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Life and Times of Val Verde

From Glamour to Gloom


RED SQUARE AND GREENBACKS: Sergey Grishin, the billionaire Russian banker, is being sued in Santa Barbara Superior Court over the late Warren Austin’s historic Val Verde estate — yet another chapter in the property’s bumpy ride.

Barney Brantingham

Grishin, who bought the 17-acre Montecito property out of bankruptcy last year for $15.3 million, is being sued by the bankruptcy trustees, who claim that Grishin reneged on an agreement to buy the estate’s furnishings for an additional $450,000. Trustees say they ended up auctioning the paintings, antiques, and other valuable items for only $200,000 last January.

Meanwhile, questions are being raised about financial dealings by the nonprofit Val Verde Foundation, which took over after Austin died in 1999, and which declared bankruptcy last year after falling $1.4 million behind in payments on its $13-million loan. The bankruptcy case remains open while trustees look into issues.

One question posed by critics is, where did the money go?

According to county records, Grishin recently sold Val Verde to neighbor Peter Muller, a Morgan Stanley money man, for $14.8 million. According to Steve Cushman, Santa Barbara Chamber of Commerce president, although the price was less than what he bought it for, Grishin retained part of the property adjacent to his own home.

Grishin, you’ll recall, donated $50,000 to Cushman’s losing mayoral bid last fall. Grishin and Muller could not be reached for comment.

Austin’s dream of the estate being opened to the public for tours was shattered in 2000 when neighbors vociferously objected and the Board of Supervisors, rightly or wrongly, refused to grant a permit. Austin led what many might call a charmed life. The fortunes of war brought the young physician not to the battlefields of World War II but to the Bahamas, where those notorious wastrels the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were waiting out the war.

Posted to an Army hospital, Austin soon became, in effect, the duke’s private physician and was a regular fourth at bridge at Government House, according to Errol Trzebinski’s biography The Lives of Beryl Markham (W.W. Norton & Co., 1993). “Warren was not easy to forget,” she wrote. “He was sensationally tall and good-looking; his voice was not unlike that of Cary Grant, with that same debonair quality.” At war’s end, when Austin announced plans to go into practice in Santa Barbara, the duke insisted that he get in contact with world-famous pilot and sleep-around free spirit Beryl Markham, Trzebinski wrote.

That he did, engaging in an affair with Markham, while living with her and her writer husband, Raoul Schumacher. Markham had shot to international fame with a pioneering solo westward transatlantic flight in 1936. She later claimed authorship of West with the Night (North Point Press, San Francisco, 1942). It’s an exquisitely written memoir but by most accounts ghostwritten by Schumacher. After catching Markham in flagrante delicto with a mutual friend, Schumacher blew town.

Austin clearly found her fascinating, if maddening, according to Trzebinski. Markham could not understand why Austin had to go off every day to make a living or pay debts involved with equipping his office. After all, she didn’t pay her debts; why should he? Meanwhile, Austin was overwhelmed with patients, thanks to recommendations from the Duchess of Windsor. But, then in her forties, Markham was insanely jealous of his attentions to other women. At a beach party one night, irked by his paying attention to someone else, she let the air out of Austin’s tires and smashed his windshield. After that tempestuous romance ended, a billionairess entered Austin’s life.

Florence “Bunny” Horton, whose father founded the Chicago Bridge & Iron Co., was said to be one of America’s richest women in the first half of the 20th century. She and Austin wed and, in 1955, bought Val Verde. Their parties attracted such celebrities as Katharine Hepburn, Gloria Swanson, and Vincent Price. Once, after Bunny died in 1991, I visited Austin and his mansion jammed with antiques, paintings, and silver statuary. After his death, however, all went to hell.

The Val Verde Foundation, with no tour income, filed for bankruptcy last year to avoid having the estate sold at auction. When I visited Sunday, I found Val Verde and its superb gardens designed by Bertram Goodhue and Lockwood de Forest enclosed behind a locked gate, its future uncertain.

SYLVIA: I wasn’t sure what to expect from a play about a married couple and a dog. But Sylvia, A.R. Gurney’s comedy now on the boards at Solvang Festival Theater for PCPA Theaterfest, is a clever, touching look at what happens when man’s best friend comes between him and his wife. Stephanie Philo is endearingly funny as the adopted pooch, Sylvia.

TIME OF MY LIFE: You’ll need to scan the diagram in your program carefully during the Santa Barbara City College Theatre Group’s production of Alan Ayckbourn’s play Time of My Life. Action in a Chinese Restaurant jumps back and forth through 27 months as a family sadly/comically shatters the fragile crockery of life. By stage time, it ends nearly three hours before it begins. A superb cast of top area actors makes this quirky domestic play work.

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Barney Brantingham can be reached at barney@independent.com or 805-965-5205. He writes online columns throughout the week and a print column on Thursdays.

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