Polishing off the last of the Dom Pérignon while gazing out at the starless, cobalt blue night, I reflected on how much I loved and loathed living in this crumbling old Los Feliz manor. The chipped, ornate wall sconces cast a soft rose glow over me as I reclined on a frayed, white deco, divan, within easy reach of my mirrored ice bucket. Everything looked so much better in the evening: the tarnished feel of the house diminished, the disrepair not so obvious. The decadent interior resembled something out of a Vincent Price movie set, very House of Usher, contradicting its charming 1920s Mediterranean exterior. Situated on a quiet, curved avenue above Los Feliz Boulevard, the declining manor had been inherited by my boyfriend, Jay Turnbull, from his deceased grandmother. Having looked after her in her declining years, he lived in “the Big House” by himself— that is, until I came along.
When I was evicted from my West Hollywood apartment, he suggested I move in. Since I had cultivated the art of making a grand entrance, the sweeping spiral staircase alone was worth moving in for, not to mention the free rent and abundance of pharmaceutical substances, thanks to Jay and his medical connections. Tall, sandy-haired, and bespectacled, he seemed oddly traditional, affecting the mannerisms and gestures of a twisted modern-day Jay Gatsby. Claiming to be a hospital administrator (and no one had any reason to doubt him), his articulate speech was sprinkled with medical jargon, but as it turned out, he was, in fact, a rather eccentric and somewhat scholastic-looking alcoholic trust fund baby who really liked to party.
It may have been the fall of 1977; decked out in another of my by now well-anticipated, slinky Roxy Music-inspired getups, it was time for me to join our guests. I slipped on a pair of sling-back Charles Jourdan heels, added a splash of YSL Opium, and strolled out to the landing.
The thirty-foot-high vaulted ceilings gave the house a sense of awe as I leaned across the black iron-rod rail to observe the sea of nightly partiers filling the huge living room below. Iggy Pop’s “Sister Midnight’’ blared from the sound system, the quaalude kicked in, and I was ready to make my entrance. Heads turned upward as I made my sensual descent in what felt like slow motion. Jay greeted me at the bottom of the stairs with lustful admiration, gaunt and lanky, his ever-present Scotch in one hand, Marlboro cigarette in the other, and his familiar air of distorted sophistication.
“You look stunning tonight, darling,” he said, peering out of his Coke-bottle glasses while taking a deep drag.
“Thanks, Jay.” I smiled guilefully, blowing him an air kiss before floating across the scuffed hardwood living room floor. I made what I considered an elegant landing on the low, worn gray-velvet couch, filled with plush Moroccan pillows and vaguely familiar-looking faces. A Johnny Thunders look-alike slid in next to me and asked, “Hey gorgeous, when does the basement tour start?”
Ahhh, I sighed to myself, another tour request. “Well, why don’t you round up some of your friends and meet me over by the piano,” I responded seductively.
Leisurely raising my leggy frame, I sauntered over to the fireplace and took a look at myself in the cracked Venetian mirror, tossed my mane to one side, and snorted up a long line off the mantelpiece.
“Can’t let my guests down,” I said to no one in particular, with a refreshed sense of energy. Grabbing a bottle of Jack Daniels and a few shot glasses off the littered coffee table, I headed over to the piano. A small, diverse group of LA scenester types had gathered in anticipation of the “tour” they had all heard so much about.
“Hi guys, welcome to Casa Cromwell,” I announced. “Help yourselves to a shot and. . . follow me.”
I gave the group a sly wink over my shoulder before opening the medieval-looking door, covered with a Screamers poster and a big Keep Out sign. Feeling like a bewitching ringmaster, I led them down the creaky wooden stairs to the infamous Cromwell Avenue basement. A damp, musky scent permeated the stairwell as the sounds of Patti Smith’s “Gloria” now filtered in from above. I chuckled to myself as they followed me through the labyrinth, past a collection of old tapestries, piles of dusty vinyl, rusted armor, and dangling skeleton parts into a dark, dank storage room.
“Is this where you keep the human heads?” asked one guy eagerly. “Are they really real heads?” asked another.
“Yes, they are definitely real human heads,” I replied, now sporting a wicked smile. “They’re in these big yellow metal canisters, right over here.” I kept a pair of long, black rubber gloves nearby to slide on, in order to strike a more dramatic pose for extra effect before prying the lids off the sinister-looking cans.
“Get ready, boys, the formaldehyde is pretty strong,” I warned them. It nearly sent me reeling every time. The group covered their noses from the pungent odor and gathered in close to get a good look at the first head, bobbing in the toxic liquid with its bug eyes, translucent skin, and surprising shock of red hair.
“Holy shit, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Wow, I can’t believe it. Look at his face, he almost looks. . . alive.”
“Yeah, he does. We like to call this one Declan. He looks kind of Irish, don’t you think?” I asked the stunned group as they moved in closer in disbelief.
“Take a look at the other one. He’s got dark hair, and he’s a little better-looking. We call him Joey, ha, ha, ha,’’ I laughed. Finishing up the “tour,” I led the group back up to the top of the stairs where Jay was waiting for me.
“It seems we have a rather grave situation on our hands,” he said dryly.
“Oh, really, what’s that, babe?” I asked, playing along to humor him.
“I’m afraid we’ve run out of champagne! Ha, ha, ha. Not to worry, I’ll make a liquor run. It’s a very thirsty crowd tonight.”
“It’s always a thirsty crowd, Jay,” I replied with a sultry hair toss.
“I’ll be back in a jumpin’ jack flash. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.” He winked and was out the door.
I wasn’t quite sure what to think the first time Jay showed me the heads he had acquired by way of his delightfully wacky prankster Scottish father, a well-respected head and neck surgeon. Jay’s father and grandfather, also a head and neck surgeon, stole the heads from the UCLA medical department as a practical joke, and they wound up in Jay’s basement, eternally young, so to speak.
Word got out at the parties we threw, and the head-viewing requests increased, so I eventually took over the so-called tours. It all seemed so normal now, showing off human heads to friends and strangers, but it certainly wasn’t how I originally visualized life in this rambling old manor, often referred to as, “the Big House” just down the hill from the Greek Theatre.
I weaved my way through the intoxicated crowd to the kitchen in order to surmise the liquor situation for myself. Spotting my girlfriend Deirdre, fellow high-glam siren, in a silky, black strapless jumpsuit with a big white orchid in her hair, I noticed her leaving thick, glossy red lipstick marks on nearly empty glasses of champagne scattered on the counter.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Oh, hey, doll, looks like you guys are running low on the good stuff. Just thought I’d finish off these leftovers,” she said, grinning like a Cheshire cat.
“Don’t drink those, fresh supplies are on the way. Jay’s on a liquor run.”
“Another liquor run! You know, that man can’t go ten minutes without his Scotch!” she squealed.
“Yeah, he’s a heavy consumer. Keeps the local liquor stores afloat,” I laughed.
“And that’s not all he keeps afloat. Jay’s absolutely crazy about you. You’ve got his Lordship wrapped around your slender little finger.” She dramatically waved her Bakelite-bangled arm in my face.
“Oh, I don’t know about that. He can be very set in his ways.”
“Well, he keeps you knee-deep in Dom and party favors!” she roared, taking another swig. “Cheers, doll, bottoms up!”