The interior decor of Sam Nazarian’s $18.9 million mansion high above the Sunset Strip might be described as nightlife moderne. Glossy stone floors and glass walls are set off by glam touches like a Roy Lichtenstein print—This Must Be the Place, cheekily hung in the bathroom—and a black crystal chandelier. But what’s inside the Nazarian house is secondary to the view: the city of Los Angeles spread like a vast Persian carpet laid at Nazarian’s feet. It is, in more ways than one, a view from the top.
These days Nazarian hardly needs an introduction in Hollywood and Beverly Hills: At 33, he has built an empire that includes trendy nightclubs, an archipelago of restaurants and the flashy SLS Hotel, with further hotels planned for Miami and Las Vegas. His circle, however, extends well beyond the celebutantes courted by his businesses. Nazarian and his family, who like many Iranian Jews left Tehran during the 1979 revolution, are leaders of a powerful Persian Jewish elite in Beverly Hills. One hint of the community’s influence in Los Angeles is a framed commendation on Nazarian’s sitting room wall from Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. “I was one of his first supporters,” explains Nazarian. “We’re very, very close.”
Not so many years ago, Nazarian, whose family arrived in the U.S. when he was three, was taunted at Beverly Hills High School with insults such as “camel jockey.” “It wasn’t a very welcoming group of people,” he recalls of his schoolmates. Nazarian’s courtly 78-year-old father, Younes, who today sits alongside his youngest son at a table laden with crystal bowls of dates, berries, cucumbers and other refreshments—a typical display of Persian hospitality—was a successful tool-and-dye manufacturer in Iran. But in fleeing his country’s political turmoil, he had to leave most of his assets behind, arriving at a run-down hotel in Santa Monica with, as Younes recalls, “four suitcases and four children.” (The Nazarians are now part owners of the hotel.)
Younes and his brother, Parviz, relied on contacts with other Persian Jewish immigrants—“Our best asset in this country was our few friends,” he notes—and established a factory building machine parts for such clients as the Department of Defense. Several years later, the brothers were brought into a fledgling telecom company, Qualcomm, and their millions ballooned into billions. Now Younes, like his son, is leaving footprints all over Los Angeles: He is chairman of his son’s business, SBE, and he serves on boards at the Rand Center for Middle East Policy and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, in addition to being a major donor to the University of Southern California. This philanthropic spirit makes Younes something of a pioneer, notes Sam, since the older generation by and large has not adopted the American ethic—and tax strategy—of giving money to nonprofits.