No trespassing…

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December 9, 2014 – If you’ve read my novel, City of Whores, you’ll know I’m a rabid fan of Hollywood’s golden age. I’ve also been a lifelong fan of Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, and abandoned places. So imagine my surprise when I was recently scrolling through the posts on the Vintage Hollywood Homes Facebook page and came across an item about all of the above: famed director Vincent Minnelli’s abandoned mansion which stands empty and in ruins in the heart of Beverly Hills. My first thought was how could I not know about this? I had been to the Beverly Hills Hotel many times, never realizing that the derelict Minnelli estate sits directly catty-corner from its famous entrance. I immediately shared the article with my friends, and, long story short, found myself with a date to visit the place with my friend from The Wonder Years, Val Joseph. As I was walking toward the house earlier today, Val appeared from the driveway. Seems she’d beaten me to it, and had already been exploring a bit of the house’s exterior.

The minute I stepped into the driveway, a very strange feeling came over me. It was a mixture of vague uneasiness and the dawning of a profound sadness. This only intensified as we drew nearer. I joked about how we shouldn’t be trespassing (there are signs everywhere, after all), but Val rightly pointed out we wouldn’t be the first or the last, so I gamely followed her around to the front of the house. As I stood there in the circular driveway looking up at the forlorn facade, I couldn’t help but imagine it in its heyday. My mind unspooled a vivid Technicolor™ scene of a line of gleaming vintage cars easing through, stopping only long enough to deposit the cream of Tinseltown society at the front door where a tuxedoed Vincent Minnelli himself convivially shook their hands and welcomed them in through the front door and into his dazzlingly lit, capacious manse. From somewhere inside, a piano accompanied a young Liza as she belted out a song for her father’s elegant soiree, and the windows were alive with the silhouettes of the motion picture royalty inside. Perhaps Judy, in a show of magnanimity, had even agreed to put aside her differences with her ex-husband and attend this particular shindig, finally joining their daughter in wowing the partygoers with an impromptu duet of her greatest hits.

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As we moved around the side of the house, I peered through a huge picture window into what was left of the living room. Impossibly, a few pieces of furniture remained, but the space had been destroyed by vandals and squatters, someone having scrawled “LIZA WAS HERE” in spray paint on the wall, among other things. The sadness haunting me intensified, though I tried to conceal it from Val.

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In the backyard, the drained and ruined swimming pool came into view, its walls defaced by graffiti above the brackish puddle of water in the deep end. Again, I imagined a vignette from the distant past: a maid in a crisp uniform was bringing a telephone with an extraordinarily long cord from the house, informing Minnelli (who was sitting on a chaise lounge watching the shirtless pool boy fish leaves from the water’s surface) that Gene Kelly was on the line. Minnelli eagerly took the call, then had an amusing and animated conversation with the screen legend even while his eyes remained glued to the worker’s glistening torso. When the pool boy realized he was being watched and smiled, Minnelli quickly snatched his eyes away.

And then, from all of this enchantment, a thought intruded that utterly changed the experience for me: I was suddenly standing in my own backyard. The destroyed pool was now mine, and the house that I’ve loved since I walked through the front door in 1999 had been equally defaced and disrespected, my belongings rifled through, stolen, broken, and in tatters. How would I feel knowing that people were exploring there, writing on my walls, breaking my windows, and burning my furniture in the fireplace? The unease and sadness deepened.

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Val was determined to go inside despite the padlock on the front door, and she soon found easy entrance through an open kitchen window. As I watched her climb through, I blurted out that I had no intention of going inside. She jokingly cajoled me, but I was firm. I didn’t know how to explain, but I really didn’t want to walk around inside the tragic remains of these people’s lives. After Minnelli’s death in 1986, Liza inherited the place with the promise to her father that she’d take care of his widow, Lee (despite his homosexuality, or perhaps because of it, Minnelli was married four times during his life). Liza wanted to sell the house, which she finally did in 2000, having purchased a half-million dollar condominium for her elderly stepmother. Lee refused to move and the situation became contentious. Ultimately, the house was sold and Liza rented it month-to-month from the new owners so that Lee could live out her years there, finally passing away in 2009 in her nineties. For reasons unexplained, the house remained mostly furnished even as the new owners finally took possession, but never moved in. Never restored the place. Never tore it down to make room for a McMansion. Never did…anything. Inexplicably, they just let the house sit there in inexorable decay.

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I had seen enough to satisfy my curiosity. I didn’t need to experience firsthand the disrespect of vandalism. The stained carpets. The broken mirrors. The filthy toilets. The ransacked detritus of famous people’s lives. I preferred to imagine the house in its prime, when a doting father maintained a closet in Liza’s room filled with child-sized reproductions of costumes from Gone With The Wind and The King and I for his daughter to play dress up with her friend Candice Bergen. I preferred to try and imagine where the backyard playhouse had been. I preferred to picture the house when it was alive.

Over lunch at Chin Chin afterwards, Val and I managed to catch up on all the years since we’d last seen each other. I was still a bit overwhelmed by my strange experience, and didn’t know how to articulate what I was feeling. Instead, I told her I’d been concerned about snagging my black linen shirt on the window frame and joked that our official story would be that I’d stood guard while she went exploring. And I’m glad she did, as I could see the genuine delight in her eyes. Val is and always has been, after all, a force of nature.

But for me, considering the gloomy story of that decaying and forlorn palace, the word “trespass” had taken on an entirely new meaning. Perhaps some ghosts are best left undisturbed. Stay tuned…

2 thoughts on “No trespassing…

  1. Mark Knowles

    Fantastic entry, very haunting. Once present @ the mansion your apprehension put a twist to the story I wouldn’t have expected. Sad, nothing shines forever. Live in the moment.

    Reply
  2. Wvalles

    I love the line, “I really didn’t want to walk around inside the tragic remains of these people’s lives, ” because this, I think, is the core of what is most accessible to the sensitive and the observant wanderer of abandoned places. If you approach those special places with a kind of awe and wonder, then you can peer through that creaky, worn door a little ways and can often get a glimpse of some aspect of the past—be it horrific and sad or warm and pleasant.

    I have always held a fascination myself with old doorways and garden gates. These sometimes appear to me to be transitional portals into a specific kind of space that often go unnoticed by most people passing through these thresholds. I have often stood and wondered at the intention of the architect of such constructs, especially when struck by a small detail or of the transitional space that urges and invites the observer forward or halts and prohibits further advances.

    In the example of your recent adventure, knowing parts of the history of that place as you did, it is particularly noteworthy to me how in your descriptions of the rooms and the feelings that encompassed your mind at that time you seemed to be especially in tune with some kind of residual energy. If you urge me to put a name to it, I would call it the power of will and intention. I believe this is real in the sense that it leaves these lasting impressions behind long after the physical death of the ones who came before. Perhaps that is really what ghosts are, afterall?

    I believe the strongest impressions are left by people with a high capacity for egocentricity and materialistic grasping of things. They are the poor souls that seem the most intolerant of change and accepting of the inevitability of entropic decline in everything around them. Therefore, that craving for permanence in an impermanent world creates the energy of intent that remains in the walls and in the beams and rafters of many a dwelling.

    Agree or disagree, there are those who would certainly confirm at least that they do feel creepy in such places and are not often too keen to extend themselves into the walkabout through those monuments of pain that are left in standing decay as testaments to someones journey through time and space.

    As one walks into those places through the thresholds of old broken doorways and rusted iron gates, you might hear the smallest, meekest whisper in the back of your mind that asks, “If I walk through the tragic remains of peoples lives, what am I leaving in my wake as I pass through?” Then, perhaps as an afterthought, “What have I brought out with me when I leave?”

    ‘May the gods stand between you and harm in all the empty places where you must walk.’ —Ancient Egyptian Blessing

    Reply

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