Howard Hughes (left) and Noah Dietrich in the 1940s
Howard Hughes (left) and Noah Dietrich in the 1940s

Noah Dietrich

The next tenant at Mt. Kalmia was Noah Dietrich, a businessman best known as the right-hand man of Howard Hughes, said to have been the richest man in America for much of the 20th century. After working closely with him for 32 years, Dietrich quit in 1957 after a falling out over money.

A native of Wisconsin, Dietrich had longstanding ties to Los Angeles. He moved to the city from New Mexico in 1911 and found work as a real-estate auditor in the San Fernando Valley boom times. Later he worked for the Doheny Oil Company in New York, after which, he returns to Los Angeles as an accountant. He was 36 when he met Howard Hughes, who had inherited the Hughes Tool Company at age 19.

Hughes left his mark in Hollywood as a producer and, from 1948 until 1955, as the owner and executive producer at RKO Pictures, the studio founded in 1928 by Joseph Kennedy, father of Pres. John F. Kennedy. Hughes had a mostly successful run as an independent. His 1930 production of “Hell’s Angels” made Jean Harlow a star. “The Front Page,” “Scarface” and “The Outlaw” were well received by critics and fans. However, the movies he produced at RKO were mostly duds.

After Dietrich’s exit from Hughes world, he served on boards of directors of top corporations and later as a commissioner for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. In 1972, he published a memoir about his years with Hughes, The Amazing Mr. Hughes, in which he revealed Hughes’ unethical and illegal business practices. He opened a consulting business with offices in Century City and, around 1978, he leased Mt. Kalmia.

Dietrich’s health began to fail during his time at Mt. Kalmia. He underwent two major surgeries but was eventually diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, a degenerative muscle disease. He retired and moved to Palm Springs with his third wife, Mary. He suffered a fatal heart attack there in February 1982. Noah Dietrich was 92 years old.

Rip Torn in "Coming Apart," produced by Davis' company in 1969
Rip Torn in “Coming Apart,” produced by Davis’ company

Israel “Dan” Davis

In January 1981, Mt. Kalmia was put up for sale again. At this point the property was divided into two parcels. It’s likely that when Gary Kellgren died, his application to rezone the entire property commercial became moot. But now the 200-foot wide strip fronting Sunset Boulevard was zoned commercial while residential zoning of the hillside acreage remained unchanged. The combined asking price for the two parcels was $3 million. (The Sunset adjacent parcel had been leveled but undeveloped. It was used as an unpaved parking lot until an office building was constructed there in 2015.)

The buyer in 1981 was Israel “Dan” Davis, a Hollywood eccentric with a long career on the periphery of the film business. In 1969, he produced “Coming Apart,” a psychological drama that starred Rip Torn and Sally Kirkland. He later founded Kaleidoscope Films, which produced title design and special effects for A-list films.

A former Army combat photographer now in his fifties, Davis was a trained pilot who owned planes, including a Steerman bi-plane. He had two identical Jaguar racing cars in the garage at Mt. Kalmia and collected World War II artifacts, including a Merlin V12 airplane engine that he kept in the house along with a half dozen or so vintage fighter-plane ejection seats.

In February 1982, Mt. Kalmia was put up for sale again, but not by Davis. The seller was Stan Herman, a Beverly Hills realtor who dealt in high end properties. He asked for $3 million, as he had a year earlier. “I just want to sell it,” Herman told the Times. Also up for sale was Davis’ furniture, including antique mahogany buffets, Oriental rugs and a wide selection of old film props, including an electric chair.

Michelle Marvin with attorney Marvin Mitchelson after winning her case
Michelle Marvin with attorney Marvin Mitchelson after winning her case

Marvin Mitchelson

Mt. Kalmia was next owned by Marvin Mitchelson, a world-renowned divorce lawyer who’d made a fortune suing famous men on behalf of their ex-unmarried partners. In a landmark case, Mitchelson represented Michelle Triola Marvin who sued her ex-boyfriend, actor Lee Marvin, for what came to be called “palimony.” The case went up to the California Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of Triola Marvin in 1976. Although she never collected the money, the ruling changed laws governing spousal support by making it available to unmarried partners who separated.

The publicity around the case was good for Mitchelson’s business and his star-studded client list came to include Robert De Niro, Sylvester Stallone, Stephen Stills, Mickey Rooney, Joan Collins, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Bianca Jagger, Lesley-Anne Down, Carl Sagan, Mrs. William Shatner, Pamela Mason, Roxanne Pulitzer, Sonny Bono, Tony Curtis, Mel Torme, and others.

Mitchelson devoted much of his wealth toward turning Mt. Kalmia into a showplace. He spent lavishly on Victorian furniture, oriental rugs and centuries-old paintings. He also collected cars, including two Rolls-Royces and a convertible once owned by Clark Gable. At his office in Century City, Mitchelson’s desk chair was an elaborate throne once owned by Rudolph Valentino. In the ceiling of the lobby he installed a replica of Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” rendered in stained glass. He also spent a small fortune feeding his daily cocaine habit.

Amid all the cash going out, however, Mitchelson neglected to pay his taxes. In 1988, the Internal Revenue Service and the California Franchise Tax Board assessed him for thousands of dollars in back taxes. In another investigation, Mitchelson was cited for failure to provide accounting or to return unearned fees to 14 clients. A cascade of other charges followed. He was found guilty at trial, and in April 1993 Marvin Mitchelson, the celebrated celebrity’s attorney, was sentenced to 30 months in prison. As a result, he was forced to declare bankruptcy, and that enabled Johnny Depp to buy Mt. Kalmia from the bank on October 15, 1995, for $2.3 million.

Johnny Depp in publicity photograph from Pirates of the Caribbean
Johnny Depp in publicity photograph from Pirates of the Caribbean

Johnny Depp

Johnny Depp was born in Kentucky in 1963. His family moved around during his childhood. He dropped out of high school and wound up in Los Angeles a few years later. His path to fame in L.A. was a classic Hollywood story. He met a friendly insider – Nicolas Cage, nephew of Francis Ford Coppola, director of the “Godfather,” its sequels and other films – who recognized his potential and helped him get an agent.

Johnny Depp’s first movie role was the skeptical boyfriend of one of the main characters in 1984’s “Nightmare on Elm Street.” He appeared in small parts in film and TV before landing a recurring role in 1987, in “21 Jump Street.” He went on to appear in films directed by Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, Roman Polanski and others. Starting in 2006, he starred as the pirate Jack Sparrow in “Pirates of the Caribbean” and its sequels.

With success, Depp was able to return to the peripatetic lifestyle of his youth. He divided his time between his far-flung properties – a private island in the Bahamas, a farm in Kentucky, lofts in Downtown Los Angeles and an estate in France, among others. So it’s probably not accurate to say that Mt. Kalmia is his primary residence.

It’s likely he’s rarely there, and the property is so thoroughly shielded from public view that signs of life inside are impossible to detect. And yet, they come. Out-of-towners regularly drive up to Johnny Depp’s castle hoping to catch a glimpse of him pulling into the gate.

“As a neighbor of Mr. Depp, I implore you to please not go there!” a resident of Sweetzer Avenue once posted on “All you’re doing is bothering everyone in the area with no pay-off! I have lived across the street since Mr. Depp moved in many years ago, and I have seen him ONE TIME! Trust me, you won’t see him, his house, his kids, his wife, his dogs.”