Wednesday, July 28, 2010

B-Movie Phantom: The Phillipa Fallon Story Part 4

In 1946 Bill Manhoff, by then the proud father, with Ferne, of a baby girl, left Duffy’s Tavern for other writing opportunities including working for Danny Thomas. In 1951 (through 1954) he was writing and directing another radio comedy, Meet Millie. “Millie” was a fast-talking Brooklyn secretary voiced by Audrey Totter and later Elena Verdugo. Episodes revolved around the character of Millie Bronson’s workplace and her family.[1]

According to the Manhoffs’ daughter—who did not wish to be identified for this biography—Ferne played the Russian-accented character of “the Countess” at least twice on the Millie program. Unfortunately, very few episodes of the series are available today and CONELRAD has not been able to locate copies of these two particular shows.

By this point, the ahead-of-their-time Manhoff family had become holistically dedicated vegetarians and bioengineering devotees. Ferne, as previously mentioned, had had an extraordinarily difficult pregnancy and it was during this period that she turned to modern health remedies; her family followed suit. But Bill Manhoff wasn’t above making fun of his family’s diet philosophy. Indeed, he worked the unusual (for the early fifties) lifestyle choice into the March 23, 1952 radio episode of Meet Millie. The program, which CONELRAD was able to obtain, concerns a family visit by “Aunt Ethel, a kooky vegetarian.”

During his interview with CONELRAD, Larry Gelbart confirmed that the family had an avant-garde diet. He said that he remembered having dinner with the Manhoffs one evening in the early 1950s and being surprised to see raw vegetables and vitamin supplements being served. Gelbart shared some of his impressions of the meal with humor writer Art Buchwald who used the material—much later—for a 1959 column headlined “The Health Nuts Take Over.”

The Manhoffs’ daughter remembers an intellectually stimulating family life with trips to museums and books (Picasso art books, etc.) all over the house. Ferne enjoyed classical music as well as the records of Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington and other greats. The family also enjoyed walks in Griffith Park, trips to Farmers Market and drives in the car.

On one such excursion (although the daughter was not present for this particular trip), the Manhoffs encountered a stunning two-story Mediterranean-style mansion near the corner of Tower Road and San Ysidro Drive in Beverly Hills. Ferne was especially taken with the balconies – it was a dream house for a woman who grew up in an apartment in Chicago during the Depression.

If the sixteen rooms and amazing garden weren’t enough, the house at 1100 Tower Road also had an impressive celebrity history. Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh reportedly once lived there as did the lower brow Mickey Rooney. But it is the residency of the fate-cursed lovers Jean-Pierre Aumont, the French star of films such as The Cross of Lorraine, and Maria Montez, the exotic beauty dubbed “The Queen of Technicolor,” that the mansion is best known for. Aumont writes about finding the house shortly before his 1943 marriage to Montez in his autobiography, Sun and Shadow: “The three sisters-in-law and the baby we were hoping for made Maria’s house seem too small. We discovered a larger one with which we fell in love immediately. It had an Italian-style façade and a large front lawn. The backyard was a jungle of orange and lemon trees, rose bushes, and avocados.”

Aumont-Montez-Tower-Living Room  Maria Montez and Jean-Pierre Aumont in the living room at 1100 Tower Road

In reflecting back on his time at the house with his family, Aumont wrote in Sun and Shadow: “Later I realized that the years spent in that house were among the most beautiful in my life. It’s there that Lucita, then Consuelo were married, there that Maria-Christine grew up, there that we lived the richest hours of our love.” But the dream shattered on September 7, 1951 when Maria Montez tragically died in a bathtub in the couple’s Paris home. Most reports attributed the death to drowning following a heart attack.[2]

Aumont eventually put the house up for sale, explaining in his autobiography, “Not only did I never want to see it again, I didn’t even want it to belong to me anymore.” On December 21, 1953 ownership of the mansion was officially transferred from Aumont to Bill and Ferne Manhoff. The Manhoffs’ daughter told CONELRAD that Bill bought the house because he wanted to make Ferne happy.


To finance the family’s steep housing upgrade (the Manhoffs had previously lived in a modest home on Troy Drive in the Hollywood Hills), Bill took the prestigious, but very demanding job of production supervisor of CBS television comedy programming. He was, in effect, the script doctor for all of the network’s situation comedies.

While Bill slaved away at CBS, Ferne set about decorating their mansion. But because money was tight, the high-end furnishings favored by Ferne were slow in coming. According to the Manhoffs’ daughter, only one room was ever completely decorated and that was the library, which she remembered as being “exquisite.”

mmhouse2The house sometime in the 2000s sans charm


[1] Meet Millie also had a television incarnation (1952-1955) that ran concurrent to the radio series.

[2] The Tower residence is immortalized in Gore Vidal’s 1974 novel, Myron, a sequel to Myra Breckenridge. The premise of the book is that the Myra/Myron character trades places with Maria Montez (don’t ask). Myra/Myron has these two reveries about living in the mansion:

From page 389:

“It is Sunday. I sit at my beautiful writing desk in my palatial home at the corner of Tower Road and San Ysidro. Through my windows I can see my Japanese gardener pruning my roses. A tourist bus has just gone by, and I could hear the guide saying, ‘That’s the house where Maria Montez lives with her husband Jean-Pierre Aumont, the French film star.”

From page 408:

“It is late at night in my beautiful mansion on Tower Road. Jean-Pierre is sleeping. Crickets can be heard in the garden. A lovely silvery moon casts shadows through my window. The air is scented with jasmine.

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