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Ramon Novarro and Greta Garbo, ‘Mati Hari,’ MGM 1931

From the song, Tango:

He was a collector of beautiful strangers
And life was a party right up to the end
The door always opened to love and loves’ dangers
Who did it? A lover, a stranger, a friend…

I first saw the house in 1974 after I moved from New York to Hollywood.

The legendary casting director, David Graham, took me on a lay-of-the-land tour of Los Angeles. One of the historic properties that he drove me by was the landmark Samuel-Novarro House in the eastern—and highly tony—area of the Hollywood Hills known as Los Feliz.

David pulled over for a couple of minutes in front of 2255 Verde Oak Drive and shared some stories with me.

As David spoke, it was apparent that regardless of how many stories the house might have, the story of its original owner, actor Ramon Novarro, easily eclipsed them. The story of Novarro’s life was bigger than that of the home’s architectural legacy and was more interesting than the custom turquoise tile that the structure features.

Ramon Novarro was born in the Mexican plateau city of Victoria de Durango, in 1899. He was a life-long Roman Catholic and three of his sisters, Guadalupe, Rosa, and Leonor, joined Convents and became nuns.

The conflict between his personal life, his desires, his passion, and his religion—in early twentieth-century Hollywood—were troublesome for Novorro for the duration of his career and for MGM studio head, Louis B. Mayer. Mayer offered, time after time, to set Novarro up in a sham marriage. At the time, those arrangements were called lavender marriages. Time after time, Novarro declined to entertain the concept.

Ramon Novarro

Ramon Novarro, studio photo

During his MGM career, Novarro had a much greater interest than appearing socially correct in Hollywood. His consuming interest was his personal secretary and intimate companion, Louis Samuel. Ramon Novarro originally built the Los Feliz house for Samuel  on extremely large and very private grounds.

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The Samuel-Novarro House

After starring in the MGM silent classic, Ben Hur, Ramon Navarro was at the top of his game. Even by Hollywood standards, he was becoming very, very wealthy—and as his wealth grew, he learned that Samuel was embezzling from him.

Novarro took over the house. And, in 1932 he moved in.

The structue, which was designed by the son of Frank Lloyd Wright, Lloyd Wright, has been lived in by a legion of celebrities. They include Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and a host of others. The current historical renovation of the property was commissioned by previous owner, Diane Keaton.

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Novarro house, current state

On the market a few years ago, the 2,690 square-foot home, then owned by Christina Ricci, had an asking price of just a tad over $4.1 million dollars. It sold for $3.8.

What happened to Ramon Novarro, you ask?

He moved out of the house in 1938. From the money he’d earned during his film career he lived well at his new home in Laurel Canyon. There were persistent rumors that Novarro kept large sums of money with him because of the embezzlement episode with Samuel.

In 1968 Ramon Navarro, hired two men—a 22 year old and a 17 year old—through a California prostitution agency to have sex with him. The two hired men were brothers, Paul and Tom Ferguson.

They arrived, and after torturing him for hours, murdered Navarro in his home on October 22. They were seeking the location of the hidden stash of Novarro cash. There was none.

According to Los Angeles Police reports, the brothers left the house with $20 taken from Ramon Navarro’s bathrobe pocket.

Peggy Lee sang of Novarro’s life and murder in the song, Tango, included on her Mirrors album released in 1975.

UPDATE, October 11, 2016 | Los Angeles

Screenwriter, Dale Launer (My Cousin Vinny, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Ruthless People) has just put the Samuel-Novarro house on the market for $4.4 million. Douglas Elliman’s Juliette Hohnen has the offering.  The listing includes numerous photos, but the description is simply:

Frank Lloyd Wright Jr’s 1928 Samuel Novarro House. The Mayan-inspired Art Deco house has been meticulously restored keeping the architect’s vision intact, with Lloyd Wright signatures throughout, including oxidized copper accents on the front exterior. With a perfect indoor-outdoor flow, this home exemplifies the Southern California lifestyle with swimmers pool, professionally landscaped gardens and terraces. Located in the exclusive neighborhood “The Oaks” of Los Feliz. Historic Cultural Monument #130 and featured in numerous books and publications, including Architectural Digest and Lloyd Wright. This is your chance to own a true masterpiece of art and architecture that many celebrities have called home over the years.

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Variety adds:

The restored and updated residence, accented with dollar bill green oxidized copper accents on the exterior, listed as Historic-Cultural Monument #130 by the city of Los Angeles, and sparely but expensively furnished with an enviable collection of pedigreed furniture, “exemplifies the Southern California lifestyle” with “perfect indoor-outdoor flow.”

The central living room with polished concrete floor and fireplace steps down at one end to a dining room with casement style windows and doors that open to a trellis-shaded dining terrace and at its opposite end to a lounge with more casement style windows and doors that lead out to a swimming pool set in to a high-walled courtyard that ensures complete privacy and, hence, encourages both late night and broad daylight skinny dipping.

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Seller, Dale Launer

The kitchen, not particularly big and decidedly high-end if not particularly adventuress in its materials and finishes, is completely updated and modernized with white, hardware-free Shaker style cabinetry, fantastically thick slab marble counter tops, and the usual array of high-end designer appliances one expects to find in a house of this caliber.

The master bedroom has a starkly minimalist all-concrete bathroom that features a decorative screen made of three-dimensional, arrowhead-shaped concrete blocks. One of the guest bedrooms, over-sized with sitting area, is privately located on the lower floor where it opens to a sizable terrace with arrowhead-shaped pavers while a long, slender office is cleverly and efficiently lined with custom built-ins that incorporate desk space, a dresser, open shelves, enclosed storage (and a bed*).

*Navarro, I suspect, would approve.