There are countless Alfred Hitchcock biographies, and many of them mention that he had an estate in the Santa Cruz area. But they never seem very interested in why he chose Scotts Valley as his home away from home—which is curious, since a sense of place was extremely important to the legendary director. He rose up through the ranks of a very regimented film industry in his native Britain, and was stung by accusations that he’d forgotten his roots after moving to the U.S. He found his lifelong love of “pure cinema” working in Germany early in his career, observing experimental film geniuses like F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang. And he worked hard to fit into Hollywood, hosting dinner parties and becoming close friends with the likes of Clark Gable, Carole Lombard and Cary Grant, among others.
The details of how Hitchcock and his wife Alma Reville came to adopt Scotts Valley as their second home are well documented. In 1940, they purchased the 200-acre “Heart o’ the Mountains” estate there for $40,000, building onto the ranch house on the property. They had recently moved to Hollywood from Britain after Hitchcock signed a seven-year contract with producer David O. Selznick.
His first film for Selznick was to be Rebecca, an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s creepy thriller. Some of the location shooting was done at Point Lobos, which gave him his first taste of the Northern California landscape that he would go on to use in several films. One of the stars of Rebecca was Joan Fontaine, who was from Los Gatos, and when he expressed interest in buying land in the area, she is said to be the one who pointed him to Santa Cruz County (Highway 17, it should be noted, had just been finished that year, making it easy to travel from her hometown to the coast).
But even if we know how the Hitchcocks got to Scotts Valley, there’s still the question, as in any of the legendary director’s mysteries, of motive. What would make the couple, who had lived in a flat in London for the previous 13 years of their marriage, and spent most of their California time in Bel Air, choose what 80 years ago was a very rural community, to say the least? Why was Hitchcock—even by this time the epitome of a cosmopolitan director of blockbuster films—suddenly interested in a life of growing grapes and keeping horses in the mountains?
Adam Roche, who wrote and produced the exhaustively researched, 30-hour podcast The Adventures of Alfred Hitchcock, has a theory about this, and it stretches back nearly a century, to when Hitchcock and Reville first visited the mountain resort town of St. Moritz in Switzerland in 1924. Two years later, on Dec. 2, 1926, they married, and returned there for their honeymoon.
“They spent every anniversary in St. Moritz after doing some filming location work there, and they set The Man Who Knew Too Much—the original one—there. And they fell in love with the mountains, I think. So every year, they would go back there for their anniversary.”
While the snowy winters of St. Moritz and the semi-permanent sun of Scotts Valley are opposites in many ways, Roche can imagine the similarities that drew in Hitchcock.
“I think he was just attracted to that kind of rugged piece of the world,” he says. “And I think he did like the fact that he could go and escape and be away from the chaos of a city. And having seen his home now in Scotts Valley, you can really see it. He just liked to garden, he liked to walk out and have a coffee on the terrace in the mornings. It was very remote, but for him to have a home in one of those locations, and then always make a yearly pilgrimage to another one of those locations, I think that must have spoken to him.”
Roche, a Brit himself, released the Adventures of Alfred Hitchcock podcast as part of his ongoing series The Secret History of Hollywood, which has also explored Universal’s classic monster films (A Universe of Horrors), gangster films (Bullets and Blood), and several other corners of moviemaking history. An independent podcaster who has built a bit of a mini-empire with a huge Patreon following—“someone said to me the other day, ‘It’s almost like the MCU of Old Hollywood,’” he says—Roche formerly worked as a driver and chef before he turned his love of old-time radio shows and films into a weekly podcast called Attaboy Clarence.
These short stories, though, were nothing compared to the complexity of his Secret History series, and his original documentary-like writing has evolved over the last decade into an engaging and literary narrative style that combines thorough research with real character development and dramatically recreated scenes from the lives of his subjects. That storytelling flair has become his signature, and recently New Republic Pictures optioned the film and television rights to his entire series. The first project to come out of the deal will be a feature film based on the life of 1940s RKO producer Val Lewton—responsible for such atmospheric horror classics as Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie and The Body Snatcher—which Roche documented over 32 hours of his Secret History series Shadows. The idea for that series was suggested to him by Mark Gatiss, who wrote for Doctor Who before co-creating the Benedict Cumberbatch series Sherlock. Roche was frustrated with the lack of information about Lewton, until a woman working for the Library of Congress contacted him out of the blue on social media.
“She said, ‘I heard you’re doing a series about Val Lewton. We have cartons and cartons of his correspondence, his diaries, stuff that’s never been seen, not even by people who’ve written about him before. Would you like it for this show?’ And I was like, ‘Yes!’” he remembers. “So she went and scanned just hundreds and hundreds of sonnets he wrote to his wife, poetry, full diary entries for a whole year, scrapbooks he had. All of the eulogies read at his funeral. I mean, the stuff that was in those cartons—basically his soul was in there, and no one had seen it before.”
Capitola’s ‘The Birds’
Roche is currently in the midst of a Secret History series on Cary Grant, called Cary, and he continues to present his weekly virtual film club (drawn from an extensive classic-movie library) for his Patreon members. And he recently returned to Hitchcock, as well; he’s featured (along with directors like John Landis, Edgar Wright and Eli Roth) in the newly released documentary I Am Alfred Hitchcock.
When he started his Hitchcock series, he explains, he knew very little about the director, but was a big fan of his films. And the first one he ever saw was a late-night TV showing of The Birds—a movie which also has a connection to the Santa Cruz area.
Though that film is, like Rebecca, based on a story by Daphne du Maurier, those who go back and read the source material might feel a bit confused.
“It is nothing like the film at all,” says Roche. “It’s just about a man in a house, and suddenly birds start attacking.”
The missing piece, so the legend goes, is a news item Hitchcock saw about a bizarre incident on Aug. 18, 1961, when thousands of birds infected with the neurotoxin domoic acid went crazy in Capitola. They hurdled into buildings and cars, and even attacked people. What killed them was a mystery until many years later, giving the story an especially sinister edge at the time.
Since Hitchcock was already working on The Birds, which was released in 1963, no one really knows how much he was influenced by coverage of the incident in his depiction of the harrowing attacks in the film. But we do know that Hitchcock read about it—he even called into the Santa Cruz Sentinel to inquire further—and Roche calls it “serendipity” that the director had something on which to model his vision for a grittier, modernized update of the original story.
Interestingly, the biggest surprise for Roche in doing the Hitchcock series wasn’t about the man himself, but his wife.
“Alma’s story, for me, was the real revelation. Alma Reville is such an unsung hero—she had far more of an influence over the way the films came out than people give her credit for,” he says. “I’m so glad when people get to the end of that thing and they go, ‘God, Alma Reville, wasn’t she marvelous?’ Whenever I get an email like that, I’m like, ‘I’ve succeeded.’”
Find Adam Roche online at attaboyclarence.com. Armitage Wines goes a “Tiny Winery Concerts” series on the former Hitchcock property, go to armitagewines.com.