Santa Barbara’s well-heeled and well-connected, decked out in top hats and flapper dresses, descended on the Bellosguardo estate last Saturday for a Great Gatsby-themed fundraising gala. According to Montecito Journal columnist Richard Mineards, one of just a few media representatives allowed to attend, the fundraiser generated more than $500,000 for the Bellosguardo Foundation, the charity tasked with opening the 23-acre property to the general public.
The gala marked the first event in 65 years that anyone other than the estate’s former owner, the late copper heiress Huguette Clark, her staff, and a few select guests had set foot on the closely guarded grounds overlooking East Beach. It was also the first significant step by the foundation, formed in September 2014, to carry out Clark’s will, which bequeathed Bellosguardo to the Santa Barbara community for the purpose of fostering the arts.
The guest list featured celebrities, philanthropists, and the personal friends and political allies of former City of Santa Barbara mayor Helene Schneider, who had appointed the foundation’s initial board of directors, who in turn named Schneider’s political advisor and close confidant Jeremy Lindaman as foundation president. Present were actor George Hamilton, comedian Dennis Miller, foundation chair and Law & Order producer Dick Wolf, councilmembers Jason Dominguez and Kristen Sneddon, Sheriff Bill Brown, benefactors Anne Towbes and Lady Leslie Ridley-Tree, and News-Press copublishers Wendy McCaw and Arthur von Wiesenberger.
Not present was Dino Frangos. For more than 50 years, Frangos worked directly for Clark, maintaining the mansion’s upholstery and interiors. He said he helped open the lines of communication between Schneider and Clark while Clark’s will was being finalized, but that as soon as she died, he was blocked from any involvement in the estate. Longtime caretaker John Douglas was also fired upon the property’s transfer from Clark to the foundation.
“Jeremy doesn’t want anybody in his way,” Frangos said of Lindaman, whose brash conduct and lack of transparency have been criticized by leaders in Santa Barbara’s arts and philanthropic circles. Lindaman is reportedly the reason three boardmembers recently quit the nonprofit, and he has refused to publicly answer any specific questions about the foundation’s operations and finances. “The feeling I got from him was, ‘We don’t want anybody knowing what’s going on up here,’” said Frangos, who still operates his upholstery business on Milpas Street. Lindaman has collected more than $300,000 in salary over the last four years. “We are still in our infancy,” he told KEYT this week. “Lots of decisions still have to be made.”
The Gatsby gala, Frangos went on, was not at all what the reclusive Clark would have wanted for her beloved Bellosguardo property. While she was one of the country’s richest women, she scorned the elitism of socialites and the ultra wealthy. “Mrs. Clark loved regular people,” Frangos said. “Everyone who she wanted off the property was the first to get on,” he lamented. Social media posts made by guests Saturday night featured messages about “purchasing history” and the hashtag “#ThanksHuguette.” An auction sold off a private group dinner and tour for $50,000, a speakeasy party in the carriage house for $60,000, and an exclusive evening with Kenny Loggins for $75,000.
John De Herrera is a substitute teacher and watercolor artist with a Funk Zone studio. He’s been so troubled by what he sees as a self-serving and deliberately opaque attitude by the foundation that he filed a writ of mandate against Lindaman, Wolf, and the rest of the Bellosguardo Foundation leadership. The legal petition is meant to compel the nonprofit — a government-sanctioned organization — to fulfill its mission of opening the property as a public venue. “I’m doing this because I believe in the value of the arts,” said De Herrera, who has no formal legal training and spent the last six months studying in the county courthouse law library. “The mystery is not the house,” said De Herrera. “It’s what the foundation is doing.”
Judge Thomas Anderle is expected to rule on De Herrera’s petition in the coming weeks. In the meantime, De Herrera and other area artists are also asking the City Council to formally address the issue of access.