos and illusions; and yet on the other, they are incurable romantics themselves who fervently believe the dream even as they exploit it to line their own pockets. They are, in short, snake oil salesmen and fever-eyed evangelists rolled into one.
John Bruce Nelson is one of the art form's premier practitioners. Nelson is not the largest broker in the city, The two corporate giants in Los Angeles, Fred Sands and Coldwell Banker, field more than 5,700 agents out of their sprawling office complexes and represent more than half of the properties on the west side. Nelson doesn't even operate out of an office but instead is headquartered in a 5,000-square-foot home in Bel Air, complete with a gated driveway and swimming pool. He employs two secretaries and a half dozen agents besides himself and his partner, Raymond Bekeris. Nelson sells an average of fifteen to twenty homes a year. But almost all of them are on the very high end of the market. Only thirty-five homes have sold for more than $10 million in the history of Beverly Hills, and Bruce Nelson brokered fifteen of them. When the world's richest men and women decide to shop for an edifice that will serve as a suitable shrine for their personal mythos, they often call upon Nelson. They come to him for his shrewd ability to appraise a property's true worth on the current market, for his extraordinary depth of understanding about architecture and interior design, and for his uncanny ability to match the personal panache of his clients with appropriately flamboyant estates.
It is a bright sunny afternoon in January 2000. Bruce Nelson is holding an openhouse for an $18.9 million estate at 1400 Tower Grove Drive. Most of the Beverly Hills real estate corps will attend. Tower Grove is a narrow street that makes a series of sharp switchbacks as it climbs to the top of Benedict Canyon. This region is known as "Beverly Hills post office" — though beyond the city limits and officially part of Los Angeles County, it still bears the coveted 90210 zip code and has always been considered part of the magic kingdom by the locals. As you near the top of the mountain, the land on the left drops away and the canyon yawns to reveal another ridgeline on Angelo Drive more than a half mile away. Huge homes line the lip of that far ridge, like a set of gleaming capped teeth. You round a final hairpin and a gigantic limestone structure looms into view like a giddy eruption from America's collective subconscious. Its proportions are preposterously huge, and the pseudo Beaux Arts chateau has all the authenticity of a Hollywood movie set, yet this clumsy grope for "European sophistication" and glamour is so spectacularly over the top that it provokes a weirdly exhilarating sense of vertigo. It's both hideous and awe inspiring, as breathtaking and coldly erotic as a Victoria's Secret cover girl. A plaque on one of the limestone pillars that guard the brick driveway bears the number 1400.
Bruce Nelson is sitting in the backyard beside a polished oval of turquoise water, as smooth and motionless as a gemstone, set in a slab of bleached concrete. At the far end of the pool a long buffet table has been assembled with a white linen tablecloth, and on it are a mass of fresh fruit, hors d'oeuvres, French pastries, and a sterling silver bowl filled with icedpunch. Behind the table, a red-jacketed Hispanic man nervously tends to the placement of the refreshments. Bruce takes no notice. His hazel eyes stare from beneath leathery lids, past the house and the canyon to the spectacular 180-degree view of the L.A. basin. He doesn't look the part of a successful broker. A handsome but weathered man in his late sixties, he wears a green nylon windbreaker, navy blue sweatpants, and an expression of supreme boredom. From beneath the bottom of the windbreaker, the primary-colored tail of a Hawaiian shirt shifts slightly in the breeze ...
There is no place more synonymous with glamour and ostentatious displays of wealth than Beverly Hills. In "Among the Mansions of Eden, " a veteran journalist explores this wild, fascinating community that has become part of America's mythology. 16-page photo insert.
Includes bibliographical references (p. -330) and index.
About the Author
David Weddle is the author of "If They Move ... Kill 'Em!," the critically acclaimed biography of Sam Peckinpah, and has written for Rolling Stone, Daily Variety, and the Los Angeles Times. He lives in Malibu, California.
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