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Secrets of the Spider Pool

by Rowan

Part 3 - 1929-47

At this point, research has established that silent film writer-director Jack McDermott began building an unusual house in the Hollywood Hills in the mid-1920s. We have proof that he was a tile aficionado and later owned the property that the Spider Pool would rest on. Though he seems to be a likely candidate for “father of the Spider Pool”, we have not yet established that the “crazy house” described in the 1920s was associated with a swimming pool of any kind, let alone the Spider Pool, or that it was situated at Goodview (then “Grand View”) Trail. We pick up the tale:

1927 - Party at Jack’s!

Before the coming of Black Thursday in 1929, Roaring Twenties Hollywood knew no limit to the lavishness of its parties. Unsubstantiated references have surfaced that describe “wild parties” at Jack McDermott’s house, with “hundreds of guests”.

One article has been found that shifts the rumors of Jack’s hospitality into the category of fact.

Star actress Dolores Del Rio was accompanied to a party at Jack’s house by columnist Grace Kingsley, writing under the pseudonym “Stella”.
“Jack McDermott has built the oddest, quaintest, most interesting house you ever heard of, all with his own hands, and out of props and bits of sets he bought from the studios!” exclaimed Stella. “And we are invited to a party there. … We must wear comfortable shoes, because we have to walk a mile from where we park our car, over the hills. …
It was bright moonlight, and the moon shone above those Mulholland Drive hills. Suddenly, as we mounted a hilltop, we saw what looked like a fairy palace in the valley below, among the trees. That was Jack McDermott’s house…
We descended rapidly, and at the bottom of the road, in a sort of summer house, we found some men dressed as Arabs, who handed out to each of us a gaily striped burnoose which they insisted we put on over our party clothes. We were glad we had as things turned out, since we had to enter the house through a long, tortuous, winding, underground passage, dank and “dark as the inside of an infidel” except for the faint light of the lantern…”
That passage prepared us to be thankful for any escape, but we weren’t prepared even then for the gorgeous Oriental charm of the room which we entered suddenly through a trap door! There was a huge, glowing fireplace, decorated with bizarre bits of carving and mosaic from some picture set; there were silken Oriental couches, a rug or two, a charming latticed window, some soft lights in Oriental lamps.
Syd Chaplin [yes, Charlie’s brother] came with our host to greet us, and after we had rested a minute we were taken down to an odd little court, with a duck pond at one end and on which a lone duck was swimming, and in the center of the place a huge fire over which bits of elk meat were sizzling on long spits…
The rooms of the house ramble this way and that, on different levels many of them, and all furnished in Oriental fashion. The dining room is off by itself across the court, is lacquered, and has cushions around its low table.
After we had tried to see the whole house – but one couldn’t in one visit – we gathered in a large room with couches, rugs and cushions and everybody sat about, mostly cross-legged on cushions, and chatted while they drank Turkish coffee. …

Underground passages, trap doors, and duck ponds! This article provides the best “guided tour” we have of McDermott’s mansion, but nothing in it really sounds familiar to Spider Pool fanatics. Nothing is mentioned that lets us tie the “crazy house” to the Spider Pool of Wishing Well courtyard.

Or is there?

The caption of an accompanying photo states that McDermott “built much of the building himself, and is an excellent tile matcher.” The grainy photo appears to show Jack working at just that chore, setting tiles for some addition to his house.

This discloses further evidence of Jack’s personal interest in decorative tiles, and more details about his fantastic home. But no swimming pool is mentioned, and the home’s location is still described only vaguely, and so we are left to wonder: is this really the Spider-House?

1929-30 - Jack the Playwright

There are no film credits for Jack McDermott in 1929; he seems to have decided to try his hand as a playwright. Perhaps this was in reaction to Hollywood’s move from silent to talking pictures.

In February 1929, optimism surrounded the rehearsals for his play, Squawk. By March he was forced to runs ads denying that the play was about to shut down in the face of disappointing reviews.

After the Squawk debacle, McDermott did the story a movie, The Cohens and Kellys in Scotland (released March 17, 1930). Jack even played an uncredited bit part in that film, but he seems to have been determined to write for the stage.

In October 1930, a New York City production company began preparing Rivets, a play which McDermott had “prepared from his novel”. But this play would see even less time on the stage than Squawk, for by March of 1931 Howard Hughes had purchased the story to make a movie of it.

1929 - Harold Lloyd

A post-Squawk event in 1929 may have been of great significance to the future of the Spider Pool. In October, silent film star Harold Lloyd traveled to New York for the premiere of his first talking picture, Welcome Danger. The significance of a silent movie actor’s first “talkie” is difficult to overestimate, as the transition proved disastrous for many early stars. The independent Lloyd, without a major studio to shoulder the financial risk, was especially needful of a smooth transition.

Two people were listed as traveling with Lloyd on this month-long sojourn east: publicity man Joe Reddy, and Jack McDermott. This is the clearest reference we have to a Lloyd-McDermott relationship. It establishes that they knew each other more than in passing. The nature of this relationship, and the extent to which it influenced future events at the Spider Pool, remains unclear. McDermott is not mentioned in any Lloyd biography yet reviewed.

1930 - Around the Neighborhood

In the late fall of 2004, after the Spider Pool site had been pinpointed, but before any names had been uncovered, investigators looked to the 1930 US Census with high hopes of determining the Spider Pool’s owner. The results were disappointing.

Only a few folks had been recorded in the neighborhood. Marjorie Crossley was a single woman who was the only person listed as living on Grand View Trail. She was described as a saleswoman for an interior decorator.

The Vlaskin family lived downhill from Grand View on “Valle Vista” Trail. Jack and Marie – listed as stage performers – had immigrated to America from Russia in the 1920s.

Nothing else is known about Miss Crossley – except she owned a radio set – but the Jack Vlaskin Revue of “European novelty dancers” appeared on LA stages in the 1930s, and Jack was later credited in a few movies as “Russian dancer”.

If McDermott’s “crazy house” were indeed located on Grand View, it would seem to fit his colorful nature to have invited Vlaskin and company to put on a show. Whether Miss Crossley would have been invited, or whether she would have been constantly on the phone to complain to the police, is unknown.

The only other people listed on Valle Vista were a 50-ish grocery salesman and his 45-year old lodger, Madge, both divorced; a retired couple, their daughter, and grandson; a landscape laborer, his wife and five young children; and an unmarried lumber salesman.

What any of these people thought about the goings on in the neighborhood can only be imagined. The lumber salesman may have profited by Jack’s constant construction; Marjorie Crossley, an interior decorator, might well have been appalled by his tastes.

1930-31 - The Untimely Demise of Edward M. McDermott

While things seem to have been gong reasonably well for Jack McDermott at the end of the Roaring Twenties, his younger brother’s life was not without difficulties. Around 1929 Edward M. McDermott started working for First National Studios as a film editor. Perhaps by that time, certainly by 1930, he was divorced and living alone at 1833½ Argyle St.

Professionally, he seems to have been doing well. In the early 1930s he was credited with editing Maybe It's Love (1930), which was renamed Eleven Men and a Girl for later television distribution; and Night Nurse and Other Men's Women, aka The Steel Highway (1931).

Edward also edited the 1931 Warner Brothers-Vitaphone classic, The Public Enemy, starring James Cagney and Jean Harlow. This suggests his career was in full swing as the new decade began.

But Edward’s contributions to the family’s Hollywood accomplishments ended abruptly when died on October 19, 1931.

Film Editor’s Death

Follows on Operation
Friends in Los Angeles are mourning the death yesterday of Edward McDermott, 35 years of age, of 1833½ Argyle Avenue, film cutter for First National Studios, who succumbed to a major operatoon (sic) performed late Saturday night. He had been ill for several weeks but was considered out of danger until a relapse Saturday man an operation necessary.
McDermott had been employed by The First National for the past two years and was recognized as one of the best film editors in Hollywood. He formerly was employed by the Times as a police reporter at the Hollywood station.
He leaves one son, Edward, Jr., his mother, Mrs. John McDermott, one brother, John McDermott, and two sisters, Mary McDermott and Mrs. Jack Lowney, all of Los Angeles.

Edward’s early demise explains why, upon Jack’s death in 1946, the Spider Pool property passed to Edward’s son, Jack’s nephew, Edward J. McDermott.

We know little about the younger Edward. His parents were divorced before he was four. Just prior to his father’s death, when he was 13, he was living in Gardena with three 40-ish great aunts and a 31-year old divorced theater musician named Vana Vaska.

His parent’s divorce, the absence of his mother, his living arrangements as he entered adolescence, and his father’s early death had clearly introduced tremendous potential for distress into his young life. The nature of young Edward J.’s relationship with his uncle Jack, if any existed, is a cipher.

1931-47 - Off, Off Broadway

John’s resume after 1930 is a jumble of projects.

His 1931 credits include two confusing citations. He was credited with the screenplays for two foreign-language remakes of Evening Clothes. He received credit – and presumably cash – for his work on the original, but had nothing to do with the productions.

(Norman McLeod, who directed the Marx Brothers in Monkey Business that same year, was a close personal friend of McDermott. The two lived in the same rooming house in 1920 and references to McLeod, up to and including his obituary, give credit for his arrival in Hollywood to McDermott. Further digging into McLeod’s history seems warranted.)

But while McLeod would continue with a successful directing career, McDermott explored new fields. In late 1931, Jack had a new stage work, Adam Had Two Sons, rehearsing in New York. When it was performed in January of 1932 it was described as “a dull and unsavory play”.

Perhaps Jack’s greatest success as a playwright came when, in 1933, the movie Fast Workers was released, based on Jack’s unproduced play, Rivets (released March 10?).

1931-32 - Spider Pool Babes

Many of the women who would pose at the Spider Pool were born about this time. They would have teethed and toddled during the Depression, and matured into their early teens during World War II.

Three of them would go on to become Playboy centerfolds: Betty Blue was born on August 14, 1931 in West Memphis, Arkansas; Diane Webber, nee Diane Empey, was born in LA on June 27, 1932; Dolores Del Monte was born on March 15, 1932, in Spokane, Washington.

Donna Mae “Busty” Brown is said to have been born in 1929 or 1930.

The earliest known public reference to a future Spider Pool model dates to 1934, when the mother of two-year old Diane Empey, “former actress” Marguerite C. Empey, sued for divorce. (Diane’s father, Guy Empey, had a successful career as a novelist and film man through the 1920s, chiefly based on his exploits in the Great War.) The Empeys seem to have patched their differences temporarily, but Marguerite sued for divorce again in 1938, when Diane was six.

1933 - A Pool During the chaotic early 1930s, when Jack seems to have turned his back on screenwriting, or it on him, he continued to live in the same “crazy house” somewhere in the Hollywood Hills.

It was reported in 1933 that McDermott began buildling his unusual home years before, when he “saw beautiful buildings set up and demolished, for a scene or two in a picture, and he eye them speculatively. They were solidly built. They were durable. He went to the authorities at the studios. Slowly, piece by piece, from the abandoned backgrounds for romantic movie scenes, a curious structure began to take form on a Hollywood hillside. From the waste of the studios suddenly emerged a house of no known architecture but made of individually beautiful sections of a score of styles.”

This quote describes the same process reported in earlier articles, but there followed a passage that provides us with tantalizing new information: It was said that McDermott had built himself a house complete with “secret passages, sliding panels, Turkish niches” and, most intriguingly, “A house with a subterranean playroom looking out beneath the waters of the swimming pool”.

This is the earliest known reference to the fact that Jack McDermott’s prop-built home featured a swimming pool, and one with an underwater viewport no less. Could this possibly be describing the Spider Pool?

Even with it established that the “crazy house” estate featured a pool, the information available about its location, and the timing, did not allow this to be identified positively as the Spider Pool, which, despite being known from hundreds of photographs, has never revealed evidence of an underwater observation post.

The preceding passage, if indeed referring to the Goodview Trail pool, and if it is not merely a product of literary license, contains much grist for the mill of speculation.

The 1933 date of this article fits very well with the 1926-31 “Tile Window” for construction of the Spider Pool.

Given the relationship established between Harold Lloyd and Jack McDermott, and that only a few miles would have separated their estates, it seems logical to conclude that Lloyd would have eventually found himself at Jack’s “crazy house”. Lloyd was enamored of “water features”, incorporating fountains, waterfalls, and an Olympic-size swimming pool (with a glass panel that allowed underwater photography) at his Greenacres estate. If he ever visited McDermott’s house, it seems very likely that he would have wanted to see Jack’s pool and fountain.

If this was the Spider Pool, Lloyd is very likely to have known about it in the 1930s.

1934-36 - Jack The World Traveler

In 1934, McDermott contributed to the screenplay for College Rhythm and then, from approximately August of 1934, until March of 1935, he again traveled the world. His most favorable comments were reserved for Japan, but above all else he was glad to be home. He lived at the Hotel Roosevelt for a few months while the house was under repair.

Passing reference was made at the time of his return to his home, which he built “a few years ago on the highest peak in the Hollywood Hills”. Since the Spider Pool is clearly not on the highest peak in the Hollywood Hills, this statement either takes literary license or Jack’s “crazy house” was not the Spider Pool house.

In 1935 his story Three Kids Ain’t A Gift was purchased to be made into a film. Whether it ever was is not clear.

It seems likely that Jack’s travels had included England and that he had made the acquaintance of film producers there. In 1936, that country’s Pall Mall Productions proposed to film I’ll Take The Low Road, starring Bette Davis and based on a McDermott story. Like “Three Kids”, this may never have made it to the cinema, but Jack was obviously getting paid for his part: writing.

1936-37 - A Deed, Indeed

One of the turning points in Spider Pool study came in August of 2005 when the research group provided the financial backing to conduct a 50-year Chain of Title search. The arrangement allowed for the chain to be pushed back farther, perhaps to the 1920s or ‘30s, as long as the research at that point remained a simple matter.

The title researcher provided information back to 1955 as required, and, generously, covered a few more critical steps that provided names back to 1937. By great good fortune, the oldest name turned up in the search was that of John W. McDermott.

In the oldest document known, McDermott, listed as a single man, received a Grant Deed from the Bank of America for the Spider Pool and other properties on May 20, 1937.

This deed is dated only fours years after McDermott was known to have been living at the 1923 “crazy house”. Only the most die-hard jurist would demand further evidence that the house described in the 1920s and early 1930s had been built on the Spider Pool property.

But a curious discrepancy remained: the unlocated house was described in 1923, 1927, and 1933 articles, but the Spider Pool land was only obtained in 1937. Or was it?

The documents available suggest that McDermott initially acquired the Spider Pool property before 1937. One of the papers refers to an April 29, 1936 court action between John and the Bank, the result of which was a lien of judgment on part or all of John’s property holdings, though the cause for this is unknown. The continuing agony of the Great Depression – possibly dwindling paychecks – makes financial distress a distinct possibility. McDermott’s earliest date of involvement can be pushed back to 1936, and obviously predates the 1937 Grant Deed.

McDermott seems to have purchased his land about 1920-23, and evidence now suggests very strongly that his “crazy house” was built along Grand View Trail. It appears that during the Depression he ran into financial difficulty and, after court action by the bank, he was able to recover the title to his property in 1937.

In a sign that his finances were shaky, a Subordination Agreement was executed on June 2 by which John assigned a Trust Deed on the Spider Pool properties to a “Grace Fields” to cover a note for $7375.00. It appears that this cash infusion allowed him to obtain a release from the bank’s lien.

The best evidence we have of the extent of Jack’s holdings comes from the Grant Deed for the Spider Pool property that was transferred from the Bank of America to John W. McDermott on July 10, 1937. The 44-year old Jack owned six lots on either side of Goodview, including the Pool and Ruins lots, and three more lower lots connecting to Vale Vista Drive to the west. Whether he owned more or less than this in 1923 is presently unknown.

The house that first appeared west of Grand View Trail on a 1926 topographical map was still in place, by map evidence, in 1938. It would seem that the dots on these maps are the McDermott house, or Spider-House. Evidence exists that the swimming pool was in place by 1933.

All early information about McDermott’s estate focuses almost exclusively on his house. The pool is scarcely mentioned, and nothing has emerged about tiles or giant spiders. The house must have truly been imposing to distract observers so completely.

1937 - Gracie Fields Buys Chester Franklin’s Castle

Every name that appears in the Spider Pool Chain of Title has received attention. Grace Fields, mentioned in connection with McDermott’s 1937 deed, is no exception.

Superficial research unearthed references to “Gracie Fields”, an “English music-hall entertainer” of the period, but the discovery was initially ignored for reasons of timing and geography: “She was in British films until 1939, when she traveled to America to continue her acting career in Hollywood...” There seemed to be no real reason to connect her with McDermott.

But Fields, a working-class heroine of wartime England, had impressive pre-war ambitions in Hollywood. Perhaps in a bid to rise above her humble beginnings, she purchased the lots where Chester Franklin had begun working on his “Cahuenga Castle” back in 1924. Stone walls did indeed rise, but zoning ordinances, soaring costs, and the coming of war put an end to Fields’ project.

What, you may rightly ask, is the significance of Franklin and Fields to Spider Pool lore? The answer harks back to the heyday of the Hunt for the Spider Pool, when topographical maps and aerial photographs were being pored over as intently as if the beaches of Normandy were about to be stormed.

Spider Pool pioneer Karst Caveman caused hearts to race in the fall of 2004 when his study of Terraserver photos identified extensive foundations of some long-lost edifice in the eastern Hollywood Hills. Fans furiously sought to match the Pool to the newfound site, but ultimately it was accepted that the prize had eluded us once again. The “possible” was identified only as having been long ago abandoned, the land and ruins eventually donated to the Huntington Library. Owing to that last observation, Spider Pool collectors will find imposing photographs of the surviving structure by navigating to their “Huntington Ruins” folders.

So the “castle” begun by Chester Franklin at the southern extremity of Grand View Trail in 1924, and expanded by Gracie Fields in 1937, turns out to have some tangential connection to the Spider Pool after all.

Parenthetically, Fields did not purchase the land directly from Franklin. Someone else had obtained it from him in the interim but never built on the challenging site. So Gracie Fields actually bought the Castle from its second owner, one Jack McDermott, in 1937. Close parentheses.

While Karst Caveman hadn’t found the Spider Pool, he had found the owner.

1937-38 - Hard Times, Relatively Speaking

In 1937, Jack McDermott set to work to stir up interest in a new play for the New York stage. McDermott offered real estate -- “three lots” -- for collateral in exchange for financial backing. Which three lots he considered expendable is a minor mystery.

When The Stork Laid an Egg was produced in 1938 it was not on Broadway. It was in Santa Barbara.

Harold Lloyd produced and starred Professor Beware in 1938. The film was a financial bust; it was his last role until an ill-starred comeback attempt in 1946.

1940 - GRanite-2990

With the Chain of Title in hand, researchers were unleashed on the 1940 Los Angeles phone book. A “Jack McDermott” (the first time we had seen John W. called by that diminutive) was listed at 3100 Goodview Trail: the Spider Pool’s location. Telephone number, GRanite-2990.

Jack Vlaskin, connected to the area earlier by Census information, was still at 3014 "Vallevista" Trail (Hillside-4010), but Marjorie Crossley seems to have moved on.

An “Ed J. McDermott”, very likely Jack’s nephew, was listed at 1301 North Tamarind, GLadstone-0972.

1946 - The End of an Era

Harold Lloyd attempted a screen comeback in 1946’s The Sin of Harold Diddlebock, a film written and directed by his friend Preston Sturges. The two did not work well together and the finished product shows it. To make matters worse, they were working for the erratic Howard Hughes, who managed to overcome long odds by later reissuing an even worse version.

John McDermott’s final film credit was for the story and screenplay for Three Wise Fools in 1946 (released September 26), a remake of the 1923 silent version for which, perhaps not coincidentally, he had done the adaptation.

Sadly, John McDermott died at age 54 on July 22, 1946 in Los Angeles, prior to the release of the film. At least he was spared the critics’ slings and arrows; among the kindest words used for the movie’s writing were “weird” and “oleaginous”.

Harold Lloyd would live another 25 years, vigorous, fabulously wealthy and occupied with a wide variety of hobbies.

No obituary for John W. “Jack” McDermott has been found.

Jack’s Spider Pool property was inherited by his nephew in 1947.

The “crazy house” burned in 1949. The cause was never determined.

The next phase of the Spider Pool’s life was about to begin.

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