One-on-One with Robert Cohen – The King of Succulent

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A Golden Touch and a Green Thumb

The year was 1930. A family-owned flower shop with an attached house for the owners stood at Long Beach Boulevard and Vernon in Long Beach. Robert Cohen was the last of nine Cohen children and like all of his siblings, was raised working in the family business. It was there that his love of plants and flowers first took root. By the time little Robert was seven, he was selling gardenias with his father.

“When I was 11, I could do it myself. I sold a gardenia and a rose with a pretty ribbon, with foil on the stem and a pin for 75 cents. My favorite spot was the Plantation Club on 107th and Central Avenue.” Duke Ellington, Billy Holliday, and Ella Fitzgerald frequented the club and men would buy their ladies one of Robert’s gardenias.

At 15 years old, Robert would spend his Friday and Saturday nights selling his flowers in Hollywood. “That’s when Hollywood was really something,” Robert said. He recalls every detail. “I would take a street car and two buses. I had 12 flowers in a box and had three boxes tied together. I wouldn’t come home until I had sold them all.” He would sell his gardenias and roses at the legendary Flight Deck, Brown Derby and the Palladium.

So how did the little boy selling flowers become the Newport Beach man who in 1989 purchased one of Newport’s most famed residences on the bay – John Wayne’s former home, the man who in the same year christened the P’zazz, the largest yacht in Newport Bay, (until he sold it in 2009), and the man who built and owns the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills? Cohen, affectionately known as R.C., gained many things along his life’s journey.

Cohen has the golden touch, but those who know him well, understand it’s his green thumb that has earned him his proudest title to date (besides being a grandfather of 10). Garden photojournalist Debra Lee Baldwin, an expert on succulents, came to visit and after seeing his garden, gave Robert a copy of her book and signed it, “To R.C. The King of Succulents.”

The title is well deserved. The Cohen estate is literally dripping in succulents of all varieties and colors. Arranged like art – climbing up walls in distinctive patterns, outlining an enormous fountain, and exploding from pots around and beyond the 60-foot mosaic-bottomed solar-heated infinity pool.

To say he has a flair or talent would be a gross under-exaggeration. R.C.’s passion and skill merge to create, literally – a succulent wonderland. It is impossible to walk the grounds of his estate, without encountering a breathtaking arrangement that would beckon even the most jaded visitor.

Transforming the Duke’s property into R.C. and wife Beverly’s dream home has been a labor of love.

The original Bayshores home was built in 1950 and purchased by his third wife Pilar in 1951, three years before she married John Wayne, for $350,000. When John Wayne died, the couple who purchased the home eventually died and having no heirs, the bank took possession, opening it up for bids.

In 1989, the Cohens needed a place to dock their new yacht and after offering the highest bid; the house and the dock became theirs. When not cruising on The P’zazz to the South of France, Hawaii, the Canary Islands, Rock of Gibraltar, or Panama Canal, the house was completely torn down and rebuilt. The only thing they saved from John Wayne’s house was the big ficus tree on the driveway and some bricks which have been incorporated into the wine room.

The finished home is 13,000 square feet boasting seven bedrooms, 10 bathrooms, a billiards room, home movie theater, elevator, workout room, and of course, a nursery for the succulents and other plants. The nursery is where R.C. spends a great deal of time creating gorgeous arrangements and wreaths.

At 80, R.C. hasn’t run low on inspiration or skill. Daughter-in-law, Amy Cohen of Newport Beach said, “You will never see R.C. without pruning shears in his hand. (The succulents) are his babies.”

R.C. has never lost sight of the path he took which led to such great success. It was paved with elbow grease, the sweat of his brow and a passion. And, he admits, “I always thought I had a guardian angel on my shoulder my whole life.”

The journey began modestly. R.C. explains, “We didn’t have anything (in the beginning) but we had the will. The will to work hard.”

Ernie Cohen, his son, remembers the long hours his father worked, often leaving before dawn and arriving home after he and his sisters were asleep. Ernie looks back with fondness for the time spent with his father on Saturdays at the flower market. “I have great memories of being with him and pushing the big carts full of flowers.”

R.C. met his wife when they were both very young. They met just before he joined the Coast Guard and after serving three years, he returned home at 20 years old and married Beverly, who was only 16 years old.

“I asked Beverly’s mother for her blessing to marry her daughter and she said to me, “How are you going to support my daughter?” “My brother and I borrowed money from our father and opened our own flower shop.”

Both brothers eventually went out on their own, and R.C. soon owned three successful flower shops. During this time, he also started developing real estate and built several apartment buildings and commercial projects in the South Bay and out of state.

Then he had the opportunity to buy a piece of property – the entire block on Third and Doheny in Beverly Hills. “Three of us went in on it and built the Four Seasons at Beverly Hills.” It took 10 years to start the project and get the permits – it was almost a Marriott or a Meridian and eventually they decided it would be a Four Seasons.

Today, the the Four Seasons is referred to as “The hotel of celebrities.” R.C. still takes great pride in being in charge of all the landscaping at the hotel and regularly works alongside the crew of five to keep the grounds stunning and meticulous.

Perhaps one of the reasons R.C. has remained so down to earth despite his enormous financial success is because he has never stopped working with dirt, flowers and plants. Each day he walks into his nursery and is filled with inspiration to create something beautiful with his hands.

When asked if he ever imagined that the little boy selling flowers would one day … R.C. did not wait for the rest of the question and immediately answered, “Never. Never, never, never.” R.C.’s hard work and perseverance, coupled with his green thumb and his golden touch have brought him places that were impossible to even dream. The twinkle in his eye and the ease with which he laughs must have also had something to do with it. If there is truth to the Chinese proverb, “He who plants a garden plants happiness,” then R.C., “The King of Succulents” will continue to reap what he has sown.