Get thee to Los Angeles. The Getty-led artfest known as Pacific Standard Time, an unprecedented series of concurrent exhibitions that highlight the significance of art in postwar L.A., is in full swing and lasts through the spring. Once you’ve devoured Hunter Drohojowska-Philp’s new tome on the ‘60s art scene and reread City of Quartz, relax by the pool with the latest dishy page-turner from Michael Gross. The intrepid author of 740 Park and Rogues’ Gallery switched coasts to write Unreal Estate: Money, Ambition, and the Lust For Land in Los Angeles (Broadway), a scandal-studded survey of 16 trophy estates in L.A.’s best neighborhoods. But don’t mistake this book for a text-based tour of movie star homes. This is La-La Land, “a figurative geography as much as a real one,” writes Gross in the opening pages. “It’s a place of pregnant possibility and polar opposites, good and evil, American dreams and nightmares, sudden rises and vertiginous falls. So it appeals equally to dreamers and schemers, all of them gambling to survive on an L.A. mountaintop.” With a Joel Silver-produced HBO series in the works (Unreality television?), Gross talked with us about his adventures in “the mecca of self-invention.”
Having focused on Manhattan with your last two books, what led you to look west for Unreal Estate?
I never want to repeat myself but to some extent that’s just what the book business wants. So in order to continue writing social history/exposes, I have to find new subjects. I thought of writing a book about the South of France and my then-publisher countered with the suggestion that I write about L.A. Once I started looking into it, I saw a fantastic untold story and I was off to the races.
You tell the story through 16 homes. How did you go about selecting these homes? Were there particularly criteria that an estate needed to make the cut?
The homes had to be special and redolent with history, and they had to have a chain of ownership that helped me tell the story of the region and the people who populate it. I started with about fifty, winnowed it down to about eighteen, and then focused on six, through which I could tell the larger story.
How did you overcome the most obvious barrier to entry—that is, the formidable gates that encircle these estates?
Sometimes I did, sometimes I didn’t. Reporting on people who slam the door in your face isn’t easy, but access often requires compromises so great, you lose the ability to tell the truth. And ultimately, that’s what I’m after.
What’s the most unreal thing you discovered while writingUnreal Estate?
The story of the illegitimate daughter of one of the founders of Beverly Hills. It’s beyond beyond.
Click below to take Gross’s “flying tour” of the world of Unreal Estate: