George Cukor: Cukor's Nest

Director George Cukor's home high above the Sunset Strip was the epicenter of entertaining in the heyday of Hollywood. Behind the enormous wall Cukor erected on Cordell Drive to ensure privacy for himself and his guests, Katharine Hepburn trysted with Spencer Tracy, Greta Garbo rubbed elbows with Mae West, and the likes of Vivien Leigh, Tallulah Bankhead and Cole Porter enjoyed Cukor's unparalleled hospitality. The recently published book Hollywood Life from Greybull Press presents lavish photographs by Eliot Elisofon of vintage homes owned by icons like Natalie Wood, Steve McQueen, Mary Pickford and Cukor. A frequent guest at Cukor's mansion, screenwriter, novelist and biographer Gavin Lambert--who wrote the foreword for Hollywood Life and penned the definitive biography On Cukor --remembers his friend's home and the fabulous soirees he hosted.

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GEORGE LOVED HOLLYWOOD FROM THE START, unlike a lot of theater people who were kind of snooty about movies when they first came out to Los Angeles. He just seemed to take to it. Of course, it was a marvelous time to come out here if you were very dearly excited by movies because it was the early sound period and there were so many marvelous people working.

His home was very elegant. He built it sometime between the middle and late '30s. It was a brilliantly designed house. It was in that quite popular sort of Mediterranean-Italian villa style, but an extremely good example of it. The interiors were all designed by Billy Haines, who was a wonderful designer and a great friend of George's. It was luxurious without being show-offy. It was comfortable and personal, fairly large yet very cozy at the same time and not pretentious in the least. There are some houses that look so wonderful, but you're frightened to sit down. This home you could sit down and feel at ease easily. And George also made you feel at ease because that's how he wanted you to feel.

Everything about the house was very personal. There was a wonderful wall of photographs of friends that was in one of the little hallways. Nobody else could ever have a wall of photographs like that. It was a roll call of famous, wonderful and genuinely talented friends. I mean, I'm not talking Raquel Welch. I'm talking about everyone from JFK to Somerset Maugham to Greta Garbo to Norma Shearer to James Mason and so on.

He was very sociable. I think when someone is comfortable in their own skin, they make other people feel comfortable. That was one reason why people liked George so much. Neurotics out here have always been a dime a dozen, and they aren't always so easy to get along with. But there was nothing like that about George. Somehow he had the secret of being at ease. Even though he was a gay man, which was not altogether easy for him, he accepted that as a part of him and he wasn't going to waste his time feeling guilty. He was going to be discreet, obviously--that would be foolish not to--but he wasn't going to be inhibited by it at all.

I went to one of the grand parties he gave, which was a party for Vivien Leigh. She was his longtime friend. I knew her too and was very fond of her. He said to me, "This is going to be a real Hollywood party." And it was! But it was somehow grand without being formal. You didn't feel that you had to be careful or anything like that. People could just relax. It was a beautiful night and he had strung lanterns across the garden and there was a band playing. He liked to give his parties in the summer so he could give them outside, especially if they were large parties because there was the most space in the garden. The service was great. There were always enough waiters to fill your drink or offer you another canapé. It was all very informal, but terribly efficient.

But most of the dinner parties I went to were pretty small-scale. He liked six people or around that. Maybe on a very special occasion eight, and sometimes only three or four. He liked to eat early; he was very disciplined in that way. He hardly drank, maybe just a sip of Dubonnet before dinner. I met so many people there. He had a guest house on his grounds where Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy often used to stay and George left it at their disposal whenever they wanted it. Somerset Maugham used to stay in the guest house as well. They were very good old friends, and Somerset said he wrote the script for The Razor's Edge there. Unfortunately, Twentieth Century Fox didn't like it for some reason and didn't use it. And Ethel Barrymore stayed there a lot. George was very fond of Merle Oberon, and she was quite often around. Tallulah Bankhead was another frequent visitor. But you name it, they were all there.

It was a very varied crowd. Apart from the people I've mentioned, I think now of Arthur Rubenstein, who often came by. And Garbo, she came there. George arranged a famous meeting for Garbo and Mae West over dinner. I remember George telling me that Mae West said to him, "Oh, what should I say to her? I don't know what to say!" And George said, "Just ask her about herself. Because then she won't have to talk about you and you'll get along wonderfully." Another person who was at that dinner, Roddy McDowall, told me that they did get along absolutely wonderfully, exactly how George had predicted. They were just sort of in competition to talk about themselves. If you think about all the names we've just gone through, it's pretty eclectic!

Then there were the Sunday afternoon parties for the boys. I only went to one of them. They were charming. It was really nothing. George would be very angry if anything untoward occurred. It was not a place where anybody made an open pass at one of the guys. They were ready for that, but it had to be done very discreetly. If Cole Porter fancied a guy, he would very gradually take him aside and give him a phone number to call. But there were no orgies or anything like that. That was not George's style. He just had these friends--gay friends. He would never have invited Garbo to those pool parties. I don't think Hepburn, either. But they wouldn't have wanted to come and he knew not to ask.

Somehow there was a wonderful fit between George and the house where he lived. It was the house of someone who enjoyed life, who enjoyed his work, who enjoyed his friends and had a wonderful life. When he died, his secretary had me come by the house and pick up a book he wanted me to have. I think most houses kind of lose something when their owners die. I suddenly thought, "You know, without George, this house is kind of a costume looking for someone to wear it."

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