If necessity is the mother of invention, then Beverly Hills is the mother of whatever happens afterward. It exists as a sort of lush, interior courtyard to Los Angeles, surrounded by the city but never officially a part of it, enveloped but discrete. Whereas Los Angeles is famous—if not notorious—as a place for identity creation, Beverly Hills is where you go if you’re lucky enough to make it through that gauntlet. It is an oasis for an initiated few, a sanctuary that you gain entrance to only after plowing through an arid, sun-scorched landscape.
When I took over as editor of Vanity Fair in 1992, the magazine quickly became, at least in part, a sort of manual on Hollywood. In its pages, we sought to lay bare the endlessly intricate, sometimes shallow, and often thorny inner workings of a town that has always seemed more lab-synthesized than farm-grown. Our aim was to provide both the cognoscenti and the casually interested with an exploded-view diagram of the parts that constitute the moviemaking machine. Motion pictures may not be this country’s greatest cultural export, but they are certainly its most voraciously consumed, and the fun of watching them is only enhanced by knowledge of the dramas that play out behind the scenes.
The thing is, the magazine was based in New York and the film business was largely out in California. As insightful as our stories were, something was missing. I knew that if I felt that separation as an editor, the reader would be conscious of it, too.
When Swifty Lazar died a couple of years into my tenure as editor, I sensed an opportunity to forge a physical connection between Hollywood and Vanity Fair. Swifty, a diminutive superagent with an outsize personality (and the eyewear to match), had for 30 years presided over Hollywood’s Oscar-night party of choice. It was a glamorous, if slightly constipated, affair that took place each year at Spago, which was then a fizzy perch above Sunset Boulevard. By design, the party preserved the stratifications that characterized Old Hollywood—there might as well have been a velvet rope around the tables of big-name actors. Lesser guests, as I was in the party’s final year under Swifty’s purview, were consigned to a second room and encouraged not to move from their seats. Or at all for that matter.
If Vanity Fair were to take up the party mantle, it would have to be in Beverly Hills and it would have to become a livelier, slightly more democratic shebang, an affair put together by outsiders to remind Hollywood that parties—even if they were work—could be enjoyable. And ours was, but mostly for other people. For me and the magazine’s staff, the stress of planning the Oscar party was matched only by the Herculean task of hosting it.
Truly, one of the few things that kept me coming back each year was the promise of spending time in Beverly Hills. Together with Sara Marks—Vanity Fair’s director of special projects and the doyenne of the party—and various trusted advisers and contributors to the magazine, I would sit by the pool of the Beverly Hills Hotel for hours, tweaking the seating chart for dinner and making last-minute additions to the guest list.
Doing all of this in the great Edenic glow of Beverly Hills undeniably lent the party much of the glamour and sophistication it had. It also made clear that if Hollywood is the stage of the film industry, Beverly Hills is the green room. There, the sophistication of the past remains untarnished. Life seems more refined and rarefied than anywhere else in this part of the world. You’re almost able to conjure and commune with the people who lent the city its luster in the first place. It’s orderly, couth, effervescent, and illuminated just so. Really, there’s no place I’d rather host a party.
“Whereas Los Angeles is famous—if not notorious—as a place for identity creation, Beverly Hills is where you go if you’re lucky enough to make it through that gauntlet.”
Though Beverly Hills is in no way short on history, it does run the risk of seeming short in history, having been incorporated just over 100 years ago, in 1914. But its roots, mystical appeal, and existence as a sort of Xanadu stretch back to the Tongva, an American Indian tribe who called it their home. “El Rodeo del las Aguas”, the natives named it: “the gathering of the waters.” The bountiful supply of water, which collected on the hills of the surrounding canyons—Coldwater, Benedict, and Laurel—and cascaded down into what is now Beverly Hills, made the area a sacred site, a place of abundance and peaceful agricultural life.
Subsequent settlers often met with dramatic failure that some would consider karmic retribution for the smallpox they introduced to the Tongva, destroying two thirds of the population. In 1838, the Mexican governor of California deeded the land to Maria Rita Valdez Villa, a widow of a Spanish soldier. She built an adobe villa near the present-day intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Alpine Drive and raised livestock there until 1854, when she was spooked by a native ambush and sold the land to Benjamin Davis Wilson and Henry Hancock. Those men had their own plan for a booming cattle farm, but it was dashed by drought. The property would change hands several times until the 1880s, when Charles Denker and Henry Hammel planted lima-bean fields with a dream of fleshing out a North African-themed subdivision called “Morocco.” Denker and Hammel weren’t far off the mark in seeing that the area was ripe for development, but were ultimately done in by tragically bad timing. The economy collapsed in 1888 and the men had to sell off their would-be Utopia.
The penultimate attempt to settle on a use for the land was made by Burton Green, an oilman who bought the plot from Denker and Hammel with his partners and drilled until it became clear to them what was already known by the Tongva: the area was replete with water, not oil. In 1906, Green agilely changed his company’s name from the menacing Amalgamated Oil Company to the slightly more alluring Rodeo Land and Water Company. They began carving out parcels and selling them off, changing the name from Morocco to Beverly Hills after the town of Beverly Farms in Massachusetts, where Green had spent time growing up.
Green manifested his genius as a real estate man in two strokes of flawless planning. First, he hired Wilbur D. Cook—who took cues from Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park and the grandfather of American landscape architecture—to dream up commodious, curving roads that hugged the hills. Rodeo, Cañon, and Crescent Drives are just a few of the streets that Cook plotted to allow for breezy travel through the newly-named town. A greedier developer would have allowed for less breathing room, but Green knew that to entice an upmarket crowd to buy property in the foothills, he’d have to spare no expense and make it worth their while.
Green’s second—but no less important—master stroke was his use of a hotel as a marketing tool. This was no ordinary, half-thought-out boarding house, though. In fact, the Beverly Hills Hotel would become, and remains, one of the city’s architectural landmarks. The property opened on Sunset Boulevard at North Crescent Drive in 1912 before Beverly Hills was even incorporated. Set at the enchanting halfway point between Los Angeles and the sea, it became a temporary lodging to early Hollywood powers before they abided Beverly Hills’s irresistible call to put down roots there.
In time Beverly Hills became the bedroom community for the biggest names in the film business, stretching from the silent era through the decades of the studio system, the Rat Pack, and right up to this day. You cannot name a star over the past century who has not at one point called Beverly Hills their home.
In 1919, husband and wife acting duo Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford bought a hunting lodge not far above the Beverly Hills Hotel and remodeled it into a four-story Tudor-style mansion that the press would dub “Pickfair,” a portmanteau of their last names. Life wrote that Pickfair ranked below only the White House in importance, but was much more fun. As if to uphold their status as President and First Lady of Beverly Hills, the couple first lured their friends as visitors, then as neighbors: Charlie Chaplin, Gloria Swanson, Will Rogers (incidentally, the first mayor of Beverly Hills), Rudolph Valentino, John Barrymore, Buster Keaton, Jack Warner, and more stayed there. Truly, nearly every boldfaced name of the Jazz Age and the Golden Age of Hollywood seems to have passed under the lintel of Pickfair for one of the house’s swinging dinner parties.
In 1923, the water supply of Beverly Hills became a political issue and annexation into the city of Los Angeles was proposed. But the first part of the decade had been otherwise kind to the area, and its residents were vehemently opposed to handing over a city that was triumphantly singular, if in its own compact way, to stand alone. The population had grown more than 2,000 percent, thousands of feather-fronded palm trees had been planted, and features such as the Beverly Hills Speedway, a 275-acre racetrack on the plot where the Beverly Wilshire hotel now sits, symbolized an independent, hard-earned, beautifully-imagined city that was firing on all cylinders. The Beverly Hills Utility Commission, along with the city’s well-heeled, puissant residents, struck down the proposal.
After World War II, Beverly Hills’ name transcended regional and national cachet and became prestigious on a global scale. The city’s growth corresponded with the country’s—that is to say, it boomed. The Golden Triangle, the area between Santa Monica Boulevard, Wilshire Boulevard, and Crescent Drive, became a nerve center of retail shops that rivaled Fifth Avenue in New York. Rodeo Drive, which sits in the Triangle’s center, started to gain a reputation as the go-to street on the West Coast for luxury shopping in all its forms.
An annexation of a different, more welcome sort took place in 1956. Paul Trousdale, a University of Southern California dropout turned real estate developer, subdivided the old Doheny Ranch, which contains the Tudor Revival Greystone Mansion that had belonged to the son of oil tycoon Edward L. Doheny (of Teapot Dome and There Will Be Blood fame). Trousdale convinced the Beverly Hills City Council to add the neighborhood to the city, a proposal to which they agreed. The architects who would design the strictly regulated homes on the Trousdale Estates, from Frank Lloyd Wright to Allen Siple, are surpassed in notoriety only by the people who bought those houses: Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Tony Curtis, Ray Charles, and Richard Nixon, to name just a few.
“It seems that no matter how you characterize Fifth Avenue, the only certainty is this: you can live in the city for years and never set foot on certain streets, but Fifth Avenue is not one of those. And if fortune is kind to you, you might even find yourself living on it.”
The population of Beverly Hills more or less leveled off in the 1950s, after developers exhausted the available supply of buildable space. Today it hovers at just over 34,000 people. In the intervening years, the city has been enhanced not by growing numbers, but by a steady replenishing of the cast of characters who have left it in better shape for the next generation. It continues to benefit from the care and devotion of residents who consider it equal parts hometown and haven.
One of the most impressive things about Beverly Hills—and this too is a function of the sort of people who live there—is how quickly the relatively young city has acquired such a rich cultural character. In 2015, as the Vanity Fair Oscar party grew, it was something of a natural choice to move it to the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, which is perched on the corner of North Santa Monica Boulevard and Crescent Drive. The building incorporates the original, WPA-built Beverly Hills Post Office, a glorious cream brick vestige of the 1930s with a lobby full of Charles Kassler fresco murals depicting the creation of the U.S. Postal Service. Wallis Annenberg, a philanthropist and heiress to the Philadelphia Inquirer and TV Guide fortune, donated $25 million for the addition of a Zoltan Pali-designed extension, which includes a 500-seat theater.
With Vanity Fair’s architect in residence, Basil Walter, an army of workers, and no shortage of generosity from the city of Beverly Hills, we closed off North Crescent Drive each February and built what a visitor might mistake for a permanent structure to house the dinner and afterparty. Even though I’d played host to celebrities, agents, studio heads, and the like for more than 20 years, the sheer size and complexity of the affair coupled with the caliber of guests would always leave me a bundle of nerves. That is, up until the event kicked off. At that point, I would step out of the Annenberg Center to greet guests, shaking hands and delighting in the magical, lambent, early evening light of Southern California. The night had started. In the thrilling, if slightly enervating, swirl of action, I knew that the Oscar party was in its rightful home—Beverly Hills.
And in the sum of these subtleties is a revelation.
Simplicity. Flexibility. Freedom.
The sheer pleasure of being at home in good hands.