asking Hollywoodland denizens if we have celebrity neighbors is generally considered a rather yokel question. No, no, comes the stock answer, Los Angeles isn't wall-to-wall movie stars, you know! But here's the funny thing: Sometimes it actually seems like it is. And here's another: Sometimes we find these people about as pleasant as ants.
I can't remember hearing any happy stories about living near the famous. More typical is the plaint from some friends who rented the vacant half of their duplex to three young women in their 20s a few years ago. This was fine until one of the girls started dating Woody Harrelson, who, as the constantly visiting boyfriend, was not a class act. Suffice to say that when the roommates finally moved out, the trash left behind included a pile of used condoms left on the floor under Woody's girlfriend's bed.
Then there is the syndrome of young people whose loud music and constant parties would normally be confined to cheap apartment buildings inhabited by others fond of loud music and constant parties. But sudden success often propels them into unwelcoming neighborhoods. After Christina Applegate (the teenage daughter on "Married, With Children") moved into Laurel Canyon, her neighbors -- mostly families with young children -- began a battle over the actress's noise that lasted for years.
Sometimes the friction is aesthetic. When Madonna bought a majestic white Spanish-style house in the Beachwood Canyon area of the Hollywood Hills a few years ago, she wasn't about to let any boring old architecture experts tell her it shouldn't become an Italian mansion. The pop star promptly infuriated her neighbors by turning the property into some fevered notion of a Tuscan villa -- although orange-and-white stripes are probably rare in Tuscany. "It seems typical of the actress type," says realtor (and annoyed neighbor) Crosby Doe of this kind of transformation, "let's put it that way."
On the other hand, I can't help but feel sympathy for celebrities whose every unguarded moment is noted and recounted by their neighbors. A woman I know who recently moved to Malibu regaled us at a brunch with her imitation of Jane Seymour, nostrils flaring, berating a grocery store manager for being out of Rice Dream -- again! It was very funny, until I remembered firmly instructing the manager of my own local supermarket that his policy of telling baggers to put the meat on the bottom is wrong, wrong, WRONG!
"I saw Kathy Bates eating a big cheeseburger and fries in the coffee shop the other day," a director friend of mine who lives in Beachwood Canyon mused recently about the overweight Oscar-winner. "It was kind of sad." "But she has a gorgeous house!" interjected his wife, "with a beautiful board fence and the boards are so tight you can't even put a piece of paper through them!" Well, no wonder.
It's natural that those in the public eye are obsessed with privacy. Lisa Hartman and husband Clint Black were delighted with the sprawling estate they considered buying until they saw a tiny tear in the landscape fabric that shielded the property from view. "I said, 'Get a patch!'" recalls the realtor who told me this story. "But they freaked out!"
Celebrities often keep the world at bay by buying up neighboring properties. Michelle Pfeiffer, bothered by a stalker, reportedly rented out her Brentwood house to Antonio Banderas and Melanie Griffith and moved to an ultra-secluded street in Pacific Palisades. Then she began acquiring as much of her neighbors' 17-acre lot as possible. "You can't blame her," a local resident noted at the time, nevertheless adding ruefully that the arrival of the star and her crazed fan problem completely changed the tone of the once-sleepy street, where few people used to even lock their doors. Pacific Palisades, a beach community just north of Santa Monica, probably contains the highest concentration of star-power per mile, but celebrities who live there treasure the fantasy that their neighborhood is Just Plain Folks. Steven Spielberg's wife, Kate Capshaw, once memorably described it as "sidewalky" -- a simple, stroller-friendly area for Moms like herself. Of course, the Spielbergs' section of the Palisades is a bit more than just sidewalks; they live on a huge estate with a prime view of the Riviera Country Club golf course (where O.J. Simpson used to play).
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Billy Crystal, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman are just a few of the stars who live in Pacific Palisades -- partly because they can feel that by doing so they're actually avoiding Hollywood glitz. "The Palisades are as close to a small town as you can get here," says a realtor who specializes in the area. Its quaint, Main-Streetish village center lets stars imagine they're living in a sort of Mayberry R.F.D. where everyone knows everyone else.
Celebrity-favored neighborhoods are typically tucked away high in the hills, on streets that aren't household names to the general public but speak of great status in Hollywood to those in the know. If you can say you live on Mapleton or Carolwood in Holmby Hills, for instance, that's something. Lesser streets bring lesser prices. The late Eva Gabor's Holmby Hills house just off busy Sunset Boulevard, where she lived for 21 years, sat on the market for months before it finally sold last year -- to an older, non-celebrity couple who appreciated the home's crystal chandelier formality -- for $2.2 million. This was far less than the original $3.85 million asking price (which included the furniture and antiques).
Families who used to buy in the Beverly Hills flats now prefer the new Golden Triangle west of the 405 Freeway: Pacific Palisades, Brentwood and Santa Monica, where the air is better and life is perceived as being more low-key. "Families think that if they're in Brentwood the family will stay together longer than if they're in Bel-Air or Beverly Hills," says realtor Steve Shapiro.
Brentwood, once a sleepy if luxurious suburb, gained unwanted notoriety in the wake of O.J. Simpson. But this hasn't really brought down property values. Realtor Elaine Young sold Simpson his house on Rockingham for $650,000 18 years ago. "It's a $2.6 million house now." she says. "If you're famous and you die or kill someone, you can sell."
She should know. Elaine Young used to be married to the late actor Gig Young, and she got an early taste of what star power adds to property values when someone offered her $50,000 more for her own house if Gig Young's bed were included.
"I leased Sharon Tate the house she was murdered in," Young adds. "People were offering triple the value even then. But the owner wouldn't sell. He said the vibes were good."
But you can't escape celebrities and their vibes -- which are not always what I'd consider good -- even in the modest east side of Los Angeles where I live. In the late '80s, I bought a small duplex in the hills of colorful, gang-frequented Echo Park. A neighbor informed me that years before, the Neil Young band member immortalized in the song "The Needle and the Damage Done" had died of an overdose in my downstairs unit. I sometimes pondered that, in a grumpy, landlordy way. Not as bad as having to clean up a pile of used condoms under the bed, I suppose, but still.
A couple of years ago I moved to a better neighborhood in the nearby Silverlake Hills. It too has a celebrity factor. Every day I walk by the house where Judy Garland used to live. Old-timers still call the place "the old Gumm house," since as a young girl Judy Garland was still known as Frances Gumm. The house was later bought by Eric Roberts.
One day, while flipping through a magazine, I was horrified to read how after a fight with his girlfriend, Roberts jumped into the car and sped recklessly down his hilly, curvy street. The girlfriend was so concerned about his hazardous driving that she called the police. That street is now my street, and speeders are my bjte noire. Well, I thought, reading that Roberts no longer lives here, good riddance.