The Pickfair Estate: A Short History on the Beverly Hills Mansion Turned Haunted House
May 25, 2018
In the 1910s, movie stars Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford were the talk of the town. They were Hollywood’s first “It-Couple”, starring in numerous box office and critical successes during the Silent Era. The two were also beloved by their peers and were innovators of the filmmaking industry. They were founding members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences (or commonly known as the Oscars). Fairbanks was elected the first Academy President in 1927 (he also founded major film studio United Artists), while Pickford was the second ever Best Actress Oscar winner, for her role as Norma Besant in Coquette. The couple had a fairytale love, and when they made it official with their marriage in 1919, the debonair leading man decided to build a palatial home for his new, beautiful bride. This was to be known as Pickfair (a combination of their two names), an 18-acrre estate overlooking Beverly Hills, which had an impressive 25 bedrooms, guest wings, tennis courts, swimming pool, and a collection of rare antiquities.
The house located at 1143 Summit Drive became “The White House of Hollywood”. The couple’s reputation proceeded them as they continued to act as the King and Queen of Tinseltown for more than a decade. Glamourous parties and get togethers at Pickfair boasted A-list guest lists that included Charlie Chaplin, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Greta Garbo, Albert Einstein, Joan Crawford, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh, Gloria Swanson, the King and Queen of Siam, and Franklin D. Roosevelt and wife Eleanor. To be invited to a gathering at Pickfair meant you were part of the elite Hollywood circle, reserved for only the richest, most glamorous, and powerful people of the time.
The home was built by esteemed architect Wallace Neff, who was responsible for developing an architectural style now referred to as “California Style”. Pickfair was also the first house in Los Angeles to build an in-ground swimming pool, where the iconic portrait of the couple rowing a canoe took place. It was also equipped with 25-bedrooms, a saloon, stables, a servant’s quarters, tennis courts, a multiple car garage, ceiling frescos, parquet flooring, bleached pine and mahogany wood-paneled hallways, expensive English and French period furniture from the 18th century, and an extensive collection of art. Valuable art pieces that adorned the walls of the mansion included rare antiquities from the couple’s travels to the Orient, furniture from the Barberini Palace and Baroness Burdett-Coutts estate, and paintings by Paul DeLongpre and Philip Mercier.
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Although the couple’s life playing house in the mansion and throwing lavish parties seemed like the stuff dreams were made off, there was trouble behind closed doors. Fairbanks and Pickford’s transition into the sound era was not a success. Their first talkie venture together, an adaption of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (1929) was not well-received. Their subsequent films did not garner much attention either, causing Fairbanks to retire from acting completely after 1934. Depressed from his fall from Hollywood’s good graces, he began an affair with Lady Sylvia Ashley, an English socialite and model. Pickford also began her own discrepancies, seen in the company of a wealthy industrialist. They soon divorced in 1936. Pickford remained in the home and eventually married again, to actor Charles “Buddy” Rogers. In 1979, she passed away and Pickfair stayed empty for a couple of years after Rogers put it up on the market. He claimed that Pickford’s ghost appeared to him and urged him to sell the property.
The mansion would eventually be sold to Jerry Buss, the owner of the LA Lakers. He would sell it to actress Pia Zadora and her husband Meshluam Riklis in 1988. Historical conservationist and nostalgic fans were glad that Pickfair was in the hands of Zadora, who promised to renovate the mansion back its original grandeur. To everybody’s surprise, it was announced that the new owners demolished Pickfair in 1990 to build a Venetian-style palazzo in its place, keeping only the original gates, a part of the living room, and a wing which was once the honeymoon suite of Lord Louis and Lady Mountbatten. Many expressed their displeasure for the demolition, including Douglas Fairbanks Jr., who regretted ever selling the historical home of his parents in the first place.
Later on, Pia Zadora appeared on the fourth season of BIO channel’s Celebrity Ghost Stories, revealing her true reason for demolishing Pickfair. Earlier, she had claimed termites, but she admitted that the house was haunted. She said she often heard the sound of laughing women, stating they were those who allegedly died in the hands of Fairbanks during secret affairs in the mansion’s numerous bedrooms. Zadora also said the sound of the parties of yesteryear could also be heard in the hollow hallways. Lastly, the actress claimed that whenever her husband would go on business, a white apparition would appear and terrorize her and her children. She was sure it was not Pickford, but one of Fairbank’s mistresses.
Although she loved Pickfair and the nostalgia and history of its walls, she had no choice but to secure her investment and demolish it in place for something new. She explained on the show, “If I had a choice, I never would have torn down this old home. I loved this home, it had a history, it had a very important sense about it and you can deal with termites, and you can deal with plumbing issues, but you can’t deal with the supernatural.” Now, the old estate remains a fairytale, a lost tale of Hollywood. Although fascinating and rather scary, it makes us wonder, what was it like walking in the palatial halls of the now demolished home of Hollywood’s historic First couple?