Tales from the Platinum Triangle

lareviewofbooks:

JEFFREY BURBANK

on the great houses of La-La Land.

“THE HOUSE THAT JOKES BUILT”
Home of Will Rogers, Beverly Hills, California
Postcard image courtesy of Time Machine to the Twenties

Michael Gross
Unreal Estate: Money, Ambition, and the Lust for Land in Los Angeles

Broadway Books, November 2011. 560 pp.

Every Wednesday evening in wartime Southern California — the early 1940s — local airwaves crackled with another installment of The Romance of the Ranchos. Accompanied by the strains of a Wurlitzer, a few strings, and the voices of orotund actors, the CBS radio program dramatized the early days of colonial California. Sponsored by Title Insurance and Trust Company of Los Angeles, The Romance of the Ranchos recounted how each Mexican land-grant parcel was settled and ultimately transformed into the communities that still thrive today. If the entire broadcast was a transparent shill for the purchase of title insurance, it was also a canny deployment of intellectual property: The program essentially cobbled together its weekly melodramas based on the transfer-of-ownership records the company kept on file.

Michael Gross’s Unreal Estate: Money, Ambition, and the Lust for Land in Los Angeles operates on a kindred premise: that the story of Los Angeles’s greatest estates in its finest neighborhoods lies in their titles and titleholders, in somewhat linear succession. But Gross isn’t selling us a bill of goods; he’s just asking us to enlist him as our trusted cicerone, to let him guide us through the neighborhood, even if he, admittedly, has never gained access to many of these properties. A tour most assuredly of his own design, it has plenty of melodrama and a cast of characters that, in number and complexity, is positively Dickensian. The reader must keep track of at least 50 major players and a score of Westside properties on his book’s Monopoly board.

Gross has earned a reputation as an engaging chronicler of the rich, famous, high, and mighty in books like Rogues’ Gallery, a history of the Metropolitan Museum of Art told through the biographies of its not-always-respectable directors, and 740 Park, a study of the most-lusted-after apartment building in New York and its illustrious occupants. Both are well-written and well-researched, and derive some of their impact from their organizing premises: The tales about the denizens of 740 Park — their foibles and excesses, triumphs and tragedies — all hang together because they took place under a single roof and spoke of the fervid desire to be under that roof. Rogues’ Gallery depends on its link to a revered institution. But Unreal Estate does not enjoy the structural unity of its predecessors.

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Kept expecting to see the Lon Chaney mansion listed. Alas.

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