Inside an Herbalife heir’s fight for Beverly Hills’ billion-dollar mountain
above the lights of Los Angeles rises the Mountain, impervious to the powerful Hollywood actors and business tycoons who plot and scheme below. Many coveted its 157 acres, but the mountain remained out of reach. Sprawling over an area of more than 100 football pitches, this grassy, lush peak was the prize – once valued at $1 billion – for Middle Eastern royals, A-list stars and mega -bumps. Rihanna, Salma Hayek, James Cameron, Elon Musk and others have made pilgrimages to the mountains, for traveling Oscar parties and charity balls. Yet the only creatures to call the Mountain home are the deer that frolic nearby. At other locations known as Tower Grove or the Vineyard, Beverly Hills Mountain is arguably the city’s most spectacular undeveloped plot of land.
For the few who have owned it, the Mountain has been both a blessing and a curse. The last sister of the Shah of Iran once owned the Mountain. She planned to build a palace for her exiled brother until the Molotov cocktail-throwing Iranian students changed their minds. Next came Merv Griffin, who strove to outdo Aaron Spelling by building the largest mansion in the city during his heyday; then he got out of breath. In 1997, Griffin sold to Herbalife guru Mark Hughes for $8.5 million, setting a Southern California record at the time. Hughes planned to build his own dream house there, but his whole dream fell apart. Three years after Hughes purchased the land, he had died of an overdose of alcohol and antidepressants. A $400 million estate, including the mountain, went to his only son, Alex, then eight years old.
And a brutal war ensued, pitting Alex and his mother, Suzan Hughes, against the three estate trustees, whose role was to protect the estate’s assets until Alex was 35. But as Suzan showed up in court, the trustees had their own plans. “Instead of acting like administrators, they wanted to be Mark Hughes and develop the mountain themselves,” Suzan said. VF Launching numerous lawsuits, Suzan alleged that the group had made “arbitrary and capricious” decisions and were hostile to Alex. She also alleged that one of the directors had sexually harassed her and that she wanted them fired. The administrators denied his charges and Suzan lost. She presented herself as a David against their Goliaths in a pre-#MeToo world, a world that denied her claims as a mother protecting her child, while administrators retorted that she wanted to wrest control of the trust to his own advantage.
“The impression everyone had on the administrators’ side was that Suzan was pleading to take over the trust herself, because she was the mother of the only child and heir and therefore should be the administrator, even if it was Mark’s money and he had the right to choose who he wanted to manage it for Alex’s benefit, even though Mark didn’t have much knowledge of the people he was appointing and they eventually abused trust,” said a lawyer who previously worked for the administrators. VF “Never did I feel like they ran this area because they cared about Alex.”
The administrators consulted a psychiatrist and a rabbi about the potentially harmful impact of wealth on a child. As then-trustee attorney Edward A. Woods said in a 2005 interview with the Los Angeles time: “Does it need a chandelier or would it settle for something from IKEA?” Any child would be fine with Ikea, but Alex had been raised in mansions, with no budget in sight. In court documents, Suzan said Alex’s lifestyle during her father’s lifetime “included vacationing with Mark at his lavish beach house, cruising on Mark’s yacht, driving in the fleet of luxury of Mark and attendance at events of extraordinary prestige, lavishness and extravagance”. As Suzan saw, Mark had hired the administrators to maintain Alex’s lifestyle, not to degrade it. “These three guys are employees, sycophants and dictators,” Suzan told a reporter in 2003. “Suzan wants Alex to have the life his father intended for him,” his lawyer, the late Hillel Chodos, said in a separate interview. “They hate Suzan. She criticized them. They don’t like to be criticized.
As the court battles exploded, Alex was thrust into the unwanted spotlight, dubbed “America’s Richest Teenager”. At the heart of the pursuit was the Mountain, which Mark had wanted to keep for his son. The property was costing around $250,000 a year to maintain by 2020, but maintenance was never an issue. Trustees saw its potential as a development site. In 2004, the trustees sold the mountain in a cashless deal to Charles “Chip” Dickens, an Atlanta businessman, loaning Dickens the money to buy the mountain, and the mountain was lost. When Alex turned 18 in December 2009, he hired his own lawyers and launched his own lawsuit to have the directors removed. In 2013, he won, mainly because the directors had botched the sale of Mountain so badly. Judge Mitchell Beckloff ultimately ruled that the trustees had shown “a gross breach of trust” that “bordered on recklessness” and “caused significant damage to the trust”. The directors had loaned money to Dickens, an inexperienced and cashless man, then sat and did nothing as his company was in continual default, a court ruling has found. The trust is now managed by institutional trustees of Fiduciary International Trust of California. While Alex, now 30, declined to be interviewed, sources say he was fine with the actions taken by his mother. (“Their interests have always been aligned,” a legal source said.) “Alex has been through so much, he just wants to be out of the spotlight,” a source close to him said. “He’s just not ready to talk.” (Alex is an independent producer and founder of Spacemaker Productions who recently co-produced Armageddon Time, with Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong and Anthony Hopkins, who received a standing ovation at Cannes in May.) “My son’s privacy is extremely important,” says Suzan. “He didn’t ask for any of that.”
The golden hour has bloomed as we reached the top of the mountain. Ribbons of colored light and streaks of jets laced the sky, and a family of deer frolicked in the distance. My guide has expired. Less an aerobic lift, more a long sigh of relief.
“Being here is worth it,” said Suzan Hughes. The Mountain was Mark’s dream, not his. But she’s open to talking about her fight to keep him and her life with Hughes. “Have you seen The insidershe asks, referring to the 1999 film, starring Al Pacino, about a tobacco industry whistleblower (and coincidentally based on a 1996 vanity lounge article). “That’s kind of how I felt for 13 years. Opening up today is asking a lot of me. It brings me back there.
A drop of about 1,400 feet and beyond Los Angeles lies the Pacific. On July 4, Suzan says, you can see fireworks from five different enclaves, including Malibu, Marina del Rey, and Encino. “I wanted to take Alex here after his father died, to see the fireworks. But the trustees wouldn’t give us the key.