The Secret Histories of Los Angeles Mansions

An entertainment lawyer turned history sleuth uncovers the past lives of homes for clients.

David Silverman has written histories of the former homes of Hollywood heavyweights like Marlene Dietrich, Frank Sinatra, and David O. Selznick.
David Silverman has written histories of the former homes of Hollywood heavyweights like Marlene Dietrich, Frank Sinatra, and David O. Selznick.

Marilyn Monroe lived in many different places in L.A., but if you were to rely on the legends that homeowners and real estate agents want you to believe, that number would triple,” says David Silverman with a laugh. “Rudolph Valentino’s name comes up a lot too. Any celebrity connection is a big selling point.”

Standing on a quiet, jacaranda-lined street in the flats of Beverly Hills, the author of custom-made books on celebrity homes flips through the pages of one of his earliest creations and points to a house. “But she really did sleep there,” he says, indicating several pictures of a very young Monroe posing on the entrance pathway.

Silverman discovered the photos while researching a biography on a white-painted Spanish colonial revival residence next door. That home was previously owned by an actress named Adrienne Ames; in the 1930s, she appeared in 30 films, including Dracula with Bela Lugosi.

In 2013, Silverman was in his mid-40s and working as an entertainment lawyer at Sony Pictures. After more than 20 years in practice, he couldn’t bear the thought of negotiating yet another contract. “I was just so tired of it,” he explains.

One day, he came upon an old, weathered wrought iron sign that read “Mille Fleurs” in the greenhouse at his sister’s 1920s home in the Holmby Hills section of Los Angeles. Intrigued, the self-confessed history nerd went online to see what he could learn. He accessed the Los Angeles Public Library’s historical archives and was delighted to find a 1927 newspaper article about his sister’s house, with a picture of the Mille Fleurs sign on the front gate. His curiosity led to more research about the home and then to a book for his sister. Silverman’s business, LA House Histories, was born.

“I’m sort of a detective. Every house is a mystery,” says Silverman, who’s 51 and looks like a modern-day Sam Spade with his trim build and short black hair.

The jacket of one of David Silverman's books, The House That Shirley Built: A History of 209 North Rockingham Avenue.
The jacket of one of David Silverman’s books, The House That Shirley Built: A History of 209 North Rockingham Avenue. Silverman charges between $500 and $15,000 for his books, depending on the research required.

Interest in Silverman’s house biographies has spread by word of mouth. He’s received a dozen or so commissions from homeowners wanting to know the history of their property. He also markets his services to real estate agents who need closing gifts for their well-heeled clients as well as architects and interior designers who are seeking old photographs or blueprints to inform their restoration work. Silverman explains that the more expensive and older the house, the better the tales he’s likely to find.

LA House Histories’ fees range from $500 to $15,000 or more, depending on the time and research required. The unique hardcover volumes run from 75 to 300 pages each.

Surprisingly, Silverman doesn’t spend much time visiting the houses that he’ll devote 100 to 300-plus hours to learning about. Besides scouring the online archives of newspapers and magazines, he’ll pore over biographies and autobiographies of the residences’ previous owners, looking for the words home and house.

He might also visit the Office of the County Assessor, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences archives, the Huntington Library, or the map collection at L.A.’s Central Library. Some places, however, are far less picturesque than the mansions he studies. The UCLA Department of Geography’s Air Photo Archives are in a windowless basement lined with metal filing cabinets. But as compensation, Silverman says, “their collection of oblique aerial images is stunning.”

He also tries to contact former occupants and their relatives. Most calls and letters go unanswered, but he occasionally strikes gold. Silverman’s most recent project was about producer David O. Selznick’s onetime home, and it led him to befriend Selznick’s son Danny, who is now in his 80s. Spurred by Silverman’s interest, Danny revisited his childhood home and supplied details that otherwise might have never been remembered. “He was able to tell me where his father kept his two Oscars,” Silverman says, “and which celebrity sat where when they came over for Sunday movie nights.”

David Silverman has written histories of the former homes of Hollywood heavyweights like Marlene Dietrich, Frank Sinatra, and David O. Selznick.
David Silverman spends hundreds of hours on research but very little time inside the homes he studies. “I’m sort of a detective. Every house is a mystery,” he says.

As for nasty surprises, Silverman says he hasn’t found any—so far. Real estate brokers are obligated to disclose whether there has been a murder at a property or home, and a criminal connection could be an unwelcome surprise. “Unless the owners are real history buffs,” he says, laughing.

Silverman refers me again to a page in his book on the Spanish colonial revival house. Before Ames, its owner was Florence Magenheimer, who in 1928 served on the jury for what was known as the Bat Man murder trial. A sensation at the time, the case involved a married woman whose younger lover—Otto Sanhuber—secretly lived in the attic of her Milwaukee and Silver Lake homes. When her husband would go to work, Sanhuber would come down. The scheme went on for nearly 10 years before foul play occurred and her husband was killed. Little wonder that the love triangle inspired three movies.

As he prepares to drive back to his Brentwood home office, Silverman tilts his head toward the Spanish colonial revival house, where all is silent except for the sound of small burbling fountains in the front garden. He grins and casually drops a bombshell: “Marlene Dietrich swam naked in their swimming pool.”

James Bartlett wrote about the mysterious vacancy of L.A.’s Original Spanish Kitchen in Alta, Issue 6.

Originally from London, James T. Bartlett writes the Gourmet Ghosts series on L.A.’s haunted bars, restaurants and hotels—and the true crimes and history behind them.
Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
More From Premium