Photographer, David Horan, 2011, Paul Revere Williams Project
In the early 1950s Mona Freeman and Patrick W. Nerney were bona fide Hollywood B-listers. Pat, the scion of a successful Los Angeles automobile dealer, was variously described as a businessman or executive. Mona, a minor celeb since the age of 14, began her modeling and acting career as New York City’s first Miss Subways in 1941. Her “cute smile” and all American good looks appeared on placards posted across New York encouraging people to ride the subway. The campaign promoted the imagine of the subway as “a glamorous yet wholesome form of transportation.” (New Yorker. June 10, 1991) Hollywood lore would claim that fledgling movie mogul Howard Hughes became enamored with Freeman’s image, recognized her potential as a “starlet” and immediately signed her to a two-year personal contract. Mona, along with her mother, moved to the West Coast where she would appear in scores of movies typecast in minor roles as the sister, bobbysoxer or brat—a description she detested. (Los Angeles Times. November 14, 1948)
Pat’s father, Hamblin Weldon Nerney, opened the first Ford dealership in Southern California. His block-long showroom and innovative marketing methods often described in newspapers and industry magazines made the senior Nerney a wealthy man. Pat’s activities and interests were also reported in print, but they were of a social or romantic nature. Though he saw active military duty in WWII, Pat still had time to return to California for “R and R” and to date celebrities like popular radio singer Ginny Simms. Hedda Hopper chronicled the Simms-Nerney romance in her nationally syndicated column announcing to her readership that their engagement was imminent. Nerney demurred saying, “We haven’t had a chance to make any definite plans and haven’t set a definite date for our wedding.” (Los Angeles Times. July 22, 1944) By 1945 the couple’s relationship was over and Pat married teenager Mona Freeman.
In 1948 Pat and Mona bought a lot on Sorrento Drive in Pacific Palisades and hired Paul R. Williams to design a modern ranch-style family home. (Nerney’s parents had owned a Williams’ designed estate in Beverly Hills, so selecting Williams was not a surprise.) Pacific Palisades was developed in the early 1900s as an intimate neighborhood close to the ocean within a short trolley ride to Los Angeles. (The Evening News. June 6, 1906) After WWII the couple joined other new buyers attracted to the area’s natural beauty, healthy environment and family atmosphere. Though the first homes were an eclectic mix of architectural styles, a new design trend began when Cliff May developed the Sullivan Canyon area and built scores of homes with his new concept—the California Ranch. This style quickly spread across America becoming the suburban ideal for homebuyers at every price point.
In 1947 the number of single-family homes built in Southern California exploded but the average size of these houses remained the same—a modest 4.3 rooms. (US Census of Housing, 1950) Williams’ design for the Nerney’s four-bedroom ranch-style residence, though grander in scale than the average new family house, was modest and homey in comparison to those built for other movie stars. A family of three, the Nerneys wanted a home with a relaxed, informal atmosphere, modern amenities and ample outdoor space for healthful living. Williams personalized his design to the couples’ taste but the front porch, simple rooflines, expansive front “motor court” and covered passage to a large private garden space were similar to thousands of others built in California. (AIA California. Residential Architecture in Southern California. 1939)
The public’s interest in Pat and Mona as a married couple continued and they were photographed together at chic parties, LA restaurant openings or playing with their daughter on the lawn of their “perfect” suburban home. To readers their life appeared ideal but their relationship was troubled. “Long considered one of the movie colony’s happiest couples, their separation came as a surprise to friends and associates.” (Los Angeles Times. April 12, 1952) After only 6 years of marriage, Freeman petitioned for divorce. In court she testified to Nerney’s possessiveness and wept: “He was a very critical man. I became so nervous and upset that it was very difficult for me to pursue my career. He made my life miserable… by refusing to let me go on location or personal appearance tours unless he could go along.” (Los Angeles Times. October 1, 1953; Schenectady Gazette. September 25, 1952) In the final decree Mona was given her jewels, furs and other personal effects, custody of their daughter and $75 a month in child support. Nerney kept the Sorrento Drive home. (The Los Angeles Times. September 26, 1952)
Nerney would marry other Hollywood personalities including singer/actress Jane Powell and he continued working in “business.” Freeman dated important entertainers including the recently widowed Bing Crosby. She would later remarry. In the 1970s and 80s Freeman's career had a brief revival when she appreared on a number of television series such as Fantasy Island and The Loveboat that featured other forgotten B-listers. No longer a film ingénue she supported herself as a paid spokeswoman for a variety of national and local print campaigns. In 1956 she was hired as the reigning “queen of celebration of National Home Month in Greater Los Angeles.” (Los Angeles Times. September 2, 1956) She also “starred” in print ads for the Aydes diet product. In this campaign the smiling, trim former actress was shown walking confidently with her daughter under the caption: “Mona Freeman tells how to lose ugly fat this easy, pleasant way!” Prominently featured in the background is her former Paul R. Williams designed home. (Life. April 12, 1954)