Book review: Unreal Estate

Michael Gross turns his eye to the great estates and excess of Los Angeles in his latest book.


Photo: Anna Lisa Sang

UNREAL ESTATE: Money, Ambition, and the Lust for Land in Los Angeles
Michael Gross

Anybody who’s seen Chinatown can guess at the sordid history of the real estate deals that helped transform Los Angeles from a dusty burgh to a global capital of glamour, and for Gross—who sold truckloads of his previous book, 740 Park, a history of New York’s richest apartment building and its residents—the estates of Beverly Hills and Bel Air prove fertile ground.

Existing wealth, augmented by the arrival of “the picture people” a hundred years ago, turned the city’s Platinum Triangle neighbourhoods into a centre for intrigue and high-society excess. But unlike so many East Coast dynasties, Los Angeles’s elite has proven more transient, its legacies less lasting. “The founding families seemed content to reflect the nature of their place, accepting and even embodying the notion that nothing could take root in the desert soil of L.A.,” Gross writes. That means a great deal of turnover among the cast of characters inhabiting the great estates that frame this history, but their pathologies and indulgences have so much in common, they may as well be related. The whole tale resembles Gross’s description of Lynda and Stewart Resnick, relative newcomers to the Triangle: “exaggerated, extravagant, crude, ridiculous, a bit indecent, and vastly entertaining.”