AMONG THE MANSIONS OF EDEN

Tales of Love, Lust, and Land in Beverly Hills

By David Weddle

Morrow. 342 pp. $25.95 Despite the subtitle here, there's not much love or lust to be found in these pages. The story is of land, the evolution of real estate in the past century in the town of Beverly Hills. It's a tale of grotesque materialism, very bad taste, extremely weird behavior, huge fortunes won and lost.

This is a volume full of movie stars who build their dream houses, lose their money and then have to move out. There are ethnic tales; the Jewish American comic mafia, waxing, waning, then finally taking refuge, forlorn and forgotten, at the Friars Club, which is currently making do by staging celebrity bingo nights. A Persian generation invades the town, buys up acres of real estate, filling their edifices with Roman statuary, while the rest of the community looks on askance.

And of course there are the elderly bachelors with their bad-boy dreams: Hugh Hefner with his grotto and harem, as well as Bernie Cornfeld, who tried to follow in the Playboy master's steps and stumbled, badly. The author deals conscientiously with all these people, but he has a little trouble with tone here, and who can blame him? Is all this material (so quintessentially cheesy and Gatsbyan) heart-breaking, or dizzyingly funny, or just a map of the way everybody would act, given half the chance and twice the money? Doesn't everyone cherish dreams of a palace? And where is it written that every palace should be aesthetically pleasing?

To connoisseurs of Hollywood, most of the movie-star stuff here will seem familiar, traditional -- indeed, often told. The "bachelor tales" seem to have been tweaked in a soldierly attempt to create glamour where, in real life, there was little to be found. The odious Cornfeld's house, according to the author, was populated by "a half dozen hard-bodied and hard-partying nymphets," including Heidi Fleiss, who "ran a stable of zipper-popping lovelies." The prose goes on like that for quite a while. But those who visited Cornfeld's mansion "back in the day" remember a passel of bored-sick old guys listlessly playing backgammon in the main room, while up under the roof, in a string of maid's rooms without air-conditioning or even decent furniture, sad young women looked out of tiny windows, and a couple of babies fretfully cried. Not bachelor heaven, by any means. Hell is more like it.

The author interviews students from Beverly Hills High (and by a trick of fate seems to have finished this book before the news of a cancer cluster on campus, seemingly caused by its oil well, came to light). He dutifully addresses racial profiling and the Beverly Hills police department, but his liveliest work deals with entrepreneurs and real estate agents. The businessmen include Bijan Pakzad and Fred Hayman, and will be of considerable interest to West Coast readers. Both men built retail empires by physically catering to and emotionally caressing the very rich and fairly gullible. It makes for amusing reading for those of us who shop at mid-list department stores.

The real estate men are as weird as they come, and constitute yet another answer to the rhetorical question "Why do they hate us?" The gold-plated chandeliers, the waterfalls and fountains and indoor pools and Jacuzzis and Lalique crystal sinks and wine cellars and atria and bazillion-car garages speak for themselves. Beverly Hills, perhaps more than any other place in the country, makes generous room for the far-out nouveau riche, and is more than willing to make manifest their freakazoid dreams.

There's more to the town than this, of course. Block after block of two-story homes exist in the "flats," for instance, each with its carefully tended garden and understated architecture, homes that have been lived in for years by the same families. But the author looks for the grotesque and, of course, he finds it: There are more than enough awful tales to go around.

Few of the rich get to die in the mansions they've built, and as you read of yet another dozen tennis courts or ballrooms or helicopter pads, you want to reach in through the pages and grab these dodos and yell: "Put something away in a money-market fund!" But innocents -- except for Cornfeld -- populate these pages: the rich, the dumb, the deluded. Easy to make fun of. And the author doesn't hold back.