For Gagosian, building his mansion was an affirmation of ego, a promiscuous indulgence in the power of choice. Gathered around the design sheets, Gagosian and his family proposed amenities: A tennis court? An eight-car garage? A 1500-bottle wine cellar? A marble Roman bathtub? Bronzed fire pits? Electric toothbrush driers? A separate, self-contained suite for each of the kids and two more for guests? Affirmative on all counts. To this day Gagosian loves the house. “It’s gorgeous,” he says. “Some people think it looks like a hotel, but I’ve seen a lot of nice homes in my life and I’ve never seen one more beautiful.”
Gagosian’s raves aside, many people who have seen the mansion comment that the great house is much less a home than a single-family motor lodge. Not only is it depersonalized by its garishness (one critic called it “a collision between too much money and too little taste”), the Gargosian mansion is elephantine, so big that it lacks any sense of intimacy and coziness. The kitchen is enormous, like a restaurant kitchen, not the kind of place grandma would be comfortable baking cookies. The living room would make a suitable convention center lounge. The various apartments are separated by great distances, so great that sending a child to his room might seem like banishment into a temporary exile. One lawyer who toured the house when Charles Leggett lived there says the Gagosian mansion would be ideal for an Arab sheik with four wives. “You put one wife in each of the four apartments, you get yourself a pair of roller skates, and every night you make the rounds, skating from one wife to the next.”
“We set out to make that house a showplace,” says Konrad Leak, who claims he completed the basic design of the mansion in a mere five hours. “It’s all personality when you build a house for someone. Earl Gagosian is a flamboyant, egotistical man, like a lot of wealthy people are. He wanted a house that was unusual, and that’s what he got. I actually had to tone it down a little, so that it wasn’t royal blue and gilded.”
Gagosian, of Armenian and English descent, is a healthy-looking man in his mid-fifties with red hair and a matching ruddy complexion. In a recent interview at the office of his latest company, Hotel Properties, developers of the Continental Inns, he was all charm and urbanity, a distinct contrast to his reputation. Mere mention of his name provokes a barrage of unsolicited commentary from those who have dealt with him in the past. “He’s a wild egotist.” “He’s an uneducated coal miner from Utah with all the guts in the world.” “He’s irascible.” “He’s very smart, but I don’t trust him.” “Guys like him are a personality breed in themselves; they’ve got to have it all, and they’ve got to have it now.”
Gagosian had it all — the money, the cars, the prestige, the influence, and a mansion in which to display it. But, ironically, right at the time he moved into the house, his pattern of uninterrupted success was broken. The Royal Inns fell into deep financial trouble. In April of 1973, Gagosian resigned as chief executive officer and director of his own company. He attempted a surprise comeback a year later, but it failed, and in June of 1975 the Royal Inns of American filed for bankruptcy. Ten years later there is till some debate over why the hotel chain came upon hard times. Gagosian claims the energy crisis did him in, and it is very likely that his firm would have survived had the oil market remained stable. Others say Gagosian didn’t know when to stop, that he was blinded by his own success. Royal Inns stockholders filed a class action suit contending that the company’s financial statements ere misleading; the profits they showed were created in the books by the venture interests (i.e., the building of hotels) and not by the hotel operations. “The hotels weren’t making any money,” says a San Diego court-appointed trustee who worked on the case. “Gagosian didn’t realize this. He saw all these apparent profits on the balance sheets, he saw the stock market going through the ceiling, and he honestly didn’t know his company was in trouble. He was a builder, and a good one, but he wasn’t a hotel operator.”
Though Gagosian moved out of his mansion in the spring of 1973, just when he resigned from his Royal Inns post, he insists today that money had nothing to do with his decision to leave. He says he and his wife were deluged with calls from charities and churches asking to use the house for fundraisers, a problem later owners would experience as well. “The thing became sort of an albatross,” Gagosian recalls. “I was kind of the top dog in town and it was hard to say no. If you turn down a charity, you’re a dirty bird, so we used to let everyone use the house.” According to Gagosian, the “straw that broke the camel’s back” came in December of 1972 when Jim Mulvaney, president of the U.S. National Bank, which has just loaned the Royal Inns four million dollars, called and asked if his wife’s club couldn’t hold a fundraiser at the house. “It was two days before Christmas,” Gagosian recalls, “and we had 500 people in our house, going around rubbing the wallpaper, saying, “Isn’t this nice wallpaper?” We were happy with the house but not with the environment we were creating, so I put the house on the market.”
In early 1973 Charles Leggett came along, charming, stylish, glib — and incredibly rich. Or so it seemed to the unsuspecting Gagosian, whose already faltering company now had an oil embargo to contend with. Leggett called him one day, supposedly by radio telephone from his 102-foot yacht in the Pacific, introducing himself as a gold speculator with $32 million in Swiss banks. He wanted to buy the house. In later conversations Leggett told Gagosian he had 14 investors lined up who could bail out the Royal Inns. To Gagosian, this man must have seemed like a gift from his guardian angel. A buyer for his house, the savior of the Royal Inns.