By Lionel Van Deerlin
When you are president of the Rancho Santa Fe Association, it’s not often you must comment on something unpleasant. Mel Sawelson may have felt he was caught short on the night of March 26. To reporters, Sawelson described the Heaven’s Gate incident thus: "It was as far from indicative of our community as you can get."
If his syntax was tortured, the meaning was clear—and operators of emergency 911 would agree. To them, the anonymous call about mass suicides had seemed so far from indicative of those agreeable surroundings that they waited nearly two hours to dispatch deputies.
Media reporting that’s typical in such events—shocked neighbors saying, "They were such ordinary and friendly folk, we can’t believe what happened"—was absent here. Owners whose estates abut the Mansion of Death had observed little or nothing. (One may speculate that Rancho Santa Fe’s considerable open space accounts for a statistically negligible murder rate. Few neighbors know one another well enough to kill.)
The Ranch, as inhabitants call their lush inland redoubt, is home to some 6,000 well-to-do, active, healthy, mostly happy types to whom suicide would occur about as readily as turning Socialist. Home to storied admirals like W.F. (Bush) Bringle and Jack Lee. And to the likes of Wally Schirra, an astronaut who took the First Amendment along in space for the earthy messages he beamed to Mission Control. Home to Pat Canning Todd, who retains much of the form that made her a top-seeded tennis star of the early postwar years. To Victor Mature, whose screen credits began in the first decade that pictures talked but who still brightens cable’s American Movie Classics. And to latecomers like retired Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen, famed chiefly for a putdown of Dan Quayle.
Other unusual Americans have populated this place. Benjamin deForest Bayly, who died last year at 93, served FDR and Churchill under Britain’s wartime intelligence chief, Sir William Stephenson (A Man Called Intrepid). The late Major Corliss Champion Moseley researched nuclear energy and The Bomb with celebrated physicist Ernest O. Lawrence. John Robertson, the producer of Mary Pickford–Douglas Fairbanks silents, launched the riding club (Robertson Field). Ghosts also include Howard Hughes from the late Sixties (before he turned completely nutty) and a sizable bodyguard who protected him from process servers.
How came this blissful cloister of coupon clippers? Like million-dollar sports gates, the Charleston and Wall Street’s Black Friday, Rancho Santa Fe was born of the Roaring Twenties—though no one then envisioned today’s opulence. The place takes its name from the second transcontinental railroad to reach California. Santa Fe had acquired extensive acreage for eucalyptus plantings, anticipating an inexhaustible supply of roadbed ties. But eucalyptus wood split too easily to hold the spikes—an eventuality that could have left 10 square miles of ghost forest. Instead, a young fellow named Sydney Nelson suggested that a grace fully sloping 18-hole golf course, if set among those towering trees, might enable Santa Fe to peddle its otherwise useless tract of land as residential tracts.
That was in 1922. In addition to rescuing railroad management, the idea served Nelson well personally. He became Rancho Santa Fe’s first realtor—this, in the ensuing land boom, akin to turning a shoat loose in a silo. Seventy-five years later, the tall tales of property transactions never stop. Republican hero Gerald Parsky pops $5 million into one of the original estates, installing a beautiful sunken tennis court. A Saudi government satrap offers all cash for The Inn at Rancho Santa Fe, but family owners can’t agree to sell. A turbaned Indian pays $1.25 million for the home of aging actor Robert Young—then razes it and rebuilds from the ground up. Most recently, an infusion of outside money promises 250 home sites surrounding yet another golf course, possibly averaging a million dollars per lot. Enough, all told, to circle the earth several times with railroad ties.
Yet life is seldom simple. For Ranch residents, rules abound. These begin where the community itself began, at the golf course. The club’s governing board not long ago suspended a 40-year member for one month. The fellow’s offense: He took a passive Labrador retriever along as company while playing alone. The club lends new meaning to "exclusive." When condos (ugh!) averaging $450,000 were built adjacent to the village, it was decided the occupants of such crass quarters could not be accepted at the golf club. Next question: whether longtime members moving into a condo must thereafter be blackballed.
Community-wide architectural standards are enforced by an "art jury" answerable to seven elected directors of the Rancho Santa Fe Covenant. (Though not a Biblical covenant, this one guards its own Land of Milk and Honey.) Mass immolation aside, Heaven’s Gate was inviting trouble for trans gressions almost as appalling: (1) a prima facie zoning violation with those 39 oc cu pants—an astonishingly high number for single-family!—and (2) the cult’s busy software business on noncommercial premises.
If not flaunting political conservatism, the Ranch quietly accepts it. Arlene Straza, a newcomer in the early 1970s, says a dep u ty voter registrar at the library, without asking, entered "Republican" in the space for party affiliation. "No, I’m a Democrat," Straza said apologetically. "I’ll help you spell it." Current registration figures show a not unexpected balance: 2,780 Republicans to only 580 Democrats. Yet no inference should be drawn from an ongoing Ranch mystery—of an early resident with the temerity to run for Congress as a Demo crat. He later disappeared and never was heard from again.*
Though they moved in during a presidential campaign, not one of the Heaven’s Gate ménage living at 18241 Colina Norte was registered to vote. Don’t bother to look for that street on future road maps. The name has been changed to Paseo Victoria.
So how to explain what happened there? By Ranch standards, one longtime resident may have fingered the problem.
"They were renters," she notes.
*Attorney Walter Wencke, a 1960 Democratic nominee in the old 30th Congressional District, is believed to be living beyond extradition in Tanzania since his 1979 conviction on stock fraud.