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Party People

Beverly and RC Cohen open up their iconic home for gala season on the coast

The formal kitchen in the Cohens' Newport Bay home is a place of wonder, with glass art, mosaics, plant arrangements and a salt-water aquarium.

When the languid months of summer come to an end, it’s difficult to ignore the change in atmosphere along the Orange County coast. Fall is the time when the invitations to galas and golf tournaments and intimate dinners start to arrive, and partygoers who participate in the philanthropic scene are undoubtedly midway through the process of accelerating from zero to the speed of sound as they race from event to event.

As always, Beverly and RC Cohen are among those with very full calendars, planning for upcoming functions in their Newport Bay home and accepting invitations from others who are inspired to give back. They “love to entertain in the garden,” Beverly says, inviting scores of people into their home for a charity event or a handful of family members for a Sunday brunch.

 “The Cohens,” she adds with a smile, “do great parties.”

But on a summer afternoon before the season starts –  before the great parties are upon them – Beverly and RC put their planning on a brief hiatus to lead a leisurely, informal tour of their 13,000-square-foot home and surrounding gardens.

The party potential is immediately apparent.

The house is filled with art, glass, antiques, cozy sitting areas and a string of greenhouse rooms. The grounds of the estate, which once belonged to John Wayne, include several outdoor entertainment spaces and to-die-for landscaping.

The Cohens are eager to share the details of everything we encounter: paintings, antiques, glass art, the dazzling patchwork of plants inside and out – and the charity work that has been a large part of their lives for decades.

“I focus mostly on cancer and children,” Beverly says, raising money for research and various educational organizations. She’s been involved with Childhelp, a nonprofit that helps victims of child abuse, for several years. (Last year the Cohens hosted a Childhelp fundraiser for 150 people at their waterfront home.) And she’s planning a dinner, with one of her daughters, to help raise money for the Arthritis Foundation.

RC is the first to greet visitors, ushering them into a sprawling living room with several conversation areas and an enormous fireplace. He shares a few stories about the house and property, but it’s clear he is waiting for his wife of 60-plus years to join the conversation. Beverly appears a few minutes later, descending a curving staircase in a Roberto Cavalli gown and strappy high-heeled sandals. Everything about her – the camera-ready hair and makeup, the statement jewelry, the welcoming smile – is testimony to her longtime role as partner and hostess.  

“Let’s start outside,” she says.

Walking down garden paths that meander past fruit trees, staghorn ferns, begonias, anthuriums and hundreds of succulents, RC shares his backstory. He and his siblings were “born in the flower business,” he says, recalling his childhood in 1930s and ’40s Los Angeles. On a good day, he might net $25 or $35 selling bouquets on a corner.  Corners led to a shop, which led to more shops, which Beverly ran while she was raising her three young children.
In the 1980s, RC, who eventually added commercial real estate to his portfolio, and his brother Joseph developed the Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles, ensuring a part-time L.A. domicile for the Cohens, a location for scores of celebrity interviews every awards season – and more property to landscape.

They met when Beverly, who had just moved to Los Angeles from Cleveland with her mother and siblings, was 13, and married when she was 16, RC was 20.

Early in their marriage, he inculcated his young wife with a devotion to the plant kingdom, and their interest in gardening has continued for decades. Every home, every property and (almost) every room they’ve inhabited has affirmed their fascination with the flora of the region. The plants are plentiful; their selection and placement well-planned.

The “backyard” of the Newport Bay estate includes fruit trees, herb and vegetable gardens and three giraffe topiaries, a 60th anniversary gift, Beverly says. A Balinese-theme bedroom opens onto a tiny garden and small pond that is home for three turtles that bob in the water, perhaps anticipating the snacks that she eventually tosses their way.

“The reality is, (gardening) is a lot of work,” Beverly says. “We’re both fortunate that we have something we can put our love into.”

The Cohens have owned the property for more than 25 years and remodeled the house four times before tearing it down and starting from scratch. There are few remnants of the Duke, except for a large ficus that was saved and replanted near the front of the home. But community awareness of the movie star and Oscar winner, who died in 1979, continues unabated; earlier this year the Newport Beach City Council designated May 26 as an annual John Wayne Day.

Beverly says she never tires of visitors who ask questions about the property and its previous owner. “I’m very dear friends with Pilar (Wayne’s third wife). She’s such a love, and she comes here and says, ‘It never looked like this.’ ”

“It took us five years to build,” Beverly says. After that, “it took us almost a year to get our stuff in ... and we’re still not done.” She adds: “I want my house to be fun ... personal.” And it is.

A sophisticated sound system plays ’60s and ’70s pop music throughout the house, which includes several bedrooms, a media room and a gym. Huge glass flowers adorn several walls; the two-story entryway is dominated by a large glass sculpture hanging from the ceiling; and an elaborate bar is home to sprawling candelabra, family photos and a clutch of decanters.
And there’s a garden-shop-worthy collection of indoor plants as well, many of them concentrated in a string of greenhouse rooms where Beverly cultivates and coaxes African violets, orchids and bromeliads. “Yesterday I was in the greenhouse for at least six hours,” she says. It’s therapy, she adds, a way to relax, although it doesn’t sound as if Beverly Cohen has a lot of downtime.

In addition to her philanthropic efforts, Beverly says she is anticipating Halloween (“We make bags of candy and write out a tag for each one”) and the December boat parade.

RC shares her enthusiasm, although sometimes he retreats to his outdoor “office,” she says, gesturing to the backyard. It’s “the first lounge chair behind the lemon tree.”

“That’s where he directs everybody,” she adds, laughing.

“Even me.”

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