Searching for the stars

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 April, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 April, 1997, 12:00am

Before I ever went to Beverly Hills, I assumed it was a wealthy, exclusive and, most importantly, a glamorous place. Beverly Hills, was practically the definition of the sort of glamour that has to do with fame, film stars, obsessive shopping, posh hotel lobbies, modish tailoring, luxury cars, bright sunshine, lacy underwear, cocktails; the sort of glamour in a Jackie Collins novel.

When I thought of Beverly Hills, I always thought of big fat books with embossed lettering, and what was inside them. Wealthy mischief. And yet I still loved the idea of going there.

Why did I think it would be pleasurable to spend time in this world of rich, elitist vulgarians? Wasn't this stuff all too cheap, too shallow? Well, yes. But that's the thing about glamour, isn't it? It's glamorous. How shallow. How pathetic.

When can I go? Can you get me a ticket? The first time I went there, I had been staying in Hollywood, just down the road. Hollywood, I thought, was horrible; like most of Los Angeles, it is a place full of squat, concrete huts, fat roads, slow traffic and car parks. With an afternoon to spare, I got into a taxi and asked the driver, who was Russian, to show me the sights of Beverly Hills.

He was enthusiastic. 'You never go to Beverly Hills?' he asked. Then he said, 'I show you why America is great!' After 10 minutes, I saw Beverly Hills in the distance. 'Wow!' I said. It was green. This is what you think when you first drive into Beverly Hills.

In a desert of concrete, Beverly Hills looks like an oasis. But immediately you can see there is something strange about it. It is like a middle-American suburb, in that it is full of neat streets and pretty front gardens. But each house is a mansion. It is conservative, suburban and absurdly wealthy.

The taxi driver said he would show me some famous people's houses. We got to an area with houses concealed by hedges and walls. The driver said, 'Ronald Reagan!' I nodded. We were looking at a wall.

We moved on and stopped beside one house with pillars and a long drive, which reminded me of a Southern slave-owner's house. He said, 'Joan Collins!' Moments later, we drove up a steeper street, and stopped beside a walled, red-brick structure. 'Look!' said the driver.'Tom Jones!' .

This was Beverly Hills, the home, demonstrably, of some ageing, rather unfashionable people. But it still took my breath away. That's the thing about Beverly Hills; everybody here goes around telling each other that the place is fashionable and glamorous. Eventually, the illusion works.

The truth is that since the 1920s, when movie stars first colonised it, Beverly Hills has always been a place that used to be more fashionable.

It was once a rural community of 550 residents. In 1919, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, the most talked-about couple in America, built an estate here; they were followed by Charlie Chaplin, Gloria Swanson and Will Rogers.

In 1928, the oil magnate Edward Doheny built an enormous mansion for his son, who threw famously lavish parties and was shot in mysterious circumstances the following year.

This was the golden age of Beverly Hills, the years of disgustingly rich bohemians and suicidal starlets. After this, the neighbourhood started to go downhill.

These days, a lot of the top stars do not live in Beverly Hills - they live in Malibu, or in the Hollywood Hills. True, Madonna has a house here. James Stewart lives here, as he has for decades; so does Peter Falk, of Colombo fame, and Linda Evans, who was in Dynasty.

A lot of the stars' old houses are now lived in by executives in the film business, or wealthy businessmen.

Increasingly conservative people have bought its houses and walked its streets, living the fantasy that they are ever so bohemian and fashionable.

When I arrive at the Peninsula, my Beverly Hills hotel, I am determined, this time, not to fall for the illusion, even though everybody I meet will be trying to sell it to me. In the bar, a rumour is circulating that O J Simpson is here.

This immediately perks me up. O J Simpson! On the way to the bar, I pass Robert Shapiro, one of O J's original lawyers. Robert Shapiro! It really is him. He looks tanned, slim, weasly - like on TV.

'Yup,' says a man at the bar, who is smoking a fat cigar. 'That's Shapiro.' Palpitating, I order my drink. 'This,' says the man, 'is one of the most fashionable places to be.' 'This bar?' 'Right. It's a cigar bar.' 'A cigar bar?' 'Yup. It's the new thing. Cigar bars.' Something embarrassing happens at breakfast - or, as they say in Beverly Hills, 'power breakfast', which means working while pretending to eat.

They won't let me in. I am wearing jeans and an old denim jacket.

I can see what has happened. I am simply not dressed for a power breakfast.

The low point for Beverly Hills, some people say, was in the 1960s, after it had become clear that many fashionable people were moving elsewhere, and before the shopping street Rodeo Drive had been re-invented as the world-famous shopping street Rodeo Drive.

Until the 60s, Rodeo Drive was not much more than a village street; it was there to serve the immediate needs of the locals. And then things changed. Gucci, Hermes, Cartier, Tiffany; Rodeo Drive aimed itself resolutely at tourists, a brilliant marketing ploy. You come in search of glamour and, whatever happens, at least you can buy something expensive.

The key man, everybody says, is Fred Hayman, whose shop, Giorgio of Beverly Hills, started the ball rolling; Judith Krantz's novel Scruples, it is said, is loosely based on the shop. Hayman installed a bar and a billiard table in his shop, which mostly sells expensive Joan Collins-style gear.

Happily, the local tourist office has assigned a woman to take me and some other journalists on a shopping tour of Rodeo Drive; we will also have lunch at The Grill, which is described as a 'popular agent spot'.

The hotel has very generously given us a Rolls-Royce, with a chauffeur, to get us from the Peninsula to The Grill, which takes about four minutes. I find myself unable to resist glancing around, during the three or four seconds it takes me to get into the Rolls-Royce, to see if anybody is looking on, impressed. They are not.

Then we walk along Rodeo Drive, in the sunshine, past all the displays of bright ties, scarves, shirts, necklaces. It feels pretty good to be doing this. Outside the Bijan shop is a yellow convertible Bentley which, our guide tells us, is Bijan's actual car.

Bijan's actual car! Up until now, the ferrety parfumier, or whatever he is, has occupied no space at all in my mind. But now I'm excited. There's a big picture of Bijan in his shop, in fact, depicting him next to a perfume bottle almost as big as he is.

There's Bijan himself, a little older than in the picture, wearing leather jeans and a red jacket. We wave respectfully, and blush gratefully at Bijan's smug response.

Things are looking up. We saw Bijan. Not everybody can say that.

Outside Fred Hayman's shop, our guide introduces me to a small, wary-looking man . . . Fred Hayman! 'Where have you been?' asks our guide. 'I've been having lunch with Joan Collins,' says Hayman. Collins is metres away, deflecting the attentions of the Observer's photographer.

We move into Hayman's shop, past the famous bar. It's full of sequinned jackets, handbags with gilt panels on them, and suchlike.

I ask Hayman about Beverly Hills. 'Is it the most glamorous place in Los Angeles?' 'In the world. And I mean that.' 'So what is it about Beverly Hills, what makes it so . . .' 'We have the climate and the lifestyle. We have Hollywood itself, which is a very hard-working community, and a very glamorous community.' Evening. O J is nowhere to be seen. In a bar, a woman tells me what's going on in Beverly Hills. 'Juice bars. Coffee bars. Cigar bars, of course. Ah, yes . . . a type of tequila called Padron. What you do is, when you order a Margarita, you say rocks, salt, whatever, and make that a Padron, please.' 'Padron?' 'Right. That's the fashionable tequila.' Next day, Gary Calton (the photographer) and I take an official tour of stars' homes.

There are, we are told, more houses worth US$1 million-plus (more than HK$8 million) in Beverly Hills, per head, than anywhere else in the world.

The homes look deserted, except for the dark-skinned gardeners. We pass Phil Collins' vast house, Joe Di Maggio's former house, and the deserted Greystone Mansion, the biggest house in Beverly Hills, where Edward Doheny Jr was found dead, more than 65 years ago.

This is the house in The Wacky Professor, The Bodyguard, The Witches of Eastwick and many others. Later, we see the Spanish-style house of Peter Falk, the normal-looking one of James Stewart, Frank Sinatra's former house, which is white, and Walt Disney's, which has Mickey heads in the wrought ironwork of the gate.

Another fashionable day dawns. We go to the beach at Malibu, and to a lovely restaurant called Geoffrey's, where we might see Robert Redford. We don't.

When I get back down to the lobby, there is worse news. 'Michael J. Fox walked past,' says the woman. And I missed him.

The Observer