For those familiar with popular films and television, the Greystone Mansion is easily recognizable. The grand staircase in the entrance is said to be the most filmed and photographed set of stairs in all of Hollywood. Indeed, as the set for , , and , the Greystone Mansion has become a part of many familiar stories and plot lines since it was purchased by the city of Beverly Hills in 1965. The most mysterious plot of all, however, is that of the real-life murder that happened inside its walls, well before it was opened up for public use.
The 46,000 square-foot-house was constructed in 1928 at the request of Edward L. Doheny, an oil tycoon, whose primary rival at the time was John D. Rockefeller. Doheny is primarily remembered today as the inspiration behind There Will Be Blood. Sparing no expense, Gordon Kaufmann, well-known architect of the Hoover Dam and LA Times building, was contracted for the job. The mansion cost over $4 million at the time (over $50 million in today's money) to build—making it easily the most expensive home in the area. The lavish home was built as a gift, from Doheny Sr. to his son, Edward “Ned” Doheny Jr.
However, tragedy struck just four short months after Ned Doheny, his wife Lucy, and their five children moved into their new home. On the night of February 16, 1929, Doheny was found dead in a guest bedroom in the east wing of the mansion, alongside his longtime friend and hired assistant, Hugh Plunkett.
The story that was related to the public came mostly from Lucy, Ned’s wife. She said that Hugh had let himself into the mansion with his own key and made his way to the east wing. She said she wasn’t alarmed until she heard a single gunshot. Lucy called the family doctor—not the police, notably—E.C. Fishbaugh, and the two approached the east wing room. Outside they allegedly found Hugh, holding a gun and looking distressed. He immediately rushed back into the bedroom, and another shot was fired. When the two entered, they discovered the bodies of both men.
By the time the police arrived, things were more mysterious than ever. Witnesses’ testimonies seemed rehearsed, and the sequencing of events seemed shaky. Why had Lucy first called the family doctor, rather than the police? Why had the bodies been moved from their original placement? Why were the police called at 2:00 A.M., when the shots were fired between 11:00 and 11:30 P.M.? How could Hugh have shot himself in the back of his head, in a position that seemed extremely difficult for a supposed suicide?
Within a few short days, the police reached the conclusion that the deaths had happened just as Lucy Doheny said they did. Although individual detectives were uneasy with this decision, the case was declared closed.
The bodies of Ned Doheny and Hugh Plunkett were buried close to each other, in Forest Lawn, a secular cemetery. This decision in and of itself raised suspicions because Doheny’s family was Catholic, and his stepmother gave frequent and generous donations to the local Catholic Church. At that time, those whose death had come by their own hand were not permitted burial in a Catholic cemetery. The location of Ned’s grave has given rise to many theories surrounding his—and Hugh’s—death. Did the burial location hint that the Doheny family thought that Ned was not murdered, but actually shot himself?
One unfounded rumor that arose in the wake of the deaths was that Ned and Hugh had been lovers and that the deaths were a result of a fight related to their “shameful” relationship. This story gained much traction, with some alleging that Lucy had walked in on the men, and shot them both herself. However, the “lovers” explanation for the killing is very far removed from the rational explanation of what probably did transpire that night.
Around the time of the two deaths, Ned’s father, Doheny Sr. had been tried in court for his involvement in the Teapot Dome Scandal. He was accused of using bribery to persuade a member of President Warren G. Harding’s cabinet to lease federal oil reserves to his company at low cost. This was widely considered one of the greatest scandals, if not the single greatest, in American politics.
Both Ned and Hugh were also implicated in the case. It is most likely that the murder-suicide—regardless of who killed whom—was the result of growing stress about their unlawful business dealings and the resulting consequences they were facing.
Almost a year to the day after her husband’s death, Lucy remarried, and she and her new husband continued to live at Greystone, raising her children. She sold the home in 1955. The mansion changed hands several times since.
When the 1965 owner indicated that he planned to demolish the historic building, the city of Beverly Hills intervened and purchased it. In 1976, Greystone Mansion was added to the National Register of Historic Places, ensuring its preservation. For nearly 20 years, the city leased the building to the American Film Institute. Fittingly, the mansion was used to film scenes for Ghostbusters II and Death Becomes Her, as well as creepier flicks like Picture Mommy Dead.
Now, the grounds are a public park and the mansion itself is open for special events and filming. The building is even used for performances of The Manor, a play loosely based on the Doheny family and the murders that took place in the home.
Whatever happened that night, it is said that the house remains haunted to this day–but not by ghosts of the men. Rather, Greystone is reportedly haunted by Ned’s wife, Lucy. At the end of her long life, 100-year-old Lucy moved into a 5,000 square foot home, where she dressed up every day, then sat, apparently waiting, in a wing-backed chair with her handbag. Some guess that she was waiting for Judgement Day, claiming she felt guilty about whatever happened that night long ago.
Perhaps this is why, since her death, there have been claims of a ghost at Greystone Mansion, leaving traces of lilac perfume in her wake.
Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons