I FOUND DANIELLE STEEL IN THE HOLLYWOOD HILLS
yo did anybody else know the houses up there are whack?
There are these houses in the Hollywood Hills that have thick pipes running down the back, laying on the land like dead snakes in a field. You never see that on Zillow.
“I don’t get why anybody would buy a house here. The infrastructure is so unstable,” Meryn said and veered the Nissan Rogue into a tight parallel park on a steep uphill. As she inched the car into a spot, a vista appeared between the houses: jungle-like with dark purple flowers and lush palms. So dense you could almost forget that the Sunset Strip — with its low-down billboards and thick traffic — was just beyond it. “Okay,” she paused and nodded towards the view. “I totally get it.”
We locked the car and walked up to a salmon pink stucco home with arched doorways and a pantile roof. Two security guards were standing near a pile of leather purses and paper bags on the ground. “No bags allowed inside,” they said.
A young woman with a severe black bob, gray blazer, and teeteringly high flip-flop heels entered the house and we followed her inside. All the calm of the Hollywood Hills disappeared as frantic people shuffled around each other in the cramped foyer. Furniture and noise was rubbing the walls; no one was actually moving.
“If these people would just MOVE, I could get this out of here,” a woman shouted, trying to navigate a credenza through a doorway. Not once had she asked anybody if she could get through. The second she spoke, the crowd began to inch apart for her. This would only happen in a city where nobody has to take the subway, I think. The lack of public transit in Los Angeles makes people ridiculously accommodating yet ridiculously closed off. They don’t know how to start a conversation but can keep one going.
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That morning, Meryn had roused me awake from her couch and told me to get in her car. We were going to the estate sale of big Hollywood agent who used to represent Steve McQueen. The estate sale listing promised Turkish rugs, autographed glamour shots of Cary Grant and a room full of vintage clothes. Estate sales are Meryn’s football. Her home is strewn with wooden chairs and glass baubles from every antique corner of the planet. She even has an app that pings her when there’s a new estate sale in Los Angeles.
Estate sales are garage sales for goths. Basically the same but death lingers more visibly in the corners. One person’s belongings are splayed out for evaluation. It’s the tangible reminder that you can’t take it with you and that one day, people are going to sort through all your shit.
One day, if you're lucky, strangers will bustle for your belongings. They will pick them up and put them down. They will haggle for your silverware. They will slide their arms through your favorite coats. They will assess your framed paintings and debate just how much money they would spend on them, if it goes with the rest of their decor, if you had good taste.
Meryn loves estate sales but hates the people who show up there. She found me on the stairwell and told me about a woman she’d seen pacing the halls, pinching at fabrics, and exclaiming in a nasally voice. “I’ve never been to an estate sale before! Is eeeverything for sale?”
Up the wooden staircase, there was an entire room filled with clothes. Half of the space was metal racks with hand-stitched suede coats from the ‘70s and Calvin Klein blazers. The other half was women: a woman with bangs and a brown suede vest; a woman in leggings and a sports bra; a woman in a leather jacket and a hangover. (Me. That last one was me.)
As I flicked through the racks of hangers, I found velour tops from Boohoo and white crochet vests stained with time. There were orange jackets and pink shirts, shearling coats with hand-stitched toggles. This woman loved color. I haggled for a jade necklace and vintage heeled sandals (that crumbled when I wore them that evening).
In the living room, there were two guys flicking through rugs and paintings. One tall and sturdy and presumably straight and the other, presumably, not. The tall one complimented the shorter one’s taste and asked what he did for a living.
“Oh, I work in the arts,” the guy responded. (After some prompting, he explained that was an assistant for a woman who managed NFTs.)
I wandered the Spanish house, shimmying between strangers and around tight corners, and found dusty tables with Grecian urns. There was a hand-painted Mexican bowl filled with matchbooks from around the world: Ibiza and Rome and Hollywood & Vigne. The bedroom was filled with rugs textiles and linens with pricetags. Out on the patio, even the metal furniture was up for sale.
And people were eager for all of it. They whispered admiration around her turntable and around the hand-carved cabinets. She had taste. This was a good estate sale.
A good estate sale is an estate sale where the dead person had not just money but cultural caché. This whole neighborhood is built (shoddily) on that unclear idea: some nexus of power and capital, the clink of relevancy. You feel it swirling up Marmont Lane when you swing off Sunset. The gray peaks of the Chateau announce it. (“I don’t know why but that hotel feels less accessible than the other big hotels,” Meryn said when we drove past.) The big Hollywood agent must have known exactly where she was buying when she bought this address. The earthquake streaks of broken road and the exposed piping down the mud hill wouldn’t have bothered her. Because power flowed from the top of that hill down to Hollywood, then out to the rest of the world. She had collected urns and matchboxes from enough of its corners to know that.
The home was the home of a woman who knew. She knew people, she knew places, and she knew what to say about all of it. Her home — and the amount of people picking over her leftovers — was testament to that.
I went to an open room near the stairwell to escape the fog of strangers. It was the only empty room in the house: a library lined with thick wooden cabinets of books. Nobody else inside but me. The selection had, it seemed, already been fairly picked over, but there were still some hardcovers from the ‘90s. There were some war biographies. The Hollywood agent had had the same copy, same edition, of The Great Gatsby that my mother gave me in high school. And then, as I crouched down, I saw that the entire bottom shelf was Danielle Steel books: bright pink and bright green glossy hardcovers with royal, swooping letters.
It made me begin to love LA. There’s nothing more authentic than a place where not even a flash of good taste can sustain itself.
On our way out, I noticed that I had lost the tag to reclaim my purse at security. I told the men at the door and they laughed and just let me fish my bag out of the mess on the foot of the stairs. They didn’t really care what happened.
Meryn loaded her newly purchased ceramic vase into the back of her car. She wondered if she should have tried to haggle the price of the Turkish rug even lower. I watched the pipes on the hill again, half-expecting them to come to life and slither away in the sunlight. But, of course, they’ll just sit there waiting until the earth shakes them away. I think that’s how it goes here. Everything sits until it burns or quakes or sells.
HOWDY! Thanks for making it to the end of this post! A whole new slew of you have joined over the last week and I’m over the moon to have you here! If you’re new here, I wanted to point you in the direction of a little essay I published over on Catapult recently about newsworthiness in travel journalism. (I’ll be writing more on this soon, so stay tuned!)
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