Inside an Herbalife Heir’s Fight for the Billion-Dollar Mountain of Beverly Hills

High above the lights of Los Angeles stands the Mountain, impervious to the Hollywood power players and business tycoons plotting and scheming below. Many have coveted its 157 acres, but the Mountain has remained tantalizingly out of reach. Spanning a surface area bigger than 100 football fields, this grassy, lush mountaintop has been the prize—once valued at $1 billion—of Middle Eastern royals, A-list stars, and mega-moguls. Rihanna, Salma Hayek, James Cameron, Elon Musk, and others have made pilgrimages to the Mountain, for roving Oscar parties and charity balls. Yet the only creatures to make the Mountain their home are the deer that frolic nearby. At other points known as Tower Grove or the Vineyard, the Mountain of Beverly Hills is arguably the city’s most spectacular undeveloped parcel of land.

For the rare few who have owned it, the Mountain has been both a blessing and a curse. The last Shah of Iran’s sister once owned the Mountain. She planned to build her brother a palace in exile until Molotov-cocktail-hurling Iranian students changed her mind. Next came Merv Griffin, who set out to best Aaron Spelling by building the city’s biggest mansion at its peak; then he ran out of steam. 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 unraveled. Three years after Hughes bought the plot, he was dead from an alcohol- and antidepressant-fueled overdose. A reportedly $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 estate’s three trustees, whose role was to protect the estate’s assets until Alex turned 35. But as Suzan levied in court, the trustees had plans of their own. “Instead of acting like trustees, they wanted to be Mark Hughes and develop the Mountain themselves,” Suzan told V.F. Launching numerous lawsuits, Suzan alleged that the group made “arbitrary and capricious” decisions and were hostile to Alex. She also alleged that one of the trustees sexually harassed her, and she wanted them removed. The trustees denied her accusations, and Suzan lost. She cast herself as a David against their Goliaths in a pre-#MeToo world, one that negated her claims as a mother protecting her child, while the trustees retorted that she wanted to wrest control of the trust for her own benefit.

“The impression that everyone had on the trustees’ side was that Suzan was litigating to take over the trust herself, because she was the mother of the only child and heir and therefore she should be the trustee, even though it was Mark’s money and he was entitled to choose who he wanted to manage it for Alex’s benefit—even if Mark did not have great insight into the people he was naming and they ultimately abused the trust,” an attorney who once worked for the trustees told V.F. “Never did I have the impression that they were managing this estate because they cared about Alex.”

The trustees consulted a psychiatrist and a rabbi about the potentially harmful impact of wealth on a child. As the trustees’ then lawyer, Edward A. Woods, said in a 2005 interview with the Los Angeles Times: “Does he need a chandelier or would he be content with something from IKEA?” Any kid would be fine with Ikea, but Alex had been raised in mansions, with nary a budget fixture in sight. In court papers, Suzan said Alex’s lifestyle when his father was alive “included vacationing with Mark at his lavish beach home, cruising on Mark’s yacht, driving in Mark’s fleet of luxury cars and attending events of extraordinary prestige, lavishness and extravagance.” As Suzan saw it, Mark had hired the trustees to maintain Alex’s lifestyle, not downgrade it. “These three guys are employees, sycophants and dictators,” Suzan said to a reporter in 2003. “Suzan wants Alex to have the life his father intended for him,” her lawyer, the late Hillel Chodos, said in a separate interview. “They loathe Suzan. She has criticized them. They don’t like to be criticized.”

As the court fights exploded, Alex was thrust into an unwanted spotlight, dubbed “America’s richest teenager.” At the heart of the lawsuits was the Mountain, which Mark had wanted preserved for his son. The property cost around $250,000 a year to maintain by 2020, but maintenance was never a question. The trustees saw its potential as a development site. In 2004, the trustees sold the Mountain in a no-cash deal to Charles “Chip” Dickens, an Atlanta businessman, lending 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 trustees removed. In 2013, he won, mainly because the trustees had botched the Mountain sale so badly. Judge Mitchell Beckloff ultimately ruled the trustees showed “a gross breach of trust” that “borders on recklessness” and “resulted in significant damage to the trust.” The trustees had lent money to Dickens, a man with no experience and no money, then sat back and did nothing as his company continually defaulted, according to a court ruling. The trust is now run by institutional trustees at Fiduciary International Trust of California. While Alex, now 30, declined to be interviewed, sources say he agreed with the actions his mother took. (“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 is just not ready to talk.” (Alex is an independent producer and founder of Spacemaker Productions who recently coproduced Armageddon Time, starring Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong, and Anthony Hopkins, which received a standing ovation at Cannes in May.) “My son’s privacy is über-important,” says Suzan. “He didn’t ask for any of this.”

Golden hour bloomed as we reached the Mountain’s top. Ribbons of colored light and jet contrails laced the sky, and a family of deer romped in the distance. My guide exhaled. Less an aerobic heave, more a long sigh of relief.

“Standing here makes it all worth it,” said Suzan Hughes. The Mountain was Mark’s dream, not hers. But she’s ready to talk about her fight to keep it, and her life with Hughes. “Did you see The Insider?” she asks, referring to the 1999 film, starring Al Pacino, about a tobacco-industry whistleblower (and coincidentally based on a 1996 Vanity Fair article). “That’s kind of how I felt for 13 years. Opening up today takes a lot out of me. It takes me back there.”

A drop of around 1,400 feet and out beyond L.A. lies the Pacific. On the Fourth of July, Suzan says, you can see the fireworks displays of 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.”

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