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Preservation Notebook

Richard Battaglia
Edition: 10/29/2004

IGNITING CIVIL WAR-ERA dueling pistols results in a tragic accident for a famous singer at this Hancock Park home.

When landscape artist Patricia Benner embarked on the rescue of this California bungalow in 1992, she had no idea the house had a story that was stranger than fiction. The home was a probate and had previously been rented for many years.

Hidden among this mess were beautiful built-ins in the dining room, edging details throughout as well as hardwood floors covered by filthy shag carpeting.

Its Hancock Park location, and the project itself, kept our owner focused despite closing escrow the day after the Los Angeles riots. She immediately took on the plumbing and electricity. The antique heating unit had to be updated and a bungalow-style porch was added. Because the house’s garden backs up to Rossmore Ave., Pat had the daunting task of trying to hide a five-story apartment building. Since gardening and landscapes are her specialty, several giant timber bamboo were just right and mixed well with the two evergreen trees already in place.
A few years after this restoration was finished, our owner found out by accident her charming little home was also notorious and on “The Graveline Tour.” This tour is a two-hour-long journey, in a hearse, to sites where the rich and famous of Hollywood’s past have met their maker. The house at 584 N. Lillian Way was on that tour.

In 1934 Russ Columbo was the 12th child of Gulia and Nicola Columbo. At 26, he had crooned his way into the hearts and minds of millions of women in America. He played the violin early on, and had been in the Gus Arnheim Orchestra performing at the Cocoanut Grove and the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. As Russ’s star began to ascend as a singer, he was often compared to Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallee. There was a song written about the rivalry of the crooners entitled “Crosby, Columbo and Vallee.”

Hollywood beckoned and Russ appeared in movies such as “Wake Up And Dream” and “Broadway Thru A Keyhole.” “Prisoner Of Love,” “All of Me,” and “Auf Wiedersehen, My Dear,” were just a few of his many romantic hit songs. Darkly handsome, he was also compared to Rudolf Valentino. His list of romantic entanglements included starlet Dorothy Dell, Loretta Young’s sister Sally Blane, and a very serious romance with Carole Lombard. With his voice, his looks and much good luck, Russ Columbo was almost on top of the world.

On Sept. 2, 1934 Russ Columbo left his home on Outpost Circle Drive to visit his friend, “Lansa,” photographer Lansing Brown. Brown resided at the home on Lillian Way with his parents. While in the midst of a casual conversation in the front room or den of the house, Lansing, sitting at a desk, struck a match on a pair of Civil War-era dueling pistols. Lansing was a collector of such armaments and, unbeknownst to him, ignited a long forgotten shot which ricocheted off a nearby cabinet and struck Columbo in the right eye killing him instantly.

The Columbo family, feeling that the shock of their son’s death might kill his ailing mother, concocted a 10-year charade of a European performing tour complete with letters from Russ from various cities along the way. Carole Lombard featured prominently in this deception until the mother’s death in 1944.

Lansing Brown was freed of all blame for this tragic accident and became a reclusive figure, living out the rest of his days in a garage apartment at 637 S. Lucerne Blvd.

The home at 584 N. Lillian Way is now in the hands of another owner and is being kept just as well as Pat Benner left it.