New book on that fabulous and mysterious house Sonny & Cher owned in the early 70s, bought from Tony Curtis (the second house they bought from Tony Curtis, that is) on Carolwood avenue off the Sunset Strip.
A new book spotlights 20th Century Fox co-founder Joseph Schenck's affair with Marilyn Monroe at 141 S. Carolwood and the separated Bonos' decision to live in separate wings because CBS threatened to cancel their show if either moved out.
"Who'd have thought I'd end up in that house? … Just to say 'Carolwood' is mind-boggling," Tony Curtis said in an interview six months before he died in 2010, recalling the grandest place he ever lived. "Some day, we're going to live right here," Cher told husband Sonny Bono in 1967 the first time they visited the Holmby Hills estate, known for most of its existence by its address, 141 S. Carolwood Drive.
In the impossibly high-priced world of L.A. real estate, the Italian Renaissance mansion has ranked -- from the day it was built at the height of the Great Depression -- as one of the area's most coveted houses. Erected in 1932, the six-bedroom house has been inhabited by 20th Century Fox co-founder Joseph Schenck, Superior Oil founder William Keck, Curtis, Cher and Ghazi Aita, a shadowy businessman who surrounded himself with model-actress-whatevers. It is now in the hands of the widow of Ameriquest founder Roland Arnall, an architect of the subprime mortgage meltdown. "Writing about it was irresistible," says Michael Gross, author of Unreal Estate (Broadway, $30), a look at the uppermost echelons of L.A. real estate. (Gross penned a book about a famed New York building, 740 Park, in 2005.) Beginning with the founding of the neighborhoods that comprise the so-called Platinum Triangle of Holmby Hills, Beverly Hills and Bel-Air, the author tells the story of fame, wealth and social striving in L.A. through the inhabitants of 16 of the area's great mansion
But 141 S. Carolwood Drive stands out for its famed owners and their stories of trysts, broken marriages, dissolution and predatory capitalism. Designed by architect Robert Farquhar (also responsible for Beverly Hills High School), it was commissioned by Florence Quinn, the former wife of department store mogul Arthur Letts Sr., the visionary behind the creation of Holmby Hills...Lots began to sell there in 1925, with enormous mansions springing up on nearly barren hills. Carolwood cost $150,000 and was touted in the Los Angeles Times as the largest residence built that year. Quinn's red-tile-roofed, L-shaped mansion clocked in at 12,000 square feet (big for its time, not large by today's McMansion standards) and sat on four acres of lawns, gardens and fountains. A sweeping staircase still dominates the vast wood-paneled reception hall.
In the mid-1940s, it passed through the hands of Hotel Bel-Air founder Joseph Drown, who sold the house to one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, movie mogul Schenck. "He furnished it in a manner described as spare -- perhaps because he considered the stars, starlets and Hollywood players he filled the place with sufficient decoration," writes Gross of the first president of United Artists and, later, chairman of 20th Century Fox.
Schenck's most renowned decoration at Carolwood was Marilyn Monroe. "Though no one alive can say for certain, it seems reasonably clear that he began an affair with [her] there," writes Gross. "According to legend, she spotted him leaving the studio in his limousine, flashed him a flirty smile and got his card and a dinner invitation in return." She became a regular at his parties, home screenings and poker games, standing behind his chair while he played. Soon, she was living in the guesthouse. She was 21 and recently had been dropped from her contract at Fox, with only a few small movie roles under her belt.
Schenck sold the house in 1956 to Superior Oil's Keck, who added an indoor swimming pool and gold bathroom-sink fixtures shaped like oil derricks. Curtis bought it a decade later, seven years after his now-classic turn in Some Like It Hot. The actor, writes Gross, "did remember Carolwood as he'd dated [Monroe] when she was bunking in [the] guesthouse." The mansion, then worth $300,000, was a symbol for the actor of finally having made it, trading up through a series of ever-more-impressive houses
...But by that point, the house had intoxicated another Hollywood star: Cher.
"We never knew how or why we got invited to a party at Tony Curtis' house. We'd never met him before," the singer wrote in her 1998 memoir The First Time. She recalls gasping when she and Bono first drove up to Carolwood in 1967. "We've never seen anything like it," Cher told Curtis. He responded: "Come tomorrow. I want to show you my other house."
The couple ended up buying Curtis' previous house, 364 St. Cloud Road in Bel-Air -- now owned by Larry Flynt -- but she told Curtis to let her know if he ever wanted to sell Carolwood. She got her chance in 1972 when he offered it for $1 million. When Cher's lawyer made a lowball offer and Curtis insisted on more, she boomed, "I want that f--ing house!" The singing duo, flying high with The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, reportedly paid $750,000. But their marriage crumbled soon after they moved in when she confessed her love for their guitar player. The breakup was one of the nastiest in showbiz history, and for a year they lived in separate wings because CBS threatened to cancel their show if either moved out.
Cher's taste in furniture was a far cry from her "fur-vested hippie look," writes Gross. Her decorator went on buying trips to Europe, acquiring Louis XIV chairs and an 18th century buffet. "I guess we were trying to appear established. We were nouveau riche, but better nouveau than never," she wrote in her memoir. Cher eventually won the rights to Carolwood in her divorce from Bono. By then, she had already taken up with record executive David Geffen, who helped guide her solo career -- thankfully, his plans (as related in a 1975 Esquire story) to open up the house by installing a pyramid skylight never saw the light. Next up was husband No. 2, Gregg Allman, who entered drug rehab soon after they married. Writes Gross, "Cher would later recall her fury when friends of his snorted coke off her antique table."
Carpet-business owner Ralph Mishkin and his wife, Chase, bought Carolwood in 1976 from Cher for $950,000 and renamed it Owlwood, after the birds that inhabited the estate. "We restored the house completely. It hadn't been well cared for," says Chase Mishkin, now a successful Broadway producer (The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Memphis). "Cher whipped through and covered the walls in the master bedroom with a thousand yards of fabric. It was all pretty unattractive."