Most folks barrel right through the desolate highway truck-stop town of El Paso, Arkansas without giving it a glance. And really, why would they? With the exception of a few ramshackle old farm houses, a small handful of mobile homes, a McDonald’s and a thrift shop, there ain’t nothin’ there but cows and grasslands.
Yep, they don’t come much more humble than El Paso, Arkansas, kids. That’s why you might be surprised to learn that one of the country’s most hardcore real estate ballers spent her formative years in this highly unlikely locale. This is a place where the biggest store — thrift shop Smitty’s — proudly sports a banner that proclaims “If we ain’t got it — you don’t need it!!”.
Well, we know at least one former local who might disagree with that cocky statement.
The fourth of five children born to Hack & Doris Burns, Brenda Burns grew up in this blink-and-you’ll-miss-it “pass through” community, 13 miles from the nearest school. Hack was a local farmer; Doris, a homemaker.
While still in her teens, young Brenda gave birth to a daughter, whom she christened Tamme. We’re not privy to info regarding what became of the child’s father, or if he ever married Brenda — we think there may have been a fleeting shotgun wedding and marriage — but at some point, Brenda packed up her young daughter and hoofed it to the big city: Little Rock, AR. She reportedly supported herself by working odd jobs.
Anywho, it wasn’t until sometime close to 1970 — when she was approaching 30 — that Brenda (and young Tamme) met a man who would drastically alter their lives forever. By this time, the mother-daughter pair had drifted up to Indianapolis, where Brenda managed to get a job at Stouffer’s Hotel, a hotspot popular amongthe local elite and wealthy out-of-town visitors during the 70’s.
So legend goes, she had a fleeting, Lifetime Original Movie-worthy chance encounter with Melvin “Mel” Simon. At that time, Mr. Simon was already a successful local businessman, but still at the dawn of his career as a billionaire real estate mogul. It was love at first sight, despite the fact that Mr. Simon was 16 years her senior and already married with three children of his own.
It wasn’t long before our gurl bid adieu to her old life — and her old identity — permanently. In 1972, Brenda Burns became Mrs. Bren Simon. And yes, she even altered her first name. That ol’ El Paso girl Brenda was put out to pasture, forever lost to time. Or something melodramatic like that.
Over the next couple decades, Mr. Simon and his business became so successful that his firm, Melvin Simon & Associates, went public and raised $1 billion in the 1993 IPO. Today, the firm has evolved into the Simon Property Group, which is the largest real estate investment trust (REIT) in the whole damn US of A. Needless to say, Mr. Simon became a billionaire. He and his younger brother (and business partner) Herb even purchased the Indiana Pacers in 1983, which Herb continues to own.
But we digress. Now comes the fun part. A year after they were married, Mr. & Mrs. Simon purchased a property in the swanky Indianapolis suburb of Carmel that would become their longtime family home. They began cobbling together an enormous estate that today encompasses more than 100 acres of land. The couple moved into the original mansion on the property after extensively renovating it (adding on a 10,000 square foot wing with a 4,000 square foot master suite).
Unfortunately, in 1998, a double-whammy tragedy struck the billionaire clan. First, their Indiana mansion essentially burned to the ground after a candle lit a fabric-covered wall in one of the bedrooms on fire. Then, less than a year later, the Simon’s only child together, their son Max, died in Amsterdam at the tender age of 25.
The couple seemed to take the tragedies in stride. They razed the burned-out shell of their original mansion and constructed a new mega-mega-mansion that, according to recent listing information, spans a shopping mall-worthy 50,000 square feet of living space. And that, kiddies, is just the main house.
Asherwood, as the Simons christened the colossal spread, features a tennis court, swimming pool, and perfectly manicured gardens. There’s also — ready for this? — a private 18-hole golf course, 2,700 square foot spa, 1,300 square foot library, an indoor pool, a “clubhouse”, a greenhouse, a guest house, a “golf maintenance” house, and a pool house. The mansion even sports its very own private synagogue for when making the trek to the neighborhood temple becomes too arduous.
In 2014, the widow Simon (Mr. Simon passed in 2009 at age 82, RIP) hoisted the behemoth up for sale with an asking price of $25 million. The house — perhaps unsurprisingly — did not sell and was eventually removed from the market. Frankly, y’all, Yolanda can’t fathom who would want a $25 million, 50,000 square foot house on 100 fully landscaped acres with what must surely be $1 million or more in annual maintenance expenses and taxes. And in the middle of Indiana! Hot damn. We really can’t think of a single soul, can you?
We’re not sure if it had something to do with Mrs. Simon’s Arkansas heritage or merely the amount of power and influence the Simons wielded, but the couple became very good friends with Bill & Hillary Clinton, both of whom they repeatedly wined, dined, and hosted functions for on this very property. And it was, after all, Bill Clinton himself who delivered the eulogy at Mr. Simon’s funeral.
But we’re getting ahead of everything. In 1986, Mr. & Mrs. Simon threw down $6,000,000 to acquire Villa Venezia, a rather legendary 52-room 22,323-square-foot oceanfront pile near Palm Beach, FL (it was originally built as a Vanderbilt vacation home). While $6 million bucks may seem like nothing to jaded real estate watchers, at that time it was reportedly the second-highest price ever paid for a house in the Palm Beach area.
The Simons sold the property in 1999 for $29,900,000 to socialite Veronica Hearst. Mrs. Hearst, as you may recall, infamously lost the sprawling villa to foreclosure back in 2008.
In 1995, the luxe-living Simons plunked down $5,990,000 on a 10,328 square foot mansion in Aspen, CO that has 6 bedrooms and 9 bathrooms. The lot is a substantial 5.43 acres and some of Mrs. Simon’s nearest neighbors (she continues to own the property) include billionaires Neil Bluhm, Daniel Och, and Stan Kroenke and his wife Ann Walton.
Mrs. Simon, for whatever reason, also owns most of the town of Carbondale, about 30 miles northwest of Aspen. She’s spent millions of dollars cobbling together a commercial property portfolio there that should be sufficient to make her the de facto mayor of town, if such things could do such things. You know?
We’re not quite sure when they acquired it, but in April 2011, two years after her husband’s death, Mrs. Simon sold the couple’s two-condo combination spread at the Plaza Hotel on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan for a brain-stalling $48,000,000 in an off-market deal to Russian composer Igor Krutoy. (And don’t bother asking Yolanda how a composer can afford a $48 million condo. We don’t have the faintest idea.)
Yolanda has heard many times that Mr. & Mrs. Simon also owned substantial residences in both Washington D.C. and London, but we confess we know zilch about the specifics of those and whether Mrs. Simon continues to own one or both of those spreads.
But anyway, these days Mrs. Simon primarily resides in Los Angeles. In 2005, she and Mr. Simon forked out $13,000,000 to buy a big-ass Frenchy palace modeled after Le Petit Trianon (above) in one of Bel Air’s poshest pockets. It appears to us that the Simons also simultaneously acquired a smaller home next door, which they razed. But don’t quote us on that — we’re not 100% sure it was they who tore that ish down.
By the way, this place is directly across the street from the stunningly-lavish Beverly Hillbillies mansion/estate/compound that’s long been owned by billionaire Jerry Perenchio.
Anyway, the couple soon got ants in their real estate pants and within a year they were on the move yet again. This time they slammed down a monstrous $27,500,000 for a 19,584 square foot, three-story beast that sits right on top of the Bel Air Country Club greens. The following year, Mr. & Mrs. Simon baller-style paid another $8,800,000 for the house next door, which they tore down and turned into a parking lot.
Yes, kids, a $9 million parking lot for their estate. For those of you needing an arithmetic reality check, Mr. & Mrs. Simon spent a total of $36,300,000 on their 1.44-acre Bel Air beast — not counting demolition fees, landscaping, contractors, and all that. Who would be surprised if Mrs. Simon was into the land for over $40 million? Not Yolanda, that’s who.
(As for their old Bel Air spread, the Simons sold the main house for $15,000,000 to real estate developer David Adelipour and the vacant parcel next door to their across-the-street neighbor Jerry Perenchio for $8,500,000. As far as we can tell, Mr. Perenchio currently uses the property as a vineyard.)
In February 2010, just five months after her husband’s death, Mrs. Simon put the badass Bel Air behemoth up for sale with a $50,000,000 pricetag, where it lingered for the rest of the year before being delisted. The ol’ gurl popped back up in August 2011 with a reduced $44,000,000 ask, which fell all the way to $29,900,000 (and still no takers) before being yanked off the market (again) in April 2013.
This January (2016), the property took its third — and hopefully final — spin on the real estate rodeo with a $37,500,000 list. Last month, the estate entered escrow with an as-of-yet unknown buyer at an unknown price. Let’s all hope and pray for Yolanda’s sake that the ol’ gurl finally sells. We can’t bear to see this thing sag and sag and sag and sag some more on the market.
Let’s backtrack just a tad. Mr. Simon passed away in 2009, and shortly afterwards a bitter fight arose between Mrs. Simon and her husband’s three children from his first marriage. The dispute at hand stemmed from a new will Mr. Simon signed just months before his death that left Mrs. Simon (and Tamme) a far larger portion of his estate than the original will provided to them.
Somewhat surprisingly, in March 2010, in the midst of all the drama, Mrs. Simon decided to buy three adjacent properties comprising 100 acres of land on swanky Potrero Road in the Hidden Valley area of Thousand Oaks, CA. Records show she paid a total of $20,700,000 (in cash!) for the three parcels, which were acquired from three different sellers in three different transactions. Snitches also told the Wall Street Journal at the time that Mrs. Simon planned to construct a new mogul-style mansion on the land.
For whatever reason, Mrs. Simon’s plans soon changed and she spent the next several years attempting to unload the properties, sometimes at substantial discounts. By 2015, the three tracts had been sold off to three different buyers for a total of $19,500,000.
Though she’s now in her mid-70s, Mrs. Simon ain’t slowing down the real estate rollercoaster. She’s already “downsized” to a new house in Santa Monica from her Bel Air estate.
Property records show Mrs. Simon closed on the property in April 2016, paying $10,700,000 through an anonymous bank trust. The freshly-renovated home sports 6 bedrooms and 5.5 bathrooms in 6,496 square feet of living space. The house was sold by Coldplay band manager Dave Holmes.
The modern take on English Tudor has herringbone oak wood flooring, marble in the kitchen and baths, wine cellar, and media room. There’s also every high end appliance imaginable, natch.
The big-but-not-mega house also has a three-car garage off the back with a driveway that rather inelegantly runs right up next to the pool.
The property, which is located on Santa Monica’s swankiest street, sports notable neighbors that include Alessandra Ambrosio, Peter Chernin, Allen Kohl, and Mexican heiress Susana Canales de Odriozola.
And for what it’s worth, kids, Yolanda is pretty damn certain this is the biggest Santa Monica residential real estate transaction of 2016. At least so far.
Mrs. Simon’s new Santa Monica house is also just minutes away from her daughter Tamme’s mansion in the seriously-expensive “Riviera” section of the Pacific Palisades. Property records show our homegurl Tamme — whom Mr. Simon officially adopted when she was 40 years old — threw down a very A-list $12,500,000 for her mansion in 2005. Some of her nearest neighbors include Gregory Milken and his wife EJ Lee, Jason Subotky and his wife Anne Akiko Meyers, Brooke Shields, and Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner.
One more thing, kiddies. We’ve got a little something you might find interesting. Our gurl Tamme — her full name is Tamme McCauley — has two adult children from an early marriage. Her son is named Dylan, her daughter is Tasha.
Tasha McCauley, if the name maybe sounds vaguely familiar, is married to — and recently popped a baby with — actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt. She’s also a robotic scientist and a member of the faculty at Singularity University. Well, damn. You go, gurl!
That’s right, y’all. Ain’t it a small world? Our gurl Tamme’s daughter Tasha is married to our boy Joseph Gordon-Levitt. That makes Mrs. Simon his grandma-in-law and his son’s great-grandma, of course. How you like them apples?
P.S. In case this whole tale makes you think that Mr. & Mrs. Simon were/are some sort of greedy, ungrateful rich folks, that’s not the case. The couple were incredibly generous philanthropists — at one time they even donated $50 million to establish Indiana University’s cancer research center.
Oh, and by the way, like all her other properties, Yolanda finds zero evidence of a mortgage on Mrs. Simon’s new Santa Monica mansion. We very strongly suspect she paid cold, hard cash for the property.
Not bad for Brenda Burns, that young teen mom from El Paso, Arkansas.