The late great singer-songwriter Tom Petty was brought up in the 1950s on a balanced diet of American rock ‘n’ roll and country music. Aged ten, he discovered his early dream of becoming a musician after meeting everyone’s favourite 1950s rock icon, Elvis Presley. In the summer of 1961, Petty’s uncle was working on the set of Presley’s movie Follow That Dream in nearby Ocala and invited Petty to watch the shoot. After this brush with stardom, Petty had his first musical icon and traded his Wham-O slingshot for a collection of Elvis 45s.
As a teenager in the 1960s, Petty was introduced to The Beatles during the band’s 1964 premier on US television. “The minute I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show – and it’s true of thousands of guys – there was the way out. There was the way to do it,” he once explained. “You get your friends and you’re a self-contained unit. And you make the music. And it looked like so much fun. It was something I identified with. I had never been hugely into sports. I had been a big fan of Elvis. But I really saw in the Beatles that here’s something I could do. I knew I could do it. It wasn’t long before there were groups springing up in garages all over the place.”
Following this subsequent pivotal influence, a 17-year-old Petty dropped out of high school to form his first band. After a decade of developing his talent as a guitarist and vocalist, Petty finally broke through to global consciousness with his band, the Heartbreakers.
With a rise to fame and fortune, Petty joined his rock heroes in a lavish lifestyle of mansions and personal studios. For a decade of his monied life, Petty lived with his family at a mansion in the San Fernando Valley neighbourhood of Encino. The house was nothing short of a palace and bore witness to heavy partying, a SWAT team invasion and a severe arson attack.
According to a report by the LA Times, Petty, his wife Jane Benyo, and his daughter sat down to breakfast one morning in 1987 when the house’s central wooden staircase erupted into flames. The fire rapidly engulfed the timber frame house, leaving the Petty family a death-defying task to escape.
Fortunately, all three escaped unscathed, but the incident left Petty ill at ease for some time afterwards. Following a police investigation, the fire was deemed a suspected arson attack. “It was arson,” Petty told author Paul Zollo in his book Conversations With Tom Petty.
“They found the evidence where someone had cut a hole in the back fence on a hill and had been watching the house. For probably a period of time. And really early one morning, they came down and set the house on fire. And it was a wooden house, and it went up really quickly. The whole place, just like a matchbox, it went up really fast.”
“It was such a shock. To have somebody try to kill you is a really bad feeling,” the singer continued. “And I never really wanted to talk about it in detail, because it frightened me so bad. I wouldn’t even use the word ‘fire’ in a song or anything. It really frightened me. They didn’t just try to kill me, they tried to wipe out my whole family. And it was a hell of a day. It was my wife’s birthday. We were planning an afternoon barbecue. So as the house was burning, guests were arriving.”
Reflecting on the fire of ‘87 in a 1999 interview with Mojo, Petty derived a grain of positivity from the incident. “I think it revitalised me. I kind of came out of it in a good spot. It just made me glad to be alive for a long time.”
At the time of the fire, Petty and the Heartbreakers were touring as Bob Dylan’s backing band. The artist also credited his near-death experience with triggering a decision to reform the Heartbreakers as a band in their own right.
“I remember telling Bob, when we were in England at the end of the tour, that we were going to have to stop, as far as backing him up,” Petty told Mojo. “I had to go back and sort out my life and my family and find a home, and we needed to get back to just being The Heartbreakers. And we had really enjoyed it, and now he needed to get his own band because we needed to get back to our own thing.”
Following the fire, Petty rebuilt the mansion on the same site, where his basement studio, fortunately, remained intact. He remained in the rebuilt home until his 1996 divorce settlement dictated Benyo’s acquisition of the property. When trying to sell the house in 2013, Benyo encountered issues regarding multiple loans taken out on the house, amassing more than the listing price of $3.58million.
As a result, the bank acquired the mansion for several years amid a lengthy court tangle. During this legal limbo, the bank rented the house out to a professional party host who held crazy drug-fuelled mega-parties on the grounds, with high-profile guests invited via social media.
The lender eventually took legal ownership of the home, and when bank representatives tried to evict the party planner, he resisted. The tenant posted signs threatening “trespassers” with violence and had the perimeter patrolled by attack dogs.
With such a martial defence, the Californian authorities had no option but to return forcefully. Eventually, a SWAT team was ordered to invade the premises. They found the tenant cowering in one of the mansion’s many hiding spots and escorted him to jail.
Several years of heavy partying had left the property in a sorry state, but in June 2017, developers acquired it from the bank for $2,575,000 and gave it a much-needed makeover. In 2018, pop singer Selena Gomez bought the newly renovated building for $4.9 million.