There are few properties in Los Angeles that that evoke the mystery and Golden Age glamour of seductive silver screen idol Rudolph Valentino’s Falcon Lair estate high in the mountains above Beverly Hills that has just changed hands at $15 million, almost half of its outlandishly high original asking price of $29.5 million. The legendary estate’s new owners are prolific documentary and independent film producer Jenifer Westphal — her dozens of credits include the acclaimed 2018 biodoc “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” — and businessman Jeff Westphal, philanthropic former CEO of Vertex, a corporate tax software concern founded by his family in the late 1970s.
Valentino purchased the then eight-acre mountainside property in the upper reaches of Benedict Canyon, and its 11-bedroom Spanish-style villa, in 1925 for $175,000 from its original owner, Beverly Hills realtor George Read. It was, however, the devastatingly handsome Italian-born silent film star who gave the estate its enduring name that was inspired by his character in the 1924 film “The Hooded Falcon” and is inarguably justified by its high perch and sweeping canyon-framed views.
After his sudden death in 1926, at the too-young age of 31, the estate was broken up and Falcon Lair was sold for $145,000 to New York diamond broker Jules Howard, who reportedly never moved moved in. The main house was subsequently rented by creatively named silent film star Harry Carey before it was sold in 1934 to art dealer Juan Romero for just $18,000. Later owners include actress Ann Harding and her conductor husband Werner Janssen and flamboyant Bay Area nightclub owner Gypsy Buys. Already by then Falcon Lair was widely rumored to be haunted, and Buys hosted a couple of séances in hopes of conjuring Valentino’s ghost.
At some point, the estate was sold to a group of women who unsuccessfully attempted convert the estate into a money-making Valentino shrine but when that idea fizzled it was scooped up by wine critic Robert Balzar who rented it out to Gloria Swanson. So the story goes, it was Swanson who first invited famously enigmatic tobacco heiress Doris Duke to Falcon Lair in the early 1950s. Smitten with the estate, Duke acquired Falcon Lair from Balzar in 1954.
The immensely rich socialite, philanthropist, horticulturalist and rapacious collector of Islamic art seldom spent more than a few weeks or months each year at Falcon Lair, typically arriving from one or another of her East Coast homes around her late November birthday before high-tailing it on her lavishly customized Boeing 737 to her epic Shangri La estate in Hawaii, where she spent the winter. Duke died in seclusion at Falcon Lair, in 1993, after suffering a severe stroke.
Duke left her affairs in a state of chaos, and the just shy of four-acre spread was sold by her estate in 1998. Since then it’s changed hands a couple of times and, sadly, the main residence was demolished in 2006 to make way for a new mansion that was never built. All that remains of the original estate are lantern topped whitewashed pillars that stand alongside forbidding iron driveway gates, a carriage house topped by a small apartment and, of course, the bird’s eye views. Laced with a swooping pathway, only bits and bobs of the steeply sloped property have been developed. In addition to a variety of fruit trees and a couple of view terraces festooned with stone balustrades, the property appears in listing photos to have an open-air all-faith chapel, perhaps an incarnation of the outdoor shrine to Valentino that Romero allegedly built during his stint as owner.
It’s not clear how or if the Westphals will develop the property, but it was sold with approved plans for what marketing materials describe as a “30,000+ sq. ft. Modern Mediterranean home overlooking Beverly Hills.” Plans for the unabashedly monstrous five-story megamanse include a vast entertainment room, a wine tasting room, a sprawling master suite replete with private garden and pool, and more than 4,000 square feet of covered patios.
At the base of the property, on an adjacent parcel of almost 1.25 acres that was originally part of the Falcon Lair estate, Valentino’s former stable building and three-bay garage, dubbed by the actor as Falcon Lodge, was converted by Duke into a three-bedroom guesthouse and pool pavilion. Recently renovated and updated, the three-bedroom and three-bath bungalow was sold last year for $3.75 million to, as it turns out, Mr. and Mrs. Westphal.