Beverly Hills Country Club had it all—except an opening date
The script was straight out of Hollywood. Crooked lawyers. Mob money. Politicians on the take. L.A. nightclubs. Legendary entertainers. All set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, and the toniest enclave in the City of Angels. This is the story of the Beverly Hills Country Club, the greatest course that never got built.
As recounted in Michael Gross’s Unreal Estate: Money, Ambition and the Lust for Land in Los Angeles, the club was to be built in a rugged, undeveloped parcel above Beverly Hills called Higgins Canyon. Its forbidding terrain resisted development for years, but by the early 1960s, advances in earthmoving piqued interest. Among those taking notice were Jimmy Hoffa and Sidney Korshak.
Hoffa, of course, was the president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the Chicago-based labor union that had been linked to Al Capone’s operation in the Prohibition era, when its truckers carried bootleg liquor. The Teamsters Pension Fund became a de facto bank, with union leaders and gangsters dispersing those funds in investments and loans to ostensibly legitimate businesses. Korshak—lawyer to crime boss and Las Vegas hotel owner “Bugsy” Siegel—was dispatched to Los Angeles in 1945 to become the liaison between the Underworld and the upper world. Among the projects that drew his attention was the development of Higgins Canyon and the Beverly Hills Country Club.
Washington, D.C., “fixer” Irving Davidson and Florida “promoter” Hyman Green, an associate of Hoffa’s, joined Korshak’s effort and soon found ideal accomplices: Manny Rice, an L.A. businessman who had once been a Capone-era Chicago bookie, and Dr. Victor G. Lands, a local surgeon. Neighbors in next-door Trousdale Estates, Lands and Rice had purchased 155 acres in Higgins Canyon in April 1962.
By that time, the Teamsters’ influence in Los Angeles was under scrutiny by the United States Department of Justice, but the union’s train rolled along unimpeded. In June 1963, an application was filed to build a private golf course and six 13-story apartments at the north end of Beverly Drive—the only road into Higgins Canyon.
The following year, Leonard Bursten entered the picture. The former Assistant U.S. Attorney turned Florida real estate speculator created the Beverly Ridge Estates Corp. to subdivide Higgins Canyon, financed with a loan of nearly $4 million from the Teamsters Pension Fund. In the meantime, Bursten and Green were suing each other over other deals and Hoffa had been convicted of defrauding the pension fund.
Pretty soon the apartment buildings were replaced by pricey single-family homes surrounding the golf course. And joining the team were golf course architect Robert Trent Jones and singer/movie star Dean Martin, who was a patient of Dr. Lands. Robert E. Petersen, publisher of Motor Trend, Teen, and Hot Rod, was named as the club’s first president.
Robert Trent Jones Jr., who assisted his father, remembered those days. “It was a wild, crazy time,” said Jones recently. “My father was excited about this project. He liked drama, and this was dramatic. (L.A.) Mayor Yorty was heavily involved, as was his city council. Bursten would entertain my dad and Yorty at the nightclubs. All of that was going on in the context of building the world’s most expensive golf club in the middle of the Vietnam War.”
Whether or not Beverly Hills Country Club would end up as the greatest course in America, it was destined to be the priciest. An April 26, 1967, Los Angeles Times article placed development costs at $15 million, about 10 times the average for Trent Jones projects at the time. “It’s an incredible site for a golf course,” Trent Jones Jr. said in the article. “The sheer magnitude of the project is very exciting to us.”
The location made it ideal for the Hollywood crowd and L.A.’s moneyed elite. However, costs soared because building a course in a canyon posed significant difficulties. The Joneses had to shear the tops of ridges to raise the valley floor 400 feet, and moved an estimated 10 million cubic yards of dirt.
The par-70 layout checked in at exactly 7,000 yards from the tips, 6,245 yards from the middle tees, and 5,885 yards from the front. Undeniably, the layout was a tad too cramped to achieve true greatness and the par threes too similar in yardage (190, 205, 210, and 205) to please the purists. Yet, the par threes were truly distinctive in one sense—Trent Jones had designed a 22-hole golf course. To avoid “the annoying slowdown on the short holes,” a separate tee and green were built alongside the 3rd, 8th, 14th, and 17th holes. “They were side-by-side holes, exact duplicates of each other,” Jones Jr. recalled. “He had already done this at a Long Island municipal facility, Eisenhower Park (in 1950 and 1951), and it worked.”
Martin wrote to potential members early in 1968 that “The best way for a golf-crazy Italian street-singer to become President of a country club is start one of his own…The first nine is now being played by a foursome of bulldozers in a beautiful, exclusive mountain-rimmed area just five minutes from the heart of Beverly Hills and almost in my own backyard.”
The June 7, 1968, issue of LIFE magazine profiled Trent Jones and published a photo of the ongoing construction work, with trucks hauling dirt through the canyon. In one year, cost estimates had jumped to $25 million, while initiation fees were pegged at $25,000. Environmental concerns were dismissed thanks to the influence Bursten and others smothered on the city’s planning commission.
“They had the city council and Mayor Yorty by the you-know-whats,” said Jones Jr., “because anytime the Teamsters Union didn’t want the trucks to run, they didn’t. One time when city inspectors drove down into the site, upon departure they were forced to remain in their truck for hours because the Teamsters put a big bulldozer on the exit ramp which ‘mysteriously’ broke down, blocking the inspectors from leaving. Guess who passed the inspection?”
Alas, amid the excitement, the drama, the Teamsters’ influence, and the environmental concerns, it was an angry neighborhood association—and the union balking at the escalating costs—that ultimately halted work on the course. This followed the revelation that developers had sought a new four-lane road to the club, not only for access, but also because they needed that 10 million cubic yards of soil to fill the valley, which would be theirs for free if they could persuade the L.A. City Council to lop off the ridge and build the road for them. The councilman running interference for the developers, James B. Potter Jr., would soon be investigated for conflicts of interest and bribery of public officials.
All of which was Bursten’s MO. According to Trent Jones Jr., Bursten did what he wanted and solved the problems later, with the backing of the union. Laws and permits were merely nuisances that Bursten had to overcome. Eventually, Bursten, like nearly everyone else connected to the Beverly Hills Country Club, crashed and burned. At the end of 1968, the Teamsters’ Central States Pension Fund sued him and his colleagues, alleging they’d received no interest or principal payments. He was later convicted of tax evasion and disbarred. Yet, Jones will always have a soft spot for him.
“Leonard Bursten was highly politically connected to the Democratic Party because he had money from Miami and from the Teamsters Union. Back then, unions supported Democrats. I wanted to support Bobby Kennedy for president and Bursten helped me get on the slate of electors as an idealistic 28-year-old. I was elected on June 5, the very day Kennedy was shot in Los Angeles. It was the night he was assassinated that crushed me, not the loss of Beverly Hills Country Club.”
Jones did attend the riot-filled Democratic Convention in Chicago in late August as a Kennedy delegate. But he saw two dreams die in that hot summer of 1968.