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Slim Aarons’ Christmas Swim: Story Behind the Tree

Slim Aarons’ Christmas Swim is an iconic mid-century portrait that has grown even more popular in recent years, thank to social media. In a 2020 Vogue interview with the photographer’s daughter Mary Aarons, she detailed the 1954 shoot and its subject, her mother Rita Aarons. But the story behind the tree and the Hollywood home’s location has been a mystery ... until now.

Woman in pool with Christmas tree
Christmas Swim by Slim Aarons (Getty Images)

For several years in the 1950s, Elmer and Verlyn Jones electrified the Hollywood Hills with unusual holiday decor: a 30-foot Christmas tree in the middle of their pool.

At night, the reflection of the 200 lights off the water was dazzling, attracting neighbors and holiday enthusiasts to the hills looking down on the property at 5745 Hill Oak Drive, just west of Griffith Observatory. 

To create the spectacle, Elmer and Verlyn first decorated the upper half of the tree—topped with a star—and then hoisted it onto a metal sleeve affixed to a foundation on the pool’s floor. Once submerged two feet into the water, more lights and ornaments were added to the lower branches.

“It took a bit of doing,” Elmer admitted to the Los Angeles Times in December 1953.

Slim Aarons' Christmas tree in pool
Slim Aarons' Christmas tree in pool at night (USC)

Elmer and Verlyn’s holiday display drew a lot of attention in the 1950s: For several years, beginning in 1953, local newspapers came out to the Hollywood Hills home to see the tree and interview the couple. That’s likely how Slim Aarons found the location and backdrop for his famous Christmas Swim in 1954.

Slim Aarons Christmas tree day
Christmas tree in pool during the day (USC)

“It was a hired house and hired kids, and my mom’s big recollections were that it was a really cold, really dirty pool and that because they wanted everything to line up just right (and obviously it was her husband taking the picture), he made her stay in there a really long time,” daughter Mary Aarons told Vogue in 2020. “She was freezing and mad. It looks idyllic now, but to get it just right in a cold and dirty pool took a while.”

“He didn’t use lights, and I would guess—I’m not great at perspectives but I’m looking at it now because I put it out every Christmas—he’s standing on the diving board or a ladder at the other end of the pool.”

Christmas tree in pool Griffith Observatory
Griffith Observatory in the background (USC)

One thing Mary was unsure of was the homes location. Although the Hollywood Sign is visible in the background, “A lot of people think it’s Baldwin Hills,” she continued to Vogue. “Somewhere, somebody does know where that house is. It doesn’t look like the kind of house that would still be there now. It’s probably been razed. But it works. It was a beautiful picture.”

Not only does the home still exist, it had an interesting pedigree of owners since Christmas Swim. Elmer remained at the residence until his 1990 death (Verlyn passed away decades earlier in 1974). In 2007, My Name Is Earl actor Jason Lee moved into 5745 Hill Oak Drive. Three years later he sold it, however, photos from the 2010 listing seem to have been mostly wiped off the Internet except for one low-res exterior that exists on Compass.

Elmer Jones 1973
Elmer Jones in the LA Times in 1973

Christmas decoration was nothing new to Elmer. Since 1926, he had owned Jones Decorating Co. on Sunset Boulevard—and every October, he and his team began the monumental task of adorning 60 Southland communities, from Santa Monica to Bakersfield, with garland, tinsel, wreaths, bells, stars, reindeer, and Santas. 

In Hollywood, Elmer handled the garnishing of Santa Claus Lane. Eventually, his business transitioned to a year-round Christmas store patronized by the film studios. Earlier in his career, the Jones Decorating Co. was hired to festoon LA streets for Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 transatlantic flight celebration and decoration of City Hall, the Coliseum, and downtown buildings for the 1932 Summer Olympics.


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