James Goldstein: Forbes 400 Man of Mystery

 Photo: Jake Rosenberg.

Photo: Jake Rosenberg.

 

"Perfection. I think I have attained it, for the most part. I'm a perfectionist in everything that I do."

 

James Goldstein pauses in the middle of the tour, hovering in a corner of a sunlit bedroom overlooking Los Angeles. He purposefully steps onto a tile of bubinga wood, and a previously invisible digital screen embedded in the wall glows into life, showing green numbers—the tile was a hidden scale. Goldstein steps off and smiles. 

“I weigh all the girls that come here,” he remarks.

Maybe it was a joke. But, coming from an aging playboy whose bedside shelf is lined with portraits of him cuddling more than a dozen different women—all young enough to be his granddaughters—maybe it wasn't.

“They are primarily girlfriends past and present,” he tells me as we continue on past his collection of ostrich and python hats and deeper into his home.

Welcome to the Sheats-Goldstein house, a unique shrine to celebrity and architecture. Perched on a slope overlooking Beverly Hills, it was built in 1963 from a modern design by John Lautner, a Frank Lloyd Wright disciple. In its lifetime, this uniquely sloping triangular house has been immortalized in the 1998 Coen Brothers film The Big Lebowski as the lair of a pornographer and loan shark. It has also appeared in countless music videos and commercials, and was a location for fashion shoots by Herb Ritts, Helmut Newton, and Mario Testino. When not crawling with cameras, it is a comfortably remote bachelor pad for Goldstein, an enigmatic millionaire with a passion for high fashion, basketball, and hosting star-studded parties. In fact, Rihanna held a raucous birthday celebration here last year.

The house is now poised to become a wing of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), to which Goldstein gifted his not-so-humble abode, along with a $17 million endowment for its maintenance. “I want it to be an inspiration for good architecture in the future, to be open to designers and architects from all over the world,” he says.

Since Goldstein has never married or procreated, this was a simple decision for him. Furthermore, he had a desire to preserve many of his personal accoutrements. These include the many portraits of himself—with and without his glamorous companions—that adorn most of the rooms. “I didn't want the house in private hands with possible changes made,” he says.

 James Goldstein House, designed by John Lautner. Photo: Tom Ferguson/LACMA

James Goldstein House, designed by John Lautner. Photo: Tom Ferguson/LACMA

The LACMA considers the house an exceptional example of American architecture. “Great architecture is as powerful an inspiration as any artwork,” the museum's director, Michael Govan, said in a recent statement. The house is, indeed, striking: high over Beverly Hills, you enter the grounds via a curling drive fringed with jungle foliage, leading past a 1961 Rolls Royce Silver Cloud to a little citadel of concrete, glass and wood.

In every direction are stunning vistas of LA and, on clear days, the Pacific Ocean. “My appreciation of the view never lessens,” Goldstein says. “When I see hazy weather, it depresses me. When I see clear days and nights, it inspires me.”

A coffered concrete roof soars skywards, showcasing Lautner's gravity-defying style. Surrounding it is a pool, a pond with koi fish, and a tropical garden containing a James Turrell Skyspace. Décor is minimalist: open spaces and clean lines blur the boundaries between interior and exterior.

When we visit, Goldstein is dressed down, belying his regular attendance at Milan, Paris and New York fashion shows. He is a friend to many designers, including Jean-Paul Gaultier, and in public wears colorful, attention-grabbing outfits, topped with one of his trademark hats. Today he is “off-duty” and sporting orange sneakers, black shorts with orange trim, a red-and-orange T-shirt, and a black cap with an orange-red design. This is his carefully coordinated outfit for tennis, which he plays most days on the infinity court he built on his roof.

I’ve never had a desire to be part of the Forbes 400. Living well, enjoying life—that to me is much more important than pulling off some business deal that moves me higher up the wealthy list. I’m not a billionaire, but I have achieved the freedom—which has been my goal.

Goldstein is an affable guide who invites visitors to call him Jim. However, he declines to share his age, and he is coy about how he made his fortune, alluding only to some canny investments made decades ago which have since funded a life devoted largely to pleasure. “I see my business activities as a means of giving me independence to do what I want to do, when I want to do it,” he says. “I’ve never had a desire to be part of the Forbes 400. Living well, enjoying life—that to me is much more important than pulling off some business deal that moves me higher up the wealthy list. I'm not a billionaire, but I have achieved the freedom—which has been my goal.”

That freedom let him turn the house into a passion project with an ambitious goal: “Perfection. I think I have attained it, for the most part. I'm a perfectionist in everything that I do.”

Goldstein purchased the house in 1972, working alongside Lautner to transform the property inch by inch. Upon Lautner's death in 1994, Goldstein was joined by the late architect's protege, Duncan Nicholson. “I can't imagine it'll ever be finished,” Goldstein says. “At the moment, they're doing a third level beneath my office and nightclub. It'll be an enormous terrace with a lap pool and dining facilities.”

Many of the house’s existing areas are pure bachelor pad: TVs sliding down from ceilings, a remote-controlled Jacuzzi cover, a bedroom with underwater views of the pool, and his very own nightclub, suitably dubbed 'Club James.’ Other details seem to exist purely for fun, notably a floor button in his bedroom closet that rotates a vast rail loaded with hundreds of jackets. 

 Photo: Jeff Green/LACMA.

Photo: Jeff Green/LACMA.

Settling down on a sofa, Goldstein underscores the playboy image. “I've been single all my life,” he says. “I made the right choice. It's kept me young. I go out with girls that are in their 20s, and I feel quite comfortable doing that. Having a family has never been a priority for me. I have no regrets. On the contrary, I look around and see married couples that are together many, many years, and I don't have any envy. I'm still too full of energy.”

A life dedicated to leisure and pleasure is hardly the American way, he says. “I feel very comfortable with European people. They feel there are more important things in life than making money, whereas Americans put money-making ahead of everything. Whenever I'm in Europe, I think, ‘This is where I belong.’ ” Yet two things root him in the USA: one is basketball. An NBA superfan, his perpetual presence at Lakers and Clippers games has granted him superstar status as a court-side touchstone.“I haven't been able to break away from this passion. Were it not for basketball, I think I'd be living in Europe.” 

The second is his house. He describes it as an extension of himself—one that will live on and inspire. “I feel that LA is more a city of the future than other cities in the US, so the design of the house fits the mold. I want to encourage people to design in a modern way. I want design to move forwards, not backwards.”

Goldstein is handing his home down to a new generation, promising an environment that will continue to inspire and delight. After he is gone, the LACMA plans to add photos of the celebrities and models who spent time there, and will host events, along with giving tours. He is passionate that his home will thrive in the same spirited way it has always done. 

“The house will be kept in motion,” he says. “There will be continual dynamism, so the house won't just be something from the past. It'll be a blend of past and future.”

 

This article was originally published in Issue One of Us of America. 

 

Words: Rory Carroll