Private preview. World premiere. Though this issue concerns itself with debuts of another sort, these phrases nevertheless strike the imagination like a stage light, conjuring in the mind’s eye such cinematic temples as Sid Grauman’s Chinese and Egyptian theaters, their sculpted facades, crisscrossed by cobwebs of kliegs, presiding over long red carpets that convey a pantheon of celluloid deities from their shining fleet of Packards into the tabernacle. This Hollywood of old was not the seedy subdivision dubbed “Hollywoodland” by newspaper publisher Harry Chandler, who, with his cronies, parceled its acreage into rather cramped lots to sell to the lumpen Midwesterners lured there by the Los Angeles Times’ nationally syndicated promotional real estate supplements. Rather, it was the Hollywood archetype: the idealized vision of life that, through high notes as well as low, never ceased for a single frame to be other than beautiful, graceful, and sophisticated—in perfect inverse to the realities of the early 20th century.
This golden age of Hollywood emerged as the industrialism’s merely gilded one was drawing to its close. By the 1920s, fur trappers (John Jacob Astor), ferryboat captains (Cornelius Vanderbilt), tobacco farmers (Pierre Lorillard), and clerks (John D. Rockefeller) had already styled themselves merchant “princes” in imitation of the British peerage (whose own mercantile pursuits, incidentally, went no further than the purchase of a beaver hat). However, while this august body had learned that a little pomp and show—some ermine and etiquette—usefully demonstrates Divine Right to the lower classes while delighting (and diverting) them in the process, the denizens of New York never performed for any audience but themselves: Their spectacles were strictly invitation-only. And so they observed with some suspicion the heads that Hollywood crowned in the heyday of the motion picture. As the redoubtable Mrs. Hamilton McKown Twombly (née Florence Vanderbilt) once icily remarked, after traveling by chauffeured Rolls-Royce from her home in Morristown, N.J., to the West Coast, where she attended a wedding reception hosted by a film actress, “It used to be that we had them. Now, they have us.”
Only with difficulty can one imagine that dour dowager taking part in the demotic festivities at, say, Marion Davies’ Santa Monica beach house, whose 110 rooms included a baronial hall from Ireland, an 18th-century Venetian ballroom, and a tavern from an inn in Surrey. This finery borrowed from the Old World and transplanted to the New was a trick Mrs. Twombly would have understood: Her kind had plundered Europe for decades to lend their “hereditary” estates an air of historic verisimilitude. But for Hollywood, these stage settings were professional as well as personal backdrops. “In those days, the public wanted us to live like kings and queens,” recalled Gloria Swanson. “So we did.”
Most stars, conscious of the mystique on which their livelihoods depended, did not wish to disappoint. Pickfair, the Beverly Hills home of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks Sr., was among the most famous—and most visited—residences in the world, opening its doors to Albert Einstein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the king of Spain. Picture postcards of the house were best sellers, and the property was a mainstay of the star tours that bused fans along the citrus-lined boulevards to inspect the dwellings of their idols. But the glamour could be oddly utilitarian: Charlie Chaplin’s Beverly Hills estate—designed in what he termed the California-Gothic style—remained largely empty and eventually acquired the nickname Breakaway House when it began to fall apart, having been built by studio carpenters whose works tended toward the temporary. Many famous faces, such as Cary Grant, rented homes most of their careers. W.C. Fields’ sole possession, other than his books, was a portable bar made from an old icebox and a child’s wagon that followed him from Encino to Bel Air to the Hollywood Hills.
Unlike the elite of Hollywood, who seldom mistook theater for anything else, the infamous Four Hundred who squeezed into Mrs. Astor’s famous ballroom persisted in the illusive conviction that bloodlines, not bank accounts, entitled them to top billing. Grace Vanderbilt, on being denied a table in a Paris restaurant, exclaimed, “In my country, I take a rank something like that of the princess of Wales.” “And who,” an Englishman inquired, “is your queen?” If authenticity is a prerequisite to royalty, then during that era of excess the sovereign in question could only be found, if at all, in the ersatz world of the silver screen.