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The Legendary Misty Mountain

Wallace Neff was one of the most successful – and longest-practicing—architects in Southern California’s premier neighborhoods for many reasons.

He could design a mansion in virtually any architectural style: Spanish Colonial Revival, French Norman, English Medieval, Monterey Colonial.

He understood how to give his clients both an impressive residence and a comfortable family home for daily living.

He knew how to work with the era’s best landscape architects and design a mansion that complemented its site perfectly.

At the end of 1924, Neff got a telephone call from film director Fred Niblo, who had just  purchased another dramatic Angelo Drive property below Enchanted Hill. It had views that stretched from the Pacific Ocean to downtown Los Angeles, with Holmby Hills and Beverly Hills below.

Photo Credit: Randolph Harrison.

Niblo and his second wife, actress Enid Bennett, were already living in a since-demolished Tudor-style mansion at 805 North Crescent Drive, just a block below Sunset Boulevard and the Beverly Hills Hotel. They had been two of the very first “movie people” to move to Beverly Hills. By 1924, when they contacted Neff, they could easily afford to “move up” literally and figuratively to a grand Angelo Drive mountaintop.

Niblo was one of the first renowned directors of the silent cinema. He had been born Frederick Liedtke in 1874 in the small town of York, Nebraska. Niblo liked to say that he was born “Frederico Nobile,” and some modern biographers have been gulled by this joke. He actually took his stage name from New York City’s famous European-style entertainment hall, Niblo’s Garden. Fred Liedtke worked at Niblo’s, and he began his acting career there. Fred Niblo performed on the vaudeville circuit in the first decade of the 20th century.

Once Niblo finished Ben-Hur, he and Enid began working with Neff on their new Angelo Drive home, which was later named Misty Mountain. Neff had devised an unusual but highly effective design solution for the dramatic lot: He designed the unusual Spanish Colonial Revival mansion as a huge semicircle to take advantage of the views. Neff’s original rough sketch of the house, complete with the major landscape features like a circular flower garden at one end of the parcel, survives today.

Photo Credit: Randolph Harrison.

In October 1927, the Niblos moved into their twenty-two-room mansion. The driveway led up from the street to the landscaped flat portions of the estate and ended in the circular motor court surrounded by the semicircular home. Neff had calculated the dimensions of both the home and its motor court so that one of Niblo’s touring cars could enter the court, drop off passengers at the front door, and leave—all in one graceful motion.

The grounds included gardens in front of the mansion, plus the lawn stretching to the south. On the other side of the driveway were the swimming pool, a tennis court, croquet lawn, and children’s playground.

The Niblo mansion was built for the ages. The house itself was constructed of steel-reinforced concrete, and then covered with typically Spanish stucco and atypical Calabasas granite. The roof was very Spanish red tile.

Although the Niblo mansion had a Spanish-style façade, much of the interior was English-inspired, such as seven-hundred-year-old English paneling in the living room. The front door opened into an oval entrance hall. The first floor’s three main rooms—living room, library, and dining room—opened onto shaded loggias and the lawn, and all overlooked the spectacular views.

Upstairs, the mansion had six bedrooms and bathrooms. The basement contained Fred Niblo’s pride and joy: his 56-foot-long Ben Hur Room; it was decorated with murals from his recent films and had an adjacent projection room, so that he could show the latest movies to his guests. The basement included a billiards room, a curio room that displayed the couple’s souvenirs from their travels, and that Prohibition-era necessity: the private bar. One wonders how the Niblos’ more inebriated guests safely drove down narrowing, winding Angelo Drive in the dark on their way back home, because the property lacked a guesthouse.

Niblo did not struggle financially during the Depression. Misty Mountain remained firmly in his hands. He had made his money in the days before high income taxes, and he owned additional acreage in Beverly Hills and Los Angeles. He also owned a ranch in northern California and liked to travel. Misty Mountain was dear to Niblo, Bennett, and their family, so they didn’t sell it, but they did make money off it during their frequent absences.

A pattern was emerging in film-industry real estate dealings in the 1930s. Up-and-coming celebrities and executives wanted to rent, not just some big or garish property, but an estate with real cachet. “For stars seem to prefer to dwell in homes owned by or formerly occupied by other stars, and certain houses are always rented to ‘big names’,” reported one newspaper in 1937. “And today as never before, the stars are moving and shuttling about, trying out new houses in which their friends live and forever seeking new backgrounds.”

Photo Credit: Randolph Harrison.

Misty Mountain had a long series of celebrity tenants: Emanuel Cohen, head of production at Paramount Studios; actress Katharine Hepburn; actor and singer Nelson Eddy, and then his frequent co-star actress Jeanette MacDonald, whom Niblo sued for damage caused by her dogs.

By 1940, Niblo wanted to sell Misty Mountain. The estate went onto the market for $60,000. One buyer offered $50,000, but Niblo refused that as too low. That proved a costly mistake. Later, he lowered the price to $45,000, but still no sale.

Near the end of the year, Jules and Doris Stein purchased Misty Mountain for $35,000—one of the all-time bargains in Beverly Hills real estate history. Under their ownership, the estate became a cynosure of power to be spoken of only in whispers. For Jules Stein was one of the most powerful individuals in the history of not just Hollywood but of American entertainment.

At Misty Mountain, meanwhile, Jules and Doris Stein had made the estate their own. They did not change the mansion’s Spanish-style façade, but they redecorated the interior in the then-popular neo-Georgian look. One of the first rooms to be redecorated was Niblo’s much-loved Ben-Hur Room, which became the Stein’s “playroom” and was redecorated in the early American style, although it remained a theater.

When entertaining at Misty Mountain, the Steins didn’t need the elaborate set decorations without which so many others among the Hollywood power crowd seemed to feel naked. While every affair was elegantly decorated, the background was never allowed to interfere with the foreground: the guests.

Photo Credit: Bison Archives.

At one party, for example, the Steins hosted Herbert Lehman, the former governor of New York; New York City mayor Robert Wagner; the Angier Biddle Dukes (Duke was ceremonial officer at the State Department under President Kennedy); New Jersey Governor Robert Meyner; Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, the Gardner Cowleses (one of the foremost magazine publishers in the country), Mrs. Claiborne Pell (her husband became a senator from Rhode Island), Mrs. Orvil

Dryfoos (whose family owned the New York Times), and the Peter Lawfords (the actor had married a Kennedy). Hollywood was also represented by the likes of Walt Disney, Jack Benny, Alfred Hitchcock, Henry Fonda, Judy Garland, Milton Berle, and Nat “King” Cole all performed. Just another party at Misty Mountain, and a good time was reportedly had by all.

Jules Stein died in 1981. His wife, Doris, died three years later. Misty Mountain—unlike so many other estates—had not only survived all those years, it was little changed from its earlier heyday. The property was sold to new owners, who appreciated its extraordinary location, architecture, and grounds. Today, Misty Mountain remains one of the finest estates in Beverly Hills.

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