Just off a winding hillside road in Bel Air, California is an ornate entrance gate to what looks to be a lovely old house that sits beyond. If you’re looking for it, you’ll see the letters CAP E MO E on the brick pillar. That’s me standing next to it this past January.
About 85 years ago the sign read “CAPO DE MONTE,” the name of a sprawling Italian villa-style mansion surrounded by terraced gardens on over twelve acres of Bel Air land. Now only the carriage house remains, long ago converted to a private residence.
I was drawn to this spot because Capo de Monte had once been the home of Atwater Kent. He figures in my book Bar Harbor in the Roaring Twenties as one of the resort town’s most prominent socialites and hosts. Kent’s Bar Harbor days ended with the advent of the Depression and the decline of Bar Harbor as a trendy summer resort. In the thirties Kent legally separated from his wife, sold all his East Coast properties, including his immensely profitable radio manufacturing plant, and moved to where he could find more action: Southern California.
In Bel Air, Kent continued his role as fabulous host, throwing lavish parties with guest lists that included Hollywood’s famous film stars and movie industry moguls. Kent may have been responsible for the concept of the “A List” celebrity. I read in one old L.A. newspaper article that he classified his parties into three categories: C parties were for “hopefuls and has-beens” who were served chicken ala king; B parties “called for a buffet and dance with fairly good names.” But A parties were the ones Kent became famous for: formal dinners followed by dancing on the terrace under the stars for the most glamorous of Hollywood celebrities like Gloria De Haven, Van Johnson and June Haver.
Whether the party was modest or lavish, the gregarious Kent played the role of the charming host, often wearing his “Madhatter Hat” and making his best effort to greet and and say farewell to every guest. Kent, known to party-goers as “Attie,” lived in Capo de Monte from the mid-thirties until his death in 1949. By all accounts he was an extrovert who loved being around people, yet all the stories I found portrayed him playing host by himself, with never a hostess by his side. I wonder if he was lonely…
When Kent died at the end of the 1940s, his passing was noted as the end of a chapter in Hollywood history, his parties fondly remembered as ” the last remnant of a lavish era which seems to be vanishing in the face of a more dignified (and tax-burdened) industry.” Kent had managed to retain his wealth better than most throughout the Depression and seemed to bring his Roaring Twenties’ sense of style to parties he hosted during more difficult times.
He had amassed an impressive art collection for which he had invested over a million dollars throughout his lifetime including works by Thomas Gainsborough and John Singer Sargent. After his death the collection was auctioned off for a total of only about $50,000. His elegant mansion with its seven luxurious master bedrooms, five baths and tile swimming pool was demolished in 1951. Times had indeed changed. But today if you travel up a winding road in residential Bel Air you will still come upon a gate with brick pillars and on it a few burnished metal letters representing what is left of a once elegant estate.