Oh, Lucky Man: Gregory Peck in the Palisades

By MICHAEL OLDHAM | Special to the Palisadian-Post

Gregory Peck was once described as lucky: And maybe his luckiest days were spent in Pacific Palisades—until bad luck and a bad marriage caught up with him.

Scion of a troubled Anglo-Irish dynasty, Eldred Gregory Peck was born in La Jolla, California, in 1916 and raised for many years by his grandmother.

She would oftentimes take little Gregory to the movies and ensured he got into Berkeley to study English. He could have been a teacher—indeed a professor—but the acting bug bit and instead, he went on to wash dishes and sleep in parks for many years.

Eldred Gregory Peck
Photos courtesy of Wikipedia

But he came back from being homeless.

By the time Peck was in his late 20s, the 6’ 3” actor would be starring inside his own movies.

Peck’s first starring movie role was in RKO’s 1944 film, “Days of Glory.” The leading-man movie career of Peck was off and running.

Just 10 short years later and with a bank of classic films such as 1947’s “Gentleman’s Agreement” already behind him, Peck’s Hollywood days of glory were being threatened.

The threat to the sharp-looking film star, with a public reputation of trustworthiness and apple pie virtues earned from other 1940s-era films such as “The Yearling,” was a divorce filing. It was nasty and it was public.

The 1954 court action was being taken by Peck’s Finnish-born wife, Greta Kukkonen. In the divorce papers, Kukkonen was rough on her husband.

She wrote of Peck causing her “anguish, embarrassment and humiliation.” Other charges of cruelty were spelled out, as detailed by Peck biographer Lynn Haney.

With his wholesome public image at risk, Peck quickly issued a denial of Kukkonen’s charges. Only years later would he admit to a brief, adulterous affair with his “Spellbound” co-star Ingrid Bergman.

Gregory Peck with Ingrid Bergman
Photo courtesy of Pinterest

The marriage had fallen apart inside an Upper Riviera estate on San Remo Drive in The Palisades, where the Pecks resided at the time.

Peck, described by Time magazine as “luckier, better looking and more gifted” than most people, Kukkonen had purchased the hilltop home on San Remo in 1947.

Peck biographer, Gary Fishgall, wrote that the Pecks paid $50,000 for the home.

It was reached via a long, winding, paparazzi-proof driveway.

The multi-wing, ranch-style house, designed by the famed architect Cliff May and completed in 1940, offered extraordinary views of the Pacific Ocean and Mandeville Canyon.

Famous gossip columnist Hedda Hopper had once paid a visit to Peck’s home and spoke of it as offering “superb vista spreading out in panorama beneath his windows.’”

When Peck moved into San Remo, he and his wife already had two boys and would quickly have another one in 1949.

The multi-acre San Remo property sported plenty of green lawn area where many photos were taken showing Peck playing with his boys and dogs.

San Remo offered Peck, who described himself as “shy, a bit reticent,” tranquility away from his adoring fans and busy public life.

At home, he was free to enjoy his record collection and spend time inside his den, where he could mix himself a drink at the bar that was stationed there.

The den was Peck’s special retreat inside his home where he would often sit back and relax on his leather-covered sofa and enjoy the added ambiance of a fireplace.

But such happy home moments inside his den were long gone by the time of the divorce proceedings.

Perhaps fearing his Hollywood film career could be irreparably damaged with a long, drawn-out public affair, Peck speedily settled his divorce with his wife. In the settlement, Kukkonen was to retain the San Remo home.

She sold it for $150,000 in 1963 to the Emrich family, who sold it in 1972 for $250,000. In 1992 Hollywood producer Brian Grazer moved in.

In 2009 Grazer sold the three-acre estate to Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner for $17.5 million.

They made extensive renovations until putting it back on the market for $45 million.

Peck quickly leased a much smaller, nearby house within the Palisades to make sure his three sons, Jonathan, Stephen and Carey, could visit him frequently.

Ultimately, Peck’s screen career was not damaged by the divorce. The well-groomed actor would go on to make many more classic movies including the massively popular and influential “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

In the 1962 movie, Peck played Atticus Finch, a Southern lawyer in the Depression-era South who defends a black man against undeserved charges. The role earned Peck an Oscar for best actor. He had been nominated four times before.

And while Finch is a good guy character (despite later revelations by his creator, Harper Lee, that in private Finch too was a good ol’ Southern boy racist), Peck once stated that bad guy roles are easier to play.

“They say the bad guys are more interesting to play,” Peck once said. “But there is more to it than that—playing the good guys is more challenging because it’s harder to make them interesting.”

One person believed Peck was a real bad guy—Richard Nixon put him on the president’s “enemies list,” opening him up to FBI and other harassments.

Peck would marry again in 1955 and have more children with his French-born wife, Véronique Passani, a former reporter who interviewed him on the set of “Roman Holiday.” She spent her last years in a 9,000-square-foot chateau at 539 Mapleton Drive in Holmby Hills, which survived them both and sold for $25 million in 2013.

Peck passed away from bronchopneumonia in 2003 at the age of 87. A lifelong liberal Roman Catholic, he was entombed in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles.

The future of his Palisadian home remains to be seen.