Comic Jay Leno Opens Up About Buying A $13.5 Million Newport Mansion And Returning To Primetime
It’s common knowledge in real estate circles that Jay Leno and his wife of 40 years, Mavis, bought a Newport, R.I., mansion for $13.5 million in 2017. But the story of how the former “Tonight Show” host found Seafair, a 15,861-square-foot Louis XIV inspired chateau, is less known.
Seafair was designed and built by British architect William Mackenzie Jr. for Vernor Zevola Reed Jr., a banker and heir to a mining fortune.
The estate sits on 9 acres and features a slate roof and rubble-stone construction. The home boasts an inimitable crescent-shape design that follows the curve of the land and allows for expansive views of the Atlantic. The gated compound has a tennis court, an infinity pool, a carriage cottage, a six-car garage and private beaches.
The 15,851 main home has 12 bedrooms and 13 bathrooms and features a paneled library, a formal dining room and a chef’s kitchen.
In the years before and after Jay Leno ended his NBC “Tonight Show” run in 2014, the comic icon has bought a lot of stuff. Leno’s famed Burbank garage is home to 199 cars, 68 motorcycles and a small team of dedicated mechanics. The admitted gearhead drives every vehicle and is often seen taking a Duesenberg or his McLaren F1 for a spin. So it would be appropriate that Leno, who moved to Los Angeles from Andover, Mass., to pursue show business in the 1970s, would discover the Newport mansion while enjoying a scenic drive along Ocean Avenue.
During a moment away from shooting his sixth season of CNBC’s automotive show “Jay Leno’s Garage,” Leno spoke to Forbes about finding Seafair, owning a historic home and the secret to never having buyer’s remorse.
Michelle Hofmann: How did you come across Seafair? Were you looking for a second home?
Jay Leno: No, I wasn’t planning on moving back east. I was with my wife, visiting family in Newport in October 2017. We were driving around Ocean Avenue, which is kind of like 17-Mile Drive, a scenic road through Pebble Beach and Pacific Grove in California. Ocean Avenue is a fancy place. I had my cousin with me and we were driving along and Mavis said, ‘Look at that house. Look at that house. It is unbelievable.’ And I said, ‘You’re right. It is unbelievable. It looks like a castle.’ So, I said to Mavis, ‘Do you want that house? Let’s see if it’s for sale.’
I turned the car around to go back to the house. Just as we drove by, the gate opened and the gardener came out. We all looked at each other and said, ‘The gate is opening. It’s a sign.’ So, I drove in and rang the bell. The caretaker answered and said, ‘You’re Jay Leno. Jay Leno!’ Then I said, ‘Hey, it’s nice to meet you. Is this house for sale?’ And the caretaker said the house was for sale but not listed currently. I asked if we could look around, and the guy gives me a tour. Then, I asked him to get the owner on the phone. So, we get the owner on the phone, and I said, ‘Will you sell the house as-is, with everything, all the furniture, the ketchup in the refrigerator, the salt shakers and just walk away?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I’ll walk away.’ We agreed on a price, and I bought it. We closed in 30 days.
Hofmann: The house had been listed for $19 million not long before you bought it, so it looks like you made a smart business move.
Leno: I have no idea if this was a smart business move. I bought Seafair because I liked it. The thing about me is I don’t buy things for investment. I buy things because I like them, and if they go down in value, I still like them. If they go up in value, that’s fine, but I don’t want a sell them, so it makes absolutely no difference to me whether the price goes up or down.
Obviously, I like it when things go up in value. I bought my McLaren F1 in 1998 for $800,000; the last offer I got was $17.5 million. And one just sold for $20 million. I have cars that I bought that are not as valuable, but I don’t like them any less than the McLaren. Some go up, and some come down. But if you always buy what you like, you’ll always be happy because you did it for the right reasons.
Hofmann: How does Seafair compare with properties in Beverly Hills?
Leno: For the price of a condo on Wilshire Boulevard, I got a castle in Rhode Island on the ocean. There is no equivalent in California to that house for less than $100 million. I’ve got neighbors in Beverly Hills with homes down the street from me that cost $168 million, and there is not even any water. You’re right in the middle of Beverly Hills, but there is no view and the same amount of land, 9 acres.
Seafair is completely furnished. I wouldn’t have bought something where I had the look of swatches of fabric and hold them up to the wall and say, ‘No, not that one. Let me see another one.’ I didn’t want to do that. I like that this house was beautifully furnished with the best of everything, and everything was included in the price. So, when I go there, it’s like going to a hotel. I check in, and I check out. I’m not constantly moving tables and chairs. If I couldn’t have bought it as-is, it would have taken forever to make it a home because I wouldn’t have furnished it.
Hofmann: Why Newport?
Leno: Since I’m from the area, it’s a great meeting place for all my relatives to come and have fun. They all get to stay there and it’s great. I love the place.
Hofmann: Can you tell me about the history of Seafair?
Leno: Seafair is also called the Hurricane Hut by the locals and history buffs because there was a huge hurricane—in fact, many hurricanes—that killed a bunch of people. There is some fascinating history. There is this impressive steel and lead peacock statute [about 4-feet tall] that was on the front lawn that got wiped out to sea during a hurricane. The owner, who survived the hurricane but lost a very nice peacock statue, sold the property, returned 25 years later to visit and noticed that the peacock statue was back on the front lawn. She rang the bell, told the current owners who she was and said, ‘Did you have another peacock made? How did you know about the peacock?’ And the new owner said, ‘No. We didn’t have another peacock made. We had another hurricane about five years ago, and that lead peacock washed up on the lawn.’ So that is kind of interesting. There are a lot of stories like that about Seafair.
Hofmann: I understand the house is sometimes called a Newport cottage. Can you explain this? I’m not judging, but it seems a bit large for a cottage.
Leno: Yes, it was originally called Terra Mae. The second owner named it Seafair [with the hope there would be fairer times and calmer seas ahead]. But Seafair is known as the last of the Gilded Age cottages. During the Gilded Age [from the 1870s to about 1900], rich people used to call these mansions ‘summer cottages.’ The Newport ‘cottage’ reference was a tongue-in-cheek joke. Most of them were built in the late 1800s or the early days of the 1900s and the 1920s. Seafair is the last grand one, built in 1936, and I think it would be almost impossible to duplicate today.
Hofmann: It sounds like the house has a bit of magic. It looks like a castle, and even the idea that you were driving by and the gates opened seems mystical.
Leno: Yeah, I mean, it was an impulse buy, but I knew it was right. I’ve only done a couple of impulse buys. Most times, when you’re looking for a house, you’re looking for one thing, and you settle for another. Like in California, I always thought it would be cool to have a house on the ocean, but with many of these houses, you’re right next to Pacific Coast Highway. That always seemed crazy to me. This house is right on the ocean and has a couple of private beaches. I have to laugh every time I go to the house and the gate opens because I feel like I’m in the opening of “Downton Abbey.”
When I asked myself if I could have any house in Newport regardless of cost, this is the one that I would buy. How often does something like that actually happen? The idea of finding precisely what you want is great. My wife loves Victorian novels set on the English coast with the girl with the bonnet and the Fabio guy on a windswept bluff, so it makes me laugh because Seafair is the house I would have wanted. It really is.
The nice thing about it is that it looks like a castle. Even though it’s a mansion, with Seafair, all the rooms are small and have individual fireplaces. There are like eight or nine chimneys. When I had the chimney sweep come, the place looked like a scene from Mary Poppins.
Hofmann: Do you have a favorite room in Seafair?
Leno: I like the library. I always wanted to have a proper library. My wife and I have about 4,500 books, and the library can accommodate all of them, so that’s kind of fun. The home came with books. Someone was a Zane Grey aficionado. We’ve also got books by the Brontë sisters [of Wuthering Heights fame] and that whole gang. They are not necessarily my thing, but they are interesting to have. There are a lot of books on art history.
Hofmann: Can we talk about what it takes to maintain a home of this size and stature?
Leno: Of course, I thought about what it would cost to maintain the property when I bought the house. It’s big. I’ve yet to flush every toilet in the place. There’s someone on the property all the time, and it probably costs about $50,000 a month to maintain the home if you count all the expenses.
Hofmann: Does that include washing all those windows?
Leno: Yes. The house is on a peninsula, so you’re right against the sea, and all that salt pounds the windows. Consequently, the windows almost become opaque from the wind and rain and salt, so you do have to replace them every other year or quite often.
Hofmann: Any advice for somebody buying a historic home?
Leno: Yes, don’t buy a house like Seafair as an investment; buy it because you love it. Because if you love something and get stuck with it, you’ll still like it. And that’s my advice on everything. Occasionally, I’ve paid too much for things, but that’s OK because I still like them.
Hofmann: The wild life at the home must be amazing.
Leno: Yes, we have deer and rabbits on the property, and the sea life is interesting. One day, I was at the house, and I started hearing this noise and thought someone was trying to break in or throwing rocks at the windows. Then, I realized what was happening. The seagulls were picking up clams and dropping them on the balcony off the bedroom that is flagstone. They drop them from some height to crack them open. Then, they come down and eat the clams.
Hofmann: You are famous for your love of cars and your automotive collection. What do you drive when you’re at Seafair?
Leno: The house has a six-car garage, but I don’t keep any cars there because there’s nothing worse for an automobile than to sit in the salt air. It will just rust on its own unless you have humidifiers going all day long. When I am at Seafair, I rent a car.
Hofmann: You spend a lot of time working in your garage in Southern California. What you do in and around Seafair if you are not tinkering on cars?
Leno: Actually, I am working with cars in Newport because I am very involved with the Audrain Automobile Museum. Nick Schorsch [one of the museum’s co-founders] is a good friend, and we work together to pick out cars for the museum and plan events like parties, concours exhibits, and cars and coffee gatherings. The Audrain Newport Concourse & Motor Week was canceled in the fall because of COVID, but it is set to return from Sept. 30 to Oct. 3.
Hofmann: Anything else?
Leno: We’ve been shooting a show in Newport called “Audrain Mansions and Motorcars” with Donald Osborne, a TV presenter on “Jay Leno’s Garage.” We showcase vintage cars and vintage mansions with the new show and put the two of them together. We take a ride in the car and talk about the car and showcase the mansion.
Hofmann: What can we expect from “Jay Leno’s Garage” this season?
Leno: We got a late start because of COVID with “Jay Leno’s Garage.” We just did a shoot with musicians Huey Lewis and Kelly Clarkson and have a few exciting people this season, so it’s great fun. The show focuses on people interacting with and talking about how cars have affected their lives and their first cars or the first car they drove when they went on a date and other personal things as well, so it’s a little bit of everything.
Hofmann: I hear you might be coming back to primetime. Care to share?
Leno: Yes, we are doing a new spin on “You Bet Your Life,” a question-and-answer game show hosted by Groucho Marx [from 1947 to 1961]. We start filming 180 shows in June. The show is syndicated on Fox and Fox affiliates and has sold in more than 85 percent of the country, so it’s doing quite well. It’s exciting. We will see what happens. It should debut in the fall.