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The Legendary Greenacres Estate

Photo Credit: Tim Street-Porter.

Harold Lloyd was one-third of the American silent-movie era’s famed Comedy Triumvirate, the other two-thirds were Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Lloyd played the fumbling but earnest and charming hero, and his on-screen trademark was his horn-rimmed glasses – which were without lenses, to prevent reflections from the studio lights. Without those glasses, Lloyd was virtually unrecognizable to his fans when he walked down a street, went into a store, or attended the theater.

Lloyd earned millions of dollars producing and starring in Grandma’s Boy (1922), Safety Last! (1923), Girl Shy (1924), The Freshman (1925), and Speedy (1928), among many others. Probably his most unforgettable scene – the image still appears in modern media, from posters to television commercials—was from Safety Last!, in which he dangled desperately from the hand of a giant clock high above a street in downtown Los Angeles.

Harold Lloyd and Mildred Davis at the time of their marriage in 1923. Photo Credit: Bison Archives.

As befitted one of Hollywood’s greatest stars—he earned more money in the 1920s than Chaplin or Keaton—the hard-working and always-methodical Lloyd was determined to construct one of Los Angeles’s greatest estates as a testament to his popularity and wealth. Lloyd more than achieved that goal. Located on the west side of Beverly Hills’ fashionable Benedict Canyon, his fifteen-acre Greenacres estate outdid – actually overwhelmed – the homes of other stars, including Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Mary Pickford’s much-promoted Pickfair, Chaplin’s twenty-room Summit Drive mansion, and Rudolph Valentino’s hilltop Falcon Lair by virtue of its size, grandeur, and architectural sophistication.

Indeed, Greenacres was the most expensive, most impressive Hollywood star’s home in the 1920s. Or ever. Moreover, Lloyd—unlike so many silent-movie stars—remained rich throughout his life. He didn’t lose Greenacres to the Depression or a failing career.

He lived there for the rest of his life, pursuing his many post–movie career interests, and keeping the estate intact. In his later years, Lloyd had one final goal for his beloved estate. In his will, he bequeathed Greenacres—including his personal possessions, film library, and vintage automobiles—to the “benefit of the public at large.” The Harold Lloyd Foundation was instructed to open Greenacres as a museum.

Through this bequest, Lloyd hoped to live on in the nation’s memory and give the public a chance to step back in time to a long-gone era of silent movies, lavish living, and Hollywood splendor when they visited his estate, which was the greatest, and least altered, silent star’s home. Tragically, this was the one time Lloyd did not get his way. Like so many of Hollywood’s early stars who struck it rich, Lloyd had modest origins. He was born in Burchard, Nebraska, in 1893. His mother, a frustrated actress, gave Lloyd an early love of the theater and acting. He was also devoted to studying magic. Though he claimed a middle-class upbringing, Lloyd’s family always lived on the edge. His father could never succeed at any job or business, save that of shoe sales clerk, so his family moved a great deal. After his parents divorced, Lloyd moved with his father to San Diego in 1912.

Clinging to the theater actor’s disdain of the fledgling movie industry, which at that time was cranking out very rough ten-minute one-reelers and twenty-minute two-reelers, young Lloyd tried to stick to the theater, until several weeks of living on nothing but doughnuts and coffee made him ready to accept any job, even in the movies.

In the winter of 1912–13, he appeared in his first film. He was an extra, cast as an Indian in The Old Monk’s Tale being filmed by Thomas Edison’s pioneering movie company in San Diego. His pay? Three dollars a day. Lloyd moved to Los Angeles and quickly became an extra at studios such as Universal and Keystone. By 1915, he was making short comedies with Hal Roach, a former extra turned small-time producer. Lloyd starred in dozens of comedy shorts as a character named Lonesome Luke, who had a small, Chaplinesque mustache. (Lloyd later admitted that Chaplin was his inspiration for Lonesome Luke.)

By 1918, Lloyd had tired of Lonesome Luke—as had the public. He introduced his far more popular “Glasses” character in the one-reeler Over the Fence (1917) and never looked back. His character’s charm and determined pursuit of success despite all obstacles appealed greatly to audiences. His gags, which he performed himself, became wilder and more intricate. By the summer of 1919, only Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle were more popular than Harold Lloyd.

Then, while posing for publicity photos with a prop bomb, disaster struck. “I put a cigarette in my mouth,” recalled Lloyd, “struck a sassy attitude and held the bomb in my right hand, the fuse to the cigarette. . . . As the fuse grew shorter and shorter, I raised the bomb nearer and nearer to my face, until, the fuse all but gone; I dropped the hand and was saying that we must insert a new fuse, when the thing exploded.”

Harold Lloyd at Green Acres. Photo Credit: Bison Archives.

Lloyd lost his right thumb and index finger. He wore a prosthetic for the rest of his life. But this serious injury to a very athletic comedian didn’t stop Lloyd. Just a few months after the accident, Lloyd had a new contract, was earning $500 a week and 50 percent of the profits from his films, and released his first two-reeler starring his “Glasses” character, Bumping into Broadway (1919). He continued to do his own stunts in the dozens of two-reelers that made him one of the most famous of all Hollywood stars.

In 1921, Lloyd was earning $1,000 a week and 80 percent of the film profits, he had full control over his movies, and he made his first feature-length film, A Sailor-Made Man. In 1922, he formed his own production company, Harold Lloyd Corporation, and in 1923 he left Hal Roach Productions for good. He also got married in 1923. And, unlike Chaplin and Keaton, he stayed married for more than forty years.

Back in 1919, seventeen-year-old Mildred Davis had been hired to replace Bebe Daniels as Harold Lloyd’s leading lady. She soon took over Miss Daniels’s former real-life role as Lloyd’s love interest as well. The depth of Lloyd’s “interest,” however, was questionable. He was raised by a domineering, even emasculating, mother, and Lloyd’s ideal woman, seen in the films that he made with Mildred, was sweet, demure, soft, and vulnerable. A woman who was assertive, ambitious, and strong was anathema to him. “Harold always liked his girls to disappear into the wallpaper,” said his friend Harvey Parry.

Ever cautious, Lloyd had studied Mildred at work and in private for four years, and she seemed to possess the qualities that he found desirable in a woman. She was attractive, and an adequate actress. She was also leaving for another job. “I married Mid [Mildred] because I found she was about to leave me to do pictures for somebody else, and I figured that was the only way to keep her around,” Lloyd told one interviewer after another.

His marriage to Mildred Davis on February 10, 1923, did indeed begin primarily as a marriage of convenience. He wanted to keep her in his films, and he wanted her around in his personal life to look after him. The marriage was certainly convenient for Mildred. She became the wife of a major star who, at the time, was more popular than Chaplin. Lloyd was attractive, rich, a brilliant filmmaker, and committed to taking good care of her. They had a ten-day honeymoon in San Diego, then returned to Los Angeles and went back to work. (Ironically, within a year, Lloyd insisted that Mildred give up her film career. A wife’s place, after all, was in the home.) The bachelor quarters in the house Lloyd had shared with his father, “Foxy” Lloyd, at 369 South Hoover Street, wasn’t the place for a newlywed couple to live, so Lloyd gave it to his father. (He was already buying his mother a series of ever-larger Los Angeles homes.)

Lloyd moved his bride to the newly developing Windsor Square district and a rented, fully furnished home—complete with a large art collection—on a corner lot at 502 South Irving Street, which the Los Angeles Times called “a pile of cream-toned grandeur.” He then bought this house for $125,000 in April 1923.

Like every other major star in Hollywood, Lloyd milked his home life for the publicity that helped keep his millions of fans coming to his movies and made him both rich and famous. His new home got plenty of press coverage. “The house has ten rooms,” reported the Los Angeles Times. “No period or bizarre effects. The dining-room is most imposing, due to the marvelous silver. . . . Breakfast and luncheon are eaten in the chummy breakfast-room, done in pale green, which opens to the back court wherein stands the famous Cappi de Meate marble vase—it’s worth $4000 and is a part of the valuable collection of paintings, prints and statuary that Lloyd bought from a curio connoisseur.

Mildred’s room is in rose with hand-painted ivory furniture. . . . On the floor, a white rug, which Pat, her tiny Boston bull pup, persists in chewing up. Harold’s room is in green and gold, with mahogany furniture, very sedate and plain.” This beautiful Windsor Square mansion, however, was nothing more than temporary quarters for the Lloyds. In May 1923, Harold Lloyd bought eleven acres in Benedict Canyon for approximately $100,000. He subsequently bought the four southernmost acres of the Dias Dorados property from Ellen Ince, widow of Thomas H. Ince, for which he paid $39,000.

Aerial photograph of Green Acres after completion in 1929. Photo Credit: Bison Archives.

Now, Lloyd owned fifteen acres of land in the heart of largely vacant but increasingly fashionable Benedict Canyon. Four of those acres ran along 1,400 feet of dusty and unpaved Benedict Canyon Drive. Two steep (and difficult to use) acres rose up to a ten-acre hilltop – the pedestal waiting for its mansion. The property was next door to Dias Dorados and to George and Gertrude Lewis’ Hill Grove estate and it was directly across the canyon from famed estates such as Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford’s Pickfair.

Lloyd was about to begin the greatest production Hollywood had ever seen. In the spring of 1925, he made plans to start building his Beverly Hills estate. First, he would grade the site. Next, he would complete the gardens, to give the trees and shrubs a year or two of growth. Then he would build the mansion. Around the same time, Lloyd met with thirty-two-year-old landscape architect A. E. Hanson. The two men walked Lloyd’s rugged, largely barren property. A wagon trail—a remnant from Benedict Canyon’s ranching days—crossed the heavily eroded hilltop where Lloyd wanted to construct his mansion. A few dead cypress trees stood like eerie sentinels on the bleak terrain. Down the hill along Benedict Canyon Drive, Hanson recalled, “ran a dry wash with a meandering channel. Everything was overgrown by weeds and shrubs.” On this “God-forsaken piece of land” which was covered with poison oak and nettles, Lloyd asked, “Do you suppose I could have a golf course here?” “I was stunned, it looked impossible,” Hanson recalled. “But nothing seemed beyond me that day, and I blithely said, ‘I don’t see why not!’”

The following afternoon, Hanson again met Lloyd at the “God-forsaken” property, took out an envelope on which he and golf course engineer and contractor Billy Bell had sketched out an initial plan only a few hours earlier, and showed it to Lloyd. The course had just nine holes, but golfers could play a full round by doubling back and forth. (Later, Lloyd and neighbor Jack Warner would occasionally combine their respective golf courses to create an eighteen-hole course for guests.) This would not be “a toy course,” Hanson assured Lloyd. The nine holes would provide “a fine test of golf, and the best of the pros and amateurs would enjoy playing it.” That promise sold Lloyd. He asked Hanson to design the golf course. A week later, Hanson showed Lloyd the initial plan, which included two lakes connected by a stream that was crossed by a stone bridge, an old mill that served as a clubhouse, and an 800-foot-long canoe pond that doubled as the water hazard for the golf course. “You’re my Landscape Architect!” Lloyd exclaimed, giving Hanson the job for the entire estate. “When can we go to work?”

There was only one answer: “Tomorrow,” Hanson declared.

First, however, Lloyd needed to hire an architect, because the size, style, and location of the mansion on the hilltop would influence the layout and design of the surrounding gardens.

Hanson recommended Sumner Spaulding, an architect who did not seek to impose any particular style on his clients, but instead provided various architectural options from which they could choose.

By August 1925, Spaulding, Hanson, and engineer L. McLane Tate, who had been assistant engineer of the recently opened Bel-Air district, had begun work at the estate. Harold and Mildred Lloyd had decided on an Italian Renaissance–style mansion, similar to the grand palace of Cardinal Ferdinando de’ Medici in Rome known as the Villa Medici. Lloyd’s publicity machine swung into high gear. Newspapers and fan magazines published articles such as “Lloyd Will Have Regal Hill Estate,” “Actor to Spend Million for Home and Features on Fifteen-Acre Site,” “Gorgeous Fairyland Being Created . . . for Harold Lloyd Home,” and “Beverly Hills Estate Will be Modern Day Eden.”

Early in 1926, the construction, landscaping, and furnishing budget had ballooned to $2 million, twice the original estimate. Some of the work was swiftly completed. Lloyd and his friends were already playing golf on his private course by early 1926. Lloyd even invited pros and amateurs from the Los Angeles Open Tournament—and a few Hollywood friends such as Douglas Fairbanks Sr.—for a barbecue and golf game.

By mid-1926, grading of the upper ten acres, the site of the mansion and its gardens, was well underway. That summer, however, construction of the estate came almost completely to a halt. Lloyd had abruptly changed his mind. Thinking the Villa Medici–inspired mansion would look too pretentious, he told Spaulding instead to design a more informal Tuscan villa similar to Villa Gamberaia outside Florence. Stress and tempers soared over the next several months. After one meeting at the architect’s office, Lloyd turned to Hanson and said, “The only thing to do is to hit Spaulding on the head with a baseball bat, take the drawings away from him, and build the damn thing!”

By mid-1927, however, Lloyd and Spaulding had resolved their differences and construction on the 36,000-square-foot Villa Gamberaia–inspired mansion – with its forty-four rooms—got underway at once. Work on most of the gardens had to cease, so that Spaulding’s crews could construct the house and service buildings without interference, and without risk of damaging the formal landscaping. The first buildings to be completed at the estate, other than the golf course’s sandstone clubhouse and water mill, were for daughter Gloria’s Play Yard, which had a four-room, child-sized, thatched-roof cottage and miniature barn, so that she could play while her parents inspected the rest of the construction. When work resumed on the twelve different gardens in April 1928, Hanson visited the estate three times a week. So that Lloyd wouldn’t have to wait for the grounds to have a finished look, Hanson bought hundreds of mature trees at local nurseries. “My theory of design,” Hanson stated, “was and is that every garden should have a starting point and a terminal.” He was particularly proud of his landscape solution for the steep hundredfoot hillside above Benedict Canyon Drive that separated the knoll, where the mansion was being built, and the golf course. He designed a stepped cascade lined on each side by Italian cypresses. The cascade started at a loggia near Lloyd’s library in the mansion and ran down the gently sloping lawn eastward toward the cliff. At the bottom of the cascade, the water emptied into a decorative basin in front of the highly ornamental Villa Medici fountain, which stood at the edge of the steep hillside and marked the end (the “terminal”) of that garden vista. The water disappeared from the cascade’s decorative basin into a drain, only to reemerge – very dramatically at the top of the waterfall and empty into the 800-foot-long canoe pond.

Unlike most of that era’s movie stars, including Chaplin, Fairbanks, and Pickford, Lloyd would not stoop to purchasing furniture sets from one of the better Los Angeles department stores to furnish the interior of his Tuscan villa. Instead, Lloyd and his interior designers ordered custom-made oriental carpets, silk drapes, and furniture for the mansion. Lloyd also bought numerous antiques during his visits to New York. One refectory table in the living room had a noticeable scratch on its otherwise- pristine surface. When socialite Evalyn Walsh McLean, who owned the famous forty-five-karat Hope Diamond, had visited the Lloyds, they had naturally asked to see the legendary gem, and she had dramatically tossed it on the table, scratching its surface.

Because Lloyd liked to tell this story to guests, he never fixed the scratch. The rest of the house and grounds, however, were immaculate and beautiful. The Lloyds formally moved onto the estate in August 1929. Their three-day-long housewarming party was the talk of the town. A temporary dance floor was built on the lawn near the mansion. Tables of food and drink were continually restocked. A series of bands played nonstop from Friday night until Monday morning.

Harold Lloyd in a canoe in front of the millhouse. Photo Credit: Bison Archives.

The Lloyds’ guests had entered the estate through a set of gates on Benedict Canyon Drive, which opened onto a long, palm-lined driveway that crossed over a sandstone bridge spanning the canoe pond. The driveway wound up the hill, past the seven-car garage and the servants’ quarters, and finally ended at a courtyard, which had a large Italian fountain in the center and a grand staircase that led to an arcade and finally the front door of the house. The real joy of the mansion—aside from its grand style, materials, and craftsmanship—was its very Tuscan, very Southern California indoor/outdoor layout. The house was arranged around a central courtyard. Every important room opened onto a covered arcade or outdoor terrace. Guests walked through the front door into an entrance hall with a sixteen foot-high ceiling and a dramatic circular oak staircase. The sunken living room had a gold-leaf coffered ceiling, fine wood paneling, a stone fireplace, and a forty rank pipe organ. The formal dining could seat twenty-four guests at dinner. Because both the City of Beverly Hills and Los Angeles municipal limits ran through the mansion—indeed, right through the middle of the dining room—Lloyd joked about a new way of seating guests “above or below the salt.” He could put favored guests closer to his end of the table in exalted Beverly Hills and lesser guests in hum-drum Los Angeles.

The mansion’s first floor included a music room, library, a sunroom with walls painted to look as though they were covered with vines, and a large service area including kitchen and pantries. An oak-paneled elevator ascended to the ten bedrooms on the second floor. Running such a vast estate required more than thirty servants: a butler, several maids, a head cook and kitchen staff, a valet for Harold, a lady’s maid for Mildred, and nannies for the children. An operator managed the estate’s own telephone system at a switchboard off the kitchen. The Lloyds also had several chauffeurs—Mildred never learned how to drive—several handymen, guards for the gatehouse, and eighteen gardeners to tend the gardens, golf course, Olympic-sized swimming pool, and handball and tennis courts.

Ever the perfectionist, Lloyd had spent five years and $2 million planning, constructing, and furnishing his estate, and he got exactly what he wanted. “Only forty-four rooms,” Lloyd often quipped to guests, “but it’s still home to Mildred and me.”

When the Lloyds moved onto their palatial estate—it would not be named Greenacres until 1936—they had one child: five-year-old Gloria. They adopted a second daughter in 1929, a four-year-old whom they renamed Marjorie Elizabeth (she was always called Peggy), to give their lonely daughter a companion. In February 1931, Mildred gave birth to Harold Jr. At first, Greenacres was the scene of a continual round of parties for both the adults and the children. Little Shirley Temple was Gloria’s friend and a frequent guest. Lloyd hosted golf, tennis, and handball tournaments. Mildred gave teas for her friends. But a cloud hung over Greenacres: talkies had triumphed over silent films. And Lloyd’s talkies were both critical and box office failures. He always said that he never meant to retire from moviemaking, he was just waiting for the right script to come along. It never came.

Lloyd retired permanently to Greenacres. He devoted himself to his three children, becoming both the perfect playmate and the strict Victorian father, the bane of his teenage daughters’ (and their boyfriends’) lives. He loved and accepted his gay son, Harold Jr., who was known by the family as “Dukey.”

In the 1950s and 1960s, Harold and Mildred raised Gloria’s daughter, their granddaughter, Suzanne, while Gloria, who was divorced and in poor health, traveled in Europe. Lloyd remained passionate about movies, sometimes driving madly around town to see two or three new feature films in a single night. He also befriended and encouraged several up-and-coming young actors, including Robert Wagner, Jack Lemmon, and Debbie Reynolds. Lloyd was also a deeply committed Shriner, becoming the Imperial Potentate of the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, the highest position in the Shriners, in 1949. Over three decades, he personally helped to administer nineteen children’s hospitals, which he considered one of his greatest achievements.

Sadly, he let one of his other great achievements, Greenacres, slowly decay. Curtains, rugs, and furniture became aged and tattered but were not replaced. Woodwork, stonework, and ironwork were not cared for. As a teenager in the 1960s, Suzanne helped bring Greenacres back to life. She brought her friends home to enjoy the many pleasures of the estate—swimming pool, tennis courts, canoe pond, gardens—and to meet her grandfather. One of these friends, Richard Correll, would play a critical role in helping to preserve and restore all of Lloyd’s feature films, and many two-reelers, in the 1960s. Harold Lloyd might have slipped into obscurity, but with the publication of James Agee’s essay, “Comedy’s Greatest Era,” in Life magazine in 1949, public interest in the silent-film era began to grow again. In 1962, Lloyd created a compilation of his films, Harold Lloyd’s World of Comedy, which debuted at the Cannes Film Festival to great acclaim and went on to have successful bookings around the world.

In 1969, Kevin Brownlow’s book about silent movies, The Parade’s Gone By, generated even greater interest in Harold Lloyd and his films. He was famous again. Mildred, who had struggled with bouts of alcoholism for more than twenty years, died in 1969 from heart failure at the age of sixty-eight. In 1971, Harold Lloyd died from cancer at Greenacres at the age of seventy-seven. Nearly one thousand people attended his funeral. His $6.5 million fortune was divided primarily among his three children, granddaughter Suzanne, and his other two grandchildren. (Dukey, an alcoholic like his mother, died a few months after his father.) The will also stipulated that the Harold Lloyd Foundation would operate Greenacres as a museum. Unfortunately, Lloyd had left no money to fund his museum, and ticket sales and income from occasional television location shoots couldn’t keep it going. After just one year, despite its public popularity, the museum was forced to close.

Lloyds’s worst nightmare became reality. In July 1975, Greenacres was

auctioned off to a developer for just $1.6 million. Thousands of people had showed up so they could visit the estate one last time. The following year, the new owner’s bulldozers arrived at Greenacres. The gates on Benedict Canyon Drive were removed. A wide street replaced the elegant driveway. The golf course and canoe pond along Benedict Canyon and most of the gardens higher up the hill (including the elegant cascade and dramatic waterfall that dropped into the estate’s lower garden along Benedict Canyon Drive) were ripped out, and the land was subdivided into fifteen building lots.

Lloyd’s beloved mansion—and five surrounding acres—were put up for sale. While the mansion sat empty and unguarded, curiosity seekers and vandals stripped custom-made hardware from the doors. To this day, one of the mansion’s most intriguing yet little-known features still survives. Lloyd loved to entertain his friends not only at his estate’s golf course and tennis court but also in his private den, reached via a celebrity photograph–lined tunnel that led from the mansion, under the front lawn, to a two-story room overlooking Benedict Canyon. Lloyd’s buddies, who lived in Benedict Canyon, knew the secret signal: If smoke appeared from the four-cornered lions’ mouths at the top of the column on the front lawn, that was their invitation to come for cards, billiards, and drinks at this most exclusive of gentlemen’s clubs. If the walls of Lloyd’s private den could talk, think of the stories that they could tell.

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