With a cool breeze blowing in off the steel-gray ocean below, Harriet Nelson stood on the deck of her cliff-top Laguna Beach house and remembered warmer days.
“Ozzie would swim way out past the rocks, and then he’d swim all the way down there,” she said, pointing to the rocks off Victoria Beach to the north and then down to Blue Lagoon a half mile to the south.
“When we first came down here he’d swim twice a day and play volleyball with all the kids,” she said, adding with a throaty laugh: “He’d knock his brains out. Ozzie had to win, you know. Ozzie could not come in second. No way.”
Since 1932, when bandleader Ozzie Nelson hired Harriet Hilliard to be the vocalist in his band, it has been difficult not to imagine one without the other.
And for anyone who grew up watching “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” on television each week in the 1950s and ‘60s, it is difficult to picture the Nelsons without also thinking of their white, two-story Cape Cod house (footage of the family’s actual home in Hollywood was used in the opening credits of the early episodes).
This is Ozzie and Harriet’s other house.
They built the one-story, two-bedroom beach house in Lagunita--a gated community on Coast Highway where homes now sell for up to $4 million--in 1955 as a weekend retreat.
And while it is a lot less familiar than their Hollywood house, it figures no less prominently in the Nelsons’ family history.
It’s where the entire family came on weekends to unwind after filming all week and during summers when the show was on hiatus.
It’s where Ozzie and Harriet retreated the day they finished filming their final “adventure” in 1966, ending the show’s phenomenal 14 years on television and 10 years on radio.
And it’s where, two years after Ozzie died of cancer in 1975, Harriet moved after selling the big house in Hollywood.
Since then, the Lagunita house has been Harriet Nelson’s full-time residence. And with frequent weekend visits by son David and his wife, Yvonne, and Harriet’s grandchildren and their friends, the house is still very much a family home that reflects the casual beach life style that originally drew the Nelsons to Laguna.
From the road above, the gray house with the French blue trim is hidden from view by the garage and a one-room guest house.
A visitor enters through a plain wooden door that opens onto brick steps that separate the garage and guest house. The steps lead down to a large, plant-filled brick patio. (The plants, like the surrounding landscaping, are tended by gardeners from Roger’s Gardens in Corona del Mar.)
The L-shaped house has an airy, wood-paneled living room with a beam ceiling and a stone fireplace between a large picture window and a sliding glass door that offer spectacular views of the ocean and the beach 20 feet below. Harriet had the beam ceiling and mahogany paneling painted a warm white color a few years ago. (“I’m glad I did it,” she says in that familiar, good-humored voice. “It makes such a cheerful house.”)
The stylish yet unpretentious living room features off-white carpeting and a long white couch facing the fireplace. Above the fireplace is an original oil painting by the renowned primitive artist Streeter Blair, a family friend, who also did the painting of Ozzie’s and Harriet’s first house in New Jersey that hangs above an antique Shaker herb chest. (Harriet has been collecting antiques since 1934, “when it didn’t cost your right arm,” but had to sell much of her collection when she left her Hollywood home for the much smaller Lagunita house.)
One wall of the living room is devoted to a built-in television and a built-in mirrored wet bar where Ozzie would often stand while working on scripts for the TV show.
On the shelf above the TV is a collection of personal family photographs, including pictures of Rick, who died in a 1985 plane crash, and David, who is a Hollywood film director. On the wall above is another primitive painting, a seaside town painted by Harriet’s former daughter-in law, Kris Nelson, who divorced Rick in 1981. The whimsical painting incorporates family members: Harriet is shown gardening; Ozzie is holding a volleyball.
A framed black-and-white photograph of Ozzie and Harriet, taken shortly before they were married in 1935, sits atop an antique oak cricket table next to a wingback chair. The inscription down the side of the clear frame reads: “Ozzie’s Girl.” The frame was a gift from friends during the making of Ozzie and Harriet’s short-lived television comeback in “Ozzie’s Girls” in 1973.
Harriet converted the small second bedroom into a study, which has an antique mahogany desk where she does her “desk work.” Built-in shelves, filled with books and family photographs, frame a love seat where Harriet often sits while reading her mail--including occasional fan letters from a new generation of viewers who watch “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” on the Disney Channel.
As viewers of the old show know, the TV Harriet Nelson spent a lot of time in the kitchen.
The truth is that although her Hollywood house had a spacious kitchen, complete with a butler’s pantry, Harriet was too busy during the show years to cook for the family. She employed a full-time cook-housekeeper. The kitchen in the Lagunita house is small, with a breakfast bar, and is distinguished by a vintage stainless-steel refrigerator and built-in stove and oven (gifts from Hotpoint, “Ozzie and Harriet’s” sponsor at the time the house was built).
And, yes, Harriet Nelson does know how to cook: “I’ll get on kicks where I see a recipe and then I’ll do it, but it isn’t necessary. Everybody knows what cooking for yourself is like.” When she entertains, it’s usually with a few close friends and, she says, she keeps it “very simple. Nothing elaborate. It’s very homey.”
In Lagunita, the Nelsons always had an “open-refrigerator policy” for guests. “This was called Hospitality Hall: everybody helped themselves. Thank God they did,” says Harriet.
During the ‘50s, David and Rick’s friends would often show up on weekends, camping out on the living room floor. “I’d have to step over them to get to the kitchen in the morning,” she says with a laugh, adding, “Now I’ve got the grandchildren’s friends. Fortunately.”
The guest house, in fact, was built to give David and Rick--and their friends--more room. But turning the original two-car garage into a guest house and building another garage next to it actually served a more practical purpose: It gave the Nelsons much-needed privacy.
While eating dinner one evening shortly after the house was built, Harriet recalls, they looked up to find a man and a woman and their two children staring at them through the front picture window. “I said, ‘Can I help you?’ And they said, ‘We just heard the Nelsons lived here.’ ”
Wearing an ivory silk blouse and navy blue pants, with her reading glasses hanging from a gold chain around her neck, Harriet sat at her French country dining table and discussed what Laguna and her Lagunita home have meant to her.
It was Ozzie’s love of the ocean, she said, that originally brought them to Laguna.
“I didn’t care for it at first, but he loved it so,” she said. “I learned to put up with it and then, gradually, I learned to love it, too. Now I find I don’t want to live any place else.”
The Lagunita house is the second weekend home Ozzie and Harriet bought in Laguna.
In the late ‘40s, during the peak of their radio show’s popularity, they bought a big old Mediterranean-style house down the coast at Camel Point. But the house was too large and too difficult to take care of. They sold it in 1954 and as part payment received an empty lot in Lagunita.
Corona del Mar architect William Blurock, in association with architect Richard Pleger, designed the Lagunita house in accordance with Harriet’s specifications.
“I knew what I wanted,” she said. “I’d sit on the beach and make notes of what I’d do if I built a house down here. Just from experience: ‘Well, I don’t like this, I wouldn’t want this’--that kind of notes.”
(Today Blurock recalls installing “black-out” drapes--”double drapes like they have in hotels”--in Ozzie and Harriet’s bedroom: “Ozzie wanted his bedroom, which was all glass, absolutely blacked out so he could sleep,” he said.)
As with all the windows in the house, Harriet’s bedroom now features wide-slat, natural wood shutters which, she says, “makes more sense than anything else if you live at the beach” because they are adjustable and let in as little or as much light as desired.
The emphasis in designing their new weekend retreat, Harriet said, was that it require minimum upkeep. “I had that in mind all the way through, and I’m certainly grateful for it now,” she said.
Home has always been important to Harriet.
During the ‘30s when she and Ozzie were on the road with Ozzie’s band, she used to clip pictures of homes and furniture out of magazines and paste them into a scrapbook. With a laugh, she recalled: “The boys in the band used to call it ‘Harriet’s house.’ I’m a nester.”
In the late ‘60s, Lagunita became something of a Nelson family compound. At one point, Rick and Kris Nelson had a condominium down the beach at Blue Lagoon, and Rick’s in-laws, Tom and Elyse Harmon, lived a few doors down from Ozzie and Harriet. Ozzie’s brother Don, who wrote for the show, still has a house in Lagunita. So does actor Kent McCord, who got his acting start playing one of Rick’s fraternity brothers on the show, and producer Joe Byrne, a high school friend of David who began his career working as a gofer on the series.
Harriet, who does her own shopping at the supermarket across the highway and at other Laguna stores, enjoys the “village atmosphere of Laguna.”
“I like almost everything about it,” she said. “I know everyone down here, and they are all such nice people.”
Harriet said she spends a lot of time on her deck, especially in the evening “because it’s so lovely. The ocean’s noisy, but it’s a quiet noise.” She also enjoys sitting on the beach but says, “if you’ve got stuff to do upstairs you’d better not go down to the beach because you won’t come back up. I don’t. It’s a different world down there and you kind of leave everything else upstairs. I could be a beachcomber very easily.”
Harriet is a member of the women’s advisory council of South Coast Medical Center and is a patron of Las Marineras, an auxiliary to Family Service of America, a family counseling service. Although virtually retired from acting, Harriet earlier this year did a guest shot as a nun on granddaughter Tracy Nelson’s television series, “Father Dowling Mysteries.”
Last year, thinking she’d like to be closer to family and friends in Los Angeles, Harriet bought a second home in Studio City.
Her intention was to divide her time between Studio City and Laguna. But despite spending several months having the Studio City house remodeled, Harriet recently put it up for sale.
“It’s a very nice house,” she said. “It’s just that I find I can’t live with one foot in one and one foot in the other.”
Although she has lived in the Lagunita house for 12 years, it has only recently come to feel like home to her, Harriet said, explaining that it was a wrenching experience for her to give up the Hollywood house where she and Ozzie lived for 35 years.
“You know, I didn’t realize (the Lagunita house) was really home until I bought that house up in Los Angeles. Then I realized it didn’t feel like home, and that this is it. So that’s the good that came out of it for me.”
Asked to describe what the Lagunita house has meant to the Nelson family over the years, Harriet recalled something her 14-year-old grandson, Sam Nelson, said while spending the weekend with her recently.
“We were sitting in the living room and he said, ‘Grandma, this is the nicest house in the world,’ ” she said. “Later on I told that to Tracy, who was down here with him, and she said, ‘You know what he meant, Grandma? You’re a constant to us.’ She said, ‘No matter what comes and goes, you’re always here.’ ”