The Untold Darkness Inside the Bright Palm Springs Kaufmann House

Richard Neutra’s iconic Palm Springs house never felt like a cozy winter home to Liliane Kaufmann.

Adele Cygelman Current PSL, History, Modernism

The Kaufmann house in Palm Springs.

From the moment in 1947 that the Kaufmann house in Palm Springs was captured on camera, it became a beacon of modernism and one of the most recognizable residences in the world. But all the attention has focused on three men: the architect, Richard J. Neutra; the owner, Edgar J. Kaufmann; and the photographer, Julius Shulman.

Liliane Kaufmann, Edgar’s wife, is more of an enigma, relegated to the backlit figure who obligingly blocked the pool light in Shulman’s famous photograph. The story has oft been told, but it bears repeating. At Neutra’s request, Shulman drove to Palm Springs to spend three days photographing the house shortly after the Kaufmanns had moved in. “At twilight of the third day, I walked out to view the house from the garden — I had observed the ‘alpenglow’ of the developing evening twilight while in the living room and felt that this would create a scene of unusual impact,” Shulman wrote in his book Julius Shulman: Architecture and Photography. He ran outside with his camera, ignoring Neutra’s request to continue shooting inside, took three separate exposures over 45 minutes, and asked Liliane to recline on one of the seating pads to screen out the pool light. She is now immortalized alongside the house, albeit resembling a Sphinx-like garden statue. The photograph is widely known, but few people realize that there is a person in the shot, let alone that it is Liliane Kaufmann.

Yet far from being a passive prop, Liliane was an equal to her husband in terms of ambition, culture, and creativity and as an advocate of modern design, connoisseur of the arts, and philanthropist.


Edgar (seated, right), Liliane (standing), with the Kaufmann family.

Getting Together

As was the custom among prosperous Old World families, Edgar Jonas Kaufmann (known as E.J.) married his first cousin, Lillian Sarah Kaufmann. Because it was illegal for first cousins to marry in Pennsylvania, they headed to New York.

“Yes, we are first cousins, and we came to New York to get married because of that fact,” she matter-of-factly told a reporter on June 22, 1909. “I have known my cousin all of my life, but we have been engaged only a short time. There is no romance connected with our marriage, except that we came here in a special train, if you consider that one.”

Their union may have been a strategic alliance to protect the family’s ownership of Kaufmann’s Department Store in Pittsburgh, but it produced a son as well as two of the most famous houses in the world.

In 1933, Liliane (she changed the spelling of her name to make it more cosmopolitan) turned the 11th floor of Kaufmann’s into a successful boutique called Vendôme, named for the elegant Place Vendôme in Paris, where she frequently traveled to stock the boutique with the latest in fashion, accessories, housewares, and decorative objects. She and her son, Edgar Jr., mounted exhibits on Mexican folk art and antiques as well as modern home furnishings. In 1934, she became the first woman to serve as Montefiore Hospital’s president of the board of trustees, and she made a name for herself breeding and showing long-haired dachshunds.


            The Kauffmans at Fallingwater
             DION NEUTRA

The couple’s main residence in Pittsburgh was an 18-room French Norman manor house, which was designed in 1924 by architect Benno Janssen.
Their Bear Run country house, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and better known as Fallingwater, was completed in 1937.

Heading West

Edgar was already familiar with Palm Springs: His mother had stayed at El Mirador Hotel since the 1920s, and the family made frequent trips to the desert to escape Pennsylvania winters. Edgar, who became vice president of May Department Stores Co. after it acquired Kaufmann’s, presumably met Neutra on one of his business trips to Los Angeles, and in 1946 commissioned Neutra, and not Wright, to build them a house in the desert. Wright was furious at being passed over, but Neutra’s angular steel-and-concrete structures that were springing up around Southern California heralded the future.

The majority of the correspondence about the house came from Edgar. In one of his earliest letters to Neutra (Feb. 5, 1946), Edgar outlined their basic requirements: “A good size master bedroom with large closet for Mrs. Kaufman [sic] and attached thereto a dressing room for myself.” In the margin, presumably in Neutra’s writing, is the note, “Mrs. K dresses in her bath.”

“This unit should have two baths, one for Mrs. Kaufmann and one for me,” the letter continues. “Only one of the baths need to have a tub — the others all showers. Neither Mrs. Kaufmann nor I use tubs.”


Letters from the Kaufmanns to architect Richard Neutra.

Liliane’s input was confined to the kitchen and her bathroom, and flurry of letters went back and forth between her and Neutra in April 1946. “I have been working on the linoleum for the kitchen,” she wrote on April 16. “The yellow, as you will see, is still too strong and the turquoise, which I am enclosing while not a bad color, is not a particularly pleasant color in the kitchen.”

From April 24: “You are quite right, I am not very keen on having enameled woodwork or any kind of paint in the kitchen. I would prefer the top cabinets to be made of a very light natural wood and if we use the gray linoleum on the counter, I think a yellow asphalt tile floor and yellow on the cabinets below the counter would look very lovely. …Then I thought that possibly whatever chairs we used at the dining counter might be upholstered in a bright Chinese red washable fabric. …The reason I am not anxious to follow your suggestion as to using maroon or Indian red in the kitchen floor and lower cabinets is because that is the color we have used in Bear Run and I must say I am rather sick of it and also I think that for the desert it is rather a hot color.”

But when it came to the landscaping, Liliane took charge. She sent Neutra gardening articles along with detailed thoughts about the plantings. Her selections leaned toward desert-appropriate succulents and natives such as palo verde, Joshua, pepper (“which I very much like because of its graceful feathery foliage and because of the fact that it looks very pretty in jars and vases”), and smoke trees blended with jacaranda, jasmine, and climbing roses. A variety of citrus trees, “convenient to have the fruit for one’s use,” were to be planted in the two lots the Kaufmanns had bought behind the house. “Now as to the planting: I had told the gardeners before I left to leave the ocotillos wherever you had originally placed them and to use some beavertail and prickly pear cactus with yuccas in place of the cholla and barrel and organ cactus [that] you had indicated in your sketch. This substitution is of course subject to any changes you wish to make; I only want to avoid the cacti, both because they are so unpleasant to come in contact with if one walks through and also because there are plenty of these to be seen in the desert all about us.

“As far as the vines are concerned, I would still like to retain the bignonia vine, which you, Mrs. Neutra, and I saw in several gardens the evening we went out together. I also saw before I left Palm Springs perfectly beautiful wisteria vines in blossom and I would like some of them because it is so difficult to grow up here. I have tried both in Pittsburgh and Bear Run without good results.”


Landscaping at the Kaufmann house. 

The Kaufmanns occupied the Palm Springs house for a couple of months each winter. The furnishings were fairly spartan — sofas, low tables, and built-in bookshelves designed by Neutra; some custom-woven rugs by Joseph Blumfield; some art; and some low-slung Van Keppel-Green lounge chairs. Dining chairs ordered from Charles and Ray Eames arrived late, with Charles Eames writing to Liliane that they had accepted the commission only because “we felt an obligation to you and your family for what you have done and made possible in the field of art and architecture.”

According to “Modern Gothic,” an intriguing Sept. 23, 2001, article about the Kaufmanns in The New York Times Magazine, Liliane had fallen in love with Fallingwater, but not with Neutra’s desert house: The Palm Springs home “seemed to leave Liliane cold, and by then her strained marriage was obvious to even the casual observer,” wrote author Kevin Gray. “Julius Shulman noticed immediately. ‘She seemed preoccupied and indifferent. Mr. Kaufmann was very excited about the house, but she didn’t seem to care. Mr. Kaufmann said to Mr. Neutra, ‘Don’t worry. She didn’t like the Fallingwater house at first either.’”


Shots of the home.

Trouble in paradise

The charismatic Edgar had always been a philanderer with a wandering eye. But the cracks in Liliane and Edgar’s marriage had become a chasm by 1950 as he spent more time in the desert and more time with Grace Stoops, his nurse/secretary since 1949, who assumed a more active role as hostess. While Liliane and Edgar made a few social appearances in the late 1940s, including throwing a dinner-dance for everyone involved in the construction of their house and attending a cocktail party at the newly finished home of their neighbors, Raymond and Viola Loewy, Edgar became a more visible presence, donating to various civic causes and sponsoring events, including the premiere of Disney’s 1953 film, The Living Desert. He and Grace became charter members of the Palm Springs Historical Society, and she attended the first meeting in October 1955 as one of the directors.

Between January and April 1951, after mollifying Frank Lloyd Wright, who was still nursing a bruised ego, Liliane asked him to draw up plans for her own desert house on a separate lot on Vista Chino. “The house for the queen is designed,” the architect wrote to Liliane on Jan. 15, 1951. “Boulder House it is. Feminine in essence; broad as the hills in feeling. I will get you out of the nasty nice cliché [the Neutra house] with a fine sweep.” But when he presented his sketches for the house, which included a water feature accessed from Liliane’s bedroom to appeal to her love of swimming, they were addressed to the couple. Wright saw Boulder House not only as an opportunity to one-up Neutra but also as a way to salvage the Kaufmann marriage. “Have the cure here for all your troubles,” he wrote to Edgar. To Liliane he wrote on Feb. 9: “I am sure you would all — mother, father, and son — be delighted and brought together by what I’ve done for you all on the drawing boards. It is not ordinary opus I have worked out, but a prescription for genuine Kaufmann unity and happiness — real relief. My heart goes out to you all with a great hope and meantime I am waiting for some favorable signs.”


The home from above.

The drawings made no difference. Liliane wired Wright a telegram: “Dear Frank. I have always considered you infallible. This time I think you are wrong. Nevertheless, many thanks for your letter, your interest, and your affections.” Liliane deeded her half of the desert house to Edgar as his separate property on Feb. 27, 1951, and she retreated back to Pittsburgh and went in search of her own country getaway. “I feel sure that by now you will have seen Edgar and will have gathered that the house in Palm Springs will in no sense have anything to do with me,” she wrote to Wright. “Edgar and I will never share a house. That also means that when he returns, I must leave Fallingwater — which is a great sorrow to me. Therefore, I have spent the last few weekends motoring about the countryside and I believe I have found a lovely spot in which to build a small house for myself.”


A Sad End

On a weekend stay at Fallingwater, Liliane downed some Seconal with alcohol and was found unconscious by Edgar, who drove her to Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh, where she died on Sept. 7, 1952, at the age of 63. Liliane “struggled with the womanizing her whole life but accepted it so long as it was casual. But the last girlfriend was not casual. He fell in love with her. And I think it broke her heart,” a longtime family friend shared in “Modern Gothic.”

Grace Stoops attended Liliane’s memorial service in Edgar’s apartment at the William Penn Hotel. A year after her death, the new Liliane S. Kaufmann School of Nursing at Montefiore Hospital was dedicated in her memory.

In another twist, longtime New Yorker writer Brendan Gill wrote a disparaging article about their son, Edgar Jr., in Architectural Digest after his death that included this startling statement: “In his history of the house, Edgar writes that ‘in 1952, beset by difficulties, my mother died at Fallingwater; this cast a long shadow over the place.’ Whatever his mother’s difficulties may have been, the fact is that she killed herself at Fallingwater, with a rifle shot, a few yards downstream from the house.” Edgar Jr. had once called Gill “the Louella Parsons of architecture” because Gill was known as a gossipy exaggerator of facts, and Gill’s claim was unsubstantiated by the coroner’s report and eyewitness accounts.

Edgar married 34-year-old Grace Arlene Stoops on Sept. 4, 1954, in his Pittsburgh apartment. The day before their wedding, he insisted that Grace sign a prenuptial agreement. She would give up her share of half of his estate (estimated at $10.5 million, which was held in the Edgar J. Kaufmann Charitable Trust) in return for the deed to the Palm Springs house and shares of May Co. stock that would guarantee her an annual stipend and provide a lifetime income.

Seven months after their marriage, on April 15, 1955, Edgar died at the Palm Springs house at the age of 69. When Grace contested the prenup in court after his death, she argued that her stipend didn’t cover the cost of maintaining the house and that she hadn’t known the full worth of the estate when she signed the agreement. Her friend and neighbor Anita Keller May testified on her behalf, but Grace lost the case in 1961 after she had returned to Pittsburgh, where she became wheelchair-bound with multiple sclerosis. Grace died on Jan. 25, 1962, at the age of 41 of acute carbon monoxide poisoning and severe burns after a heating pad in her chair caught fire. In March 1962, her two brothers filed for probate of her assets in Palm Springs. On May 28, 1963, Chauncey N. Stoops and Walton W. Stoops, acting as “executors of the will of Grace A. Kaufmann, Deceased,” sold 470 W. Vista Chino, which had sat empty and neglected, to Joseph and Nelda Linsk.

But perhaps Grace Arlene Stoops Kaufmann had the last laugh. A 1959 traveling exhibition and accompanying catalogue titled Form Givers at Mid-Century, organized by Time magazine in association with the American Federation of the Arts, celebrated AFA’s 50th anniversary and included the works of Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Richard Neutra, and other notable architects of the day. In the pages devoted to Neutra is Julius Shulman’s 1947 twilight photograph of the Kaufmann House with a reclining Liliane Kaufmann. The accompanying caption, complete with typo, reads: “Grace H. Kaufmann House, Palm Springs, Calif. (1946).”

Once again, Liliane Kaufmann was banished to the shadows.

Adele Cygelman will give a talk about Liliane and Grace Kaufmann on Feb. 24, during Modernism Week. Click here for tickets.


Liliane reclines like a Henry Moore sculpture to block the pool light in Julius Shulman’s photograph, but the credit went to Grace Kaufmann, Edgar’s second wife.