Picks and Pans Review: Dream Palaces

updated 01/11/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/11/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Charles Lockwood

We may never have a definitive social history of Hollywood, but in the meantime this insightful book by a young architectural historian will do. Lockwood describes in rich detail the conversion of Hollywood and Beverly Hills from sleepy villages surrounded by bean fields and orange groves into adult playgrounds. Homes were not so much residences as elaborate stage sets, often of unspeakable vulgarity. Rudolph Valentino's hilltop Falcon Lair, which Lockwood calls "almost a parody of a silent-star's showplace," was furnished with 16th-century Florentine chairs and a 15th-century French throne. John Barrymore built a $1 million, 55-room mansion, with an aviary where he would sit, oblivious to bird droppings landing on his head. Few of the homes were as spectacular as the beach house William Randolph Hearst constructed for his mistress, Marion Davies, to use when not at San Simeon. The 80-room, 55-bath-room pile of wood loomed like a beached behemoth on the Santa Monica strand until it was razed in 1956. Lockwood does not slight the often lurid histories of the homes' occupants—the suicides and alcoholic disasters. But his real story is of the birth, before and during the Depression, of Hollywood's celebrity subculture. No case is more poignant than that of Hilda Olsen Boldt Weber, a New York hospital nurse who cared for a Cincinnati multimillionaire and then married him. After his death, she married her chauffeur, bought a 60-room Bel Air residence and tried futilely to crash Southern California society. She went broke, and, after moving to a bungalow within sight of her earlier home, the woman who once decorated her dinner tables with 100 orchids quietly slit her throat. (Viking, $19.95)

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