By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 31, 2008
Lindsay Blake sauntered into the Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hilton, her blond bob fluffed like a pillow and her maroon dress showing a bit of wink, wink. Sitting at the legendary bar, the actress drank only water as she discussed her career, her goals and her obsession with Beverly Hills, on the TV screen and off.
"People put Beverly Hills on a pedestal. It has an allure, and 'Beverly Hills, 90210' made it more tangible," said the San Francisco native, referring to that seminal teen soap opera from the 1990s. "When I moved to Los Angeles, all I wanted to see was [teen twins] Brenda and Brandon's house. I could die a happy woman after that."
Blake tracked down the site of the central characters' pad (spoiler alert: It's in Altadena) and now runs a blog called I Am Not a Stalker, which documents her quest to uncover celebrity homes and filming locales. She scours Southern California for her trophies but carries a special valentine for 90210, the most famous Zip code on Earth.
"Beverly Hills represents the rich and famous," she said, "and all of my hopes and dreams."
The 5.7-square-mile city northwest of downtown Los Angeles has played countless roles in our fantasies, as well as on the big and small screens. On Tuesday, the CW network will debut its successor drama, "90210," almost two decades after Brandon and Brenda Walsh first aired their angst over dating, drinking and Dylan's affections. The old show, which ran from 1990 to 2000, was called "Beverly Hills, 90210"; the new incarnation drops the proper name, because, well, that would be redundant.
"In China, they know it. In India, they know it," said Gregg Donovan, the dapper "ambassador" of Beverly Hills, explaining the universality of the Zip code. "You say '90212,' no one knows it."
Every story you've heard about Beverly Hills is true. The Ferraris and Rolls-Royces, the $10 million spreads and the celebrity sightings are as real as the palm trees lining the wide boulevards. But contrary to its moneyed reputation and gilded veneer, the city is not elitist.
"The city hired me to make people feel comfortable," said Donovan, who welcomes visitors on the street by shouting out salutations in any of 100 languages. "Some people are intimidated to go into our shops and restaurants, even Subway. They call it the 'Pretty Woman' syndrome. But I make them feel at ease."
It is understandable why one might feel like a bumpkin, or Julia Roberts's ill-dressed working girl. Last year, for example, Coldwell Banker listed Beverly Hills as the most expensive housing market in the United States, with the median price tag of a home hovering above $2.2 million. And although such mainstream stores as Ann Taylor and Pottery Barn make appearances, Rodeo Drive is the catwalk of couture: Prada, Gucci, Chanel, Dior, Versace.
"People come to Beverly Hills to live their dreams," Mayor Barry Bucker said in an e-mail. "It is the ultimate playground and escape from everyday life."
Now, click your Louboutin heels three times and say . . .
* * *
Beverly Hills comprises three Zip codes, but rather than wander off to 90211 or 90212, I stuck it out in the neighborhood first brought to me by Fox.
The postal code's boundaries start up by Britney Spears's house and extend down to the edge of Wilshire Boulevard. From the east, they begin at the western tip of Sunset Boulevard and stretch to the Beverly Hilton, where the Golden Globe awards take place. If you trip over the clusters of paparazzi on Robertson Boulevard, turn around; you've gone too far.
Unlike Hollywood, with its Walk of Fame and Grauman's Chinese Theatre, and downtown Los Angeles, home to various performing arts facilities, Beverly Hills is not door-to-door attractions. Its main cultural institution is the Paley Center of Media, a vision of white and glass designed by the modernist Richard Meier. The center's museum of television and radio offers a lifetime of viewing, thanks to its library of 140,000 programs, including, of course, "Beverly Hills, 90210," "Beverly Hillbillies" and the embarrassingly bad "Beverly Hills Buntz." The institute also hosts special events, such as the Sept. 6 preview party of "90210" and "Privileged," another CW show about spoiled teens.
To really appreciate Beverly Hills, you have to see it -- and accept it -- for what it is: a place of beauty that is not ashamed to say, "I am insanely rich."
The tony area, however, wasn't born wealthy; it started out as a giant lima bean field. This tidbit came from a guide on the Beverly Hills Trolley, a poised older woman who spoke with the clipped continental accent of an Audrey Hepburn. "We are going from the present to the past and back again," she said at the start of the tour, though I never saw any farming equipment. The "now" included a ride up Rodeo Drive, during which she called out the names of the stores, adding such extras as, "Of course, we have Cartier!" and "Bernini is having a 70 percent sale." Was she reading off a sales circular?
Along the way, we passed a woman with a mountain of teased black hair and a small coterie buzzing around her. Human instinct made me gawk, but lack of recognition forced me ask the teenager to my left, "Is she someone famous?"
"No, everyone here wakes up in the morning and decides they want to be famous," responded the jaded Los Angelena. "So they have people follow them around."
After leaving the commercial district, we headed into the residential hills where names were dropped on nearly every corner. We idled in front of Gene Kelly's former home, an all-American model with a white picket fence, and took a slow drive by the well-fortified, block-long monstrosity once owned by Clark Gable. At the multimillion-dollar property that William Randolph Hearst bought for his mistress, Marion Davies, a female in shorts and a tank top lingered in the driveway. She was definitely more Soccer Mom than Other Woman.
On the return loop to Rodeo Drive, our starting point 40 minutes before, the trolley passed a young woman holding up a handmade sign that read, "Trust Jesus and Not Your Riches."
Honey, you're in the wrong Zip code.
* * *
Whether or not you're in the market for high fashion, there is no harm in playing dress-up. Your credit card won't even have to know what you are up to.
The epicenter of Beverly Hills sits at the intersection of Rodeo Drive and Two Rodeo, a cobblestone street adorned with balconies, lacy ironwork and other flourishes evocative of the Old World. As long as you stay in this area, you are guaranteed to be modish.
I first stopped by Versace and tried on a pair of black sunglasses with frames so large I could almost touch them with my tongue. At Louis Vuitton, I slipped on a $3,300 boucle jacket the color and texture of oatmeal, then moved on to Dior, where I found my red-carpet earrings: $630 sparkly chandeliers with soft white feathers that grazed my shoulders. At Gucci, an employee told me the $925 high-heeled boots covered in the iconic logo "go well with blond hair." Must we now match our shoes with our hair color?
For a girl's best friend, I entered the hushed spaces of Bernard K. Passman Galleries, a jewelry store and mini-museum that specializes in black coral and diamond creations.
Ira Kaplan, a sales associate, greeted me warmly and escorted me through the multiple rooms, explaining how the designer, who died last year at age 91, incorporated black coral into his designs after receiving a bag of the rare material while living on Grand Cayman. At the back of the store, Kaplan pointed out some of Passman's VIP creations, including a Tinkerbell-size saxophone for Bill Clinton; an ebony crucifix for Pope John Paul II, commemorating his trip to Cuba; and a set of silverware for England's royal mouths.
Before leaving, he placed on my hand a blingy two-finger ring better suited for a rap star. Then, like Cinderella, I found my glass slipper: a Ping-Pong-ball-size orb of tiny diamonds perched on a thick band of black coral. It cost $150,000, and I gasped when it dropped to the floor during the handoff. Kaplan, however, didn't blink. Diamonds are scratch-resistant.
For the final lap of my spree, I visited the Rodeo Collection, a cluster of stores built around an open-air atrium trimmed in greenery. Fans of "Beverly Hills, 90210" may recognize the facade from when Kelly and Brenda shopped together for a prom dress. I picked out a short black cocktail dress at BCBG that would look smashing at the show's 20-year high school reunion.
* * *
Like birding or whale watching, celebrity-sighting can't be forced or orchestrated. It just happens. I saw my first famous name at the Polo Lounge, a venerable gathering place of power players, actors and the people who ogle both.
Blake, the actress-blogger, and I were planning an afternoon of stalking when in strolled Rob Reiner, his blue button-down shirt barely containing his belly. She elbowed me (I'm bad with faces) as he passed the pianist then disappeared at an outdoor table partly camouflaged by plants.
My next brush with semi-fame came soon after, though I never quite caught his last name. "Carl" sidled up to the bar for a glass of water, and, after a volley of pleasantries, the retired promotions manager began regaling us with stories about his former clients: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. Blake and I then joined in the name game, asking if he had met Elvis (no) or Jimi Hendrix ("He was crazy").
To increase your chances, you can always go to some of the stars' other favorite hangouts. At Nate n' Al, a waitress told me that Larry King comes in for breakfast every morning about 8:45. So, at that hour, I just happened to crave a bagel at the deli and espied the CNN interviewer a few tables away. I followed him to the cash register and then outside, but only to see what he was reading (a biography of Elvis).
My final "catch" occurred at Spago, the Michelin-starred restaurant run by Wolfgang Puck, a bold-face name himself. While dining on roasted beets and goat cheese, I felt again a familiar nudge against my arm. My friend Josh, a Los Angeles resident who was on watch for me, pointed his head in the direction of an elegant man with a slight stoop. Sidney Poitier was ambling toward the door, but I left him in peace and returned to my vegetables.
Blake was impressed with my sightings, and she had some good stories of her own, such as a curt exchange with Tom Hanks in a cinema lobby. Nearly every weekend, she looks for new material to add to her blog. Today, though, we were returning to some of her favorite spots.
We set out to find the manse of Aaron Spelling, the late producer of "Beverly Hills, 90210" and such hairstyle-defining shows as "Charlie's Angels." The 123-room house is said to be the largest residence in Los Angeles County, but I couldn't tell from my position: on tiptoes, peering over a high gate, holding up my camera to snap photos of the roof and some dark windows. Hardly a paparazzi shot.
There was more interaction at the Playboy Mansion. I could only make out two sculptures of coquettish maidens, a Roman-style stone mural and a "Brake for Animals" sign (for the bunnies?). But as I approached the gate, I heard a male voice behind me say, "You can take all of the pictures you want, just don't block the driveway."
I turned around to see . . . a rock. Studying the boulder, I noticed a speaker tucked inside. I apologized to the rock and waved at a tree, just in case a camera was hiding in the branches.
Jen and Brad are no more, as we all know. (That's Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt, for those who do not frequent supermarket checkout lines.) But the nest they shared did not break up with their five-year marriage. The house is walled like a Roman city, making it impenetrable to the eye. It wasn't even worth taking off my lens cap until a silver Mercedes approached the gate and drove in. For stargazers, this is a big deal; few have glimpsed even a flagstone. And now I have a great picture of a tree-filled courtyard and the back end of a car.
As a nod to the original "Beverly Hills, 90210" and its most controversial cast member, we made a quick pilgrimage to Shannen Doherty's pad. Her house was modest compared with other places we had visited, but the drama surrounding its four walls increased its value. In 1996, Doherty attacked her fiancee, Dean Factor, heir to the Max Factor empire; the address was listed on a restraining order. I noticed a few chips on the exterior, but no fist holes or nail scratches.
* * *
When the moon is full, the TreePeople come out. The stewards of Coldwater Canyon, who organize events at the 45-acre park, bring Beverly Hills back to earth, so to speak.
On a warm evening promising to be lighted by moonbeans, 120 or so people set out to hike a small parcel of the Santa Monica Mountains. The guides divided the group into three categories (easy, moderate and hard); I chose the hardiest trek, which started with a fairly moderate incline on a packed dirt path, followed by switchbacks in a canopied forest, then ending in a short downhill leading to an open space in which we could gaze at the moon sans obstructions.
The hike was hardly a heart-thumper, until I came across a tarantula that was crawling slow and steady across the trail. Someone suggested naming him after the state's governor, and another hiker picked up the thread, warning newcomers, "Don't step on Arnold!"
When we finally reached our viewpoint, the sky was blank.
"Has anyone seen the moon?" asked our leader, Cody Chappel.
"I saw it last night," a hiker responded hopefully.
Some of the group gave up and shuffled off, but I stayed, positive that the moon would make an appearance, even if it was a Hollywood one -- fashionably late.
And then, it rose. First, a golden rim appeared, an upside-down smile laughing at the mountains. Then it revealed its top half, before flashing its full, round self, a giant spotlight that outshone any stars above or below.
When the moon settled into its place in the sky, we all parted ways. I headed back to my boutique hotel in 90210, and Chappel returned to his yurt -- in the same Zip code.