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Luminaries of the Canyon: Laurel Canyon’s Most Star-Studded Home

Laurel Canyon has long been a haven for artists, musicians, and actors, but there’s one particular home in the neighborhood with a star-studded roster of owners and overnighters that include: Natalie Wood, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson, Mama Cass, Jimi Hendrix, Ringo Starr, Joni Mitchell, David Crosby, and many, many more. The house, an enclosed English Country cabin, was the site of innumerable decadent parties, songwriting sessions, pool days, and shady drug deals.

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Laurel Canyon began attracting Hollywood luminaries in the early 1920s when it was viewed as a remote, private location in the hills. By the 1950s it became the home of hippest actors in Hollywood, including Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Dennis Hopper. But it was Natalie Wood’s Laurel Canyon house that would solidify the long lineage of Hollywood and counter culture heavyweight’s addresses changing hands that persists to this day.

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The history of the home began in the early 1950s when Natalie Wood, then just a teenager but making waves in Hollywood, and her family built the house near Lookout Mountain.

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After Natalie’s breakout role in Rebel Without a Cause in 1955, she began inviting her friends James Dean, Nick Adams, Sal Mineo, and Dennis Hopper over to the house for pool parties. As Natalie’s sister Lana Wood wrote in her book Natalie: A Memoir by Her Sister, “Boys flowed in and out of our house…” perhaps setting the standard of a revolving door of high profile guests that would later proliferate once Mama Cass, of the Mama’s and the Papa’s, bought the house in the 1960s.

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Here, Natalie, Nick Adams, and Dennis Hopper are making dinner at the house in 1956. In 1957, Natalie met a handsome young actor named Robert Wagner who would later propose to her by secretly placing a pearl and diamond ring at the bottom of her glass of champagne. A tiny inscription on the ring read, “Marry me” and three weeks later he did.

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After the wedding, Natalie’s parents officially signed over the ownership of the Laurel Canyon house to Natalie and Robert, but it wasn’t long after that that she, and many other actors of her era, moved out of the neighborhood and into the more up-and-coming posh environs of Beverly Hills, then seen as a more appropriate locale for established screen stars.

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Natalie Wood’s exit paved the way for Mama Cass’s grand entrance. Natalie selling the home to Cass is seen now as an illustrious example of the transitional period of power from Old Hollywood to New Hollywood. The ’50s were over, and the counter culture revolution and musical renaissance of the ’60s was just beginning.

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Photo courtesy The Selvedge Yard

Mama Cass quickly turned the estate into not only a party house, but a refuge where her friends, musicians mostly, would congregate to eat, drink, be merry, and maybe write a song or two. Cass is known alternatively as the “Earth Mother of Laurel Canyon” and, as Graham Nash described her, “The Gertrude Stein of Laurel Canyon” because her house seemingly recreated Stein’s salon at 27 Rue de Fleurus in Paris in the 1920s.

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Although Cass’s friends, including Joni Mitchell, Frank Zappa, and Gram Persons, all lived in the canyon in nearby homes, it was here where they all seemed to rendezvous to share ideas, lyrics, joints, and beds. It became a kind of second home for all and was even the go-to stop for visiting musicians from across the pond like Eric Clapton, The Beatles, Donovan, and Jimmy Page. Here, a young Eric Clapton sits and listens to Joni Mitchell sing, “Urge for Going” as Cass’s daughter Owen looks on.

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Photo by Henry Diltz. Courtesy The Selvedge Yard

Joni Mitchell and Mama Cass were viewed by all as matriarchal figures overlooking the peaceful canyon community. Cass’s reputation as a social networker grew once she introduced David Crosby and Stephen Sills to Graham Nash at her home. Nash was allegedly living with Mitchell at her nearby bungalow. As Sills later recalled, “You could always go over to [Mama Cass’s], but call first.”

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In lieu of an address book, Cass allegedly asked visitors to write their names and phone numbers on a “graffiti wall” in the living room. If only we could see that wall today! Mama Cass is said to be the first of the “Free Love” generation to move into Laurel Canyon.

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Before she owned the Laurel Canyon house, she lived in the basement of the Canyon County Store and wrote “Twelve Thirty” there, which is best known for its chorus which includes the line, “Young girls are coming to the canyon.”

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Photo courtesy The Selvedge Yard

The Garden of Allah hotel, which was once located at the edge of the canyon and a favorite of many luminaries, was razed in 1959 for a bank branch. Decades later, this would inspire Joni Mitchell’s song, “Big Yellow Taxi” and the lines, “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” And, similarly, as the ’60s came to a close and the cultural revolution waned, so too did the Laurel Canyon front porch jam sessions and late night parties that embodied the era.

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After Mama Cass died in 1974, the home would change hands a number of times between a host of celebrities. Ringo Starr lived at the house for a short time. Later, Dan Aykroyd and his wife actress Donna Dixon called it one of their many homes.

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Actresses Alfre Woodard and Renee Zellweger are alleged to have rented the house in the ’90s and early ’00s. In 2008, after sitting on the market for months, actress Beverly D’Angelo purchased the house from Aykroyd and Dixon for nearly 4 million dollars.

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Although Aykroyd claimed the house was haunted, possibly by Mama Cass’s ghost, D’Angelo has lived at the Laurel Canyon home since.

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We can only assume she has, by now, updated the kitchen’s wallpaper. Or, perhaps not! It’s rather charming, don’t you think?

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One thing we can be sure about though is that this legendary house, home and second-home to so many Hollywood mavericks over the years, was the perfect haunt for celebrities because of its over 1 acre of lush, isolated grounds, set back on a hidden lane.

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And although the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s have long since past, and Laurel Canyon’s feel and vibe has changed many times, today’s residents can still feel the enduring artistic history of the neighborhood.

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Sources:
Huffington Post
Architectural Digest
Vanity Fair
Variety
The Independent
LA Times
The Selvedge Yard

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9 Responses to “Luminaries of the Canyon: Laurel Canyon’s Most Star-Studded Home”

  1. John Tarnoff says:

    Great piece, Jacqui –
    I thought the house was on Woodrow Wilson…
    And great set of pics!

    xx

    JT

    • thehollywoodhome says:

      Thanks, John! And, wow, you really know a lot about the neighborhood. Next time I’m going to use you as a reference!

      Best,
      J

  2. Tatiana says:

    Wow! This is incredible! What history!!!

  3. Nurit Wilde says:

    The house that Cass owned was on Woodrow Wilson Drive. I was there many times and lived just up the street from her on Seattle Drive. The picture of the house shown doesn’t look at all like the house I remember.

  4. joel peel says:

    According to Joni, which I read in some publication, she was in a hotel in Hawaii. It overlooked a bare parking lot consequent to which she wrote “They paved paradise…”

  5. Barbara Webb says:

    I lived on Woodrow Wilson Drive, next door to Mama Cass. . I don’t see photos of that house. After her death Ringo Star lived in that house until there was a fire in the upstairs, and he moved out.
    Mama Cass’ daughter played at our house once with my daughter who was about the same age. Mama Cass’ dog, Charlie, liked to play in my yard, so Mama Cass and I had a meeting, and she said that since Charlie wanted to play with my children she would let Charlie be our dog. She was lovely, intelligent, down to earth and had birds flying freely in her living room with the flowered upholstered couch.

    • thehollywoodhome says:

      Thank you so much for your comment, Barbara! That’s amazing you knew Mama Cass and were part of that scene.


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