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Elin Vanderlip: The Chatelaine of Rancho Palos Verdes

“Eccentric, obstinate and fabulous.”

Editor's Note: This is the first in a three-part series about the Vanderlip Estate and the family's sizable impact on Rancho Palos Verdes. The next two installments will appear Feb. 16 and 23.

It takes your breath away, reading about the sexy, sassy Norwegian in her own words. It isn’t just about the celebrities Elin Vanderlip entertained at Villa Narcissa, the Portuguese Bend mansion she shared for an all too brief 10 years with her visionary husband, Kelvin, son of Frank A. Vanderlip, known as “The Father of Palos Verdes”. 

It isn’t just about how she ducked Nazi bombs in London while working for the Norwegian Legation during World War II, or how she traveled, danced and, yes, sometimes slept her way through a staggering number of adventures — from Calcutta to Washington, D.C. to Portuguese Bend — often in the company of male companions from Hollywood or the highest echelons of society.

It isn’t even about the landmarks in Rancho Palos Verdes she championed — Wayfarer’s Chapel, Marineland, Portuguese Bend Riding Club, Portuguese Bend Beach Club, Nansen Field, Marymount College and Chadwick School.

It’s about a woman who sometimes flaunted convention, one as influential in cultural circles as she was feisty and outrageous when it came to standing up for what she believed in: her four children, the betterment of the Peninsula, French art and — above all — love.

The witch in the haunted castle

Since Elin Vanderlip died at age 90 in July of 2009, she outlived most of her neighbors and peers, leaving in her wake a fascinating (if often frustrating) blend of folklore and fact. 

Much of the folklore (that she was a "wicked witch" who lived in a "haunted castle") is addressed with her usual candor in her book, “Eccentric Obstinate and Fabulous, A Memoir from Lyngen, Norway to Palos Verdes, California.”

Few seem to know of the book, however, and it’s not uncommon to hear Portuguese Bend residents say, “Well, I don’t know if it’s true or not, but that’s what I heard.”

One such is Lisa Wolf, who, in 1978, purchased the in partnership with her parents from the Vanderlips. 

Wolf was a horse-crazy 15-year-old living in Pacific Palisades when she first came to the barn in 1965, she said during an interview in the riding club office.  

“I came here to look at a horse that was for sale and fell in love with the horse and the place,” she said.

Now 59, with patrician cheekbones and the slim frame of someone who has shown and trained horses all her life, Wolf not only lives at the club, she rules the place with an enviable blend of charm and savvy, those who work for her said. 

“Big, fabulous parties”

But back in 1965, Wolf took everything she heard about the Vanderlips as “gospel,” she said, her Boston Terrier, Bugsy, nestled at her feet. “And some of it is questionable.”  

Like the “big, fabulous parties” the Vanderlips were said to have held in the courtyard barn, something Wolf heard from “an old Englishman, a huntsman and horseman” who lived in the Pacific Palisades.

Certainly, the tree-shaded square, surrounded by blue-trimmed barns and tile-roofed buildings, including two apartments and several second-floor guest rooms, might easily have been transformed into a site for galas in the old days.

Called “The Farmstead” when Frank A. Vanderlip, an Eastern financier, built it as part of his Portuguese Bend estate in 1927, the barn has gone through several incarnations — from a milking dairy to a cattle barn to a stable for hunter/jumpers, which it remains today.

What Wolf does recall, and vividly, is a dinner at Villa Narcissa.

“Elin invited me up because she wanted to know who bought the barn,” Wolf said as she recalled the evening in 1979 when she first visited the graceful peach mansion, with its Italian-style garden (once featured in Harper’s Bazaar), bright blue and ginger interior, carved ceilings and magnificent portraits. 

“Everything first class and for real”

Describing Elin as “a character ... who always did everything first class and for real,” Wolf remembered her as a candid conversationalist and extraordinary hostess. 

“She had the most fabulous meal, either salmon or sole, my favorites, and these French paintings on the walls, it was really wonderful,” she said.

Wolf saw Elin occasionally at the barn after that, usually around the holidays in the company of her four children or when her grandchildren wanted riding lessons. 

“But Elin was the only one who lived at Villa Narcissa,” Wolf said about the mansion still owned and maintained by the family. 

Although Elin never married after husband Kelvin Vanderlip succumbed to lung cancer in 1956, she found love for 40 years with producer Lehman “Lee” Katz ("The Train," "Apocalypse Now," "Fideler on the Roof"), with whom she traveled to locations all over the world. Katz died at Villa Narcissa at the age of 89 in 2003.

Elin Regina Brekke was born in 1919 in Oslo Norway, the daughter of a lumber factory owner. 

"He patented laminated rafters ... and had a doctorate in civil engineering," she wrote in her 2008 memoir.

After the lumber factory burned to the ground in 1922, the family, including Elin’s two brothers, went to stay at their maternal grandmother’s farm in Lyngen, later one of the areas of resistance against the Germans. Elin was four years old.

Although her time in Lyngen was idyllic (“In the mornings the four maids lit up the iron stoves and served hot chocolate and cookies to [us in] the curtained beds”), there was the scary cat incident. 

Snakes with fur

A daredevil from the start, Elin was running along the rafters of the barn, when she leaped into a pile of hay. 

“I landed on a mother cat and her kittens ... and got scratched good and proper," she says in her book. "This explains my lifelong dislike of cats.” 

She later called them “snakes with fur.” 

Six when the family moved to Berlin, she heard rumblings of war echoing loudly in the streets. Two years in a German-speaking school provided her with a skill she would later put to use, translating Hitler’s ravings for an American newspaper.

When her father was asked to go to America to build a silk factory, the family  eventually ended up in Rock Island, Illinois, where Elin fell in with heirs to the John Deere and McCormick Tractor companies. 

Befriending the rich, famous and royalty came naturally to Elin, whose adventurous nature and playful personality (she never met a martini she didn’t like) held a gravitational pull few could resist, especially men. 

Although the Brekkes lacked money for Elin for college, they sent her brothers to Georgetown University “partly financed by [the boys] being Arthur Murray dance instructors.”

She was 18 and working at a job she describes only as “ghastly” when the editor of The Springfield Register, learning she spoke German, asked her to translate Hitler’s speeches “as he shouted over the radio.” 

A job at the U.S. Senate followed. 

“I loved the Senate," she said in her book. "So stately, so elegant, and the job was a piece of cake, reception and typewriting.” 

But in May 1940, when the Nazis invaded Norway, Elin’s uncle, Jorgen Galbe, a minister at the Norwegian Embassy in Washington, invited her to work for him. 

The next part in the series will appear on the site Feb. 16.

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