It takes a lot to set the chattering class a-chattering when it comes to real estate in Los Angeles, a land where real housewives live in chateau-ified campuses and weekend cottages come equipped with helipads and horse stables.
But last week, when The Wall Street Journal reported that Candy Spelling’s bigger-than-the-White-House-size manse in Holmby Hills “appeared to be heading to” a sale, eyebrows across the so-called Platinum Triangle (which also includes Beverly Hills and Bel Air) shot upward. Spelling, of course, is the widow of TV überproducer Aaron Spelling (Charlie’s Angels, Dynasty, Beverly Hills 90210, and every other great-hair show), who, since Aaron’s death in 2006, purchased a condo in Century City and put this monstrosity up for sale for $150 million—making it the most expensive home in America.
Intrigue grew with the disclosure of who the buyer was: Petra Ecclestone, the 22-year-old heiress known—to the few people in this country who know of her—as the Paris Hilton of Britain. The youngest daughter of Formula One baron Bernie Ecclestone (net worth $4.2 billion, according to Forbes), the very blond, very leggy Petra has dabbled in modeling and fashion design, but her main talent seems to be making headlines for being blond and leggy (and rich). She was even in talks to do a reality-TV show with her sister Tamara inspired by The Simple Life—Hilton and Nicole Richie’s peek at how privileged BFFs endure the real world.
But it’s not just the immensity of the sale—reportedly $85 million in cash—and the interest in L.A.’s latest paparazzi baitress that has aroused curiosity. To some insiders, it simply doesn’t seem plausible that a young jet-setter would actually want a 123-room, 56,500-square-foot home that is more ginormous wedding cake from the Dynasty era (amenities include a bowling alley, a beauty salon, and a few “gift-wrapping” rooms) than hip home. Its upkeep alone is estimated by one source to be $20 million a year. And updating the 30-year-old interior, which a number of real-estate agents said was a must—the 23 bathrooms are tile, as opposed to more au courant choices like limestone or marble, and carpeting abounds—will run an additional $10 million or so. Besides, Petra already owns a $90 million mansion in London’s Chelsea.
Candy Spelling, the visionary behind The Manor, was evidently going for a cross between Versailles and Tara (the grandiose double-staircase inside is, in fact, a Gone With the Wind ripoff), but the effect, as the late Dominick Dunne once wrote, was “ridiculous.” The Vanity Fair scribe went on to call the house, which was completed in 1991, “surprisingly unpretty inside.”
“It doesn’t make sense,” said one real-estate source. “It will take years of painstaking construction, designing, and decorating to get the house right. Why would a 22-year-old want this?”
Even weirder: No one is talking. Not Petra, who declined to comment through her publicist, Marcel Pariseau. Not Candy Spelling, via her publicist, Flo Grace. Same for Rick Hilton, Petra’s real-estate agent (and, coincidentally, Paris’ dad), who did not return a phone call, but who is generating his own headlines: Rick allegedly paid Brandon Davis (grandson of oil maven Marvin) a $250,000 finder’s fee to get Petra to buy one of his homes.
So what’s the real deal?
One theory making the rounds is that the house—which as of Tuesday was still listed as “active”—is not actually for Petra, but for one of her father’s friends. According to the well-sourced blog The Real Estalker, that would be Mukesh Ambani, the ninth-richest man in the world (net worth: $27 billion), and the chairman and managing director of Reliance Industries. Ambani has already shown a taste for insane, and insanely expensive, residences. Currently, he lives in a $1 billion tower in Mumbai that has 27 stories (six are for parking) and a 600-person staff.
Another name being floated is steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, an even more moneyed Indian (net worth: $31 billion) and Friend of Bernie, who is chairman and CEO of ArcelorMittal. Curiously, he and Bernie have already swapped properties: In 2004, Mittal forked over $100 million for the Ecclestones’ 12-bedroom mansion in London’s ultra-posh Kensington neighborhood.
Pariseau, however, insisted that “Petra is the owner of the house.” And a source close to Candy Spelling called the rumors that Petra is not buying the house for herself “ridiculous.”
“People write things all the time to drive traffic,” this person continued. “It’s out of control.”
Christophe Choo of the realty company Coldwell Banker in Beverly Hills is also convinced Petra is the buyer. He said that celebrities sometimes set up a blind trust to disguise their name when buying a property, but that in his experience men like Ambani and Mittal “are not particularly concerned about notoriety and that sort of thing.”
But Choo wouldn’t rule anything out. “Who’s to say? There’s so much speculation. We may never know who the real buyer is.”
Wherever the truth lies, it is nonetheless fitting that the sale of The Manor should be shrouded in such shrill publicity and controversy—during its entire, albeit brief, history, after all, the House That Spelling Built has been a lightning rod for scrutiny.
During the four years it took to raze Bing Crosby’s former estate and build the house (an act that itself was derided), neighbors complained about the construction. Once it was completed, The Manor was disdained for being too close to the street, instead of decoratively tucked away, like most celebrity compounds. Then there was its size, which makes Hugh Hefner’s nearby Playboy Mansion look like a cabana. And its style—or lack thereof.
“The general consensus is that the house is a little bit of an architectural abomination,” said Mark David of The Real Estalker. “It’s sort of this big beast full of stuff.”
He went on to say that Candy Spelling “is a lady who collects dolls, not a lady who understands French furniture. Yet the house purports to be this French palace. I think it just lacks architectural integrity.”
The Spellings took this criticism personally and, ironically, did very little entertaining in their vast home. In 1994, when Lew Wasserman asked them to host a benefit for Prince Charles, they agreed, but during the party, didn’t let any guests in the house. Instead, they erected a tent outside and hauled in portable toilets. Even Dominick Dunne, who was a friend of Aaron’s, only went inside The Manor once.
As Dunne saw it, more than just an eyesore, the house became a metaphor for the Spellings’ relationship. “There seems little doubt that the mansion changed the couple,” he wrote in 2006. “For years, their marriage has been a topic of conversation. I think of it as an unhappy house, a complicated marriage, and an unhappy family.”
For the Spellings’ children, or at least Tori, the house has been fodder for amusing self-mockery. In So NoTORIous, Tori’s 2006 VH1 show in which she played a fictionalized version of herself, she relentlessly parodied the house—in one episode, she can’t find her mother (played by Loni Anderson) anywhere, until she stumbles upon her in a room set aside for gift-wrapping.
One can only hope that if Petra is indeed The Manor’s new owner, she’ll have as much of a sense of humor about her new digs.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story misstated that Mukesh Ambani put up $325 million to re-start Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks. It was his brother, Anil Ambani, who was behind that deal.