Issue: Issue Summer 2004
Fear not the "hairy-nosed wombat"!
The W.C. Fields Estate
When comedian W.C. Fields moved onto DeMille Drive in the late ‘30s he kept a rifle handy – just in case a “hairy-nosed wombat” might wander out of the zoo in nearby Griffith Park. Alas, no wombats appeared, and the sole time Fields fired a shot was in warning when his next door neighbor, the air raid warden, appeared unannounced one night during World War II. The warden, C.B. DeMille, left a bit rattled – no matter that he was Fields’ boss at Paramount. From then on, DeMille’s butler did the civilian defense patrol in Laughlin Park.
Fields lived here longer than anywhere, from 1939 until he moved to Las Encinas Sanitorium, where he died in 1946. He loved this house more than any other place he ever lived, according to Carlotta Monti, Fields’ longtime mistress, who shared the residence with him for long periods of time. She could access the hall outside Fields’ bedroom through the closet – easier for discreet rendezvous.
Reportedly, Fields had the pergola from the DeMille Drive shelter to the front door wired for sound. He could both eavesdrop on and roar an-nouncements to his guests via hidden microphones and speakers. He also enjoyed sitting quietly off the music room to eavesdrop on his guests’ conversations through a grille that opened into a closet. When he had had enough, he could casually emerge from a door discreetly built into the antique mahogany paneling. This paneling, according to descendants of the original owners, oilman Frank Wood and his wife, came from a Spanish monastery. The original owners outbid William Randolph Hearst, who was shopping in Europe for San Simeon, for the paneling, around which the house was designed in 1919. It is not hard to imagine that the mezzanine library was once a choir loft and that the doors to the entry powder/ telephone room were from the monastery’s confessional!
Fields never owned his favorite house – nor any other house – on principle.
He always preferred to keep his considerable wealth in cash, which he deposited in numerous bank accounts and vaults around the country.
Other than Fields, the Wood family rented the property to a host of famous tenants, including Maurice Chevalier and Paramount producer William LeBaron, who produced a number of W.C. Fields’ films. The original owners’ family kept the house until after World War II, when they sold it to Ann Richards (seen in Sorry, Wrong Number and other films of the era) and her producer/director husband, Edmund Angelo. The Angelos remained in the house for almost a quarter century while raising their family. Their son recently recalled that when he and his friends were growing up they would sometimes find old cigar butts tucked away in odd corners of the basement – a Fields legacy. The Angelos sold the house in 1972 to a psychiatrist, who, in turn, sold the house to Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner about 1981.
In 1999 a new entertainment industry couple acquired the house. By then, most of the house was painted pink – including the mahogany paneling. Many past remodeling projects seemed dated and out of place. With the original plans used as a guide, a four-year project was begun to restore the original look of the home while updating and modernizing the systems of the house. During this time, the current owners lived in the basement, formerly Fields’ liquor storage, while the upstairs was under-going restoration. The antique mahogany paneling alone took three months for nine workers to strip and prep the wood for refinishing. Great care was taken not to lose the carved detail in the process. Vintage and reproduction fixtures were found to complement the period look. The pool and landscaping were renewed. Century-old dwarf olive trees were planted. Today, though Fields no longer walks the grounds in his pith helmet with putter in hand, his former estate shines once more in its Hollywood Golden Age glory.
"Of all Fields' houses, the one he liked best was a big Spanish place on a high hill in the center of Hollywood. The area is known as Laughlin Park, a quiet, faintly aristocratic collection of green knolls that struggle up above the glamour and neon. A handful of fine old houses, remindful of the leisurely but perhaps unphotogenic dons, has resisted the onward, indigenous march of redwood and glass; ringed by hedges, shaded by palms, they stand almost unseen on their inessential hills, tourist-free and forgotten in a city restlessly expanding."
W.C. Fields: His Follies and Fortunes
Robert Lewis Taylor ©1949 Doubleday