‘Marilyn Monroe slept here’

The whys and hows of leveraging a celebrity connection — however tenuous it might be — when marketing luxury listings

Jan.January 17, 2019 10:00 AM
Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio’s former home at 2393 Castilian Drive is currently listed for $2.7 million. (2393 Castillian Drive photo by David Huynh)

Like most homes in the Outpost Estates, the one at 2393 Castilian Drive has some elegant flourishes that could seduce even the most discerning buyers. The walled and gated four-bedroom house boasts architecture that conjures images of the Amalfi Coast, with a large terrace, a romantic tower room and a grotto-like pool that overlooks Runyon Canyon.

But you won’t find its most distinctive feature listed anywhere in the blueprints: the home’s reported one-time occupants, Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio, who rented there during their whirlwind marriage in 1954.

“They weren’t married long — it’s probably the only house they ever shared,” said Neal Baddin, the Coldwell Banker agent who currently has the Hollywood Hills listing, which carries an asking price of $2.7 million.

It’s an amazing backstory for a property — the former love nest of one of the greatest ballplayers of all time and the ultimate Hollywood icon. And it’s one that Baddin said that creative types and entertainers feel “very, very drawn” to.

But does that attraction ultimately matter? Do celebrity connections — and particularly those of the “so-and-so lived here briefly” or “Hollywood legend X used to party here” variety — help move a home, especially when the asking price is already in the millions?

A 2016 Redfin study of 60 celebrity-owned homes for sale showed that the houses typically sold for less than their asking price and sat on the market for an average of 36 days longer than market average.

But Leonard Rabinowitz, the director of Hilton & Hyland’s estates division, said that has not been his experience: A connection to fame raises interest in — and ultimately the value of — a property. With his partner Jack Friedkin, Rabinowitz recently closed a nearly $8 million sale for a Malibu home that belonged to Steve Lawrence and the late Eydie Gormé, the husband-and-wife singing duo known as Steve and Eydie. The home served as an occasional hangout for the Rat Pack. Coincidentally, Rabinowitz and Friedkin also currently have the listing for Frank Sinatra’s former seven-bedroom, 5,800-square-foot beach house in Malibu, which carries an asking price of $12.9 million. Rabinowitz said its celeb pedigree is generating leads that a similar property might not have.

Brokers said these homes are attractive to prospective buyers because they tap into the city’s greatest export: star power. “A house like Steve’s or Frank’s, if it’s standing, it adds value,” Rabinowitz said. “Even sophisticated buyers get really turned on … People love the house because of that.”

But sometimes, those connections don’t run nearly as deep as “Frank Sinatra owned this house.” And that’s where many agents have learned to weave a story nearly as great as those told by the actors and directors connected to the properties they’re marketing.

Take the home at 6225 Quebec Drive. Built in 1927, the three-bed, four-bath Hollywood Hills house boasts a terraced backyard, stone walkways and magnificent views — “period charm and character with contemporary appeal,” according to the description in the listing the Agency posted. But it has one key tie to Old Hollywood: James Dean reportedly lived briefly in a downstairs suite and served as the personal handyman for the owners before he became famous. Listed in June 2018 for about $4.4 million, it sold in November for $3.8 million.

Another home listed recently by the Agency boasts an even more remarkable connection to the golden age of celebrity: Located in the Chatsworth neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley, the home was rented by Frank Sinatra for nearly a decade starting in the early 1950s and is rumored to have been a meeting spot for Monroe and John F. Kennedy during their storied affair. The owners are seeking $12.5 million for the house, which was also featured in “Mad Men,” among other productions. It was last on the market in 2015 with a price tag of $7.5 million.

Similar legends are trumpeted frequently in the Los Angeles real estate world, but they are sometimes hard to prove.

“We’re talking something that’s 50, 60, 70 years back,” said Redfin agent Alec Traub. “You can sort of make the claim, but it’s a little hard to prove whether that really was the case.”

Loose links?

Realtors also look beyond famous former occupants for other ways to tie boldface names to listings. In some cases, a celebrity may buy intending to flip the property, but never live there. Ellen DeGeneres sold two Los Angeles-area homes in 2018 for a combined $69 million, at a profit of $21 million, while Baddin said that Leonardo DiCaprio is known for his land dealings. In other cases, a property has changed hands several times since the famous owner lived there. But those previous transactions, Rabinowitz said, don’t necessarily dilute the connection, particularly when it comes to A-list, legendary celebrities like Gregory Peck and Sinatra.

“That will carry through,” Rabinowitz said. “Whoever buys the house, unless they knock it down, it will always be the house that Frank built.”

Sometimes, a home may have been built on the property after a celebrity sold the land or died. The site of Jimmy Stewart’s former house in Beverly Hills went up for sale this past September with an asking price of $48 million. But the actor never lived in the home. The “Vertigo” star died in 1997; the house he lived in was torn down, and construction on the Italian villa-style structure was completed in 2000.

“I wouldn’t consider that a stretch,” said Nourmand & Associates President Michael Nourmand. “Yeah, they tore it down and built a new house, but I wouldn’t consider that being dishonest or trying to trick somebody … As long as the agent is upfront about the history of the property, it’s fair game.”

Nourmand currently has the listing for a property with a similar story, a Beverly Crest home that sits on what was once part of John Barrymore’s estate. The actor died in 1942, and the home was built in 1958. Having Barrymore’s name attached was enough to garner some sizable attention for the home, including placement in the Los Angeles Times’ Hot Property vertical. It’s listed at $3.25 million.

“Even though this property was built after he was gone and he didn’t own the property, it was still on the same grounds,” Nourmand said. “It gives it some Hollywood history —just a little bit extra.”

It just doesn’t necessarily bring in too much extra money.

“I do think it’s helpful, but I don’t think a house is going to go for 50 percent more,” Nourmand said. “But maybe a little bit more.”

Are there any instances where agents flat-out lie about ties between a celebrity and a piece of real estate?

Police were seen at the home of Jake Paul in 2017.

Hilton & Hyland President Jeff Hyland said that while it’s not common, it does happen. Howard Hughes’ name, for instance, is sometimes bandied about dubiously by agents. Hyland said the famed business magnate may have owned some of the houses in question, but certainly not the number ascribed to him. In addition, it’s unlikely he ever lived in any of these homes. Hughes kept a permanent bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

“He may have just spent the night [in one of those homes], or maybe he rented it for three months and kept a mistress at the house,” Hyland said. “All of a sudden, that now becomes a property owned by Howard Hughes.”

Buyers are sometimes all too eager to eat it up, he said.

“They can tell their friends, or maybe keep that card in the hip pocket so if they go to show the house, they can go, ‘Oh, and Howard Hughes owned the house, or Marilyn Monroe slept here,’” Hyland said.

‘Jake Paul was here’

Of course, as the entertainment industry evolves, the very idea of what constitutes a star may be getting stretched — and far past the Marilyns and Deans and Sinatras. Nourmand, for instance, owns a property near the infamous West Hollywood home formerly rented by Jake Paul. The YouTube personality is worth an estimated $6 million and has more than 17 million subscribers on the platform, but he probably wasn’t well known to most of his neighbors before he moved in. They are, one assumes, not in the target demographic for his prank and stunt videos. They did, however, quickly become acquainted with him through his antics, which included wild parties and some light destruction of property. (After Paul lit a mattress on fire in the yard, one neighbor told KTLA that the street had become a “war zone.”)

That unwanted interest brought hordes of curious onlookers, and it likely didn’t do much to drive up property values, but Nourmand said that he can envision a scenario where it helped with subsequent rentals of the properties.

“I can see someone saying, ‘Yeah, this guy’s a cool guy — a rich guy. He’s all over YouTube. This must be a good, fun party house,’” Nourmand said.

The Paul example highlights one issue with fame-adjacent real estate, even when a property isn’t owned by a notorious troublemaker: These houses may lack the privacy a high-end buyer wants.

Traub concluded that one reason celebrity-connected homes may linger on the market — as per the findings of the 2016 Redfin study he participated in — may be the unwanted attention that comes with living in a home that’s made its way onto a map of the stars. That’s especially the case as wealthy buyers from Silicon Valley move to Los Angeles amid the region’s tech boom and don’t want live on a stop for tour buses.

“If you’re a high-end luxury buyer who values privacy, you’re probably not going to want to buy Justin Bieber’s [former]home,” Traub said.

Rabinowitz recalled recently showing a home in Bel Air located across the street from a house Elvis Presley reportedly lived in. The prospective buyer pulled over to make a phone call before entering the property, and that’s when the loudspeakers and cameras arrived.

“Two tour buses came by, right after another,” Rabinowitz said. “And he said to me, ‘No way.’”

Fringe benefit: Media exposure

While some agents would be loath to use Jake Paul’s name to market a property, they all share one common trait with Internet celebrities. Realtors and Paul alike want to attract as many eyeballs as possible. And that’s definitely an area aided by a celebrity connection, agents said.

There’s no way to ascertain the precise dollar impact a celebrity pedigree has on a home sale, but brokers agree having a certain amount of Hollywood sheen can be invaluable in promotion and for generating hits, leads and showings.

“Somebody that might never know about the house is hearing about it from the press,” Rabinowitz said. “I think with the Sinatra house, we were published in about 80 places around the world in 10 days.”

The Hilton & Hyland agent said that the larger pool of interested parties naturally ups the price, typically by about 10 percent.

And while a celebrity connection may be weak for some properties, Coldwell Banker’s Baddin has some rock solid evidence to back up his listing’s  Marilyn-Joe connection. After the agent learned from a friend that the couple lived there in the 1950s, he brought the info to the current owners, who were unaware of the story. Some sleuthing turned up a canceled check signed by Monroe herself in the amount of $237.82, roughly $11,000 less than the estimated monthly mortgage payment for the property in 2019.

Will that check — and the home’s story — help the Castilian Drive property move off the market any quicker? Baddin said he’s unsure, but that he thinks whoever buys it will be getting a special piece of Hollywood lore.

“When you get this type of property, it makes a big difference,” Baddin said. “When you have someone so iconic and so ageless as Marilyn Monroe, it’s always going to be part of that property.”


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