Allegedly Haunted: The Cedars

Posted on Posted in Haunted L.A.

The history behind The Cedars (4320 Cedarhurst Circle, Los Angeles, 90027) varies wildly from person to person. In fact, it is still extremely difficult to separate fact from legend.

According to a 1931 Los Angeles Times article, the mansion was built for pioneer movie director Maurice Tourneur.

 

Maurice Tourneur 1920 (Bizarre Los Angeles)
Maurice Tourneur, circa 1920

French born Tourneur had found success as a graphic illustrator and artist in his native country before discarding his career for a life on the stage. In 1911, after several years of touring, he became interested in the motion industry and began to direct films for the  Éclair Company in France. Before long,  Éclair had opened a studio in the United States and Tourneur moved to the East Coast. While there, he became an influential pioneer in the 1910s working with “A” list stars such as Mary Pickford.

After relocating to Hollywood in the early 1920s, Tourneur became bitter over the assignments he was given.  In 1923, his marriage ended in separation. By 1924, he was described as a person who was highly intellectual but did not feel comfortable in social situations. He did not drink much and never danced nor cared for sports. He was fascinated, instead, with psycho-analysis and the classical arts. He was also somewhat reclusive, preferring to read and spend time with his dogs.

He began to blame the “star system” and studio-made, cookie-cutter movies for his problems. After directing stars like comedian Leon Errol and Bert Lytell in movies that had no artistic appeal, he stated that he might move to Europe. Then he got a much needed break when the Famous Players Lasky company hired him to direct Aloma on the South Seas. Because Aloma was a critical and box-office hit, Tourneur was hoping for better projects.

In 1926, MGM had hired him to direct The Mysterious Island (1929), a blockbuster science fiction movie. Around this time, Tourneur owned  acreage on a hilly section of Los Feliz, which he dubbed Tourneur Park. He then began to build a large, sprawling 20-room mansion that looked like a slice of Old Italy. In fact, he designed it after the Duke of Alba’s palace. (Trulia and Zillow claim that the mansion was completed in 1927 although others claim it was finished in 1926.)

Production on The Mysterious Island, however, turned into a personal disaster for Tourneur.  In 1927, after he was either fired or he quit his contract with the studio, he immediately sold his incomplete mansion to one of his friends, silent movie star Madge Bellamy, and left the United States.

Madge Bellamy
Madge Bellamy

Bellamy then completed the mansion and moved in. Although she had achieved stardom in Tourneur’s Lorna Doone in 1922, she was now under contract to Fox as its highest paid female star. She also might have over extended her fortune in helping her old friend.

Bellamy was known to be wild and temperamental. In January 1928, after a short courtship, she eloped to Tijuana to marry a stockbroker only to separate four days later. By April, her husband was granted a divorce on grounds of cruelty.

In 1929, Fox terminated its contract with her, claiming that she had violated one or two provisions. For the next few years, no studio would hire her. In April of 1931, The Cedars (and its furniture) were sold at auction. At the time of the sale, the property was occupied by her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Philpott and the furnishings were estimated to be worth $100,000.  It did not sell right away.

Marco H. Hellman, a wealthy banker, eventually purchased the home for approximately $165,000. Years later, he placed the mansion at auction at a steep discount. He also struggled to sell it and expressed his willingness to take a loss. By 1942, the mansion briefly became a Junior Auxiliary, Jewish Home for the Aged. The following year, it was owned by retirees Philip and Fannie Hunt. In 1946, three years after husband Philip’s death, Fannie Hunt attempted to sell the home for $85,000. She, too, couldn’t find a buyer and at one time, considered trading the mansion for a small home in the country.

In 1950, the mansion appears to have finally sold. Then in 1959, one of its occupants died in a motorcycle crash in Pasadena. By 1961, the mansion was back on the market…and the troubled property more-or-less stayed on the market throughout most of the 1960s.

By 1968, the “Cedarhurst Castle” had developed a larger-than-life reputation despite it falling into decay. Not only did it serve as a private social center, but The Society of Motion-Picture History began to tout it as a “Fabulous Silent Movie Stars Castle” “built in 1920” and started conducting weekend tours to show off “some of the personal effects of the old film stars, such as Valentino.”  By 1969, the owners now claimed that it was the “Former Norma Talmadge Castle.” The owners also stated that Ralph Bellamy (probably confused with Madge Bellamy) had also lived there. The castle’s selling price was $185,000 despite boasts that it had been built for approximately $500,000 back in 1920.

The hype appeared to have worked. The Cedars sold around 1970. By 2004, its value was $5,300,000.

Below is an article that spends a lot of time, describing the recent restoration of the property. It never mentions Madge Bellamy, so I wanted to set the record straight. There are no records of Norma Talmadge having ever lived there and the backstory about Louis B. Mayer building the castle for her is baseless. Madge Bellamy lived there. I made very minor edits. Otherwise, I enjoyed the article and the photos are unbelievable:

Hollywood Babylon Revisited
by Lynn Morgan with photography by Erhard Pfeiffer

A neglected house gets an unhappy look; this one had it in spades.” Joe Gillis, the doomed screenwriter protagonist of Sunset Boulevard, could have been talking about The Cedars in an earlier incarnation, when he said those words. Indeed, some interior scenes from the classic film noir were shot in the house, which was built in 1926 for film director Marcel Tourneur. The hilltop villa in Los Feliz, which looks over Los Angeles, has been, variously, a home, rock stars’ play pen, movie location, and a book repository before being rescued by its present owner, fashion designer Sue Wong.

The Cedars comeback was initially orchestrated by Xorin Balbes, a real estate developer and designer who specializes in restoring historic or architecturally significant houses. He bought the house in 2003, and began the restoration process, reinforcing the structure of the property and updating its plumbing and the electricity; turning back the tide of decay, and reviving its livability. Sue Wong has artfully completed the process by restoring the original aesthetic beauty of the house and preserving its intricate frescoed and bas-relief ceilings, gilded columns, and massive fireplaces.

An affinity for Hollywood’s golden age and the creativity that characterized the early twentieth century drew Sue to The Cedars, and inspired her to restore its faded grandeur.

“The 1920s and 1930s are my favorite decades. I do a lot of period adaptations in my work, I’m a romantic at heart,” explains the diminutive China-born designer whose gowns are known for their alluring, timeless style that mix fantasy and feminine beauty. The evocative mood of The Cedars is the perfect complement to Sue’s design sense, and, since her line speaks to the Hollywood glamour of yesteryear, she frequently uses the house as a backdrop for her fashion shoots.

Photographer: Erhard Pfeiffer

The mantel displays the first of many emblematic lions seen throughout the residence. “They’re supposed to represent the MGM lion,” explains Sue. “There are over 140 of them in the house.” The room is lit by natural light as well as by wrought-iron chandeliers; the torchieres were used to dress the set of the movie Titanic. 

 

Photographer: Erhard Pfeiffer

The elegance of the living room is complemented by an exquisite rococo throne; one of a suite of three in the room. Originally from Europe, the chairs were deaccessioned from a museum in Canada. Sue purchased the chairs from a French antiques dealer and brought in Artisan Restoration to restore the frames and gold leaf. Sue designed the gold metallic hand-embroidered fabric.

Photographer: Erhard Pfeiffer

The arched colonnade between the living room and solarium is echoed in the windows looking out over the hills of Los Angeles.

Locals call the sprawling Venetian-inspired house “The Talmadge Estate” in honor of actress Norma Talmadge who reputedly lived there…. 

[MY NOTE: Because there are no records of Norma Talmadge living at The Cedars,  there’s no point in promoting Norma’s career in connection with the property so I edited it out.]

This history appealed to Sue Wong. “I’m in the business of glamour: of creating it, of selling it; I’m immersed it in,” she says. Even in desuetude, the residence spoke to that sensibility; so she purchased the house in 2004 and committed herself to restoring the house to its full glamour.

In late 2004, Sue embarked on a two year creative odyssey and commissioned Zoltan Papp, whose Los Angeles-based company, Artisan Restoration, specializes in repairing, restoring, and re-creating fine antiques, art, and historic buildings and interiors.2 A skilled artisan, Zoltan’s meticulous approach appealed to Sue, known herself for the technical excellence and ornate detailing present in her gowns. The results of this close collaboration are breathtaking, with the rebirth of six ceilings, the creation of a new ceiling, and all of the intricate aesthetic beauty reinstated.

Photographer: Erhard Pfeiffer

The entrance to the living room features an elaborate vaulted and painted ceiling, from which hangs a baccarat chandelier original to the house.

Zoltan Papp is more than a restorer, he’s a wizard. Trained at the Hungarian Fine Arts School in Budapest and later apprenticed to Friedrich Ott Smith in Vienna, Zoltan has restored chateaus and churches in Europe, and furniture, porcelain, paintings, and statuary for clients around the world. Recalling his first visit to The Cedars, Zoltan says, “It needed lots of attention, structural restoration had been done, but nobody had cleaned the ceilings in decades. This is fortunate because the layers of dirt had preserved the painting beneath.” Zoltan and his team removed layers of grime from the ceilings, uncovering elaborate frescoes and peeling gold leaf, repainting and regilding where necessary. He added a mantelpiece to the library fireplace to match its counterpart in the living room, and worked closely with Sue to custom build furniture, including an ormolu-mounted Second Empire-style console table for the living room.

Photographer: Erhard Pfeiffer

Doors of wrought iron and frosted glass, original to the house, lead into the dining room…As one climbs the stairs from the foyer to the second floor, the stained glass window, original to the house, leads the eyes to an elaborate twenty-eight-foot tower, decoupaged with Old Master paintings and ornamented with thousands of gold cherubs. A Baccarat crystal chandelier, original to the house, is suspended from the tower ceiling. 

The house is very much a theatrical construct. “The 1920’s and the silent era were the hey-day of art direction and set design,” says Sue, an avid student of history and art. “Movies weren’t shot on location as much as they are today, so studios had artists and craftspeople on staff who could design and build anything: whatever was necessary to fabricate any reality the directors wanted to put on screen.” The art directors and designers who were the creative forces behind The Cedars — reputedly inspired by a Venetian palazzo owned by the Duke of Alba — were responsible for many of the fanciful houses that still dot the surrounding hillsides and canyons. Integrating elements of Venetian architecture and Byzantine flourishes in a playful pastiche, the house was a Hollywood fantasy for its original owner, Marcel Tourneur. As a director, Tourneur was an influential theorist, instrumental in defining film as an art form separate from theatre, with its own techniques and aesthetics. With a background in fine art and art direction, and access to the industry’s top studio artists, it is no surprise that Tourneur’s home was a visual masterpiece.

The fact that its original architect and designers are unknown lends a touch of mystery to the house, an atmosphere in which Sue clearly revels. From the twin stone figures of Kuan Yin, the Buddhist goddess of compassion, flanking the front door, to African fertility figures, the house is filled with slyly invoked spiritual and mythological references that cross epochs and cultures. There is a strong Jungian subtext to her design of the house, with its recurring themes of goddesses, Deco Green Men, guardians, and heroes.

Sue created the furnishing plan herself, working on it, she says, “In small increments of stolen time” when she was not busy designing the intricately embroidered and beaded cocktail dresses and ball gowns that bear her name. There is a direct connection between the aesthetic of her clothing and the interior of the house: it is the natural habitat of flappers and philosophers, sirens and vamps.

Sue’s extensive knowledge of fabrics and design served her well during the restoration. She designed the opulent draperies in the living room and library: hand beaded velvet panels embroidered in Borghese gold thread, custom-made by the same artisans in China who create the textiles for her gowns. She also designed the elaborately scrolled gold embroidered velvet fabric used to reupholster a suite of three rococo thrones once owned by European royalty, now in her living room. A round, tufted banquette, upholstered in cerise velvet, and a black velvet “ziggurat” sofa, trimmed in burgundy bullion and swags, were designed by Sue for the living room. Other pieces were acquired at auction or on shopping trips to Paris. “I couldn’t find the Art Deco pieces I wanted in Los Angeles,” she explains.”I did a lot of research and found that examples are still available in France, so I went on some wonderful shopping sprees there. Paris is my favorite city on the planet; it has great architecture, beauty, and a wonderful sense of romance.”

 

“[One of several guest rooms] was very difficult to restore,” Sue recalls. “A fire back in the 1930s left a thick layer of smoke and soot that had never been properly cleaned. You couldn’t see all the small painted details before Zoltan restored it. He brought all the colors back to life and made it glow.” 

Sue delights in the rich lore that surrounds The Cedars. “Errol Flynn practiced his ‘wicked, wicked ways’ here,” she says. “Marilyn Monroe was a frequent party guest; Howard Hughes played the grand piano in the solarium. Johnny Depp lived here to do research for his role in Ed Wood because Bela Lugosi had lived here. The wrap party for Easy Rider was held here; Dennis Hopper shot some of the scenes for the movie here. It was also a big rock ‘n’ roll party pad. Arthur Lee of the band Love lived here for a while, and he told me he couldn’t find his way from his bedroom to the kitchen because the place was so full of groupies and assorted hangers-on! Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground also stayed here for a while, as did Jimi Hendrix.”

The wild times came to an end when the house was purchased by a UCLA psychology professor, who used it mostly as a library and repository for his books. Sitting in the ballroom of The Cedars, listening to Sue Wong recount stories of the rock stars and reprobates who have passed through its gates, the history of the house is palpable. The patchouli oil, incense, and marijuana scent are gone, yet the house is still a piece of pure Hollywood Babylon.

Photographer: Erhard Pfeiffer

A Moroccan-themed room with a vaulted ceiling painted a faded shade of desert rose serves as another guest bedroom. It adjoins an authentic 1920s bathroom with original tile, the only period example remaining in the house. Once painted a vivid purple, the room remains a playful memorial to the late rock star Jimi Hendrix, who allegedly composed his drug-addled classic, “Purple Haze,” while locked inside.

“When you buy a house of this nature, you have the feeling that you have a responsibility to preserve it for the next generation. I am merely its temporal caretaker,” she says. “I am very honored to be chosen for that role.”

 

The Haunting:

Well, as you can imagine, with all of the legends attached to the house, there has to be a ghost story as well, right?

The following excerpt comes from “Forever Changes, Arthur Lee and the Book of Love” by John Einarson:

“The place reminded me of the house in the television show The Munsters. when we first moved in there, a friend of mine named David Bialle came over — on acid — to feel the vibes in the place: if they were good or bad. He and his girlfriend, Carol Green, came by and David went to search things out. There was a place upstairs we called the Porthole Room, and David headed that way. Carol and some others were walking around, tripping on how big the place was, and after about 20 minutes she asked, “Where’s David?” I said I didn’t know, so she went looking for him. She found him in the Porthole Room. When she came back downstairs, she had him by the hand. He was as white as a sheet, and asked him how were the vibes and he gave me a look that I can’t explain. His mouth moved but he didn’t say anything. He just shook his head as if to say ‘No good.’ Talk about a haunted house!”

During the shooting of the silent independent film Return to Babylon, director Alex Monty Canawati shot part of the film there. He claimed that he had heard beforehand that the mansion was haunted, adding that cast and crew felt uneasy at times while shooting at all of the haunted locations used for the film.

Canawati later blamed supernatural forces for making his film actors morph into ghouls and/or characters wearing Christlike beards throughout the film. He even had one “expert,” Dr. Donald Ryles, authenticate his morphing claim as being indeed “paranormal” by saying: “ How could this manifest on its own? We must come to conclude rationally that there is some Higher Power that is behind this phenomenon.”

In an interview with True-Magazine, Canawati added:

“The only logical explanation since Christ images are running amok, is that there is factual evidence the ghost/Holy Ghost world collided with the dead silent movie stars of the day and decided (for some reason Return To Babylon) to make a statement. They are a powerful and irreversible force. Once an actress has morphed, there is no way she can be “turned back” to her normal self (a bit unnerving as an actress uses her image as her artistic instrument). This is very serious and scary stuff.”

However, according to IMDB, a less paranormal explanation was offered:

Because this film used hand-cranked film cameras [MY NOTE: He had a 16mm camera modified to become a hand-cranked silent film camera.] using black and white film, the speed varied between 16 and 18 frames per second. The transfer of the film negatives to the standard 24 frames per second during the editing process and ultimately the 60 frames on the NTSC standard television monitor, a number of images were transferred to some still “frames” on the DVD copies, causing a form of “morphing” to occur. In some instances a quick nod of the head placed a “phantom” eye in a forehead from a previous frame. In others, an actor with long hair would turn and create facial hair in another frame. This was a side effect due to the slower exposure time the old cameras were capable of capturing during the transfer to the rapid frame rate of modern film and video. This same effect can be seen on most any classic silent films if still-framed on DVD.

If Canawati’s paranormal claims can be easily debunked, is the Cedars “haunted?” Sue Wong believes it is. In 2017, she told the Los Angeles Times, “I feel so many spirits in that house it’s not even funny. I live with a lot of famous ghosts.”

Sue Wong at the Cedars
Photo of Sue Wong from Singular Magazine
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