The Academy Award-winning star of Affliction and his wife, Paula, filled their Beverly Hills house with furnishings reflecting their love of Eastern cultures
Posted September 9, 2016
This article originally appeared in the April 2000 issue of Architectural Digest
He arrived in California in the backseat of a Model A Ford piled high with his family’s belongings. It was 1932, the worst year of the Great Depression, and the Coburns had just driven all the way from dusty Nebraska looking for luck.
Even as a kid, James Coburn was an actor who projected an engaging air of menace: His first role was as King Herod in the school Christmas pageant. Over the years he studied with Stella Adler and Jeff Corey, did advertising gigs and played dozens of supporting roles, working with everyone from Audrey Hepburn and Steve McQueen to Sam Peckinpah and Bruce Lee. The Magnificent Seven (1960) made him a famous cowboy; he was an American-style James Bond in Our Man Flint (1965). Last year, at seventy, Coburn finally found his luck, winning an Oscar for his savage, haunting portrayal of an abusive father in Affliction. A Jaguar and a Mercedes have replaced the family Model A in his gated driveway, and from the gardens of his Beverly Hills hacienda he looks down on the lights of Sunset Boulevard and the Pacific beyond. He’s a man at the top of the world, and now he has a house to match.
“This is a house for a movie star,” his wife, Paula, says of the baronial five stories, built into a steep hill and arranged around a wrought iron-balustraded stairwell. “It’s magic here.” At the heart of the house is the Coburns’ paneled library; the Oscar sits on a reproduction lotus table in front of brocade draperies that frame the terraced gardens. “It’s a rush,” James Coburn says of the feeling he had when his name was announced. “You don’t believe it, and then you’re on the stage.” One of the best things about winning, he says, was taking Paula to the Academy Awards ceremony. She had always wanted to go.
Coburn constructed Affliction’s Pop Whitehouse from bits and pieces of his own experience, as well as from the Paul Schrader script and the novel by Russell Banks. He also drew on his memories of working with Sam Peckinpah on Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. He cut his white hair and wore padding for the part. Schrader asked him to speak through his nose, a shift that changed Coburn’s sexy growl to a threatening adenoidal whine. “When you’re acting,” Coburn explains, leaning back in one of the oversize leather chairs in the library, “everything you’ve done becomes worthwhile.”
“This is a man’s smoking room, the kind of room where you would retreat for an intimate chat with friends, or end up having an after-dinner liqueur,” says designer Craig Wright, who consulted with the Coburns on decorating. The leather chairs swivel to face a movie screen hidden in the paneling and are opposite a long chenille-covered sofa with throw pillows. “I like to sit up straight; Jim likes to slouch,” says Paula Coburn. “We wanted everyone to be comfortable.”
An antique Chinese cane bed used as a table holds candelabra made from Japanese altar sticks, an inlaid tortoiseshell Portuguese box and two bronze disciples of Buddha—part of the actor’s collection of Buddhist art. A calligraphic blessing from a Tibetan monk hangs on the wall. “I’ve always been interested in the esoteric side of religion,” says James Coburn, who has been acquiring Oriental art for thirty years. “All that stuff works for me. There are levels of understanding. It doesn’t all come in one flash of enlightenment.”
The piano lounge is often used for dancing. Scalamandré cut velvet and Christopher Hyland damask cover the armchairs next to the fireplace.
“The house is a stage set,” says Wright. “It’s about their friends and the things they’ve found on their travels. It’s the theater of their life.”
The first act at the Coburns’ is always a fabulous party. It might be a small dinner, or an afternoon tea dance where women wearing chiffon dresses drink cosmopolitans, or a Latin late-night gathering featuring the Gipsy Kings and dry martinis. Prompted by a Tibetan gong, guests proceed up the grand staircase to the piano lounge, a ballroom in the sky. There, draperies of Fortuny fabric, with undercurtains made of gold lamé, frame the sea of lights below, and a velvet banquette borders a parquetry dance floor punctuated by a gilt palm-frond table, a Chinese stenciled table and two carved wood elephants. “At most parties people stand around and talk and try to impress someone else with how important they are,” James Coburn says. “Here we get them dancing.”
Dinner is served in a balcony-like space overlooking the dance floor. A Fortuny chandelier casts its glow on velvet tiger-pattern-upholstered chairs. An incense burner from a trip to Jaipur sits on the table; next to it crouch two Japanese temple foxes. Fighteenth-century Burmese monks watch from columns that separate the ballroom from the dining room. The Coburns met at a dance in February 1990. He had been divorced for a decade and had recently overcome the rheumatoid arthritis that had kept him from working for years. The dance was a lambada contest, and as James Coburn remembers, “she was the only one who knew how to do it!”
After the 1994 earthquake demolished their house, they took a few months to travel around the world. In Paris they browsed in the flea markets. In Venice they bought Fortuny fabric and the chandelier in the piano lounge. “I love to travel and see new things and new people,” says James Coburn. “We travel so much that we develop a feel for what we like and don’t like,” says his wife.
Back home they moved into the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and began shopping for a house, with side trips to India, Turkey, Morocco, Italy and France. “The house is built on solid ground. After the earthquake, that was a priority,” says Paula Coburn. They moved into the house as it was. “We played around and found out what we liked,” she continues. A year later they called Craig Wright. “They didn’t want anything to be too serious,” the designer says. “They wanted the house to be an expression of their fantasies.”
Their fantasies sometimes collide. “I like subtlety,” says James Coburn. “She likes Wham! Bang! I keep saying, ‘Too much, too much.‘ She keeps saying, ‘Not enough, not enough.’ We’re yin and yang.” Paula Coburn’s style—her husband calls it “bravura”—is reminiscent of that of the late Tony Duquette, a friend of the couple’s who had designed a previous house for James Coburn.
The room that best expresses Paula Coburn’s sumptuous eclecticism is the downstairs bedroom: an Ali Baba’s cave of treasures, from the ornate Chinese wedding bed piled with Indian silk pillows to the Moroccan canteens once carried by camels. “It’s our souk,” says James Coburn. The walls are hung with saris from Jaipur and Agra. A nineteenth-century Tibetan rug supports a Thai brazier filled with silk pillows, two carved nineteenth-century Portuguese colonial chairs and a Chinese box used for storing rice. Against a wall, a carved wood cloister hung with gongs frames an Indian inlaid chest. Two Indian candlesticks flank a Chinese stucco female head.
“Through this art I began to want to know what this was all about,” James Coburn says. “The world is ruled by negative emotion, and we have to guard against that. It’s about constantly being in the present moment. Life is the teacher.”