Star Wars, Space Invaders, and the Great Bel Air Fire: How America’s most expensive house came to be

Yolanda is going off the grid this Thanksgiving. No petulant grandchildren begging for cash, No more pervy neighbors trying catch us with our bloomers down (don’t ask). And sadly, no Aunt Maude nippin’ at the cooking sherry. Nope. We’re taking our candy apple red Caddy and hightailing it to an undisclosed location far, far away from the hustle and bustle of LA. We may or may not have limited internet service, we don’t know. But if you don’t see any stories from us until after Turkey Day, just know that Yolanda has not been assassinated. Most likely, anyway.

So cheerio, friends and foes.

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Somewhere over the sunset…

Before we go, we wanted to give y’all something real good and juicy to tide you over until our return. See? Yolanda is a nice old hag. But we didn’t want to be typical about it, know what we mean? We didn’t want to run another tedious tale with pictures of an overpriced spec-mansion and lots of banal blah blah blah digression. We needed something! Something different. So we did what any smart old lady like us would do. We broke a hip, lit up a Marlboro, and set out on our porch. Then we thought and thought.

Somewhere about halfway through our ciggie, we decided to throw it all to hell. Who says we gotta cater to y’all, anyway? Yolanda is gonna discuss something personally interesting to her — a property that has intrigued us more than any other ever. We were gonna save this discussion for y’all’s Christmas/Hanukkah present, but too bad and so sad. Guess Yolanda ain’t giving out gifts this year! Don’t like it? Tough. Remember, this is our blog…

…but stick around. (We think even you naysayers might find something of interest in the below.)

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His Inimitable Royal Highness Nile Niami

Perhaps the most successful (or notorious?) of LA’s bumper crop of luxury spec-mansion developers is a guy named Nile Niami. And it’s no great secret that Mr. Niami is constructing an aircraft-warehouse-sized compound on a high plateau in LA’s traditionally stodgy Bel Air neighborhood. 944 Airole Way.

It’s also no secret that Mr. Niami plans to ask an utterly ludicrous $500,000,000 for the house upon completion. And no, we didn’t drunkenly insert an extra zero. It’s a $500 million home in Bel Air. Just a wee bit silly, ain’t it? But who are we to judge.

However, we should and will judge the hideous name Mr. Niami is slappin’ on his contemporary Hearst Castle. It’s called The One. No, seriously! We swear. Ugh. Have y’all ever heard a more pompous and sickeningly self-indulgent name than that? We’ll grant you that the name fits the property perfectly. But come on now, Mr. Niami. We oughta slap the dickens outta ya for that foolishness.

But we digress. Mr. Niami is somewhat publicity-shy, so naturally we were super excited when he gave a rare and lengthy interview to Christopher Bagley for GQ. At the Bel Air construction site, no less! He discussed the future complex’s hedonistic amenities at length: tennis court w/ viewing pavilion, five swimming pools, a 6,000-square-foot master suite, a VIP nightclub, jellyfish tanks instead of walls. You know, all the typical crap.

Designed by prolific contemporary mansion architect Paul McClean, the compound will have roughly 100,000 square feet of living space, which is so utterly absurd that Yolanda can barely process it.

But it was what Mr. Niami refused to discuss that really gobsmacked us. You see, Mr. Niami does not even know — or at least claims not to know — who sold him the property that he is transforming into the world’s most expensive home (should it sell for its attention-garnering asking price). And he also refused to disclose how much he paid for the privilege of owning this piece of land. Doesn’t all that seem weird?! It sure seems weird. At least to us.

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Ghost of the past

Here’s something even more bizarre. That four-acre promontory, which sports 360 degree views of the city, the mountains, and the Pacific Ocean, was vacant and woefully neglected for years prior to Mr. Niami’s purchase. The photo above shows the level of decay involved. It got to the point where the old mansion on the property (which was rather stunning in its heyday, as y’all shall soon see) appeared close to crumbling.

Of course, everyone should already know that Yolanda is a nosy beotch. And we love a good challenge. We truly believe, kiddies, that our best stories are the ones that do not come easy. So we dove into the murky depths of property records and resolved to find the truth.

Can you blame us? Someone out there — some shadowy, sinister individual — let one of Bel Air’s most lavish spreads fall into utter ruin. And putting aside our own personal curiosity about the matter, we can’t tell you how many questions about the former state of the property have come up over the years.

Seems lots of folks want to know what happened up there, so very long ago.

Well, nothing comes neat. And some questions are easier answered than others. For instance, it was relatively simple for Yolanda to uncover the amount of money Mr. Niami spent to acquire the derelict estate. We distinctly remember seeing off-market advertising materials floating around with an asking price of $29,995,000. And a combination of property records, tax records, and various other online resources all show that Mr. Niami paid $28,000,000 for the property in the last days of 2012. But of course, that begets yet more questions.

Where did that $28 million go? And to whom?

For months — even years — Yolanda couldn’t figure it out. The records on this one were locked up right tight, with the seller concealed behind a relentlessly opaque bank trust. But we know now. And yet, before we take this tale any further, let’s rewind. As with all juicy stories, it all started with a case of once upon a time.

Once upon a time, way back in 1918, there was born a girl named Jane O’Brien. Hollywood native Miss O’Brien seemed destined to become a movie star from an early age. As a teenager, she signed with Warner Bros. and made her feature film debut at 18 with the Perry Mason mystery thriller The Case of the Black Cat

Ms. Bryan (she altered her surname at the dawn of her career) gave perhaps her best-known film performance in the Bette Davis crime drama Marked Woman, and she was being prepped to become one of Warner Bros.’s biggest stars prior to her early retirement (at age 21!). You see, Ms. Bryan got caught up in a whirlwind romance with a drugstore magnate named Justin Dart.

It was Mr. Dart’s second marriage — he’d previously been hitched to drugstore heiress Ruth Walgreen. After learning the tricks of the trade from his father-in-law, he ditched Ms. Walgreen and set up his own business, which ultimately became enormously successful. Sometime in the 1940s, Mr. Dart and Ms. Bryan purchased a four-acre piece of land at 944 Airole Way and built a house that they christened “Winds Aloft“. The couple set up shop and lived happily ever after. Well, almost.

You see, kiddies, sometimes God doesn’t let the chips fall so tidy-like. In 1961, tragedy struck the Bryan-Dart household (and many other households). The Great Bel Air Fire seared its way into history. Along the way, the flames completely destroyed Winds Aloft. Fortunately (and most importantly!), nobody was hurt.

1961 photo of burned out home of Zsa Zsa Gabor after brush fire. (original photo credit: MIRROR Photo by Bob Martin from KMPC helicopter pilloted by Capt. Max Schumacher)
Not Winds Aloft. This is Zsa Zsa’s burned-out Bel Air house! 

The wealthy couple were determined to rebuild on their burned-out lot, and even hired legendary architect A. Quincy Jones to design a new structure for them. But before construction could commence, the pair lost their patience and lickety-split bought a new house in nearby Holmby Hills. They didn’t forget their pal Jones, however. He worked with them to renovate and expand their Holmby Hills pad. (That structure was razed some years ago).

FYI, A. Quincy Jones built a house on a different Airole Way property that is currently owned by residual-rich actress Jennifer Aniston.

But we digress. So what happened to the old Winds Aloft lot?

he only thing we can confirm from publicly-available data is that a new structure was built on 944 Airole in 1968. This new house was much larger (in excess of 10,000-square-feet) and much more modernist than the previous traditional house occupied by Mr. Dart & Ms. Bryan. But we’re not sure who built it. And we also don’t know who the architect was.

However, and thanks to a leg up from our trusty pal Vlad the Revealer at Celebrity Address Aerial, we know that a certificate of occupancy was issued for the property in 1971. It very clearly shows that the current owner at that time was none other than the now-deceased billionaire Alfred E. Mann.

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In 1979, property records show that Mann sold the house for an undisclosed price to a couple named Carl & Edith Press. Another certificate of occupancy — this one dated from 1981 — indirectly backs that up.

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It seems that Mr. & Mrs. Press hailed from Germany, where they owned a big freight company called Deugro. Beyond that, there’s precious little publicly-available info on the property from the year 1961 onwards.

However, one thing ain’t disappeared. Thank God for Hollywood! It’s well known that the house was used as a film location on several episodes of popular ’70s television shows, including two of Yolanda’s absolute favorites: Columbo and The Rockford Files. And as luck would have it, Yolanda managed to get her hands on a few stills from the episodes in question. Check out how 944 Airole looked in happier days. Photos courtesy of Rockford Files Film Locations and Columbo Screenshots.

At one time — as y’all can see — the house was irrefutably lavish. Big and glassy with a tennis court, guest house, and a huge pool. (Correction: a pool with a hokey-lookin’ slide.) In Columbo, it features quite prominently on the episodes “Most Crucial Game” and “Murder By The Book”. In the former, the house was used as the residence of a murdered young billionaire playboy. In the latter, it was the home of the wealthy murderer (he dumped his partner’s body on the front lawn).

Here’s Peter Falk inspecting the property. Ostensibly he’s searching for a body or some such nonsense, but Yolanda knows why he’s really up there at Airole. He just wanted to lust after the house. Get a good last gander before Niami started swingin’ the wrecking ball. Duh!

We feel you, lieutenant.

Just one more thing…”

From all this we can infer two things for certain: Given that these episodes were shot in the early ’70s (we think), it must’ve been Mr. Mann who allowed the film there. Clearly, he was not afraid of a little publicity. But still the question remains: When — and why — did such a valuable (and cool) property fall into such shameful abandonment and neglect?

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The estate’s driveway entrance off Airole, as it appeared in the 1970s

We are fairly certain that the house had been abandoned for at least a decade — and probably much longer — before Mr. Niami took possession in late 2012. As to the reason why it was left to rot? To do that we need to get inside the mind of the former owner. And for a long time, we had no clue who it was.

And then, after years of searching, we stumbled across something we should’ve noticed long ago. The exact same anonymous numerical bank trust that owned and sold the Bel Air estate also owns a tiny bungalow in an not-glamorous area of Santa Monica.

As we combed through the Santa Monica property’s records for any clues, we stumbled across a name, a name very clearly tied to the mysterious bank trust. The name of a woman who we’ll henceforward refer to as Special K. She’s a wee bit publicity shy.

At first we thought this was all some bizarre mistake, that the tiny Santa Monica house wasn’t associated with the massive Bel Air property at all. But then we noticed Special K’s name is also linked to the little house next door, and the little house two doors away, too. In total, there are four contiguous Santa Monica bungalows listed in property records as being owned by Special K and/or mysterious bank trusts. And all appear — like the Bel Air spread — to be in various stages of decay and neglect.

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One of Special K’s four Santa Monica bungalows… perhaps in need of a housekeeper?

That’s right, y’all. Property records show that this enigmatic Special K lady is quite obviously linked to the spooky bank trust that sold the Bel Air estate for $28 million to Mr. Niami. But just who is this gal, hmmm? She’s virtually un-Googleable, so we had to do some asking around.

As it turns out, this is yet another case of once upon a time.

Once upon a time there lived a Russian Jew named Michael Kogan. Mr. Kogan grew up in Manchuria because his family had fled Ukraine during the Russian Revolution. As an adult, he settled in Tokyo and founded a corporation called Taito in 1953. Taito’s first business was importing and distributing vending machines, and it later became the first company to sell vodka in Japan. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that Mr. Kogan stumbled over his figurative gold mine — video games.

Yes, everyone, Mr. Kogan was a video game billionaire. Perhaps the first ever, we don’t know. But we do know that he is the guy responsible for Space Invaders, the title that many credit with kickstarting the modern video game era. Space Invaders wasn’t just successful, kiddies, it was a worldwide phenomenon. It grossed $2 billion bucks in just four years (equivalent to $7+ billion in today’s dollars)

The closest modern success story that truly compares is probably Minecraft. And yes, it was that huge. Space Invaders was the Star Wars of video games, essentially.

A former advisor to Mr. Kogan described him as “fabulously wealthy” with a “computer games empire” in Japan and “all over the world”.

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It may not look like much, but it made Michael Kogan a bazillionaire…

Unfortunately for Mr. Kogan, he didn’t get much time to enjoy his earthly riches. In 1984, only about six years after the launch of Space Invaders, he unexpectedly died of a heart attack. It was widely reported that the capital he left behind — the bulk of which was inherited by his two children — was the largest inheritance ever left by a foreigner in Japan.

Mr. Kogan also left two adult children behind. His son, Abba, is a rather flashy gentleman who lives in Monaco and is one of the world’s foremost car collectors. And indeed, he’s owned some of the finest vehicles ever produced. His 1939 Auto Union D-Type was valued at $12 million USD back in 2007, making it — at that time — potentially the most expensive car in the whole world.

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Abba Kogan

So that’s all well and good. But Mr. Kogan’s daughter seems to be an entirely different personality than her brother. Despite her (obviously) enormous wealth and power — as of 2005, records show she was still one of Taito’s largest shareholders — she has spent most of her adult life living in relative anonymity in Los Angeles, where she reportedly fancies horses over cars. Although we once had a picture of the lady, it seems we’ve misplaced it and there’s nothing out there on the interwebs. Ah, well.

That’s not to say Special K avoids the limelight entirely, however. Back in 1993, she got hitched — in the Beverly Hilton ballroom — to a man named Richard Edlund. Mr. Edlund is a seven-time Oscar-winning visual effects guru who is known to have a close personal friendship and working relationship with George Lucas. He’s also known for his groundbreaking work on the original Star Wars trilogy — work that brought him his first Academy Award and vaulted him to bonafide legend status in his industry.

Mr. Edlund & Special K remain married, so kudos on being together a Hollywood eternity.

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Richard Edlund & Harry

So how did a trust clearly linked to Special K end up selling a $28 million abandoned Bel Air compound?

Unfotunately, tater tots, that particular puzzle piece remains lost in the sands of time. But it’s worth noting that Mr. Kogan — despite being a citizen of Japan — died right here in Los Angeles, ostensibly on a business trip. Is it possible that Mr. Kogan acquired the huge Bel Air spread before his death and eventually it was passed down to his daughter? That’s what we suspected, at least initially. But the timeline doesn’t add up. Mr. Kogan died in 1984, and Carl Press — the recorded owner in 1981 — doesn’t appear to have sold it until the late 1980s, or perhaps even as late as the 1990s. Our friend Vlad the Revealer stumbled over evidence that indicates the property transferred for exactly $5,000,000 in 1995, so perhaps it was Mr. Press who sold it to Special K and/or Mr. Edlund at that time. Or perhaps not. It’s all a bit of a mystery, buried in the sands of time.

But what’s not a mystery is that Special K and Mr. Edlund continue to own a very cool house in the Little Holmby neighborhood of Los Angeles, just across Sunset Boulevard from Bel Air and practically next door to UCLA.

Built in 1937 by iconic architect Richard Neutra and known as the “Kaufman House” (not to be confused with Neutra’s more well-known “Kauffman Desert House” in Palm Springs), the simultaneously austere yet beautiful structure is the master’s take on International Style. According to An Arch Guidebook of Los Angelesthe house’s main living spaces open out towards the rear garden and away from the busy-busy street out front. Glass doors on the second floor lead out to a sizable roof deck. Property records say the structure contains 2,886-square-feet with 4 bedrooms and 4 bathrooms.

WARNING: If you’re an architecture porn lover, y’all may want to skip this next photo or at least down a cocktail (or two) before viewing. Unfortunately, the ol’ gurl has let herself go. Here’s how she looks today.

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Neutra’s “Kaufman House”, currently owned by Richard Edlund & Special K. Also abandoned?

Okay, so it could be worse. But it just ain’t right to let a lovely Neutra to fall into that state of neglect! She still looks salvageable, but we worry what she’ll look like in 5 or 10 years if Special K & Mr. Edlund don’t throw some cash at this beotch.

The house was originally purchased by Mr. Edlund alone way back in 1983 for just $460,000. Following their ’93 wedding, Special K’s name was added to the deed. At some point, however, it appears they decamped from the home.

Are y’all keeping track? Property records show that Special K and/or Mr. Edlund (and/or trusts associated with one or both of them) sold the huge Bel Air spread to Nile Niami and own a run-down Santa Monica compound and a vacant-looking Neutra in Little Holmby. So where do they actually reside, hmmm?

We were stumped, kids. Where, oh where, could the crafty couple be? Did they skip town?

Nope. Much to our surprise, some time ago Yolanda queried a handful of our closest confidantes and Mr. Deep Throat — a man who is actually acquainted with Mr. Edlund — told us that the uber-rich pair still live in Los Angeles. And right under Yolanda’s very nose!

Brentwood, baby. According to Mr. Deep Throat, the couple live in a huge compound there. And right up the street from one of our favorite LA haunts — the Brentwood Country Mart!

At first Yolanda didn’t believe it, because we thought we’d already know if it were so. But when we took a look at property records, Mr. Throat’s assertions seemed correct. There are three houses on an itsy-bitsy cul-de-sac in the equestrian-friendly Sullivan Canyon neighborhood that are all owned by suspicious-looking entities of the very same unusual type that owned and sold the Bel Air complex. And Yolanda has since confirmed for herself that Mr. Edlund & Special K currently reside right here with assorted staff.

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Richard Edlund & Special K’s top-secret $15 million Brentwood compound

The first and largest property acquired was a 5,478-square-foot sprawler, purchased back in August 2006 for $7,950,000. Then in June 2009, the modest ranch house next door sold for $2,775,000. The final sale came in November 2009, when the very ordinary-looking across the street sold for $4,417,500.

For all you math-challenged readers, that means entities allegedly associated with Special K and/or Mr. Edlund laid out a whopping total of $15,142,500 for the complete 2.23-acre compound. And this was several years before Special K (allegedly!) sold the Bel Air spread, so the pair obviously have a very serious amount of money.

It should be noted that none of these three Sullivan Canyon properties actually have Special K or Mr. Edlund’s names attached to the deed. Rather, all three homes were acquired using sneakily-named bank trusts. There’s one called “224 Trust” and one called “Frank Sylvester Trust” and one called “Irene Gerard Trust”. Props on the clever titles.

Some of Mr. Edlund & Special K’s closest celebrity neighbors in Brentwood include mega-producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Ryan Murphy, Diane Keaton, and Ari Emanuel — who recently dropped a bundle on a cool pad. But we digress.

In addition to her Santa Monica bungalows and Brentwood compound, a deep dive through property records reveals that Special K continues to own several other pieces of real estate. These include an apartment in Beverly Hills and one — or possibly two — luxury condos in the Wilshire Corridor area.

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Christmas 2015 was not kind to Yolanda. Or her Caddy.

Now then. That’s enough of all that. We gotta hit the road or we’ll miss, you know, whatever it is we’re gonna do. And don’t worry, we aren’t going to try to visit Saint Nick up at the North Pole again. We learned our lesson last year. Man alive, we coulda sworn the Caddy was all wheel drive. They weren’t kiddin’ when they said folks don’t make ’em like they used to.

Be good.

5 Comment

  1. ColumboFan says: Reply

    I own Murder by the Book on DVD and always loved that house, what a shame.

  2. CeCe says: Reply

    Fascinated, odd story of this property. I have long wondered the background and while I don’t know Yolanda’s investigative details my brief abilities were never able to sort much out on this history of how this trophy property with a large older, but not even entirely that old house would just sit abandoned. Seems very odd this Kogan character has a weird desire to acquire properties and let them fall apart. Why not just sell them off?

  3. Aunt Maude says: Reply

    Bitch we don’t want you either!

  4. Rabbi Hedda LaCasa says: Reply

    Steller investigation! Yolanda, is that you behind the wheel in the pic with St. Nick? With a thick bushy mustache, heavy lower lip, and broad square jaw? Or if he’s the AAA tow guy, I need a jump… and a cigarette! Happy Thanksgiving to Yolanda and your readers.

    1. Petra says: Reply

      Of course that isn’t Yolanda, Rabbi! What, you think Yolanda drives her own vehicle? Heavens no! She was enjoying a mai tai and sitting on a heated bench when she snapped that picture.

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