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History of Palos Verdes - the Vanderlips

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Vanderlips Set the Mold in Palos Verdes

Courtesy of Meredith Skrzpczak Rancho Palos Verdes Patch Elin Vanderlip's enduring legacy enriches Rancho Palos Verdes.

Elin Vanderlip: The Chatelaine of Rancho Palos Verdes“Eccentric, obstinate and fabulous.”
By Katharine Blossom Lowrie  



It takes your breath away, reading about the sexy, sassy Norwegian in her own words. It isn’t just about the celebrities Elin Vanderlip entertained at Villa Narcissa, the Portuguese Bend mansion she shared for an all too brief 10 years with her visionary husband, Kelvin, son of Frank A. Vanderlip, known as “The Father of Palos Verdes”.

It isn’t just about how she ducked Nazi bombs in London while working for the Norwegian Legation during World War II, or how she traveled, danced and, yes, sometimes slept her way through a staggering number of adventures — from Calcutta to Washington, D.C. to Portuguese Bend — often in the company of male companions from Hollywood or the highest echelons of society.

It isn’t even about the landmarks in Rancho Palos Verdes she championed — Wayfarer’s Chapel, Marineland, Portuguese Bend Riding Club, Portuguese Bend Beach Club, Nansen Field, Marymount College and Chadwick School.

It’s about a woman who sometimes flaunted convention, one as influential in cultural circles as she was feisty and outrageous when it came to standing up for what she believed in: her four children, the betterment of the Peninsula, French art and — above all — love.

The witch in the haunted castle

Since Elin Vanderlip died at age 90 in July of 2009, she outlived most of her neighbors and peers, leaving in her wake a fascinating (if often frustrating) blend of folklore and fact.

Much of the folklore (that she was a "wicked witch" who lived in a "haunted castle") is addressed with her usual candor in her book, “Eccentric Obstinate and Fabulous, A Memoir from Lyngen, Norway to Palos Verdes, California.”

Few seem to know of the book, however, and it’s not uncommon to hear Portuguese Bend residents say, “Well, I don’t know if it’s true or not, but that’s what I heard.”

One such is Lisa Wolf, who, in 1978, purchased the Portuguese Bend Riding Club in partnership with her parents from the Vanderlips.

Wolf was a horse-crazy 15-year-old living in Pacific Palisades when she first came to the barn in 1965, she said during an interview in the riding club office.  

“I came here to look at a horse that was for sale and fell in love with the horse and the place,” she said.

Now 59, with patrician cheekbones and the slim frame of someone who has shown and trained horses all her life, Wolf not only lives at the club, she rules the place with an enviable blend of charm and savvy, those who work for her said.

“Big, fabulous parties”

But back in 1965, Wolf took everything she heard about the Vanderlips as “gospel,” she said, her Boston Terrier, Bugsy, nestled at her feet. “And some of it is questionable.”  

Like the “big, fabulous parties” the Vanderlips were said to have held in the courtyard barn, something Wolf heard from “an old Englishman, a huntsman and horseman” who lived in the Pacific Palisades.

Certainly, the tree-shaded square, surrounded by blue-trimmed barns and tile-roofed buildings, including two apartments and several second-floor guest rooms, might easily have been transformed into a site for galas in the old days.

Called “The Farmstead” when Frank A. Vanderlip, an Eastern financier, built it as part of his Portuguese Bend estate in 1927, the barn has gone through several incarnations — from a milking dairy to a cattle barn to a stable for hunter/jumpers, which it remains today.

What Wolf does recall, and vividly, is a dinner at Villa Narcissa.

“Elin invited me up because she wanted to know who bought the barn,” Wolf said as she recalled the evening in 1979 when she first visited the graceful peach mansion, with its Italian-style garden (once featured in Harper’s Bazaar), bright blue and ginger interior, carved ceilings and magnificent portraits.

“Everything first class and for real”

Describing Elin as “a character ... who always did everything first class and for real,” Wolf remembered her as a candid conversationalist and extraordinary hostess.

“She had the most fabulous meal, either salmon or sole, my favorites, and these French paintings on the walls, it was really wonderful,” she said.

Wolf saw Elin occasionally at the barn after that, usually around the holidays in the company of her four children or when her grandchildren wanted riding lessons.

“But Elin was the only one who lived at Villa Narcissa,” Wolf said about the mansion still owned and maintained by the family.

Although Elin never married after husband Kelvin Vanderlip succumbed to lung cancer in 1956, she found love for 40 years with producer Lehman “Lee” Katz ("The Train," "Apocalypse Now," "Fideler on the Roof"), with whom she traveled to locations all over the world. Katz died at Villa Narcissa at the age of 89 in 2003.

Elin Regina Brekke was born in 1919 in Oslo Norway, the daughter of a lumber factory owner.

"He patented laminated rafters ... and had a doctorate in civil engineering," she wrote in her 2008 memoir.

After the lumber factory burned to the ground in 1922, the family, including Elin’s two brothers, went to stay at their maternal grandmother’s farm in Lyngen, later one of the areas of resistance against the Germans. Elin was four years old.

Although her time in Lyngen was idyllic (“In the mornings the four maids lit up the iron stoves and served hot chocolate and cookies to [us in] the curtained beds”), there was the scary cat incident.

Snakes with fur

A daredevil from the start, Elin was running along the rafters of the barn, when she leaped into a pile of hay.

“I landed on a mother cat and her kittens ... and got scratched good and proper," she says in her book. "This explains my lifelong dislike of cats.”

She later called them “snakes with fur.”

Six when the family moved to Berlin, she heard rumblings of war echoing loudly in the streets. Two years in a German-speaking school provided her with a skill she would later put to use, translating Hitler’s ravings for an American newspaper.

When her father was asked to go to America to build a silk factory, the family  eventually ended up in Rock Island, Illinois, where Elin fell in with heirs to the John Deere and McCormick Tractor companies.

Befriending the rich, famous and royalty came naturally to Elin, whose adventurous nature and playful personality (she never met a martini she didn’t like) held a gravitational pull few could resist, especially men.

Although the Brekkes lacked money for Elin for college, they sent her brothers to Georgetown University “partly financed by [the boys] being Arthur Murray dance instructors.”

She was 18 and working at a job she describes only as “ghastly” when the editor of The Springfield Register, learning she spoke German, asked her to translate Hitler’s speeches “as he shouted over the radio.”

A job at the U.S. Senate followed.

“I loved the Senate," she said in her book. "So stately, so elegant, and the job was a piece of cake, reception and typewriting.”

But in May 1940, when the Nazis invaded Norway, Elin’s uncle, Jorgen Galbe, a minister at the Norwegian Embassy in Washington, invited her to work for him.

Torn between two marriage proposals in 1942, Elin Regina Brekke dreamed of “helping to liberate Norway” from the Germans, she wrote in her 2008 memoir, “Eccentric, Obstinate and Fabulous!” But when the Norwegian Foreign Minister, on a visit to Washington, asked if she would go to London on behalf of the Royal Norwegian Legation, she eagerly stepped to the plate.

Despite the air raids, Elin found work in wartime London thrilling: “I loved the excitement, the blackouts, the marvelous international colony at war, the fun, the danger.” In 1944, due to her mother’s ill health, she returned to Washington, where her mother improved.

Longing to return to London, Elin got a job with the American Red Cross, which posted her to Calcutta as a morale officer.

“My duties consisted of receiving the GIs at the Bengal Club and madly admiring the photos of their babies,” she said in her memoir.

She fell in love with an officer, Colonel Frank Hunter and said in her memoir, “He told me of his castle in Scotland and gave me a star sapphire necklace with many diamonds. We had dinners in enormous luxury hotels. ... It was like a fairy tale.”

Dressed in white for their wedding, she got the shocking news. Following his bachelor lunch, Col. Hunter “said goodbye to his friends and went into the gentlemen’s room and shot himself.”

It turned out the officer had a wife in Melbourne, no castle in Scotland and was most probably “homosexual," according to Elin's memoirs.

Sterling Hayden swept her off her feet

Elin returned to the Norwegian Embassy in Washington and threw herself into a whirlwind of parties. But it was actor Sterling Hayden who swept her off her feet.  He “was pretty irresistible and had fallen in love with all Norway on his way home from the war,” she wrote in her memoir. “Some pretty intense evenings followed.”

But after a summer of sailing on Hayden’s 70-foot schooner, The Quest, and inventing drinks like the “Vodka Land Mine," Elin realized there was “zero congeniality between this handsome blond movie star and me.” She left for a job in the press department at Warner Brothers Studios. She was 27.

A friend told her about “this remarkable New York banker, Frank A. Vanderlip,” who had died in 1937, leaving behind “interesting children, a fabulous estate on the Pacific Ocean” and a sixty-five room mansion on the Hudson River.

The friend took her to visit one of the Vanderlip daughters in Portuguese Bend.  Elin recalled passing through a gate marked Villa Palos Verdes and proceeding up a winding drive “beautifully landscaped” with “feathery Brazilian pepper trees.” They stopped at the Old Ranch Cottage, the shingled residence Vanderlip Sr. had built after he purchased the 16,000-acre Peninsula for $1.5 million in 1913.

“To my amazement its interiors then were beautiful,” she wrote in her book. “Red and gold Chinese tea paper covered the walls.” There were exquisite paintings and gold and rust lacquered carvings. “I felt like I was back in Europe.”

“You must marry my brother, Kelvin!”

One of the first things Charlotte Vanderlip said to Elin that day was “You must marry my brother, Kelvin!” Elin thought Charlotte was mad. “There had been plenty of men in my life, but never a proposal after 30 minutes acquaintance from a lady,”  she wrote.

They met on the Eventide, a yacht belonging to a mutual friend. Born April 15, 1912, the night the Titanic sank, Kelvin Cox Vanderlip, 33, was six feet tall, lean, with graying blond hair, immense blue eyes “…and a magnificent dimple in his chin.”  She felt a “serious flutter” in her heart.

Later on deck, drenched in moonlight, they sat on the bowsprit, she in a tennis dress, her bare legs dangling over an ocean sparkling with plankton. When Kelvin announced plans to marry her the next day, Elin again thought it was a joke. “Little did I realize how rapidly I was to drift into 10 blissful years as the Chatelaine of Rancho Palos Verdes.”

She was, of course, “wild with joy to have met a handsome, athletic man with a hilarious sense of humor, ambitious ... and offering me so many comforts, three homes and a great housekeeper. I was in heaven.”

Elin and Kelvin were married Nov. 18, 1946 in Washington, D.C.  The reception was held at the United Nations Club. Narcissa Vanderlip, Elin’s new mother-in-law, followed with lavish “moveable feasts” at her Beechwood mansion on the Hudson River.

Back in California, Ethel Barrymore, living in Palos Verdes Estates, invited the newlyweds to lunch with Greta Garbo, Cole Porter and Katharine Hepburn.

“I loved Ethel, who knew all the baseball scores and had twenty books by her bedside,” Elin wrote.

No couple had ever been so happy

According to the bride, “No couple had ever been so happy.” Kelvin was also “madly in love with his job as president of the Palos Verdes Corporation, which still owned 9,600 acres of undeveloped land.”

At the Old Ranch Cottage, where they lived for five years before moving to Villa Narcissa (then called Villetta), the Vanderlips entertained every Sunday “so journalists would publicize Portuguese Bend and Palos Verdes. Out of 365 days, we had eleven nights without houseguests, and entertained [a total of] 1,165 at meals.”

Elin brought over three young maids from Norway, who were “pretty” and “great cooks.” One problem was the water from two private water towers. Perfectly fine to drink, it was a brownish color, so Elin served it in tinted glasses.

Getting people to drive clear to Portuguese Bend was difficult, however, so they lured guests with movie stars such as Greer Garson, Merle Oberon and Edward G. Robinson.

Meanwhile, Elin sorted through storerooms of furniture, paintings and objects d'art that Vanderlip Sr. imported from Italy. She had Farmstead guest rooms painted, other residences refurbished, and helped Jesus Gonzales, the gardener, prune and revamp the vast gardens.  

Her “Blue Heaven”

In her later years, Elin spoke of her “Blue Heaven,” a special place on her 12-acre estate where she wanted her ashes spread. It is planted with blue (her favorite color) jacaranda trees (a birthday gift from her son, Kelvin Jr.), delphinium, rosemary and hydrangeas.

But in the late 1940s and early ‘50s, Elin was awash in happiness, her life with Kelvin exceeding all expectations: “He would return from his office in Rolling Hills or downtown and say, ‘Saddle the horses, mix the martinis, and let’s ride down to the beach’.” 

Kelvin Vanderlip’s dream was to develop the Palos Verdes Peninsula in keeping with his late father’s wishes that it be patterned after an Italian hillside village. “He loved the Japanese tenant farmers” and helped them set up roadside fruit and vegetable stands. 

Deeply involved with the planning of Rolling Hills, he schemed to sell every other lot so that residents might buy the additional land for horses and orchards. They did.

“Our job was to develop and bring people to the Peninsula to show the pleasant amenities for living on what Kelvin called ‘the jeweled earlobe of Los Angeles,’” Elin wrote.

Kelvin and Elin Vanderlip sold seven acres of their property to actors Charles Laughton and his wife, Elsa Lancaster. In the mornings, Elin wrote in her 2008 memoir, “Eccentric, Obstinate and Fabulous!" she would watch Laughton as he “hung in trees in his pajamas, pruning citrus, almond and sapote branches … a bottle of champagne in one hand and pruning shears in the other.”

Happy evening were spent in the living room at Villa Narcissa, the Vanderlips’ estate in Portuguese Bend, listening to Laughton’s “glorious voice” as he read from Shaw, Dickens, Shakespeare and the Bible.

Aside from their extensive entertaining of film stars, artists and politicians, the Vanderlips were deeply involved in the community. While Kelvin headed up the Chadwick School Board, oversaw plans for the Wayfarer’s Chapel, built a four-room schoolhouse (now St. Peters by the Sea Church) and — as president of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce — lobbied hard for Marineland, Elin had projects of her own.

One was to enlarge Villa Narcissa. In 1950, along with adding bedrooms and bathrooms, “we enclosed the outside staircase creating a lofty entrance hall,” she wrote in her book. The hall had a view of the Italian cypresses lining 260 steps leading to a white column temple: “Later, I had a Paris muralist paint four cypress [pathways] on the walls, matching the real one outside.”

One endeavor close to Elin’s heart was a soccer field for Norwegian merchant seamen left idle on long layovers in the Port of Los Angeles.

In 1947, Consul General Kaare Ingstad, a frequent guest at the Vanderlips, and a pastor from the Norwegian Seamen’s Church, told the young Mrs. Vanderlip they wanted to provide outdoor recreation for sailors who had nowhere to go but bars and brothels.

Eight and a half acres of land in Rolling Hills Estates was made available for Nansen Field, a project Elin supported for the rest of her life. Her husband, she wrote, was deeply proud of her “pure” Norwegian heritage.

Two beautiful babies for one

The children came along, Kelvin Cox, Jr. in 1948, Narcissa in 1950, and the twins, Katrina and Henrik in 1952. When, during Elin’s third pregnancy, one of the twin’s heart beat could not be found, she thought she had lost the baby. But that turned out not to be a false alarm.

“It has only taken me fifty years to begin to grasp the glory and the wonder of getting two beautiful babies for one,” she wrote.

Problems in paradise began with Kelvin’s older brother, Frank A. Vanderlip Jr. His mother’s favorite, Frank had been sent to Harvard with a valet, polo ponies and fabulous cars. Kelvin, who insisted on going to Princeton to escape his brother’s shadow, was given $50 a month for everything. Elin thought it shaped her husband’s character.

Frank was an entirely different matter. To Elin, Kelvin's brother “had infinite charm and generosity, but we never got along.” She was doubly shocked when Frank Jr. was named president of the Palos Verdes Corporation over his brother, who was demoted to vice president. It was done by the matriarch, Narcissa Vanderlip, the boys' mother, who acted against everyone else in the family.

When Elin threatened to move to Norway and take the children with her, Kelvin resigned.

Frank moved into the Old Cottage, the original residence built by Frank A. Vanderlip Sr. in 1914. He brought with him his butler, Cavanaugh, who took to sunbathing in a black bikini. (Though he married twice, Frank Jr., according to Elin’s book, was bisexual and later died childless from complications from Alzheimer’s.)

But when he took over the Palos Verdes Corporation in the early 1950s, Frank Jr. halted much of the work Kelvin had been doing to develop the Peninsula.

“He bought advice that to do as little as possible [with all this land] was to be the policy,” Elin wrote.

It broke Kelvin’s heart.

Suffering from urological problems all his life, Kelvin became seriously ill in 1955.  That same year, doctors discovered three tumors on his lung. Months of cobalt treatments followed.

Things went from bad to worse when Narcissa, the Vanderlips’ older daughter, came down with Meningitis. Although Narcissa got better, Kelvin did not. He died on Aug. 15, 1956, exactly ten years after the couple fell in love in the moonlight on the Eventide.

Still wracked with grief two years later, Elin decided to rent her home and move to Europe for a time saying in her book, “You do not cry all day if you are skiing.”

Murderous nuns

Before she sailed in 1958, the Marymount group bought land on Palos Verdes Drive East and wanted to lease Villa Narcissa for a dormitory for two nuns and 12 girls.  Delighted, Elin found she needed a variance. She also needed patience.

Her neighbors were enraged, believing “they had to protect the community from the murderous nuns who would drive over all the small children in the neighborhood.” There were hearings, the variance denied. Never one to take no for an answer, Elin got an important Catholic friend to intercede. The nuns moved in.

For the next eight years, Elin and her children spent winters skiing in Switzerland, summers in Norway, Spain and Paris. Her passion for art and the restoration of imperiled objects d'art in French chateaux, museums and churches eventually led to her founding of Friends of French Art in 1979.

The woman who spoke seven languages and never went to college, was awarded two of France’s highest cultural honors, the Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur, and Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters.

By 1966, her eldest son accepted at Pomona College, Elin returned to Portuguese Bend. Her three younger children were sent to Palos Verdes High School.

“I had been impressed with its computers, swimming pool and the school’s luxuriant site on the coast,” Elin wrote.

That impression changed when Henrik was socked in the face at a school dance. Elin also didn't approve that PV High students “kissed on the mouth.” A free-thinker when it came to her own love life, she believed “going steady” was wrong for teenagers. She yanked her children out of PV High and sent them east to school.

The wicked witch

Such actions, as well as her refusal to join a Portuguese Bend group lobbying to remove the gate blocking Narcissa Road from public access, resulted in the nickname she took some pride in.

“I am the well known as the ‘Wicked Witch’ in the ‘Haunted Castle’, and I have been the target of every brave high-schooler who wanted to break my gate and climb my fences,” she wrote.

But the “eccentric, obstinate and fabulous” woman, who danced the Norwegian flokke with the 70 or so guests at her 90th birthday party a month before she died and fought for the loan to ensure the opening of Terranea Resort (site of a Vanderlip Sitting Room), will be remembered for much more.

Though scattered with their families and various businesses around the globe — from London to Moscow to Connecticut to Los Angeles — Kelvin Cox Vanderlip Jr., Henrik Nils Vanderlip Sr., Katrina Vanderlip and Narcissa Vanderlip-Fuller spend time when they can at Villa Narcissa, where their mother’s ashes rest beneath the blue Jacaranda trees.

At the conclusion of her book, Elin wrote: “Today the boys are successful businessmen, and the girls multi-talented. They graduated from Princeton, Cornell, and Harvard. One has taken eight teenagers to cruise Turkish waters, has been up Machu Picchu, sent me gifts from Bombay. I have every reason to be proud as they are handsome, amusing, athletic; skiers, sailors, and wanderers.”

Right out of the Elin Vanderlip mold.

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Comments

By Pbresident,  Wed Feb 23 2011, 11:16
The only thing that takes my breath away about this story is how slanted it is. Too bad no one who writes stories about Mrs. Vanderlip ever, evidently, saw how she treated children. I had contact with her on a number of occasions where she was the rudest, most entitled, horrifying woman I've ever met. She was cruel to her own family members, insulting to community members, and demanded people wait on her hand and foot. She screamed at kids who walked anywhere near her property, overcharged tenants for her slum-like rentals, and verbally insulted people she thought we beneath her. Just because someone writes a book and marries into a rich family doesn't mean she was a great person. I will always remember her as a true wicked witch.
By George Fotion,  Wed Feb 23 2011, 12:55
I was wondering if this article I shared would solicit opinions on the other side of the spectrum. I have heard comments like yours from other folks too. I never knew the woman, and I wonder if the truth is somewhere in between? I'm glad you posted, thank you.
By Ouryhouse,  Sat Sep 24 2011, 21:09
I am trying to find Wendy Vnderlip who I went to school with in the 60's in rolling hills/palos verdes area..., please use my email at http://www.smecc.org to answer back. she was somehow related... or so I thought.
Ed Sharpe - Director and Lead Archivist for SMECC

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