The castle was built around 1930 using funds from another wealthy, ill-tempered man. George Campbell Carson’s wife had gone public about his fits of bad temper two years after he’d first made news because of his real-life rags-to-riches story. Known as the “Desert Rat,” in 1927 he won a Supreme Court case against the giant Anaconda Mining Company and an award of $20 million.
The Desert Rat’s money built the castle, but it was not his idea and, other than paying the bill, he had little to do with it. In fact, there’s no doubt that if it had been up to George Carson, the castle would never have been built. It was entirely the brainchild of his wife, Hersee.
Hersee Moody arrived in Los Angeles in 1915. The only child of a wealthy couple in Beauregard, Mississippi, she was 25 in 1879, when she married W.L. Moore in Grenada, Mississippi. The record is silent on whether they divorced or if W.L. died, but he was out of the picture by the time she left home.
If she looked a bit like a stereotypical schoolmarm, it’s because she was. She’d taught school in Louisiana at some point. In photographs taken years later, she wore subdued, matronly dresses and had a long, pleasant but ungainly face.
“When I got here, I bought a piece of land far west of town, where the bullfrogs were croaking,” she told a reporter years later. She may have been referring to the four acres six miles west of Downtown where she later built her castle.
Aside from land speculation, little is known about what Hersee did for the first nine years she was in Los Angeles. She had a love of children and yet none of her own, so she may have taught school. On September 2, 1924, however, she married again, this time to Peter Gross, a wealthy businessman, divorced with 11 children ranging in age from 11 to 32. She moved into his new mansion on Sunset Boulevard at Whittier Drive in Beverly Hills. (The Maltz Park is there today.)
Hersee was aware that she was Peter’s wife number three, or so she thought. But Peter had a secret. While he was married to wife number two, he’d had an affair with their housekeeper, Gertrude Isensee, known as Alma. When he married Alma in San Bernardino in 1921, he hadn’t bothered to secure a divorce from his second wife.
Six months into his marriage to Alma, she learned he was not divorced. Peter Gross obtained a quickie divorce and somehow avoided a bigamy charge. Making Alma legal did not ease the tension between them, perhaps because he kept her in a series of apartments in buildings he owned rather than bringing her home to set up housekeeping. Alma left town in the summer of 1924 to visit her mother in Texas. When she returned to Los Angeles, she was dumbstruck that her husband had married Hersee Moody Moore. He was a serial bigamist.
Hersee learned that she was not wife number three but rather wife number four when Alma filed a $150,000 breach of promise lawsuit against Peter. Filled with shame, Peter Gross paid all his bills, wrote a suicide note, stretched out on the couch in his study and shot himself in the head. Hersee was in another part of the house when she heard the shot. She found him lying in a pool of blood. She was the first to read his note. It laid out his final instructions, signing off with, “Goodbye everyone. Death is a treat.”
After protracted litigation between Hersee and Peter’s children over his estate, a settlement was reached that left Hersee comfortably well off.
But it wasn’t enough.
Side Charge Hopper
In 1906, George Campbell Carson, a self-trained metallurgist, wizened old prospector and self-described “desert rat,” invented a game-changing copper smelting process that upped production by two to three times the yield of existing processes. Specifically, he developed the side-charge hopper for feeding metal ore into reverberatory furnaces. Simply put, until Carson’s invention, ore had been fed into smelters through apertures on top of the furnaces. Carson came up with a device that enabled feeding ore in through the side of the unit, which enabled the higher production yields.
While Carson’s patent was pending, his side-charger system was appropriated by all the leading copper sulfide smelting companies in the United States, including the largest operation, the Anaconda Mining Company. Carson didn’t learn he was being ripped off until after he was awarded the patent in 1914. He had a strong case but no resources to speak of, so there was little hope of suing – until a group of San Francisco moneymen learned about his plight, agreed that his case was winnable and covered his legal expenses, in exchange for a percentage of his award.
The lawsuit was punted up through the legal system for more than a decade. In February 1925 George Carson learned that his case was likely to survive. That meant a payoff of at least $20 million – about $330 million today. The case was appealed all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, but SCOTUS declined to take the case, so the ruling in Carson’s favor by a lower court would stand.
The newly minted millionaire became the subject of front-page stories across the country. Reporters tracked him down to a waterfront boarding house in San Francisco. He told them had yet to touch his fortune and that he had no immediate plans for spending the money – or of giving it away.
“No, I will not be a philanthropist,” he said. “It would only create another army of grafters. Perhaps I will raise trees.” Unmarried at age 55, he overnight became America’s most eligible bachelor. Women from across the country sent him love letters and proposals of marriage.
“I never shined up to a girl in my life that I didn’t get the mitten (meaning a slap),” he told the Los Angeles Times, “It is not my nature to please the ladies… Even if I’m rich now,” he said, “I don’t believe any woman is going to get me.”
But George was wrong about that. In Los Angeles, Hersee Moody Gross had moved into a large house at 8760 Sunset Boulevard, on the Strip east of the intersection of Sunset and Holloway Drive. (The bright green, round building that houses Mark Mothersbaugh’s Mutato Muzika studio is there today.) She had apparently followed the story of George Carson’s rising fortunes in the Los Angeles Times. When she read about the millions the court had awarded him, she took the train north to San Francisco and tracked him down.
The first meeting of Hersee and Geroge Carson made news. She told reporters that George was her “Dream Man.” In March 1927, Hersee, now 48 years old, married the Desert Rat at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. Immediately after they were married, she packed George and moved him south to her home in West Hollywood.
The marriage was troubled from the start. Hersee was impeccably dressed and sophisticated, though not particularly stuffy. But Carson, the old rat, was practically feral. He wore his desert dungarees and straw hat every day and often slept and urinated in the yard. For fans of 1960s sitcoms, there was a “Beverly Hillbillies” country-come-to-city aspect to George’s life on Sunset Boulevard. Like the “Hillbillies’” Jed Clampett, the old Rat wasn’t as dumb as he looked, and if Hersee was a model for the stuck-up Mrs. Drysdale, she also craftier than the hapless wife of the Clampetts’ banker.