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Hilltop Legends

The boldface names behind the best parties (and hottest scandals) in Nob Hill’s history.

By Damion Matthews

San Francisco in 1977 was a gritty city burning with disco fever.

Strip clubs, sex shops and adult movie houses were commonplace. Prostitution flourished. Crime was so prominent that the criminal classes were dramatized each week on two hit TV shows. There was even a bout of domestic terror, with a horrendous incident known as the Golden Dragon Massacre.

Yet despite the tumult of the streets below, life atop Nob Hill hummed along with the same patrician elegance that had been its hallmark for 100 years. With one difference: Someone new had just moved into the penthouse at 1001 California, the neighborhood’s most coveted address.

Patty Hearst, the 23-year-old heiress whose grandfather was one of the world’s richest, most powerful men, was not only famous, she’d become the most notorious young woman of the century. Having spent eight months in prison for bank robbery, she was now out on bail and living at 1001 with four armed guards watching over her 24 hours a day.

This was the milieu in which the Nob Hill Gazette was born.

For high society, Nob Hill was the place to be seen and the setting of the city’s two most glamorous hotspots. Alexis, on the ground floor of Hearst’s building, was a pricey Russian restaurant decked to dazzle by way of Byzantine decor, Slavic mosaics and gargoyles, while the Huntington Hotel housed the grande dame of French dining, L’Etoile.

Denise and Prentis Cobb Hale hosted numerous parties in L’Etoile’s mirrored dining room, designed by Michael Taylor, introducing the spot to guests like John Wayne, Truman Capote, Betsy Bloomingdale and Gloria Vanderbilt. The lounge, with draperies and tablecloths of a furry French leopard print, was decorated with tapestries by Taylor and Tony Duquette. A real elephant’s foot served as a planter.

Celebrity sightings were frequent. L’Etoile’s beloved pianist of nearly 17 years, Peter Mintun, played for visiting queens of Hollywood’s golden era such as Katharine Hepburn, Claudette Colbert, Ginger Rogers and a mink-clad Liberace. He once watched Frank Sinatra threaten to have the maître d’ kneecapped for not serving dinner after 2 a.m. Willie Brown was there so much, he recalls, “I still think there’s an outstanding bill.”

The most sensational appearance was that of Rock Hudson, who took a penthouse at the newly built Gramercy Towers while starring in TV’s McMillan and Wife, in which he played San Francisco’s police commissioner. He sported a thick handlebar mustache, that symbol of 1970s “macho man” culture, and is said to have kept poppers in a monogrammed case.

As 1980s conservatism swept the nation, Nob Hill changed too. Rock moved out, and businessman Al Wilsey moved in. L’Etoile, Alexa, Le Club and Masons shut their doors, sending socials elsewhere for amusement. Tourists remained, keeping Nob Hill a top destination for luxury lodging, high-profile galas and, of course, weddings.

One of Grace Cathedral’s claims to fame, besides its French Gothic architecture, and “Gates of Paradise” copied from Ghiberti, is that celebrities Courteney Cox and David Arquette chose it for their wedding in 1999. Attended by Brad Pitt, Nicolas Cage and the cast of Friends, it was, according to People, “one of the greatest weddings of all time.” The experience could prove useful when Courteney plans her next.

The Fairmont has also been the site of unforgettable celebrity happenings, with James Brown, Tina Turner, Marlene Dietrich and Nat King Cole performing at the Venetian Room. In 1961, Tony Bennett first sang “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” there. “I was completely unknown in town,” he recently said. “The room was packed. It was right about one-quarter through the show before I sang it. As soon as I finished, the place exploded.” That evening changed his life forever and launched the unofficial anthem of the city.

The venue did have at least one detractor. “I’d never sing in the Venetian Room. The worst,” Frank Sinatra remarked to Herb Caen over a vodka martini in 1960. “Everything’s right field and left field, you sing to the door.”

Private parties are central to Nob Hill life, like those Ann Miller gave at her Jewel Box mansion, before taking a vow of poverty and becoming a nun. Such events have been chronicled on these pages for 40 years—a task the Gazette not only enjoyed, but some might even say insisted upon. It calls to mind the time director John Waters moved to Nob Hill. He wanted an apartment at the co-op high-rise former Gazette publisher Lois Lehrman also calls home. She noticed his nervousness during the board interview of new residents.

“In New York these buildings don’t want gay people,” Waters confided. “That’s one strike against me. And they don’t want entertainers. That’s strike two against me. I’m nervous,” he confessed, prompting Lois to ask, “Are you going to have wild parties here?” The impish director promised he wouldn’t. “Well, then,” joked Lois “you can’t come in!”

Notable hosts have included Margot and Harry de Wildt, fundraiser Bella Farrow, the dynamic duo of Pamala and Ted Deikel, and Joel Goodrich, who once had a party interrupted by Chanel-clad guests running for the exit after a curtain caught fire. No worries, though—once firefighters left, champagne flowed and the party played on.

It’s hard to dampen Nob Hill’s spirit. In 1906, a 22-year-old social climber named Elsa Maxwell was living on the north side of the neighborhood when, on the morning of April 18th, she and the rest of the city awoke to one of the worst earthquakes the world had ever seen. Her home collapsed. The illustrious buildings on what Robert Louis Stevenson described as “the hill of palaces” burned to the ground.

But irrepressible Maxwell, who became the world’s most famous party-giver, had one thing in mind: a planned meeting with a visiting superstar later that day. As she blithely remarked, “I thought only of keeping my luncheon appointment with Caruso.”

On Nob Hill, the party must go on.

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