The lives of the fabulously wealthy are often fascinating to us ordinary folk.
On some level, the daily drama of their existence seems to carry more magnitude than the experiences of any other. And when something truly sensational happens to them, it’s blown into something apocalyptic.
The happenings at Greystone Mansion on February 16, 1929 are no different.
The owner of the house, Edward “Ned” Doheny Jr., son of oil baron Edward L. Doheny, died by murder-suicide with his secretary and long-time friend, Hugh Plunkett. The aggressor in this conflict and the motive for the deaths remains shrouded in mystery and rumour to this day.
The Teapot Dome Scandal and The Building of Greystone Mansion
By the beginning of the 20th century, Edward L. Doheny was drilling enough oil to rival John D. Rockefeller, making him one of the most influential people in America at the time.
But with influence comes the possibility of corruption.
In 1928, it became clear that Doheny had been involved in the sensational Teapot Dome scandal – the most sensational scandal in American politics before Watergate.
Teapot Dome was a bribery scandal involving the current Secretary of the Interior, Albert Fall, and several oil magnates, to whom he leased Navy petroleum reserves located at Teapot Dome in Wyoming – and a few in California as well – to private oil companies at remarkably low prices without competitive bidding, which was technically legal.
What was not legal were the bribes that Fall accepted to conduct these deals. One such bribe was $10,000 in cash, delivered in a black valise by Edward “Ned” Doheny Jr and his secretary and childhood friend, Hugh Plunkett. This black valise was to be the possible beginning of the family’s troubles, but we’ll return to it later.
At the same time, construction was being completed on Greystone Mansion, an extravagant Tudor Revival home on a manicured estate in Beverly Hills, CA that was being built as a gift from Edward L. Doheny to his son Ned and his family.
The home was designed by Gordon Kaufmann, who is known for his work on the Hoover Dam and the LA Times Building. It has 55 rooms and is a whopping 46,000 square feet. At the time, it cost over $4 million to build and furnish and was one of the most expensive homes ever built in Beverly Hills at the time. Unfortunately, Ned would only live in this incredible manor for four months.
The Night of the Crime
On February 16, 1929, Ned’s wife Lucy was in the mansion’s library when she reported hearing a gunshot at around 11 pm.
Instead of calling the police, she summoned the family doctor, and when the two arrived at the spare room in the east wing where Ned had been talking with Hugh Plunkett, they said that Plunkett opened the door, agitated and wielding a handgun.
According to Lucy and the doctor, Plunkett shut and barricaded the door again, and they heard another shot ring out. When they finally got into the room, they found the bodies of Ned Doheny and Hugh Plunkett, both in pools of blood.
That’s the official story, anyway.
Police did not arrive in the house until approximately 2 am, by which time relatives of Lucy were already there – the family, later on, admitted to moving the bodies before the police arrived.
Forensics at the time determined that Plunkett was initially face down just outside the bedroom door, a cigarette in his hand, with a bullet wound in his back that suggested the shot had been fired from some distance away.
Ned, on the other hand, was found inside the room, near an overturned chair and an empty whiskey glass, as though he’d had the glass in his hand when the bullet entered his head from a close enough range to leave gunpowder debris on his forehead. It was also determined that the murder weapon had belonged to Ned.
Motives and Aftermath
There were a lot of stories circulating in the rumour mill about the motive for the murder-suicide.
The official story noted that Hugh Plunkett had been acting increasingly erratic in the face of testifying in the inquest for the Teapot Dome Scandal, so much so that his friend Ned Doheny suggested that he be institutionalized until he felt better.
It was a convenient narrative for the Doheny family. Plunkett was portrayed as suffering from a “nervous disorder”, or was wracked with jealousy at his friend’s success.
Rumours later arose that the two men had been lovers and their quarrel had begun over their relationship, but there is little to no evidence of this being fact. To this day, no one is sure why the argument broke out, and the lines of who was the aggressor are also fuzzy.
Both Ned Doheny and Hugh Plunkett are buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. Interestingly enough, Ned was not buried in the Doheny family plot at Calvary Cemetery in Los Angeles.
Most people think that an explanation for this is that the family believes that Ned was really the one who committed suicide, which would not have allowed him to be buried in a Catholic cemetery.
Due to sympathy from the United States Senate, Edward L. Doheny’s involvement in the Teapot Dome Scandal was essentially dropped, and he escaped any punishment. Ned’s widow, Lucy, remarried and lived in the house until 1955 when she sold it.
Greystone Mansion in Films and Media
The property changed hands a few times and appeared in many Hollywood films. In 1965, it was purchased by the city of Beverly Hills and turned into a public park and venue for various events, as well as continuing to be a set for films.
It’s featured in films like The Big Lebowski, Ghostbusters II, National Treasure: Book of Secrets, and is even Kermit’s mansion in The Muppets. It’s also had multiple TV appearances and featured in the music video for “I’d Do Anything for Love, But I Won’t Do That” by Meatloaf.
It’s also been the venue for a staging of The Manor, a play by Kathrine Bates based on the lives of the Doheny family, every year since 2002, and is the venue for “The Annual Hollywood Ball”, where celebrities get together for a fashion show, dinner and auction to raise money for the Pure Foundation.
The Mystery Remains
To this day, the exact events on the night of February 16, 1929 remain mostly unknown.
Whether Plunkett was the real aggressor and the motive for the murder have been the subject of hot debate over the years, but what is known is that two men died that night – and there’s no telling how much of an imprint the event may have made on the mansion.