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The Tragic and Scandalous Origins of Doheny State Beach

Official records will tell you that the original 41 acres of Doheny State Beach was donated by Southern California oil tycoon Edward Doheny on May 31, 1931.  Many people don’t know that tomorrow – February 16th – marks the anniversary of the Doheny family tragedy that directly resulted in Doheny’s donation of the oceanfront property that would someday bear the family name.

Doheny State Beach (source: California Parks)

Edward Doheny was a wildcatter, who spent his early years seeking a fortune in oil.  He finally struck black gold in Los Angeles in 1892, setting off the California oil boom in the process, and before long had expanded with successful strikes in the American southwest and Mexico.  At the height of his empire, Doheny was pumping as much oil as John D. Rockefeller.  By the 1920s, Doheny was one of the wealthiest men in the world.  Predictably, with that wealth came political influence, and Doheny was closely involved in the administration of President Warren G. Harding.  In particular, Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall was personal friend of Edward Doheny – a relationship that erupted in scandal.  Doheny was accused of bribing Secretary Fall with $100,000 – a staggering amount at the time that might be worth more than $10M in today’s dollars.  The payoff?  A lucrative land lease and drilling rights on federally owned land.  When the bribe came to light, it was and would remain the most sensational political scandal in American history until Watergate.  The episode became known as the Teapot Dome Scandal – named after a distinctive landmass on the land in question.  Teapot Dome was largely responsible for bringing down the Harding administration.  Secretary Fall was tried, convicted and jailed.  Next in the prosecutors’ sights was Edward Doheny.

Edward Doheny (source: Wikipedia)

Also allegedly involved in the bribery scandal was Doheny’s only son, Edward L. (“Ned”) Doheny, Jr.  and Ned’s childhood friend, Hugh Plunkett.  In fact, it was believed that the younger Doheny was the man who hand delivered the cash bribe to the corrupt Interior Secretary.  Both Ned Doheny and Plunkett were going to be called to testify in the criminal investigation and faced jail time along with the elder Doheny.  The consequences for this uber-wealthy family were nearly unimaginable.

In the summer of 1928, Ned Doheny had just moved with his family into Greystone Mansion, an opulent fifty-five room Tudor style palace designed by acclaimed architect Gordon Kaufmann in the hills above Los Angeles.  Built at a cost of over $3M – over $300M in today’s dollars – it was the one of the most spectacular residences in all of California.  At 46,000 square feet on 400 acres, it trailed only Hearst’s castle at San Simeon in size.  Edward Doheny had built the regal residence and sold it to his son for a nominal $10.

Greystone Mansion (source: Wikipedia)

Around the same time, son Ned was trying his hand at real estate development in a sleepy, unimproved coastal area south of Los Angeles.  In 1928, Edward Doheny had purchased 1,000 acres of ocean front property in southern Orange County and Ned’s company, the Capistrano Beach Company, was proposing to build a master planned community there that would be named Doheny Park.  Ned Doheny was responsible for the Capistrano Beach Club and a 1,200 foot pier that was once located midway between Dana Point and San Clemente – both part of the Doheny Park project.

In February, 1929, the Doheny family was one of the wealthiest and most influential families in the world.  Father Edward had lavished his son with unimaginable riches and son Ned was pursuing his own ambitions of real estate development on the undeveloped South Orange County coastline.  Then tragedy struck.

It was February 16, 1929 at Greystone Mansion.  Hugh Plunkett had arrived around 9:30 PM and he and Ned were alone in a downstairs bedroom talking.  Just before midnight, Ned’s wife Lucy heard gunshots.  Based on accounts at the time, Lucy’s first reaction was to phone the family physician, Dr. Ernest Fishbaugh, and wait at least ten minutes for him to arrive at the house.  As Lucy and Dr. Fishbaugh approached the bedroom, they heard another gun shot.  They entered the room to find Ned Doheny and Hugh Plunkett on the floor, dead from gunshot wounds.  Sometime around 2 AM, the police were finally called.  By the time police showed up at Greystone, other family members were present and the bodies had been moved.  There were other oddities, such as the fact that the gun revealed no fingerprints.

The murders of Ned Doheny and Hugh Plunkett were the first murders in the history of the newly incorporated City of Beverly Hills.  By all accounts, the investigation (led by Los Angeles police officials) was not thorough.  In spite of all the questions and inconsistencies, the investigation was closed in 36 hours and it was determined that Plunkett shot Doheny before turning the gun on himself.  Even the press let the affair slip quickly out of the public consciousness.  The Los Angeles Times ran just one short story on the murders.

Was that really what happened?  Many people believe it was the opposite – that Ned Doheny shot Plunkett before taking his own life.  It was Ned’s gun that was the murder weapon.  They also point to the fact that in spite of the family being devout Catholics, Ned was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, not in the family mausoleum at Calvary Cemetery, a Catholic cemetery.  Suicide is a mortal sin in Catholicism and grounds to be barred from internment at a Catholic cemetery.  There are rumors that the elder Doheny even personally pleaded with the Pope for an exception, to no avail.  Ironically, Plunkett was also laid to rest at Forest Lawn – just a few hundred yards away from the man he allegedly killed.  Or was possibly killed by.

And what was the motive for the killings?  Early reports blamed Plunkett, saying he had a nervous breakdown or may have been angry over financial matters.  There were rumors that Ned Doheny and Hugh Plunkett were secret lovers.  Others believe that the murders had to do with the bribery scandal and criminal investigation.  Perhaps Plunkett feared that the Dohenys would rally their defense and try to place the guilt on him?  If Doheny had pulled the trigger, maybe he did so to save his father from damaging testimony?

Why did Lucy Doheny call the family doctor before she called the police or even checked on her husband?  Why the nearly three hour delay before the police were called?  Why were the bodies moved?  Why were there no fingerprints on the weapon?  These questions remain unanswered to this day.

The widow Lucy Smith Doheny remarried just a year later, and lived at Greystone with her children and new husband for a quarter century more until downsizing to a smaller home on adjacent property.  She lived to be over 100 years old, but her children and grandchildren say that she never revealed to them what really happened that tragic night.

While Lucy Smith Doheny seemed to recover quickly and fully from the tragic death of her husband, Edward Doheny grieved.  In the wake of the murder of his son, the Teapot Dome investigation into Edward Doheny cooled off and he was never convicted.  Perhaps in honor of his son’s development efforts there, he caused one of his oil enterprises to donate 41 acres of beachfront land in South Orange County to the State of California as a memorial to Ned Doheny.  The unfinished Doheny Park development was eventually sold off to private parties and the area is now known as Capistrano Beach.  In further memory of his son, Edward Doheny donated $1.1M to the University of Southern California to build the Edward L. Doheny, Jr. Memorial Library and funded the construction of what was originally known as St. Edward’s Chapel in Capistrano Beach – now St. Edward’s the Confessor Catholic Church located on the bluff in Dana Point, overlooking Doheny.  The original chapel is now home to San Felipe de Jesus Chapel.

Greystone Mansion itself was also eventually donated to the public.  Today it is a City of Beverly Hills park and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Greystone boasts an impressive resume of television and film appearances.

In spite of his philanthropy and generosity, Edward Doheny retreated into his sorrow and became something of a recluse.  He and his wife eventually moved to Ferndale Ranch, a Wallace Neff designed home in Ojai.  It was not long thereafter that Edward Doheny died in 1935, suffering from what he himself described in his personal papers as a “broken heart.”

Raymond Chandler used the murder of Ned Doheny as the basis for his novel, The High Window.  It is believed that Edward Doheny was the inspiration for the character of Vern Roscoe in Upton Sinclair’s landmark novel Oil!  The highly acclaimed 2007 movie There Will Be Blood was an adaptation of Oil!

“I drink your milkshake! I drink it up!”

Over the years, the original 41 acre donation was augmented by additional land acquisitions.  Doheny State Beach, adjacent to Dana Point Harbor, offers over a mile of shoreline and a wide range of activities, including camping and family picnic areas.  San Juan Creek meets the ocean at Doheny, and the planned South Orange County “mountain to the sea” trail will have its terminus at Doheny.

Although its origins lie in scandal and tragedy, Doheny State Beach is one of the jewels of the California beach and parks system.  And although he endured great personal loss, the legacy of Edward Doheny continues to benefit South Orange County in form of a beautiful beach park.

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