Elon Musk Sells Gene Wilder’s Former Home Back To The Late Actor’s Family
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Elon Musk Sells Gene Wilder’s Former Home Back To The Late Actor’s Family

Mr. Musk sold it to the new owner, the famed actor’s nephew, with the stipulation that the property be preserved.

Thu, Feb 24, 2022 11:51amGrey Clock 5 min

Jordan Walker-Pearlman was heartbroken when he was told, erroneously, that the house where he grew up with his uncle, the late actor Gene Wilder, had been demolished.

He still had vivid memories—sometimes even dreams—of Mr. Wilder’s morning swims in the kidney-shaped pool, the Sunday after-tennis hangouts with the likes of Mel Brooks and Sidney Poitier, raucous dinner parties, and listening to Mr. Wilder read scripts and play piano while he nursed a Lillet cassis cocktail.

The low-slung, white-shingled house, in the Bel-Air neighbourhood of Los Angeles, was also where actress, comedian and “Saturday Night Live” cast member Gilda Radner died from ovarian cancer in 1989. Mr. Walker-Pearlman considered her a second mother after she married Mr. Wilder in 1984.

“I mourned the house,” says Mr. Walker-Pearlman, a 53-year-old film director and writer, who directed the 2000 film “The Visit” and whose wild hair and prominent, expressive eyes are similar to those of his late uncle, known for his work in “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” and “Blazing Saddles.” From an early age, Mr. Walker-Pearlman split his time between living with Mr. Wilder, and living with his grandmother in Harlem. His biological parents, he says, were “a little crazy and not enthusiastic about the responsibilities of child rearing.”

Then one day, when he was in the neighbourhood, Mr. Walker-Pearlman drove by to show his wife, screenwriter Elizabeth Hunter, where the house had been. He was shocked to find it still standing. Owned by tech billionaire Elon Musk, there was a large party under way, but the security guard opened the gate so they could peek in.

About a year later, a friend sent him a screenshot of Mr. Musk’s now-famous May 1, 2020, texts:

“I am selling almost all physical possessions. Will own no house” and “Just one stipulation on sale: I own Gene Wilder’s old house: It cannot be torn down or lose any of its soul.”

A US$9.5 million listing appeared on forsalebyowner.com, advertised as the “former home of Gene Wilder/Willy Wonka,” “upgraded with modern amenities, but preserved original charming and quirky vibe.” The listing stipulated that the home was being sold with the condition that it must be preserved.

Mr. Walker-Pearlman said he reached out to Mr. Musk’s team immediately. He knew he couldn’t afford that price, but the tweet gave him optimism they might reach a deal. “The only person who could possibly want it not to be torn down as much as him was me,” he says. Mr. Musk didn’t respond to a request for comment.

After four months of negotiations, Mr. Walker-Pearlman says Mr. Musk agreed to sell the house to him and Ms. Hunter for US$7 million along with what’s called a “long form deed of trust and assignment of rents,” in which Mr. Musk agreed to lend the couple $6.7 million, according to public documents.

“He could have sold it for so much more,” says Mr. Walker-Pearlman. “His sensitivity to me can’t be overstated.”

The sale closed in October 2020. The timing for Mr. Walker-Pearlman was exquisite, because it allowed him to use the house as the set for his upcoming film “The Requiem Boogie,” produced by his production company, Harlem, Hollywood. The somewhat autobiographical plot follows a middle-aged former child actor, played by Mr. Walker-Pearlman, who is mourning the loss of his movie-star father. It is a spiritual, quasi-comedy about dealing with Mr. Wilder’s death and the nature of show business, says Mr. Walker-Pearlman.

Living in the house again has been both wonderful and spooky, says Mr. Walker-Pearlman. He feels the ghosts of the people who made it come alive. When he walks into a certain room, a memory will pop up and he will get teleported back, he says. At times he even feels like messages from beyond are being sent, such as when the crew was filming in what was Ms. Radner’s dressing room and suddenly the water in the shower and sink came on.

When he and Ms. Hunter were signing the papers for the loan from Mr. Musk, a buck they had never seen before appeared from the hedges and stood in the window, staring at them, hanging around for nine hours that day; they haven’t seen it since. The couple’s 3-year-old nephew, Hunter, has told him there are ghosts in the house, he says.

The house came with many of Mr. Musk’s furnishings, including a purple sofa, a drawing of a clown, a large chess set and a swing encased in a giant metal birdcage in the backyard, which Mr. Walker-Pearlman says was a party gift to Mr. Musk.

Mr. Walker-Pearlman says he believes Mr. Musk originally bought the property to protect the distant views of Los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean from his primary house across the street, which Mr. Musk sold for $29.72 million to Chinese billionaire William Ding in June 2020, according to public records. He says he believes Mr. Musk used the garage as a school for his children at one point and the main house to hold parties. Mr. Musk didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Some things have changed since Mr. Wilder owned it: There used to be white shag carpet in the living room (a recommendation to his uncle from the late actor Burt Reynolds, says Mr. Walker-Pearlman); the main bathroom had a bath. Mr. Wilder’s much-used piano and a dart board are gone. The ceiling is now painted with black and white stripes and trees no longer block the view of the Bel-Air Country Club’s golf course below.

But much is the same. Mr. Walker-Pearlman still uses the indoor grill in the dining room where he says Mr. Wilder loved to cook chicken three times a week. He sits at the small kitchen desk, where he says Mr. Wilder would eat his morning bran muffins and drink Earl Grey tea. And he swims in the same pool where Mr. Wilder would do morning laps and where he taught Mr. Walker-Pearlman how to swim. Almost every wall and shelf contains memorabilia, including photographs of Mr. Wilder playing tennis, dressed as Willy Wonka.

Mr. Wilder, who was born Jerome Silberman, bought the 2,800-square-foot, five-bedroom, five-bathroom house in Bel-Air for around $300,000 in 1976, buoyed by the success of the 1974 film “Young Frankenstein,” in which he starred.

Mr. Walker-Pearlman had been living part time in Harlem with his grandmother, and part time with Mr. Wilder, who was his mother’s brother. He soon started spending all summer and time during a few other months in Los Angeles.

In L.A., Mr. Wilder gave him an education rich in the history of film, moviemaking and acting. He says he learned to process the world in terms of film, being hyper-aware of lighting and constantly wanting to change people’s dialogue. He started acting as a child and made and starred in his own film for Nickelodeon as a teenager. He also learned a lot about French red wines and the importance of romance, he says. “I didn’t leave his side.”

Ms. Radner urged Mr. Walker-Pearlman to try college, so he attended George Washington University and Howard University for stints. But she was also upset when he said he didn’t want to pursue an acting career. He says she told him “this house is for crazy people. You have to become one of us.”

The result was a mixed relationship with film. He says he learned to hate what he sees as the commodification and narcissism of the film industry, but he loved being in the editing suites and on set, especially during the filming of “Hanky Panky” in 1981, directed by Mr. Poitier, when Mr. Wilder and Ms. Radner met as co-stars.

In 1991, two years after Ms. Radner died, Mr. Wilder married his fourth wife, the former Karen Boyer. They eventually moved permanently to Ms. Radner’s former farmhouse in Stamford, Conn., where Mr. Wilder had been living much of the time after Ms. Radner’s death. He sold the Bel-Air house in 2007 for $2.7 million to Bristol Capital LLC. Mr. Musk bought it in 2013 for $6.75 million, according to PropertyShark.

Mr. Walker-Pearlman says he’s still mourning his uncle, who died in 2016 at age 83, and Ms. Radner. Living and filming in the house has triggered a range of emotions. “It’s the closest you can get to going back to the past,” he says. He worries that his wife pays a toll for that.

But Ms. Hunter says she’s thrilled to get the chance to live in such a beautiful house in a neighbourhood she never thought she would be able to afford. “It’s magic,” she says.


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China’s EV Juggernaut Is a Warning for the West

Competitive pressure and creativity have made Chinese-designed and -built electric cars formidable competitors

Thu, Jun 8, 2023 4 min

China rocked the auto world twice this year. First, its electric vehicles stunned Western rivals at the Shanghai auto show with their quality, features and price. Then came reports that in the first quarter of 2023 it dethroned Japan as the world’s largest auto exporter.

How is China in contention to lead the world’s most lucrative and prestigious consumer goods market, one long dominated by American, European, Japanese and South Korean nameplates? The answer is a unique combination of industrial policy, protectionism and homegrown competitive dynamism. Western policy makers and business leaders are better prepared for the first two than the third.

Start with industrial policy—the use of government resources to help favoured sectors. China has practiced industrial policy for decades. While it’s finding increased favour even in the U.S., the concept remains controversial. Governments have a poor record of identifying winning technologies and often end up subsidising inferior and wasteful capacity, including in China.

But in the case of EVs, Chinese industrial policy had a couple of things going for it. First, governments around the world saw climate change as an enduring threat that would require decade-long interventions to transition away from fossil fuels. China bet correctly that in transportation, the transition would favour electric vehicles.

In 2009, China started handing out generous subsidies to buyers of EVs. Public procurement of taxis and buses was targeted to electric vehicles, rechargers were subsidised, and provincial governments stumped up capital for lithium mining and refining for EV batteries. In 2020 NIO, at the time an aspiring challenger to Tesla, avoided bankruptcy thanks to a government-led bailout.

While industrial policy guaranteed a demand for EVs, protectionism ensured those EVs would be made in China, by Chinese companies. To qualify for subsidies, cars had to be domestically made, although foreign brands did qualify. They also had to have batteries made by Chinese companies, giving Chinese national champions like Contemporary Amperex Technology and BYD an advantage over then-market leaders from Japan and South Korea.

To sell in China, foreign automakers had to abide by conditions intended to upgrade the local industry’s skills. State-owned Guangzhou Automobile Group developed the manufacturing know-how necessary to become a player in EVs thanks to joint ventures with Toyota and Honda, said Gregor Sebastian, an analyst at Germany’s Mercator Institute for China Studies.

Despite all that government support, sales of EVs remained weak until 2019, when China let Tesla open a wholly owned factory in Shanghai. “It took this catalyst…to boost interest and increase the level of competitiveness of the local Chinese makers,” said Tu Le, managing director of Sino Auto Insights, a research service specialising in the Chinese auto industry.

Back in 2011 Pony Ma, the founder of Tencent, explained what set Chinese capitalism apart from its American counterpart. “In America, when you bring an idea to market you usually have several months before competition pops up, allowing you to capture significant market share,” he said, according to Fast Company, a technology magazine. “In China, you can have hundreds of competitors within the first hours of going live. Ideas are not important in China—execution is.”

Thanks to that competition and focus on execution, the EV industry went from a niche industrial-policy project to a sprawling ecosystem of predominantly private companies. Much of this happened below the Western radar while China was cut off from the world because of Covid-19 restrictions.

When Western auto executives flew in for April’s Shanghai auto show, “they saw a sea of green plates, a sea of Chinese brands,” said Le, referring to the green license plates assigned to clean-energy vehicles in China. “They hear the sounds of the door closing, sit inside and look at the quality of the materials, the fabric or the plastic on the console, that’s the other holy s— moment—they’ve caught up to us.”

Manufacturers of gasoline cars are product-oriented, whereas EV manufacturers, like tech companies, are user-oriented, Le said. Chinese EVs feature at least two, often three, display screens, one suitable for watching movies from the back seat, multiple lidars (laser-based sensors) for driver assistance, and even a microphone for karaoke (quickly copied by Tesla). Meanwhile, Chinese suppliers such as CATL have gone from laggard to leader.

Chinese dominance of EVs isn’t preordained. The low barriers to entry exploited by Chinese brands also open the door to future non-Chinese competitors. Nor does China’s success in EVs necessarily translate to other sectors where industrial policy matters less and creativity, privacy and deeply woven technological capability—such as software, cloud computing and semiconductors—matter more.

Still, the threat to Western auto market share posed by Chinese EVs is one for which Western policy makers have no obvious answer. “You can shut off your own market and to a certain extent that will shield production for your domestic needs,” said Sebastian. “The question really is, what are you going to do for the global south, countries that are still very happily trading with China?”

Western companies themselves are likely to respond by deepening their presence in China—not to sell cars, but for proximity to the most sophisticated customers and suppliers. Jörg Wuttke, the past president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, calls China a “fitness centre.” Even as conditions there become steadily more difficult, Western multinationals “have to be there. It keeps you fit.”


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