Greystone Mansion was paid for with oil. Its value endures because of a murder. The estate's original 429 acres, resting at the actual crown of Beverly Hills, were purchased by oil baron EL Doheny as a wedding gift to his only living child, Ned. In the late 1920s, EL Doheny, under scrutiny from Congress for his role in the infamous Teapot Dome scandal, blew off some steam by bankrolling the construction of the best 55-room mansion that $1,238,378.76 (in 1927) could buy. In September of 1928, when the new palace was near complete, and the US economy was near ruin, EL handed over its keys to Ned, his wife Lucy, and their five children.
The young Doheny family spent one Christmas under a large tree in the high-ceilinged living room of the Beverly Hills castle. Then, in February, Ned Doheny was slain in its guest room. The killer was allegedly his secretary, war brethren, and close confidant Hugh Plunkett. Immediately after shooting Doheny, Plunkett reportedly fired a lethal shot into his own head. Some rumors posit that Doheny and Plunkett were lovers. Other historians suggest that the murder/suicide was related to the upcoming testimony both men were set to give at EL Doheny's federal fraud trial. According to a February 18, 1929 article in the Los Angeles Times, Leslie White, a forensic investigator involved in the case, questioned whether it was possible for Plunkett to have even fired the gun. Doheny's head wound was inflicted at close range, Plunkett's was not.
After Ned's death, Lucy Doheny and her children continued to live at the house for another 30 years. She remarried to an investor named Leigh Battson, who, although he lived at Greystone for decades, is seldom mentioned in the mansion's lore. Greystone's intrigue is in the shots that were fired behind closed doors—that rang on the still-intact Carrara marble floors of the front hallway, on that winter night in Los Angeles; and the family that made a fairytale life for themselves on the site of their father's grisly death.
The Greystone estate has been owned by the city of Beverly Hills since 1965. Its grounds are open to the public as a park, but its noir interior remains, for the most part, sealed behind its gray brick walls. Since 1982, when the American Film Institute stopped leasing the house from the city, the property has been rented out for film shoots, private cocktail parties, or, on rare occasion, magazine-sponsored events, at which interior designers are invited to take on a room in the house and imagine it in their own voices.
This was the case on a hot day toward the end of November when I visited Greystone, which had temporarily been made over as the Maison de Luxe (sponsored by Luxe Interiors + Design magazine). After making my way through the estate's terraced gardens—where the sprinkler system was in full use despite the drought, as some new plants were gaining a stronghold, thank you for understanding— and through the cobblestone courtyard, where six-dollar lemonades were sold under a pop-up tent, I stepped across the front threshold, which is perched above a tall wooden staircase that spills into the rest of the house. Even though it was 11 am on a sunny day, the landing, with its cathedral-high ceilings, was dim and lit by a chandelier—one of the few remaining original pieces left by the Dohenys.
Families in khaki, new money couples, and even a sitcom superstar strolled down the stairs, taking in, as I did, the carved wood molding on the walls; the tall ceilings; and the enormous, neon pink curtains that had been draped across the second floor windows. Below us, the rest of the house had also been sectioned off into melodramatic vignettes, all of which offered a reimagining of the story of the charmed Dohenys.
"Mr. Doheny was killed in the last room on the left," a volunteer told me, so naturally I went there first.
The former guest room, where Ned Doheny and Hugh Plunkett spoke for hours before two shots were fired behind the closed door, had been renamed the "Murder Salon." Gold wallpaper hung on the simple room's panels. On it were hand-painted crows, the most salient visible feature of the space. I asked the representative from Redmond Aldrich Design to tell me more about the wallpaper.
"It's very expensive," she explained.
The dark curtains in the Murder Salon were open. Outside one window was the Los Angeles skyline. Through another was a shallow decorative pool.
Next door was the living room, where formal dinners had been served in the Doheny days. Here, throughout the Great Depression and beyond, oysters and fine wines had been offered alongside sparkling conversation. Against the back wall was a minstrel balcony, where a private orchestra would play for the Dohenys and their guests. Sara Story had worked against the seraphic tone of the room with modern pieces, like an art installation to the left of the entrance that featured an empty chair and a mirror that made it appear as though you were standing at the end of a long hallway and might in fact be an apparition yourself. The biggest mystery in the room, though, was why a giant yarn cube had been placed in the middle of the floor.
"The Dohenys have left the dining room, and nature is taking over": a representative from Jane Hallworth explained the firm's concept for "Mrs. Doheny's Porcelain Room — The Dining Room," which, in my opinion, most captured the house's enchanting mausoleum vibe. Small metal butterflies had been strewn across the windowsill and floor. The fireplace was filled with what appeared to be insect exoskeletons. The table, with its decaying wood centerpiece and black back ties, appeared to be perpetually set for none. As is fitting for the dining room of a woman who successfully managed her late husband's multi-million dollar estate during a time when women had barely been granted the right to vote, a canvas, clearly depicting four vaginas, hung across from the fireplace.
"There are real spiders in that plant over there," the representative boasted to me, as I reluctantly headed elsewhere.
The solarium, a relaxing green nook off the breakfast room, was filled with stagnant heat. I took a seat on one of the benches to enjoy the view. Two faceless tourists approached behind me. I heard them shifting uncomfortably for a few moments before either of them spoke.
"It's pretty here," one offered. Then, after several seconds of silence, "Like, I bet at night it's really pretty."
Upstairs was the gun room, the walls of which were still lined with the original built-in weapons storage. Here, Kristen Buckingham had transformed the space into "Mrs. Doheny's Study." In actuality, the gun room had become a play area for the Doheny children in the years following their father's death by gun.
In the five months he had been alive in the house, Ned Doheny had, according to a representative from the design firm, used the room's large window, which faced out to the hills on the other side of the estate, as a perching point from which to hunt animals in his backyard. When the urge to kill for sport struck him, he would call upon one of his servants to release some of his pre-stocked game. He would eventually shoot the animal from the comfort of his great indoors, and then send a servant to fetch the carcass and bring it to the gun room's adjoining kitchen for preparation.
"Was it a gun in this room that killed him?" asked a woman who sauntered up smelling like Chanel No. 5 in every sense imaginable. Then, regarding Mrs. Doheny, "Who did she marry after he died?"
"An investment banker," said the representative.
Chanel No. 5 shot me a knowing smile. "So she did well for herself twice," she concluded, of a person who had borne audio witness to her own spouse's violent death.
Near the children's rooms (also located off the gun room), was a secret staircase that coiled down through the middle of the house—the kind of clandestine passage every kid hopes to find in their own home, but only actually gets in their dreams and board games. At the bottom of the stairs, still the hallmark of any ostentatiously classy denizen of Beverly Hills, was a private bowling alley—complete with the original lanes, pins, lighting sconces, billiard table, and Prohibition-era bar that EL Doheny had commissioned for his son. It was not warm down there. The room's size and shadows had left it drafty.
Eighty years after the completion of Greystone, EL Doheny would be the basis for Daniel Day-Lewis's Daniel Plainview character in There Will Be Blood. The film's iconic final scene, in which the criminally wealthy Plainview brutally kills his long-time, less fortunate associate before declaring "I'm done," was filmed here, in Greystone's basement.
· Curbed Features [Curbed LA]