At Home With Joe & Barbara Harper
Published July 1, 2012
For Joe and Barbara Harper, their turf is the surf. They welcomed Ranch & Coast to their breezy beachfront home in Del Mar, a dozen furlongs from the racetrack where Joe has served as president and general manager of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club for more than 30 years (and where Barbara, not-so-coincidentally, learned to bet, thanks to tips from Joe’s mother, an owner and breeder herself). As they prepare for yet another racing season, the couple — married for nearly 50 years with four daughters and nine grandchildren — took time to show us around their comfortable seaside retreat, filled with family mementos and movie memorabilia from Joe’s late grandfather, the legendary Hollywood filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille.
Joe, who grew up in DeMille’s Los Angeles mansion, recalls that “there was always somebody over at the house talking about scripts,” including uncle Anthony Quinn, Hedy Lamarr, Yul Brynner, Charlton Heston, and John Wayne, with whom Joe would later become friends. (Wayne, who didn’t often “do” charity events, is said to have graciously appeared at Barbara’s fundraisers “because Joe told me to.”)
Surrounded by all that star power, and with the Paramount lot as his playground, it was only natural that the young Joe would give acting a go. His debut was in The Greatest Show on Earth, which won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1952. “I had a little teeny part as a circus performer,” he remembers with a smile. “They cut most of it out of the picture — but they paid me, nevertheless.”
Harper also played a Hebrew slave (despite his red hair and freckles) in DeMille’s own re-make of The Ten Commandments, shot on location in Egypt. For 11-year-old Joe, his first trip out of the United States was a “real eye opener.” Although politically unstable — King Farouk had just been deposed — Harper says the Egyptian government gave DeMille carte blanche. “In fact, the Egyptian Cavalry was at his disposal,” he says. “They were actually the guys who drove the chariots.”
Years later, Barbara and Joe met in Tucson, Arizona. He had grown tired of military school in Los Angeles, persuading his family to send him to a prep school where he “could ride horses, play polo, and rope calves,” as well as get an education. Barbara had moved with her sister and ailing mother out West, “culture shock” to a girl who had grown up in New York City. Fixed up by a friend who felt they had the same sense of humor, the couple later married when they were college juniors.
Joe found his calling, not as an actor, but a cinematographer, working for a television production company in L.A. that produced live and pre-taped horseracing shows, broadcast on KTLA and KCBS. He later became executive vice president at Santa Anita Park before moving with his growing family to Del Mar in 1977.
While Joe was managing the track, Barbara was keeping track of the couple’s daughters, and putting her own stamp on Del Mar. She founded Friends of the Powerhouse, raising funds to turn the Del Mar landmark into a community center, redoing the “Tot Lot,” buying beach wheelchairs, and most recently, completing the new Lifeguard Headquarters and Beach Safety Center. The first woman to chair the board of the Boys & Girls Clubs of San Dieguito, Barbara also led fundraising efforts to rebuild the club’s Lomas Santa Fe Branch, which now bears her name, an honor she calls “humbling.” She is particularly excited about the club’s Center for a Healthy Lifestyle, which offers organic gardening and cooking classes, a model she hopes will expand to other clubs around the country.
Joe has worn many hats in the horseracing industry, serving as past president of the Thoroughbred Racing Association and the Federation of California Racing, as well as chairman of the advisory board of the California Center for Equine Heath and Performance at UC Davis.
The Harpers’ house, designed with architect David Lorimer, has an indoor-outdoor ambience, with adoquin stone floors stretching from the airy courtyard at the entryway to the sand and sea just beyond the backdoor. At the center of the living room is a massive Civil War-era table once owned by DeMille, its legs since shortened to coffee-table height, adorned with books. A Chinese tapestry, also owned by the late filmmaker, hangs on a living room wall. There’s a velvet bench from the movie Cleopatra, and costume sketches from The Plainsman and other films, signed by DeMille to indicate his approval. No detail, says Harper, was too small for the director. Throughout the home are paintings and sculptures of cowboys and Native Americans, reflecting the couple’s love of the West.
The Harpers’ house is very much a home — you can actually curl up on the couches, and perhaps, even put your feet up on that coffee table. An English bulldog named Valerie Harper (who was not named after the actress) pads about as if she owns the place. This seaside retreat is often filled with racing friends and family, including grandchildren leaving trails of sand after a morning of surfing. For the Harpers, life in Del Mar, truly, is a beach — that is, when they’re not at the track. Andrea Naversen