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The Secret High-Society History of the Playboy Mansion

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A winding driveway curves its way through stately pine trees to the crest of a small hill where Statham House in all its Tudor magnificence—charcoal slate roof, copper rain gutters, huge golden oak doors, flanked by granite lions—stands as a present day anachronism in a world of glass and steel. Its almost six-acre park, with the only local grove of redwood trees, is abloom with flowers, particularly roses. Here, in some quiet privacy, some of Los Angeles' most distinguished visitors have found relaxation.

In 1919, Arthur Letts, the British-born merchandising magnate who owned Broadway Department Stores, bought 400 acres of the old Wolfskill Ranch in rural Los Angeles County. He named his new development Holmby Hills, after his childhood village of Holdenby. He hoped to create a neighborhood of rolling estates, where the burgeoning blue bloods of Southern California could ride horses and sip champagne in privileged peace—"a bit of England in America."

But Letts would never live in his very own Jane Austen-land. He turned development of the neighborhood over to his son-in-law, Harold Janss (who also developed tony Westwood). Letts died in 1923, leaving his vast holdings to his golf-mad son, Arthur Letts Jr. It was Junior who would finally build the English manor house befitting the aspirations of his homesick father.

Arthur Letts Jr. is usually referred to as simply his father's son. According to an article in a 1923 edition of the Los Angeles Times, "Early in life he began his mercantile training by working in various departments in the Broadway Department Store, gaining knowledge of merchandise and successful business methods." He was also a champion golfer, and well known enough in society circles that he starred in a local ad touting the new Templar automobile.

After his father's death, he was elected president of the Broadway Board. In 1926, Junior and his wife Bessie began construction on a "14th century gothic-imitation" mansion on a picturesque 4.5 acre estate at 10236 Charing Cross Road, in the heart of his family's Holmby Hills development.

Arthur R. Kelly was chosen as architect. Kelly was the natural choice for the Lettses. In 1920, he had designed a home for Junior in Hancock Park; known for his grand revival residences in San Marino and Holmby Hills, Kelly would also design the Harvard-Westlake School, the Wilshire Country Club, and a mansion next door to 10236 Charing Cross Road for Junior's sister.

In 1926, the Los Angeles Times touted the Lettses' future home as one of the "high class residences which will enhance the natural beauty of some Southland estates." At the same time that the house was being built, the Broadway chain was sold to longtime employees, and Junior "retired" to manage his late father's vast holdings. This did not slow the breakneck development of the lavish property. By February 1927, the Times reported:

Rapid progress is being made on construction of the new Arthur Letts Jr. mansion in Holmby Hills, which when completed will be one of the finest residences in Southern California. It is to be of the rambling English type. The work of landscaping the grounds is now under way, rare plants and trees for the estate being furnished by the famous Letts hothouses in Hollywood. The home is one of the many fine dwellings being built in Holmby Hills, which is being developed by the Janss Investment Company.When it was completed, the 14,000 square-foot mansion did not disappoint. According to one historian:

With its rough-cut stone façade, the sprawling Letts mansion was imposing yet inviting…It was made more appealing by its asymmetrical, H-shaped layout; many bay windows and oriels, which broke up the stone façade; and the varied, slate-covered, pitched rooflines accented by crenellated towers and tall, double chimneys. The mansion's interior was eclectic, in keeping with the 1920s taste for mixing different styles and eras. On the first floor, the living room was virtually an Old English stage set: wood-paneled walls hung with tapestries; a large, carved-stone fireplace; several bay windows with leaded glass; ceilings with rich, Jacobean-inspired plasterwork; and plenty of reproduction Jacobean furniture. The mansion's pièce de résistance was the two-story Great Hall with its oak paneling, upper-level minstrels' gallery, two-story-tall windows overlooking the back terraces and golf course, Italian marble floor, and richly carved double staircase leading to the second floor.

The Lettses moved into the grand estate with their two children and kept an active social schedule. The estate featured an aviary, coastal redwood grove, and a hidden barroom, perfect for Prohibition.

In 1931, the couple divorced, and Junior married the glamorous divorcee Bard Heywood Van Cott, who he met in Nevada. The new couple made their home at Charing Cross. This marriage soon ended and he married a devout Christian Scientist named Margot. They resided in the mansion until he died in 1959.

Arthur Letts Jr.'s obituary in the Los Angeles Times saluted him as a "retired merchant and scion of a pioneer Los Angeles family," who "devoted his energies to civic work and maintained membership in the California and Los Angeles county clubs."

In 1961, Louis and Anne Statham bought the Letts estate. The successful couple had grand ambitions for their new "chateau," which had lost its luster in its decades as a private family home. Louis was an inventor and the founder of Statham Institutes Inc., which manufactured instruments used in aerospace and medicine. He was also an avid chess player and music lover. Anne was a founding member of the Music Center, a member of the Southern California Symphony Association, and the onetime president of both the Beverly Hills Women's Club and the Beverly Hills Garden Club.

It took them two years to renovate the house and grounds. They added a children's playhouse for their grandchildren, which was later converted into an "office away from the office," that included a meeting room, game room, and trophy room.

When the Stathams finally moved in, Anne immediately started entertaining. Statham House became the setting for many a charitable tea, musicale luncheon, afternoon lecture, and early evening cocktail hour. "The Spring Spree at Charing Cross," a cocktail party to benefit orthopedic research, featured a full orchestra and drinks in the house and on "its gently sloping back lawn which cozies up to Los Angeles Country Club's 13th tee."

After Anne's untimely death in 1965, Statham House was momentarily dark before becoming even more of a high society party destination. The grieving Louis threw his doors open to numerous charities. His secretary hosted a "secretary dinner," where assistants entertained their important bosses. He also gave the Les Dames de Champagne permission to use the estate as its hospitality headquarters. Made up of the young wives and women of the Los Angeles elite, the attractive welcoming committee inspired one reporter to write:

You've heard of Les Dames, I'm sure, and their hostess activities. The 56 charter members supplement the official programs of the city of Los Angeles, the World Affairs Council, US Department of State Consular Corps and private industry.

These women chatted and danced with visiting dignitaries and VIPs. Their annual Twelfth Night Ball was one of the highlights of the social season:

Les Dames Twelfth Night Ball Masque Internationale at Statham House—the group's official hospitality residence—was one of those wonderful parties where the only reason the guests decided to go home is that the band had stopped playing. Dancing didn't begin until halfway through a buffet dinner, however. The first part of the evening was spent socializing in the Holmby Hills mansion's Great Hall (where guests later rocked and rhumbaed under crystal chandeliers) and in the drawing room and in the oak paneled den where the warmth of a glowing fire added to the warmth of the evening.Another party was described thusly:

Walls of the 30-room Gothic mansion came alive with celebration as members of the group… sipped champagne with husbands and guests. They stood on Italian Botticino marble floors in the great hall embraced by golden oak carved paneling and curving staircases carved in a design of garlands and grapes. Above a crystal chandelier shimmered. They sat in the drawing room before a fire crackling in one of the home's 18 fireplaces and later heard Mr. Statham sing a selection from "The Magic Flute," accompanied by Doris Johnson on a concert grand piano.In 1971, the proper party was over for the Dames when an aging Statham sold his estate for more than $1 million dollars. The buyer was a controversial publisher from Chicago, known for his magazine of naked ladies and his liberal social politics. One social commentator wrote with amusement, "It will be interesting to see what happens…"
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Playboy Mansion

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