Masters of Sex: St. Louis Reality vs. TV Depiction

masters of sex book

The editor of St. Louis At Home asked me to dig into the real life locations depicted on the Showtime series Masters of Sex. See the Masters of Sex St Louis At Home article.  Also available on-line without the photos.

Here we recap the article’s content with room to spread out, and add more engrossing details uncovered during the research process.

Masters of Sex depicts Maternity Hospital a sublime, stucco Art Deco.

Masters of Sex depicts Maternity Hospital as a sublime, stucco Art Deco.

Maternity Hospital, erect 1926, still stands in the Barnes-Jewish Hospital complex at Kingshighway and Interstate 64.

Maternity Hospital, erected 1926, still stands in the Barnes-Jewish Hospital complex at Kingshighway and Interstate 64.

The series opens in December 1956 with the newly-divorced Virginia Johnson interviewing for her eventual position as Dr. William Masters’ assistant. Master’s office is in Maternity Hospital, shown as a handsome Art Deco hospital of white stucco. That was the first instance of TV separation from St. Louis reality, for the 1926 Maternity Hospital still stands today inside the Barnes-Jewish Hospital complex.

Dr. Master’s office and practice was on the 3rd floor of this building, and other than the exterior facade and some molding and terrazzo flooring touches at the entrances, everything has been remodeled countless times since the 1950s. Very little about Master’s and his ground-breaking work remains within the record books of the hospital or Washington University. Local theory is that ultra-conservative St. Louis academia still finds it offensive to acknowledge his pioneering sex studies. Though his last name does make the list of blocks inside the circular wall of this outdoor smoking lounge in front of the building (below).

smoking area maternity hospital st louis

Still with the first episode, we see Dr. William Masters and his wife Libby living in an exquisite mid-century modern ranch home, which for 1956 would have put them on the cutting edge of St. Louis modern design, something a successful doctor could afford to indulge in. Meanwhile single-mother-of-two Virginia Johnson is shown living in one side of a 2-story, stucco duplex. Other than some more stucco (St. Louis just doesn’t have the climate for it), this type of living arrangement for Virginia is logical. So are these homes based on their real life domiciles, and if so, where are they?

Masters of Sex exterior establishing shot of St. Louis brothel where Dr. Masters conducted research.

Masters of Sex exterior establishing shot of St. Louis brothel where Dr. Masters conducted research.

Episode 2 of Masters of Sex really lit a fire when they gave an establishing exterior shot of a local brothel (above). But it was a bit disconcerting that this was the 3rd or 4th time that wood clapboard homes were shown as the norm. Even to the distracted eye, St. Louis is a brick city – we don’t see wood siding as a constant until the post-WW2 suburbs. And it’s a cinch that a whorehouse would have to be inside St. Louis City boundaries, where a home of this type would be very rare.

I was distracted with these type of architecture geek thoughts when the thoroughly engaging prostitute character Betty DiMello revealed that the sex study had moved “to a cathouse on Third & Sutter.” I waited for the episode to end before digging into maps of both St. Louis and East St. Louis, where there is no such intersection. So exactly where was this whorehouse?

It was now time to dig into the source material for the TV show, the 2009 book Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love by Thomas Maier. It’s a factually dense book that easily moves you forward with anticipation. And this book sent me into obsessive research mode, deciphering fact from TV fiction.

As the first season unfolded, it was addictive to figure out how the show’s creators and writers took the original and transformed it into an episodic drama. How a one-off sentence in the book becomes a story-arc, or how two different real life people are melded into one character with a completely fictitious yet fascinating backstory.

The mid-century modern ranch home of Dr. William & Libby Masters, as seen on TV.

The mid-century modern ranch designed by architect “Eine,” home to the TV version of Dr. William & Libby Masters.

The interior TV set of The Masters' home.

The interior TV set of The Masters’ home.

One of the most revelatory differences between fact and artistic license is the home of Dr. William and Libby Masters. The viewer gets a distinct Mad Men vibe from their clean-lined, suburban mid-century modern ranch home. Maier’s book describes their real-world house as a “brick two-story Colonial” in “Ladue, an affluent suburb of St. Louis.” And here is their former home, built in 1934:

The real life home of Dr. William & Libby Masters, in Ladue, MO.

The real life home of Dr. William & Libby Masters, in Ladue, MO.

The show’s producers made a conscious decision to place William & Libby in a new, atomic age home. They also added an infertility problem to their marriage, whereas in real life, they had two children by 1953. But one fact did remain intact: Libby & Bill did sleep in separate twin beds! (And here’s a gossipy fact: they installed an in-ground pool to this home in 1967, and the neighbors were scandalized to see Virginia Johnson lounging by it while Libby was out of town.)

Other deviations from fact to television fiction include:

• There’s no Provost Scully (as portrayed by Beau Bridges); he’s a combination of a few men at Washington University, including Chancellor Ethan Shepley.
• There’s no real-life prostitute Betty DiMello, which means it’s unlikely anyone ever called Dr. Masters the “alpha dog of coochie medicine.”
Dr. Ethan Haas and Gene The Pretzel King are made up characters (so there is no Gus’ Pretzel connection to Masters & Johnson, sorry)
• St. Louis has yet to have a Rialto movie theater (so the entirely fictitious Dr. Austin Langham never banged the entirely fictitious Margaret Scully in a car parked in front of it)
• St. Louis never had a Gardell’s, described in the show as a “nightclub in Coontown” (though senior citizen St. Louisans can tell you the rough whereabouts of the part of town once referred to by that wince-inducing moniker).
• St. Louis never had a Commodore Hotel where gay male prostitutes set up shop. There were plenty of other gay haunts in the City during that time period (like the Grandel Square Hotel once at 3625 Grandel Square; the Golden Gate bar on Olive Street and Entres Nous on Pine Street), so the creators appear to have condensed that St. Louis scene into one convenient package.

According to Maier’s research, there was most definitely a cathouse where Dr. Masters conducted research. He writes about how St. Louis Chief of Police H. Sam Priest protected Masters (who delivered their second child) so he could conduct studies in local brothels. Chief Priest and his detectives found willing candidates among prostitutes and made sure they were not busted in the weeks before and after the testing.

Maier writes, “Between 1955 and late 1956, Masters expanded his study in such St. Louis neighborhoods as the Central West End to interviews with call girls in other American cities, such as Chicago, Minneapolis and New Orleans.”

Ah ha! We have a locale on the brothel!
But it’s not like old City Directories are going to list them as such, or old newspapers are going to report any fine details about raiding them. And since I had other questions needing clarification, I reached out to Thomas Maier, who was refreshingly friendly, helpful and prompt in his replies.

The duplex Virginia Johnson lived in, as depicted on Showtime's Masters of Sex.

The duplex Virginia Johnson lived in, as depicted on Showtime’s Masters of Sex.

A real-life example of the home Virginia Johnson lived in after her 1956 divorce. Her actual home was in the spot of the modern condo shown to the left of this home.

A real-life example of the home Virginia Johnson lived in after her 1956 divorce. Her actual home was in the spot of the modern condo shown to the left of this home.


By the early 1960s, Virginia Johnson moved into this ranch home in Salem Estates in Ladue, MO, a "traditional subdivision" designed by St. Louis architect Ralph Fournier.

By the early 1960s, Virginia Johnson moved into this ranch home in Salem Estates in Ladue, MO, a “traditional subdivision” designed by St. Louis architect Ralph Fournier.

As learned from Maier, the Masters of Sex producers have yet to visit St. Louis, which explains the architectural discrepancies. While filming the pilot, the producers found a mid-century home in Huntington, NY that they liked, and later reproduced it on Sony’s Hollywood lot. An old wing of the Jamaica Hospital in Queens, NY stood in for Maternity Hospital. And even though the scenes set on the Washington University campus looked authentic, it’s actually the former Guggenheim estate in Long Island, NY.

He also only knows the general location of the whorehouse as Central West End. Dang it!

I am a life-long, ardent participant in the suspension of disbelief that is Hollywood. But the first season’s episodes aired while I was deeply consumed by Maier’s book and my research, and I found myself second-guessing and dismaying over the deviations from Masters & Johnson’s actual story. Which kinda killed my buzz – totally of my own doing. But it did not keep me from watching and thrilling to every episode, it only clarified that I need to apply more effort to maintain my Hollywood vs. Reality balance.

And the producers’ decision to put Dr. Masters in an MCM ranch did eventually pan out in real life:

The mid-century modern ranch in Ladue, MO that Dr. William Masters & Virginia Johnson moved into after their 1971 marriage.

The mid-century modern ranch in Ladue, MO that Dr. William Masters & Virginia Johnson moved into after their 1971 marriage.

Above is the home, built in 1951, that Bill & Gini (since we got this far, it’s OK to use their nicknames, right?) moved into after they were married in 1971. Oh please oh please let the series go on long enough to get to that soap opera plot twist!

Anyway, this home became a place for their more famous or notorious clients to stay for therapy, avoiding possible detection at the more public Reproductive Biology Research Foundation office at 4910 Forest Park Blvd. (long-since torn down). From the book:

The Ladue house on South Warson Road was more contemporary than most, sheltered by tasteful plantings that shielded activity from the street. Upon entering, guests walked into a vestibule and could follow one of two ramps – to a spacious dining room and kitchen on one side, and to several bedrooms on the other, including the master suite with two king-sized beds placed together. In the back of the house were a large terrace, a kidney-shaped inground pool, and a stable with enough surrounding acreage for Johnson’s daughter, Lisa, to ride her horse. When Cindy Todorovich later bought the South Warson house, she found a secret panel with a peephole. “I’m not saying there was anything kinky going on, but maybe it had something to do with their research,” she recalled.

Apartment building at Maryland Avenue & North Taylor in St. Louis' Central West End, home of Dr. Masters' mother, Estabrook.

Apartment building at Maryland Avenue & North Taylor in St. Louis’ Central West End, home of Dr. Masters’ mother, Estabrook.

The book also has some fun facts that seriously need to go into the series.

The apartment building shown above is where Dr. Masters’ mother, Estabrook, moved to after she was widowed. The child abuse and transformation of his mother’s personality as shown in the series is true. What also needs to be shared is that the staff of Masters & Johnson’s Repro Bio office often spent their lunch hours at Estabrook’s apartment on the 8th floor, because it was a nice walk to and from the office. And since she was now privy to the details of their work, she helped out by sewing silk masks for study volunteers to wear to protect their anonymity.

So Where’s the Brothel?
I made endless inquiries to pinpoint the locale of this place (or places). Librarian friends at both the St. Louis City and County libraries worked on it (along with providing assistance in digging up old phone book and directory information – thanks Adele!), and I followed all leads about anyone who knew a cop or a friend who had brothel info.

Elder St. Louisans mused that a brothel in St. Louis city couldn’t have existed for very long without being busted, and they certainly wouldn’t have been in such luxurious quarters as shown in the screen cap earlier in this post. And the 1952 book U.S.A. Confidential by Jack Lait & Lee Mortimer verified that there was an “overpopulated harlot population” in St. Louis, including “a lot of call-girls” moving “into the new Ford Apartments.”

It was the friend of a friend who verified that a city brothel just wouldn’t be all that glamorous. Roland Kulla is a St. Louis native now living in Chicago, and he shared the following memories and photos from when he lived in the eastern border of the Central West End:

roland kulla 01

“I lived at 3850 Olive St. near the Vandeventer Ave. intersection, from 1947-1954.  The street was very busy then – lots of shops, and bars and a small department store across the street, the streetcar line ran down Olive.  We lived in an apartment above my uncle’s bakery, Sausel’s (new-born Roland is shown with his family in front of that bakery, above) where my father worked.  Stories about the brothel next door at 3848 came from my mother, as I was too young to know.

“The buildings on that corner formed a courtyard in the back.  You came through a yard to get to the back door.  Our back doors were right next to each other – although there was a wooden fence between them (photo below).  Mom told the tale that sometimes the clients would knock on our door by mistake.

Roland Kulla and his friends in front of the fence that separated their back door from that of the brothel next door.

Roland Kulla and his friends in front of the fence that separated their yard from that of the brothel next door.

“(The brothel situation) had changed by 1954 when we moved, as there was a legit neighbor there that we were friendly with. The layout of the apartment, which would have been similar to the one next door, was a small bedroom in the front over the stairs.  There was a double parlor – the front one with a fireplace – divided by sliding doors.  We used both parlors as bedrooms, with the small one used the nursery since there was always a new baby.  Beyond that was a hall bath, and then a big dining room that went the width of the building.  And then a big kitchen in the rear with two walk-in pantries.”

3848 Olive was the site of a St. Louis brothel from 1947 - 1954.

3848 Olive was the site of a St. Louis brothel from 1947 – 1954.

The rear of the buildings (since demolished) on Olive. A wood fence separated 3850 from the brothel at 3848.

The rear of the buildings (since demolished) on Olive. A wood fence separated 3850 from the brothel at 3848.

Roland took the two photos above in the early 1990s. The buildings were completely demolished about 10 years ago, with only The Lighthouse of The Blind building (which formed the east flank of the rear courtyard) remaining on the block.

We are in no way implying or supposing this was the location of Dr. Masters’ laboratory, especially since it was cleaned up prior to beginning his local field studies in 1955-56. It does verify that such places existed, and for long stretches of time, and they were not opulent.

My hope is that I will eventually run across a retired St. Louis City cop who worked under Chief Priest, or had passed-down knowledge of assistance for Dr. Masters, and that so much time has passed they are willing to talk location details. If you’re as curious as I am about finding Bill’s cathouse, and know someone who knows these kinds of things, please let me know. The seedy underbelly of St. Louis was deep and vivid, and in this particular case, led to major scientific discoveries that permanently and positively altered the sexual landscape. If those brothel buildings still stand, they deserve an historic marker, don’t you think?

The real life Virginia Johnson and Dr. William Masters.

The real life Virginia Johnson and Dr. William Masters.


Mid-Century Fetish: Elvis Presley

Viva Las Vegas. It’s 1964. It’s Elvis Presley and Ann-Margret (I want this picture as a wall mural). Need any more be said?

OK, let’s talk.
We all know the deal with Elvis movies; typical phrases include “cheesy,” “so bad they’re good,” “so awful,” and “flip the channel now, or else!”  The plots are flimsy and recycled movie after movie. Elvis wasn’t an actor, and these things killed his career. And all of this is probably true.

But I look at it another way. They are harmless fun, Elvis was undeniably hot, even when the song was crap that voice was incredible, and most important of all: They Are Flat Out Gorgeous To Look At! If you can’t buy the other arguments, simply turn down the sound and watch and try not to be transported into jet set modern nirvana.

Elvis made a total of 31 movies, most of them during the 1960s when they were after the burgeoning Boomer youth market with disposable cash, so they made every effort to be bright, sexy and colorful. All the girls wore the most up-to-date mod clothes and accessories, all the boys are in skinny chinos and the shirts that, today,  go for top dollar at the vintage stores, and they’re all falling in love and dancing up a storm.

From a design standpoint, this pursuit of ultra mod makes for some of the most captivating modern sets, and locations (like the 1963 McCarran Airport Terminal, above) with all the jet age architectural icons of the ’60s filmed almost as soon as they were built. For instance, his 1963 film It Happened at the World’s Fair is all about finding love and singing songs at the Century 21 Exposition in Seattle, and was filmed on location at the Fair. Meaning there’s the Space Needle and the Pacific Science Center all shiny and new being used as Elvis props! What’s not to love?

Elvis movies tended to use the same teams of people in rotation, and all the best looking mod Elvis films are art directed by George W. Davis with set decoration by Henry Grace. A little IMDB research shows that Davis and Grace worked together most of the time, including all the Elvis films mentioned so far (and the one below) plus Double Trouble, Speedway (with Miss Nancy Sinatra wearing the most to-die-for wardrobes ever!), Spin Out and The Trouble With Girls. Choose any one of these and see a mid-century master at work, with the ginchiest locations (like the Flamingo Hotel pool, above), or sets made from scratch filled with sinuous curves and lines, and colors that make the eyes feel like velvet.

Even if you can’t stomach the prerequisite Forlorn Elvis Love Ballad, Davis made sure it looked amazing, like this scene above where he turns a shop-worn boat into a purple riot. George W. Davis was also the art director for films such as Bells Are Ringing, 2 Doris Day flicks (Please Don’t Eat the Daisies and The Glass Bottom Boat), The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, and he did most all Connie Francis movies, and the 2 movies featuring Herman’s Hermits (Hold On! and When The Boys Meet The Girls). His consistency of style was his strong suit… until that style faded away. His last movie credit is in 1972, which means he retired the age of 58. This is one art director who may not have had the patience to endure 1970s realism for a paycheck. So good for him!

When they move inside to hotel rooms (all the characters in Elvis movies stay in hotels – the best way to go mad with the mod furniture and accessories), every single shot is loaded with details that make it look like a Barbie doll play house come to life. And Elvis and his love interest are usually in the brightest, contrasting colors of all so they have half a chance of not being upstaged by the sets.

1965’s Girl Happy screams MCM right out of the starting gate, with the craziest cool opening credits. The only plot point that really matters is that it’s set in spring break Fort Lauderdale, Florida, which creates the excuse for THIS….

To my eyes, this is way better than any masterpiece Renaissance painting. It looks like a painting, doesn’t it? And maybe for this long shot it is. But 60% of the flick takes place at the fictional Seadrift Motel, so they built a 3-dimensional set that should have been billed as one of the stars.

The exterior set of the motel is all pastels and sharp angles softened by curves, both architecturally and human-wise. These pastels are needed so that…

…Elvis pops in his bright red and sleek black ensemble. It doesn’t matter what song it is because it’s just the sexy purr of his voice as he saunters around a Hollywood googitude take on Florida beach side motels.

Come night shots, the aqua water is still, thus introducing the cool, smokey pastels, and check out that floating palm tree in stand! The art direction is so precisely thought out that the pick-up truck that will eventually play an “important” part in this scene is the most exquisite pastel shade of mint green, and they make sure to get a shot of it parked against a pink and white striped wall!

Many girls cram into the small motel rooms (spring break, remember), making it difficult to get a clear shot of the decor, but you get the gist. And bear in mind that we’ve only looked at two Elvis movies art directed by Davis. I had to stop myself from documenting more of them because, at some point, obsessive behavior is off-putting, and it’s best not to cross that line in public.  But if you’re wanting more mouth-watering mid-century modernism a la Hollywood, simply watch anything where Elvis is swathed in the luscious glow of George W. Davis, and sound on or off, it’s a guaranteed treat.

Mid-Century Fetish: Torch Song

It is great fortune to have another Joan Crawford film to dissect for its art direction (the previous one being The Best Of Everything), though this film is notorious for soooo many other things that not many notice the details of the scenery being chewed up. In fact, I didn’t notice it the first time I saw this 1953 MGM musical in the 1990s. But much thanks goes to Steve Hayes – the esteemed Tired Old Queen at the Movies – who inspired me to watch this film again.

Here’s Mr. Hayes vivid 3-minute overview of this must-see flick.

The opening credits clue you into the visual delights that will unfold, because the art directors are the justly-legendary Cedric Gibbons and the somewhat forgotten Preston Ames. While Gibbons put a never-to-be-overlooked art deco stamp on MGM movies from the 1930s and 40s, he was contractually given art director credits on all MGM movies until his retirement in 1956. So while he had to approve the look of each film, Torch Song definitely looks like the hand of Ames, who is best known for his collaborations with director Vincenti Minnelli on films such as An American in Paris, GigGi and (to my mind) Bells Are Ringing.

For this overblown Crawford vehicle, it’s as if Ames purposely tried to compensate for the unflagging overwrought plots and performances by grounding the action in sets that looked like catalogs for the best in early 1950s residential modern design. From furniture to lamps to accessories, he found endless ways to upstage Miss Crawford (gasp!) in the hearts of mid-century modern design aficionados.

Miss Crawford’s character Jenny Stewart is a deliciously repugnant battle axe of a Broadway star who obviously makes enough money to afford digs like this. While she prowls and growls at home, the camera takes every opportunity to share the details of her living quarters (where most of the movie takes place), and it is so sumptuous that I often had to rewind to pick up key dialogue that I’d missed.

We do get to see a few other character’s places, like the modest home of Jenny Stewart’s mother, or the traditional-tinged-with modern apartment (above) of Tye Graham (played by Elizabeth Taylors’ then-husband Michael Wilding), the blind pianist who riles up Miss Crawford before (spoiler alert) taming the shrew.

To my mind, the stars of the movie are – in this order – Miss Crawford, Jenny Stewart’s Living Room and Jenny Stewart’s Bedroom. And The Bedroom steals the movie outright for 14 minutes. During this long, unbroken scene with no dialogue, we watch Jenny Stewart deal with her vexation and frustration over Tye while cloistered away in The Bedroom.  She relentlessly paces the floor of muted gray carpet, plows into bed to play with the overhead metal lamp (above), pulling it down, sending it back up and swinging it from side to side.

She goes through a series of cigarettes that are dramatically lit and violently stamped out in glamorous ashtrays atop gorgeous pieces of built-in furniture.

And in one of the more spellbinding mimes during this 14-minutes, she ravages this clock, spinning its hands like flicking the spinner in a game of drunken Twister. The clock even gets a 5-second close-up, which robbed valuable time from Miss Crawford. Actually this bit with the clock was so odd and so absorbing that I didn’t understand why (other than it being fabulous) the clock figured so prominently and had to rewind to figure it out.  Which is the case with this entire scene; it felt like Crawford was only a game show model guiding you to the finer points of this bedroom’s high design.

She even dutifully goes to the window and throws back the curtains so you can see the chairs and planter on the balcony! After watching the entire scene again, I realized we were supposed to be concentrating on Crawford’s anguish, and if she had any clue that Ames was stealing her thunder with the complicit approval of director Charles Walters, she’d have fired them both, immediately!

The Living Room comes back for another great scene involving a party Jenny throws to lure blind Tye into her private world. She is the only woman in a sea of white men (and one lone black piano player) who must have been instructed to wear navy blue suits so they would coordinate with the brown tiger wood paneling and the white George Nelson pendant lamps.

Jenny’s fury at (spoiler alert) being stood up by Tye causes her to kick everyone out as she runs back to The Bedroom, and for this scene featuring the silk drapes, Ames also sneaks in a new hanging lamp (upper left) whose orange bulbs echo the burning rage of Jenny.

We now pause from adoring Jenny’s decor to pay homage to the most bizarre scene ever filmed – the musical production for “Two-Faced Woman.”

If you’ve never done psychedelic drugs, this a safe way to experience a scary trip. For those who have done psychedelics, it’s an unwelcome acid flashback.

Back to sobriety, more rooms in Jenny’s apartment are revealed, like her dressing room, all done up in colors a Barbie doll would choose if trying for a sophisticated look.

And the doorbell ringing gives Ames another opportunity to introduce some more new features, like this built-in shelf with abstract sculpture…

…and the Eero Saarinen Womb Chair, which upstages Wilding, who is adhering to the household rule of Men In Navy Suits. This scene also gives new angles on the rest of The Living Room that are so breathtaking that I overlooked the major plot point that Tye only came over to tell Jenny to piss off, which of course….

…sends her running to his place, where she sneaks up on him, accosts him and makes him fall to floor in tears. This, naturally signals a great love and compassion…

…that allows them to neck awkwardly through the closing credit.

I only poke fun at the great Miss Crawford because she can no longer choke a wench! But seriously, she always had fabulously modern tastes for her own homes. Take a look at her New York City apartment from 1957-67. Which highlights the very real possibility that she loved everything about these Preston Ames sets, so didn’t mind how prominently they were featured. Though it takes a strong commitment (and fetish) to mid-century modern design to think they upstaged her.

Other movie sets freeze-framed on B.E.L.T.

Mid-Century Fetish: Ocean’s 11


Previously, we covered why Frank Sinatra is the Godfather of Mid-Century Modern, and now we check in on him in 1960 and see that he continued to personify the MCM lifestyle some 13 years after moving into Twin Palms.

Ocean’s 11 released in August 1960, but began 2 weeks of filming on January 11, 1960.  According to the exhaustively detailed commentary by Frank Sinatra, Jr. on the DVD re-issue, we learn that the vast majority of the movie was filmed on location in Vegas and inside the 5 casinos that were “being robbed.”   This makes Ocean’s 11 a valuable snapshot of what Las Vegas once looked like, a celluloid form of historical preservation for a town that has no use for such things.


Most of the movie’s action takes place in or around Las Vegas casinos, so there are only a small handful of Hollywood stage sets, like the one above.  For the sake of brevity, I left out screen grabs that were solely dedicated to the lighting that was chosen for residential sets.  Actually, for mid-century modern lighting and chair enthusiasts, this movie is highly recommended.


Coral orange and salmon pink are the popular accent color of the movie.  Another popular accessory in the movie is cigarettes; both the Rat Pack and Mad Men had a 3-pack a day habit, I swear!

Her Royal Highness, Miss Angie Dickinson (shown seated, above) also contributes to the DVD commentary, and when it comes to her first scene with Dean Martin, and they both get ready to light up, Angie says, “I can’t believe they’re going to pull out cigarettes!  To see myself smoking in movies is shocking.  It seems so wrong, but as everyone knows, in the 40s, 50s, 60, everybody smoked.  Back then, nobody hesitated – drinking and smoking and living it up.”


Sinatra’s character Danny Ocean masterminds a plot to rip off 5 casinos at one time on New Year’s Eve, and brings together his 10 best men to pull it off.  They gather at this stunning mid-century home.


Like most of the movie, it is an actual location rather than a set, in this case, it’s a home in Beverly Hills that was then owned by Hollywood theatrical agent Kurt Frings.  According to Sinatra, Jr., Frings’ was surprised they wanted to use it for the film, but was more than happy to let them do so.  This tidbit proves a conscious decision on someone’s part – maybe Sinatra? – as to what style of house these thoroughly modern rapscallions should gather in.


The downstairs rumpus room in the Frings’ house covers just about every decorating trend of the late 1950s, including Tiki, Asian and African.  There’s quite a bit of furniture (I lost track trying to count all the different types of chairs) and knick-knacks in this large room, yet it doesn’t look busy or fussy.  This is one of the hallmarks of mid-century modern residential design:  how to have a lot of stuff without looking like you do!


From the film we see the entrance to the original Flamingo Hotel, which was built in 1946 by gangster Bugsy Siegel.  By 1967, new owners began remodeling, renovating and removing, and by 1994 all pieces of the original hotel were demolished.  Only the name survives from the old days, but Ocean’s 11 preserves some important aspects of the place…


…like the multiple showrooms in each of the hotels. Sinatra, Jr. was most impassioned when discussing how the casinos used to operate, “when they were owned by individuals, not corporations.”  He explained that these intimate music lounges existed to “feed live music into the casino,” and give gamblers a place to eat and revive themselves for some more gambling.


Each music lounge (like the Flamingo Room, above) took great care to book quality music and comedy acts, regarding them as being as big a draw as the gambling.  Music or gambling, either way, they’d get your money.

The reason the production got the actual hotels as sets in the movie was because the Rat Pack was actually performing in the Copa Room at the Sands for the 1959-60 holiday season.  Once their shows were done for the night, filming began at 2:15 a.m. and they shot until it became too light.   The production made a deal with the participating 5 casinos to leave up their regular Christmas decorations for a couple of weeks longer so it could play into the New Year’s Eve plot line.


And here is the legendary Sands Hotel.  It opened in 1952, was the zenith of Vegas entertainment by the time of Ocean’s 11, and closed in 1996, followed by an infamous implosion a few months later.  Unlike some of the other lost hotels, the Sands named died with it.


Here’s a diner from the original Sands casino, and a distinction must be made about the building types.  As Sinatra, Jr. points out in the DVD commentary, the casino, showrooms and lounges were in a separate building from the hotel, and the hotels were no higher than 3-stories tall and situated behind the main building.


Right next door to the Sands was the Desert Inn (and both places would be owned by Howard Huges by the mid-60s), which operated from 1950 to 2000. And like the Sands, once it was demolished, the name went with it.


By the mid-1960s, the city of Las Vegas made a concerted effort to draw in more people by building a convention center, and more people required more rooms.  This is the time period when high-rise hotels were erected, and so required massive renovations to the existing casino hotels.


This is the gambling room of the Desert Inn as it was in January 1960. While not posh, it’s certainly more civilized than the lights-flashing-sirens-honking casinos we have now.


The Riviera (shown above), which opened in 1955, foreshadowed the super hotel concept by being the first high-rise hotel erected on The Strip, and it remains to this day in the same location with the same name.  But the building shown here is long gone.

The new corporate owners that took over in the late 1960s figured – according to Sinatra, Jr. – “that people should only have to walk as far as the elevator to spend their money,” which is when the concept of separate buildings was jettisoned in favor of a a gargantuan hotel that could allow you to never set foot outside of it.


The Sahara Hotel is the only other of the Ocean’s 11 5 that remain in the same place with the same name, but by 1963 they had begun serious renovations to the 1952 structure.  By the late 1970s, Vegas switched over to the “mega-resort” concept, which was a way to make Vegas family-friendly which meant more money from different types of people flowing in.  From the DVD commentary, both Sinatra, Jr. and Miss Dickinson are emphatic that luring kids to Vegas was the death knell for a once-great city, with Dickinson lamenting the disappearance of the last safe place for adults to be adults.


Here’s footage from the film of Dean Martin performing in the Congo Lounge of the Sahara.  Sinatra, Jr. was also very detailed about the death of quality entertainment in Vegas, explaining that the number of private lounges were reduced by new corporate owners who felt they were wasting their money with duplications of musicians throughout a casino.  The disappearance of the small music lounges that were free-of-charge to gamblers did not seem to affect the flow of people coming through the doors, so the rest of the lounges were torn out, replaced by grand concert halls with high-dollar tickets that could lure in even the non-gamblers.


After the robberies are completed, there are a few stage set scenes, with this office interior being one of them. I love the masculine drama of this room.


But for the most part, 1960 Las Vegas is the star of Ocean’s 11, with cameo appearances by the Rat Pack and friends.  And Vegas has always been about flash and money, so has constantly been changing to keep up with the cash, so any type of serious preservation of the Vega Strip was laughed off the street decades ago.  Though there is The Neon Museum, the graveyard for so many of the wonderful neon sings that are the landscape of Vegas.  They even turned the LaConcha Motel (which I covered in 2005) into their visitor’s center!

But for the most part, photographs and memories are the historical preservation of Las Vegas, and the Rat Pack era is the one that seems to ignite the romantic imagination the most.  Luckily, Frank Sinatra – the Godfather of Mid-Century Modern – left behind the most potent and complete snapshot of a time and a town.


La Concha Motel, Las Vegas
Frank Sinatra: Mid-Century Modern Godfather


Connecting the Mad Men Dots


In a previous post, I made a set design connection between the movie The Best of Everything and the TV series Mad Men.  I even wrote:“I’d make a bet that (Mad Men creator) Matthew Weiner has seen this movie even more times than I have, if only for set design research purposes.”

From the photo above, turns out he’d not only seen the movie, but he and his writing staff used the book as research, and then inserted into an episode in Season 2.

Betty Draper walks into the bedroom, where Don is reading a paperback copy of Rona Jaffee’s The Best of Everything.
DON This is fascinating.
BETTY It’s better than the Hollywood  version.
DON It’s certainly dirtier.
BETTY Joan Crawford is not what she was.  You know, honestly, I found her eyebrows completely unnerving. Like a couple of caterpillars pasted there.  Her standing next to Suzy Parker as if they were the same species.
DON Well, some men like eyebrows, and all men like Joan Crawford.  Salvatore couldn’t stop talking about her.

Trash talking Miss Crawford?  Another reason why I dislike Betty, and this moves to #1 on the list.  At least Don told her what for!

Mid-Century Fetish: The Best Of Everything


Frank Sinatra: Mid-Century Modern Godfather


One of the most iconic images of residential mid-century modernism was made possible by Frank Sinatra.  Though he only lived in it for 10 years, the home is forever associated with him, and still inspires retro fantasies.

As cover art for a CD EP we did earlier this year, I chose the shot above because it combined two things I love: Julius Shulman and Ole’ Blue Eyes.  Now, both of my 70-something parents didn’t care much for the music within, but when they saw the CD cover they both immediately identified it as Frank’s place.  How’s that for architectural staying power?


The place is known as Twin Palms, and is now for rent as a Palm Springs party palace or the ultimate background for a photo shoot.  The official website has all the details, plus a great history of the home, which hipped me to something I did not know: Sinatra’s place was used as a location for the Joan Crawford film The Damned Don’t Cry.


I’ll take every opportunity to wallow in Miss Crawford melodrama, but for those of you too busy or too butch to go there, the scenes featuring Sinatra’s pad are screen-capped here.

The story of how Frank Sinatra got this home is fairly well-known: upon deciding he wanted a permanent residence in the then-sleepy desert town of Palm Springs, Frank walked into the office of E. Stewart Williams and simply said, “I want a house.”  Sinatra was thinking traditional columns and bricks, but for his first residential commission, Williams went with modern design.


Shortly before he died, Williams talked about presenting the drawings of the home in the film about Julius Shulman, Visual Acoustics.  Williams remembered that Sinatra was surprisingly open to such a radical departure from what he’d asked for, and the meeting was very brief because Sinatra had only one criteria to make his decision: Can you have it done by Christmas?


Even though it was the Summer of 1947, Williams said “yes” to the seemingly impossible: design and build a house to completion in less than 5 months.  Incredibly, they missed the deadline by only a week; Sinatra didn’t do Christmas but was able to throw a New Year’s Eve Party.

According to the Twin Palms website, Sinatra repaid a favor he owed by letting the production of The Damned Don’t Cry film at his home in 1950.  But they were only allowed to film outside, so any scenes that take place within the interior of the home are Hollywood creations that have nothing to do with what the interior of the actual house looked like.


We tend to see still pictures of the home shot from the same angles, so it’s a real treat to see it in this movie from different angles and functioning as someone’s home, rather than the icon it was rapidly becoming.

In the film, Twin Palms portrays the home of gangster Nick Prenta, who is in trouble with the New York Mob Boss.  Miss Crawford is the mistress of said Boss, and is sent by him to spy on Nick.  But because Nick is such a virile Italian stud (who is so secure in his manhood that he rocks op-art swim trunks), Crawford naturally falls in love with him (and his house!) and can’t bring herself to rat him out because that equals death.   (Spoiler Alert) Of course, Nick gets whacked, but the violence happens in Crawford’s apartment, so Twin Palm’s had no blood on its hands, real or reel.


We’re not even going to comment on the irony of Sinatra’s house “belonging” to a gangster while he himself dodged Mob rumors for most of his career.  Instead, let’s marvel at these rare glimpses of the home in its infancy, and appreciate the people who have restored the place within the past 12 years.

And the place did need extensive restoration; Sinatra only lived in the house from 1947 – 1957, which left many new residents to muss its essence. By 1997, it was being sold as a tear down.  Scroll down 3/4 on this link to learn more.  Now it’s available to any of us with lots of disposable cash to live out Frank & Ava fantasies for a weekend, a wonderful gift suggestion to add to your Christmas wish list!


Mid-Century Fetish: The Best Of Everything


The Best of Everything is a rich chocolate sundae of Hollywood melodrama and mid-century modern design, with Miss Joan Crawford as the cherry on top.

Filmed and released in 1959, the movie is based on the 1958 novel of the same name by Rona Jaffe.  The book is a really great read because it’s far more than a soap tale of 3 girls coming to New York City to find love and good fortune; it is a realistic snapshot of how post-WW2 cultural and corporate standards demanded the creation of Women’s Liberation.

The dramatic and/or tragic stories of the girls’ journeys through sex and career were obvious bait for Hollywood, who added spoonfuls of glamor sugar to make the medicine go down, and this lesson was clearly understood and aped by both Cosmopolitan magazine and, later, Mad Men. I’d make a bet that Matthew Weiner has seen this movie even more times than I have, if only for set design research purposes.


Along with Hope Lange, Barbara Lamont and Suzy Parker (above center), the Lever House should have been billed as a co-star, because it actually appears on screen as often as Joan Crawford.  It appears so much because it’s caddy corner on Park Avenue to the building where our heroines work…


… the Seagram Building.  So within the first 15 minutes of the film, you know you’re in for a rich and gooey mid-century modern treat.


The main character, Caroline Bender, comes to her first day of work as a typist and secretary at Fabian Publishing Company.   She arrives early to absorb the place, and the camera pans over this Mondrian-like office set.  The film’s art direction is primarily by Lyle R. Wheeler, who had already worked similar magic on films like The Long Hot Summer, Peyton Place, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and Bus Stop.  For the Fabian Publishing set, he used door colors to signify which level each inhabitant occupied on the corporate totem pole and adhered to tight grids in the typing pool to symbolize the rigid class distinctions between executives and the female typing pool.  If – without seeing the move – this set looks familiar to you, it may indicate that you…


…watch Mad Men. During the first few episodes of the first season, I was vaguely disappoint in how refined the sets were, until I realized that I was instinctively comparing their sets to The Best of EverythingThe people responsible for the Mad Men sets have essentially created the accurate, real-world version of of Hollywood’s glossy interpretation of late 50s/early 60s corporate world.


Caroline Bender  (above) has ambitions to become an editor but first assigned secretary duties to editor Miss Amanda Farrow (Miss Crawford, below right).


The Mad Men character Peggy Olson is a perfect compilation of these two characters.  Peggy “before” is Caroline, all freshly scrubbed from a small town looking to make it in the Big City, and her quick learning curve and natural talent moves her quickly up the ladder.  If you’d like a sneak peak at Peggy “after,” see this movie and keep an eye on the Amanda character.  And look at those chairs!


This is the office of Fabian editor-in-chief Fred Shalimar, and dig the wall of built-in book shelves holding the paperbacks he’s overseen.  As in Mad Men, actual work takes a backseat to drinking, smoking and carousing, so the office needs to be comfy and stylish.


Hollywood depicted the bustling employee cafeteria inside the Seagram building as a mod fantasy of vivid aqua, yellow and purple, which stood in stark contrast to the marble and glass lobby that couldn’t be glossed into submission.


When the action leaves the office, we get a wide sample of the different aspects of mid-century modern residential design.  Above is the work-a-day kitchen in Amanda Farrow’s apartment, and below is the penthouse of rich playboy Dexter Key (played by Robert Evans) who will do terrible things to one of our heroines.



Eventually, Caroline becomes second-in-command at Fabian and gets this spacious new office.  It  does a better job of expressing the character’s reactions to her rapid rise than the actress does, which pretty much sums up the movie.  As often happens, Hollywood sucks the soul out of a book for the sake of selling tickets.  In the case of The Best of Everything, the sets and the costumes are the reason I watch this movie so often, and the reason I get an extra kick out of Mad Men.

Read more Joan Crawford Mid-Century Fetish: Torch Song


Mid-Century Fetish: Down With Love

Down With Love, released in 2003, is a homage to classic Doris Day & Rock Hudson films of the 1960s, starring Ewan McGregor and Renee Zellweger. It works as both a tongue-in-cheek commentary and earnest love letter to that style of romantic comedy film.

Critics buried the film, and basically no one but me and my Mother saw it in the theaters. But two crew members did get nominated for a few independent film awards, and rightly so, because they were the meat and potatoes of this venture.

Costume designer Daniel Orlandi totally nailed the spirit of a typical Doris Day wardrobe, which was fabulous! Production designer Andrew Laws studied the sets of the original Day-Hudson films, then injected them with the revival of mid-century modern design that was foaming to a head, and thus created the ultimate fetishistic object for MCM design fans.


The lobby of Know magazine

Over the years, I have seen Pillow Talk – where Doris Day plays an interior decorator – easily 40 times. The sets are just as important as the actors and the plot and, for the last 10 years or so, I watch the backgrounds more than the foreground. So when Down With Love set decorator Don Diers said their sets were intended to be a “distinct character in the film,” my applause is deafening for a goal perfectly achieved. As with Pillow Talk, I can watch this film with the sound down and still be wildly entertained.


Catcher Block's office

The movie begins with this narration:
The place: New York City
The time: now – 1962. And there’s no time or place like it.

Diers confirmed this by saying, “Our New York exteriors existed in the back lot world of Universal. We made a concerted effort to recreate a 1963 Hollywood New York, as opposed to anything that might have been mistaken for reality. Through Fox Research, we searched a lot of old movie stills for just the right tone.”


Barbara Novak's Manhattan penthouse apartment

This level of fantasy detail is supremely delightful. Bringing to life idealized versions of what 1962 surely looked like is thoroughly satisfying and can be a time-consuming hobby.


Here’s a piece on how to re-create the Barbie doll feel of Barbara Novak’s penthouse apartment.



The bachelor pad of Catcher Block

The bachelor pad of Catcher Block

And here’s a piece on how to get that “woman’s man, man’s man, man about town” look for your bachelor pad.

Another view of Cathcer's apartment

Another view of Catcher's apartment

Catcher's fireplace and vintage stewardess

Catcher's fireplace and vintage stewardess

As much as I genuinely love and strive to document real-world examples of mid-century modern architecture and design, I do get uneasy about the fetish aspect of it. The definitions of “fetish” succinctly explain my uneasy feelings:

1. an object regarded with awe as being the embodiment or habitation of a potent spirit or as having magical potency

2. Any object, idea, etc. eliciting unquestioning reverence, respect or devotion

3. Any object or nongenital part of the body that causes a habitual erotic response or fixation

Cubicles of secretarial pool at Know magazine
Cubicles of secretarial pool at Know magazine

Finding evidence of a design time period and collecting the items and/or trying to recreate that look is a time-honored tradition. Early American architecture was founded on the revival of most every European building style of most every century. So, reverential recreation of mid-20th century design is a natural progression, and may be the only thing that finally preserves the best examples of such for future generations.

Lobby of Novak's Now magazine

Lobby of Novak's Now magazine

But there does exist unrealistic expectations among those cultivating a mid-century way of living. The most intriguing example comes from the stories of a realtor friend who specializes in finding St. Louis MCM homes for her clients.

Coming into Barbara Novak's office

Coming into Barbara Novak's office

In a nutshell, some folks want to live in subdivisions with homes like these, but they want it to look exactly as it did when first built. They look at what 40+ years of inhabitant’s remodeling did to the place and just don’t want to deal with the effort required to restore it to that original state.

Novak's office

Novak's office

Remodeling industry figures show that the average homeowner remodels at least the kitchen and bathroom every 10 years, and that when someone moves into a pre-existing home, some form of remodeling will take place. This is a psychological, aesthetic and functional desire to erase previous footprints and mold the home to your wants and needs.

Waiting area at Now magazine

Waiting area at Now magazine

If the house is over 25 years old, it’s going to automatically need upgrades to systems, roofs and exterior finishes. Maintenance is an on-going chore for a house of any age.

It is easily understood that the purchase of a period home is going to require a lot of work. Whether wanting to totally modernize it or restore it to its original state, it is the equivalent of a second full-time job until the job is done. Wait, the job is never truly done, so scratch that. It’s more like raising a child.

The Pan Am building is real, the rest is Hollywood

The Pan Am building is real, the rest is Hollywood

A house built in the 1950s or 60s is now, technically, a period home. Aside from the maintenance and repairs it will require, if you want to take it back to the original form, it requires remodeling. Many homeowners – especially first-time buyers – understandably don’t want to deal with this much work and expense. If that’s their mindset, then walking into a 1960s ranch that only looks like that from the outside is a major bubble pop, and disillusionment thwaps hard upside the head.

But what is it about mid-century architecture that makes it harder for us to accept the remodeling realities of a place that has been normally remuddled over the decades? Why do we expect these period homes to be like a perfectly preserved dollhouse?

Set for the closing credit musical number

Set for the closing credit musical number

Maybe it’s because it is the recent past. The second half of the 20th century went by at lightening speed; 25 years can feel like only 5 years gone, and how much can you mess up something in that short period of time? A home built in 1912 is an antiquated beast requiring massive work to bring it to current standards. But a 1950s ranch has central air conditioning and drywall, so we recognize it as “of our time.”

Then we see something like Down With Love, where they wave a magic Hollywood wand and create a mid-century Xanadu. Target lets us take home credible recreations of that era. Dwell shows regular people living in that world. It’s as easy as populating a dollhouse, right?

If only.