641 South Irving Boulevard
PLEASE SEE OUR COMPANION HISTORIES
PLEASE SEE OUR COMPANION HISTORIES
FOR AN INTRODUCTION TO WILSHIRE BOULEVARD, CLICK HERE
Owned successively by three larger-than-life characters—two of them real people—Wilshire Boulevard's most imposing house, while having vanished nearly 60 years ago, remains immortalized as one of Hollywood's great set pieces. The epic mythologies surrounding the names Jenkins, Getty, and Desmond converge even today on the boulevard at the northwest corner of Irving, at least to wonderful people out there in the dark.
|William O. Jenkins lasted longer as a remnant of Gilded Age|
capitalism than did most men; near the end of his reign
and life, he was satirized as the "Lord and Master
of Mexico" on an August 1959 magazine cover.
It was William Oscar Jenkins, called a "mysterious buccaneer-businessman" by Time magazine in 1960 and often cited as the man who amassed the largest personal fortune in Mexico, where he was based, who hired architect T. Beverley Keim to design the most monumental of Los Angeles houses in 1922, many decades before even the most well-financed piles in the city began to resemble gargantuan, gilded tract houses. Keim's sprawling 14-bedroom effort, which would be addressed discreetly as 641 South Irving Boulevard, took up little of Jenkins's assemblage of four lots of the original Windsor Square subdivision, plus part of another—a slightly irregular, 360-foot-wide plot extending 225 feet north from Wilshire at its deepest. The Department of Buildings issued a permit for the foundation on April 12, 1922, one for the house itself the following October 30, and one for the garage and servants quarters on July 16, 1923; mentioned in a number of Los Angeles Times articles during the next few years, the house was described as being near completion in October 1923—and then again as such in November 1925. As expatriates based in Mexico since 1901, the Jenkinses seemed to be in no hurry to occupy their new home; a contract to build walkways and drives wasn't given to May & Grimswood until January 1925. A tennis court was put in along the Lorraine Boulevard side but, curiously, while there was still plenty of room, no swimming pool was dug. The Jenkinses, William the buccaneer, his wife Mary, and their five daughters appear to have moved in only by late 1925, and then not for very long or at least on any steady basis. It seems that their new house was to be something more along the lines of a prodigious pied-à-terre.
Whether the hard-to-draw William O. Jenkins was as much the stereotypical gringo, buccaneer, exploiter, rumrunner, briber of government officials, tax-evader, or as parsimonious, philanthropic, or even as murderous as legend (and even Time) has had it is the subject of some debate. Revisionists now seem to see an imperfect man whose flaws are exaggerated and decontextualized, in the words of one. Whatever the truth of his actual behavior, Jenkins was probably no better or worse than any other American robber baron or capitalist behind whose fortune, as is said, lies a crime of one sort or the other—somebody was gotten ahead of, if not trampled.
Born near Shelbyville, Tennessee, on May 18, 1878, with farming in his genes, William O. Jenkins had had enough of the provinces by the time he was kicked out of Vanderbilt after eloping with the smitten and apparently adventurous Mary Street of Fayetteville. What influenced their tack is unclear, but the couple soon left home to seek their fortune south of the border, W. O. bent, it was said, on proving his worth to his bride's genteel family. Living for several years in Monterrey from December 1901, the Jenkinses moved to several other west-central Mexican towns before settling in southerly Puebla in December 1906, where W. O. found his ultimate kingdom. Beginning with modest jobs that led him into cotton manufacturing, he quickly made more than good in fabrics; the outbreak of revolution in 1910, rather than driving him north toward home, only sharpened his capitalistic tendencies. Expatriate poster boy of the notion that industrial free enterprise is the driver of overall economic prosperity, especially one's own, Jenkins set out to buy great quantities of rural land in the state of Puebla with devalued currency. His game was offering high-interest loans to beleaguered landowners and then seizing their holdings on default—later, one of the most unflattering characterizations of the man was the claim that some farmers had actually been killed to add their property to Jenkins's operations. He made an apparent habit of greasing his own wheels by means of loans and campaign contributions to politicians and Catholic interests; by becoming a U.S. consular agent and founding a country club, he was able to climb socially among old Mexican families and earlier and more established global expats. Later, as a film exhibitor, he popularized himself by making inexpensive entertainment available to Mexican masses. Despite his alleged habit of wearing the same clothes every day and maintaining a modest office in Puebla and sometimes walking behind the streetcar Mary was riding in order to save carfare, he had a certain touch, at least until 1919. Unimpressed Zapatista rebels, who had had enough of Jenkins's modus operandi, kidnapped the buccaneer on October 19, the reverberations of which nearly caused an invasion from the north, despite claims in some quarters that the whole thing was some sort of hoax. Released a week later after a ransom of $150,000 in gold had been paid, it seems that afterward W. O. went on about his business pretty much as before, only stepping up, eventually and enormously, it must be said, his philanthropy. By the 1950s, with less tolerance in the air for the old ways of capitalism, Jenkins and his sort had been duly characterized more or less as pirates, less than honorable perhaps if only because of their indiscreet profiles.
While Jenkins's mythology includes the old clothes and a house in Puebla referred to in some sources as "middle class," there was to be a yacht and oceanfront spread in Acapulco—not to mention the distinctly unhumble 641 South Irving Boulevard in Los Angeles. There was also diversification in the form of sugar plantations on some of his Mexican property acquisitions, the product of which may well have found its way over the border into pre-Repeal America. Jenkins moved into banking and soap and cement and automobile distribution, and famously, into movie theaters. His influence in Mexican film exhibition during the 1940s and '50s made his business dealings something even a daughter could become engaged in, or at least become the face of. The oldest of the Jenkinses' five, Elizabeth, born in Monterrey in 1903, was described by Variety in 1946 as the "owner and operator of more than 80 theaters in Mexico and probably the top femme exhib in the world."
|Seen from a perch just west and across Wilshire Boulevard, with Lorraine Boulevard crossing|
just behind the second Wilshire Special streetlamp, the Jenkins house broods during
the Depression as it waits for a second act that came only in the movies.
Within three years of the kidnapping, W. O. Jenkins was planning Los Angeles's biggest house to date. While he may have been thinking that a large residential presence in the states would more firmly establish his family's American citizenship, it was Mary who was probably more concerned with personal safety. Facing Mrs. Bennet's dilemma, she might also have been wishing for the Misses Jenkins—as they would be referred to in the Southwest Blue Book—to have the opportunities of a society more homogeneous than Puebla's gaggle of cosmopolitan but less than top-drawer expatriate merchants and minor diplomats. Often described as having been occupied by the the family for a year and then abandoned, 641 South Irving actually appears to have been kept open and operating for the duration of the its ownership. The girls—there were, in addition to Elizabeth, Margaret, Jane, Mary (who later tried to become a film actress as Susan Christie), and Martha—all seemed to have been educated in California and to have made the house their home while in the states. Margaret's son William Anstead also lived in Los Angeles with the family at one point, becoming, after his mother's divorce and what appears may have been his grandfather's adoption, William A. Jenkins, the junior the old man may have always wanted. At any rate, the family was probably not aware on a daily basis of the changes out on Wilshire Boulevard. Commerce had been rolling eastward from downtown beginning soon after the house was finished, and westward at the same time from A. W. Ross's Miracle Mile developing 25 blocks west. Traffic was increasing not only correspondingly but exponentially in pre-freeway Los Angeles. What prompted the Jenkinses to give up Wilshire Boulevard in 1936 and establish a new Los Angeles presence at 9315 Doheny Road is not known. Maybe their successor made them an offer they couldn't refuse. Having grown up on residential Wilshire Boulevard, a man lurking in the background saw gold in the esteemed thoroughfare's turn to commerce, and he seemed to resent the Park Mile's resistance—and Windsor Square's resistance in particular—to becoming part of an uninterrupted Wilshire business corridor.
Described on one biography book jacket as a "hardbitten oilman, spectacular lover, absent parent, miserly art collector, philandering husband, social snob, bodybuilding enthusiast, hypochondriac, Hitler sympathizer, master businessman, and the richest man in the world"—not just in Mexico—Jean Paul Getty's youth had been spent on Wilshire 13 blocks east of Irving Boulevard. His father, George, the original Getty oil man, had built 647 South Kingsley Drive in 1908 before Wilshire Boulevard was even paved. Perhaps it was having grown up watching the changes on Wilshire from his bedroom window and early becoming attuned to the huge potential of return on his father's 1908 investment, but even before his mother died in late 1941 while she was still living on the corner of Kingsley and Wilshire with trade encroaching, Paul Getty began buying on the boulevard. In 1936, between wives number four and five, Getty acquired the Jenkins house, a white elephant of the Depression if there ever was one, as well 637 South Lorraine across the street (a house built at 501 South Normandie, moved to Lorraine in the late '20s, and, amazingly, moved again to 600 South Rossmore in 1980). No doubt Getty saw the future commercial potential of a prime lot containing a house that had outlived its limited usefulness in 10 short years. Like Noah Cross, he knew he was buying the future.
The third phantom occupant of 641 South Irving preferred the address of
10086 Sunset Boulevard. Above, exterior detail of the Jenkins house is seen in
the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard: Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond orders her butler/
chauffeur/first husband Max (Erich von Stroheim) to bring the Isotta-Fraschini around—
the star was ready to take her script of Salome to Mr. DeMille at Paramount. Interior
shooting on Sunset Boulevard was done at Paramount on sets duplicating the
Jenkins house arrangements, but with more room for cameras. Below, the
movie's famous climactic staircase—note the soundstage ceiling.
§ § § § § § § § § §
While the Los Angeles profile of William O. Jenkins was never high despite the size and location of his house, it became even quieter after he sold 641 South Irving to the much flashier and far richer J. Paul Getty, and even more so after Mary Jenkins's mysterious death in the city at age 61—in a mental hospital, according to one source—on January 15, 1944. His Mexican image as patrón, however, only rose as he expanded into movie exhibition—what surer way to endear himself to the people than by bringing them entertainment in the form of stardust? His image as an exploitative gringo had begun to be redeemed years before by a calculated charitable turn after the debacle of the kidnapping, a new profile cemented when he established the still-operating Mary Street Jenkins Foundation in memory of his wife in 1954. Elizabeth Jenkins Higgins, his movie manager, died in a bathroom fall in Washington that year; whether or not "Don Guillermo" felt some spiritual inclination to give back after the deaths of his wife and oldest daughter is not known, but it seems that his heart may have finally been in a less solipsistic place with the establishment of the foundation. He left the organization most of his fortune when he died in Puebla at 85 on June 4, 1963, having turned over his business operations to his grandson-cum-son. The Jenkins largess also found its way back to Tennessee, where hospitals were funded as well as building projects at his would-be alma mater in Nashville.
"Although the interiors were fine for the story, they weren't spacious enough for Wilder to move his cameras freely, so they were recreated on the Paramount lot. Assigned the task [of recreating the actual rooms] was...Hans Dreier, who had been brought to the studio...the same year the Jenkins house was built.... [Dreier] was responsible for the 'stunningly pretentious rooms and staircase'.... The tiles used for the floor of the New Year's Eve ball sequence were exact copies of those in the Jenkins home...."
The interior studio sets were adapted for at least two other Paramount productions. The Bob Hope/Lucille ball vehicle Fancy Pants was filmed almost simultaneously with Sunset Boulevard, and Hans Dreier himself Colonialized them for 1951's A Place in the Sun. As noted previously, the exterior of the actual house, particularly the pool—drained after Joe Gillis died in it—appeared in Rebel Without a Cause in 1955. From his London office Paul Getty granted Rebel's producers the use of the Irving house on only four specific days in April 1955 to complete their work; the oil man, now looking to England for acceptance and now definitely only interested in Wilshire Boulevard for its investment return, was reportedly anxious that demolition of the "Phantom House," as 641 came to be called, be accomplished before Windsor Square neighbors could figure out a new tactic to avoid commerce rising six stories at its front gate. It would take nearly another two years before the end of the fabled house of a buccaneer, an oil tycoon, and a silent star was gone from its lot; the Department of Building and Safety issued a demolition permit on December 11, 1956. Although it did little to diminish the attraction of the old subdivision in the long run, six stories of commerce did in short order come to intrude on Windsor Square in the form of Getty's blocklong Tidewater Building, now the Harbor Building, which opened on December 1, 1958.
Undergoing demolition in a photograph dated February 1, 1957, a rare
northwesterly view of the William O. Jenkins house taken from the intersection
of Wilshire Boulevard and Irving (at right) reveals its façades opposite from
those of the west side, seen similarly in ruins at the same time, below.
|While the Tidewater Oil Building, seen here soon after its 1958 completion with its "Flying A"|
gasoline logo in place, was designed by eminent architect Claud Beelman, it just somehow
misses the mark on grace as compared to its predecessor. The official residence of
the Los Angeles mayor at 605 South Irving is the white house above the left
wing of what is now called the Harbor Building. Crenshaw Boulevard
enters at bottom right; The Los Altos apartments are at far right.
§ § § § § § § § § §
The interiors of the Jenkins house were recreated on a soundstage,
above; the exteriors were shot on location. There were at least three entrances
to the house—the address door on Irving, a porte-cochere on the Wilshire side,
and the entrance seen below, facing west, as seen in Sunset Boulevard.
For all its country-villa grandeur, its gardens and tennis courts, the
Jenkins house did not have a swimming pool installed until one was dug,
without any recirculation or filtration system, for Sunset Boulevard in 1950—and then
trashed. Actually, later scenes with the pool full of water were probably shot first. Above, Joe Gillis's view from above the garage, before he moved into the main house; below, seen
from the main house porch, the pool lit and ready for his last scene. Afterwards
it was boarded over until 1955 when it reappeared for the last time
in Rebel Without a Cause as a noctural playground for
James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo.
After stashing his 1946 Plymouth in the garage at
10086 Sunset Boulevard, the defeated Joe Gillis —a.k.a.
William Holden—surveys the scene of his last hurrah.
|A matte painting based on the rear, west side of 641 South Irving Boulevard,|
intended to place the house farther north in Los Angeles beneath the
Griffith Park Observatory, opened scenes in Rebel Without a
Cause that were actually filmed in the house's garden—
and down in Norma Desmond's abandoned swimming
pool, where a man had died five years before.