Will the Dunnellen curse strike again?
Has it already?
Dunnellen Hall, at 521 Round Hill Road in Greenwich, is "among the most famous of the back country's 13 [great] estates," the New York Times has said. It's the "ultimate" location on "the most famous street" in the "best town in Connecticut," or so the marketing materials would have it. Bombshell Lana Turner once lived there; so did figure skater Sonja Henie.
It's also notorious for the misfortunes that have befallen its onetime occupants over more than half a century.
"It devours the people who buy it," one local told a Connecticut gossip columnist.
Mystery owners and a 'change of plans'
The current owners -- undisclosed -- bought Dunnellen Hall in 2010 from the estate of Leona Helmsley, the late hotelier and ex-con who seems destined to be known for all eternity as the "Queen of Mean." They must have been hoping to snap a tradition of misfortune that has been likened to another infamous curse, as recounted in the New York Times decades ago:
"When Louis Duff handled the sale of Dunnellen Hall in 1974, he had a conversation with the seller, Lynda Dick, whose 46-year-old husband had died of a heart attack while being driven home by his chauffeur.
"Mr. Duff, president of Duff Associates Inc., recalled that Mrs. Dick said: '"This house is like the Hope Diamond. It has brought bad luck to everyone who owned it."'
"At the time, Mr. Duff disagreed. But as he talked now about the troubles of the estate's other owners, he said, 'I wouldn't argue the point with her today.'"
Perhaps the current owners considered it a stroke of good luck when they managed to acquire the estate for less than half the asking price -- after it had suffered the ignominy of perhaps "the biggest cut ever on a U.S. house," according to the Wall Street Journal.
But they kept it for less than a year before relisting it. They'd had "a change of plans," listing agent Jane Howard Basham told the Wall Street Journal rather cryptically in a recent article.
It did not sell.
So they took the estate off the market to launch a three-year renovation that involved making the home smaller by "removing some wings of the house," Basham, of David Ogilvy & Associates (an affiliate of Christie's International Real Estate), told the Journal.
One of the elements that's gone, Yahoo Homes has learned: the infamous million-dollar marble dance floor that Leona Helmsley had installed over the pool. The dance floor -- and the home itself -- figured prominently in her 1988 trial, as one of the extravagant items she and her husband, Harry, were accused of fraudulently claiming as business expenses of their real estate and hotel empires. At age 80, he was found mentally unfit for trial, but she was convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to prison. She served about a year and a half.
The downsized Dunnellen Hall is now about 17,000 square feet, on the market for $65 million. It's considerably simplified and streamlined -- more graceful and tasteful, some would say. (Click here or on a photo for a slideshow of the home, with details about its surviving and new elements.)
"It is essentially an entirely new house, yet with the character of a bygone era,” David Ogilvy said.
The beginning of Dunnellen Hall
That bygone area began in 1918, when Daniel G. Reid spent $1 million to build the estate as a wedding gift for his daughter, Rhea, and her groom, Henry J. Topping.
Nowadays, people call Reid a "banking and steel magnate," but his contemporaries called him "tin plate king." He was a self-made man who by the age of 11 had left school to be a messenger at his hometown Indiana bank, working his way up to vice president, according to his 1925 New York Times obituary.
He saved up to buy a small Indiana tin plate mill -- and in just three years had merged every tin plate company in the country into the American Tin Plate Company, making a fortune. He organized steel companies to ensure tin plate supplies, then eventually traded tin plate holdings for steel stock.
He took control of the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad in 1901.
In 1915 he resigned after being "charged with watering the stock of the road and looting it of millions," the obituary said. Congress investigated him, and the railroad faced bankruptcy.
In the stock market, he was "known as one of the 'big insiders,' and was credited with manipulating the market in huge stock movements."
Although Reid's obituary said he "died in possession of a fortune estimated at from $40,000,000 to $50,000,000," the Times reported on its front page in 1927 that in fact he left behind just $4,668,679.
He had almost a quarter-million dollars in debts, the Times said -- not including a $25,000 claim against the estate by James Savage, his attendant. Savage said that the job was dangerous "because Mr. Reid occasionally shot at him," and that the only reason Savage didn't quit was Reid's promise to bequeath him $25,000.
The Reid/Topping wild streak
Reid was married three times: to childhood sweetheart Ella Dunn, namesake of Dunnellen, who died at age 35 after 19 years of marriage; then to an actress who died four years later; then to a comedian who divorced him.
Numerous tales of "'wild parties' and other events" attached to his name as his wealth accumulated.
His family's residency at Dunnellen lasted until the middle of the century. And like Daniel Reid, his grandsons were known for a wild streak. A 1968 Times story about Greenwich described Rhea Reid Topping as "the tinplate heiress and the mother of the sportsmen-playboys" and said the home "was the scene of many extravagant parties." A newcomers guide to Greenwich claims that the boys would ride motorcycles "up and down the grand staircase."
One of those playboy sons, Bob, was married five times -- including a yearlong union to brother Dan's ex-wife Arline Judge, a B-movie actress (and mother of Dan's son Dan Jr.). He was also married to actress-bombshell Lana Turner, one of his three four-year marriages to end in divorce. (Turner was one of many Topping relatives to live at Dunnellen. A few years after she moved out, her daughter stabbed to death Turner's abusive lover, Johnny Stompanato.)
Bob's final marriage, to a ski instructor, stuck until his death at age 54.
Bob's brother Dan was married six times, once to figure skater Sonja Henie. Dan died at age 61, a couple of years before his son Robert was stabbed to death in Miami.
House leaves the family
In 1950, after Rhea Topping died, Dunnellen was sold for the first time: to Loring Washburn, the president of a company that made steel window frames, and his wife, insurance heiress Mary Buckner Royall.
Those were happy days for a time, the newcomers guide says: She loved to entertain lavishly, with her party favors coming from Cartier jewelers.
If so, then perhaps it's not surprising that money problems plagued Washburn "almost immediately," as the 2004 book "Cursed in New England" relates.
Eventually, in 1963, a finance company seized the house. It sat vacant for several years, and locals started saying it was haunted, the book claims.
Then in 1966, the land was purchased and subdivided, and in 1967 Gregg Sherwood Dodge Moran bought it. The former model-actress had been married to automobile heir Horace Dodge and "spent Dodge’s multimillion dollar fortune freely until, in 1961, he filed for divorce, telling friends, 'I can’t afford that woman anymore,'" the Palm Beach (Fla.) Daily News wrote in her obituary. (Horace Dodge died before the divorce went through -- and "although he had excluded her in his will and essentially died penniless, she successfully sued his mother for millions," the Daily News said.)
She moved in with her young new husband, a Bronx policeman and bodyguard (reportedly once to Nikita Khrushchev). They didn't stay long, selling the place for $1.3 million in 1968 to cattleman Jack R. Dick.
The sale was a record-breaking amount, and one of the few bits of good luck for the Morans. Every business venture thereafter was a failure, according to acquaintances quoted in contemporary news accounts. They were arrested in June 1978 on charges of grand larceny, and in July 1978 were declared bankrupt. He fatally shot himself that year. She pleaded guilty to stealing from her son's trust fund.
'It was not a peaceful retreat'
Meanwhile, Dunnellen Hall had passed on to Dick, a "gentleman farmer" who made his fortune in cattle and intended to retire to the Greenwich mansion, which he'd made into a virtual museum for his collection of sporting paintings.
"It was not a peaceful retreat," wrote Ray Kennedy in a 1974 Sports Illustrated profile of Dick. The company that bought his went bankrupt in 1971 and sued him. Then he was indicted on charges of falsifying financial and art documents. Forced to sell the beloved art collection, "he strolled the vaulted marble halls [of Dunnellen] like some latter-day Citizen Kane," SI wrote, "his eyes never lingering on the acres of blank walls that once held his paintings." He also listed Dunnellen for sale.
But before the art sales were complete, before Dunnellen sold, before his legal entanglements were resolved, Dick was dead at 46. On a January day in 1974, he'd complained of a headache and taken two Bufferin. Later, on the way home in his limo, he'd clutched his chest and gasped, "Oh, that hurts," SI wrote. He was whisked to Greenwich Hospital and pronounced dead minutes later.
It was then that his widow, who was in the limo with him, began comparing Dunnellen to the Hope Diamond and its curse.
The next owner was Ravi Tikkoo, an Indian oil-tanker magnate who reportedly paid the Dick estate $2 million for it (and $1 million for the furnishings) in 1974. Less than two years later, he'd listed it; his "fortune has since run aground," the New York Times said in a 1974 article on hard times in Greenwich. Offered at $2.75 million, it had attracted "no serious offers," and in 1980 he was still living there, throwing parties that even the posh attendees called Gatsby-esque.
Tikkoo was forced into bankruptcy in 1980-81 and sold to Harry Helmsley and his wife, Leona, in 1983. (He seems to have recovered nicely after the bankruptcy, however.)
The Helmsley era and beyond
The Helmsleys, the home's most notorious residents, paid $8 million for the house and $3 million for the furnishings. They quickly began pouring money into the property, ultimately spending another $8 million on renovations. A million went toward enclosing one of the two pools and installing their infamous pooltop dance floor. More than $100,000 bought an indoor/outdoor remote-controlled stereo system that was reportedly modeled on something Leona had seen at Disney World.
As the world now knows, the renovations -- billed fraudulently as business expenses -- caught up with them, culminating in a splashy trial in which Leona's own lawyer called her a "tough bitch." It closed out the "greed is good" 1980s with a verdict that some called poetic justice -- though neighbors weren't so sanguine, "whispering like Transylvanian peasants" that she was "just the latest victim" of the Dunnellen curse, as Connecticut's gossip columnist Richard Johnson colorfully wrote.
"It hasn't been a very happy house," Marjorie Rowe told the Times back then. She handled two sales of the estate (though, it should be said, she pooh-poohed the idea of a curse).
After Leona Helmsley was released from prison, she returned to her frail husband and cared for him until he died in 1997. He left her his billion-dollar fortune, which she lived on until her own death at Dunnellen Hall in 2007, at age 87.
That brings us to today, with the latest Dunnellen chapter written only faintly. Who bought the Helmsley estate, and what caused those owners' abrupt "change of plans" not even a year after they'd bought it?
And who will buy it next? Because curse or no, someone certainly will. As Duff told the Times back in 1988, "There is nothing else like it. There will always be somebody who will want that house."
The future owners might just want to bear in mind one last odd bit of Dunnellen history. Separate from its illustrious residents, the house took a star turn of its own in a 1968 movie starring Kirk Douglas.
It was called "A Lovely Way to Die."