Roundtable

The Making of Malibu

How Malibu went from private paradise to Hollywood enclave.

By David K. Randall

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Postcard showing the Malibu Movie Colony, 1950s.

 Postcard showing the Malibu Movie Colony, 1950s. Eric Wienberg Collection of Malibu Matchbooks, Postcards, and Collectables, Pepperdine University Special Collections and University Archives.

During the first part of the twentieth century, the perfect beaches of Malibu were the last place you could expect to find a celebrity. All of it—the sheer bluffs, the deep canyons, the south-facing shoreline that let you lie on the beach all day long without ever having to squint directly into the sun—was one private ranch, a wild kingdom hugging the edge of the continent. Running nearly twenty-five miles along the coast and stretching only two miles across at its widest point, it owed its borders to a time when Southern California was a half-forgotten outpost on the far side of the Spanish Empire. The crown, faced with colonizing a place where land was so plentiful as to render it nearly worthless, offered vast tracts, known as ranchos, to military officers and noblemen in an effort to put a Spanish stamp on the dry valleys surrounding the tiny settlement known as Los Angeles.

The Rancho Topanga Malibu Sequit, which in time would become the city of Malibu, was one of the first created, and even in a region widely thought of as inhospitable, it seemed the least fit for human enjoyment. The sharp peaks of the Santa Monica Mountains nearly sealed it off from the rest of Southern California, while bears and mountain lions roamed its seventeen steep canyons. Great boulders lay scattered across its beaches like marbles discarded by a wanton giant. Anyone who wanted to reach the Malibu, as the rancho was often called, had to first consult a tide chart and set off on horseback at the right time along the beach. A late start would result in finding yourself marooned on the coastline, the path forward and back flooded by the drift of the ocean. Attempting to cross the mountains, meanwhile, meant fending off rattlesnakes and bandits, both of which were in ample supply.

That this unwelcoming place would in time become known as a paradise filled with movie stars and billionaires was the result of one of the longest and most bitter battles over land in American history. It was a clash that pitted one of the wealthiest families in the country against the encroaching modern world, all set against a backdrop in which Los Angeles seemed to morph overnight from a dusty cow town into a global metropolis. Their fight would go all the way to the Supreme Court, and would culminate in a landmark decision that continues to shape the public’s right to access beautiful places. In the process, the battle for Malibu would create the Pacific Coast Highway, a road that has since become a symbol of the good life in California.

At the center of it all were Frederick and May Rindge, a pair who would have needed no introduction in Los Angeles at the turn of the century. Newspapers tracked nearly every aspect of their lives, going so far as to once report that Frederick had stayed home from work with a cold. The couple arrived in the city as newlyweds in 1887, just a few months after a bidding war between the railroads in Los Angeles sparked one of the most frenzied housing bubbles the country had ever seen. It was a marriage of opposites: he was a Harvard-trained confidant of presidents and senators, the rare dreamer who knew what he was doing; she was a Midwestern farmer’s daughter, raised to be suspicious of the seasons. Resolute where he was romantic, guarded where he was generous, May seemed molded from a different clay than her husband. Yet the bond between them would prove to shape history in ways that no one would have expected.

In their first days in the city, Frederick, the only surviving heir of an immense Boston fortune, could barely contain his desire to make a mark in a place that seemed only one step removed from the frontier. Within a decade, he owned more businesses than perhaps any other single person in California, putting the Rindges atop the booming city’s hierarchy. He soon purchased the thirteen-thousand-acre Malibu rancho as a country home for his growing family. It was a day’s ride on horseback from Santa Monica and contained not much more than cattle and fallow fields of lima beans, but he had no need for the ranch to produce income. Frederick, a deeply religious man, saw in its pristine beauty the work of God, and resolved to keep it untouched while Southern California boomed all around.

He would have little time to fulfill his wish, however. With Frederick’s sudden death in 1905, May Rindge took control of a fortune that would be worth nearly $700 million in today’s money. She vowed to keep Malibu, the place where she had spent the best days of her life with Frederick and their three children, as an unbroken reminder of her husband’s love. Her resolve would be challenged within days of his funeral, beginning the struggle that would mark the rest of her life. Over the next decades, May fended off attacks from aggressors ranging from the most powerful railroad bosses in the state, to a mob of armed homesteaders, to fractures within her own family, all in effort to preserve Malibu as she had first glimpsed it while riding in a horse-drawn carriage with Frederick at her side.

Rindge family, c. 1900.

 

May found herself immensely popular in a place perfectly unsuited for a woman who had little natural ability to charm: Hollywood. She had known the city when it was just orchards, and she’d thought more of it then. In 1887, the year May and Frederick first arrived in Los Angeles, a pair of Midwesterners by the name of Harvey and Daeida Wilcox could often be found in a horse-drawn carriage, tracing the hills bounding the rural Cahuenga Valley. The couple had recently lost their nineteen-month-old son to illness, and the quiet hours spent watching the afternoon sun stretch across the sheep grazing in the open valley mended their pain.

While in an apricot orchard one day, they both felt a sensation that they were in a special place. Harvey, who already owned the land that eventually became the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles, soon bought the orchard and its surrounding 160 acres, and then started buying some more. A year later, Wilcox had crisscrossed his land with empty avenues, the beginning of what he envisioned as a model Christian community, with no saloons or liquor stores and free land available for any Protestant church within its limits. Harvey died before he could turn his idea of a Christian utopia into reality, and Hollywood—so named for the California holly bushes common to the area—became a farming town with a population of 106.

By the time D.W. Griffith, the son of a Confederate colonel, reached it in 1910, Hollywood still had a law on its books banning anyone from shepherding more than two thousand sheep along the street at any one time. At only the age of thirty-one, Griffith had already directed some 2,088 films, each one no longer than ten minutes, for the Biograph film studio in New York. He headed out to Los Angeles that winter with a small troupe of actors in order to take advantage of the warm weather. He installed them in a boardinghouse on Hollywood Boulevard, and within days he was filming The Thread of Destiny, a story set among the ranchos of Old California.

Lighting, camera work, actors: Griffith had to supply all the necessary elements of the production himself, as no one had ever filmed a movie in the town before. Until that time, nearly all film production took place in New York, not far from where Thomas Edison had invented the strip Kinetograph, one of the first cameras capable of taking pictures so fast they appeared to move, at his factory in northern New Jersey. Edison’s Motion Picture Patents Company, commonly referred to as the Trust, held the copyright to most film technology and often backed up its threats to shut a production down if a producer didn’t meet its ever-increasing fees. Putting a continent’s worth of distance between the making of a film and the Edison Trust was as much a part of the allure of Hollywood as the sunshine. Griffith would make twenty more films over the winter, nearly all of them starring a seventeen-year-old Canadian actress who called herself Mary Pickford.

A playwright by the name of Cecil Blount DeMille soon followed. He rented an L-shaped barn next to an orange grove at the corner of Selma and Vine, where he went to work filming The Squaw Man, which would clock in at a then absurdly long seventy-four minutes. Each day, DeMille, the scion of a family well known in the New York theater world, could be seen wearing a revolver on his hip as protection against both rattlesnakes and agents of the Trust, who once fired a rifle at him as he walked to his makeshift studio. Each night, DeMille would fall asleep to the howl of coyotes.

The finished product, a tale of an Englishman on the run from the law who escapes to live among Native American tribes in Wyoming, brought in fifteen times its budget of $16,000. After that, everyone wanted in. Within two years, scores of motion picture companies had set up offices in Hollywood, creating what would by the middle of the 1920s become America’s fifth-largest industry, responsible for 90 percent of the world’s films.

Hollywood would have stayed apart from Malibu if not for Harold G. Ferguson, a real estate developer who approached May in 1926 with the idea of turning a mile-long stretch of beachfront near the ranch’s eastern edge into a beach colony. She initially blanched at the prospect of allowing anyone but a Rindge to live on the ranch itself, but relented after Ferguson agreed to her conditions: that each lease require any structure on the property to be torn down after ten years. May considered it insurance that she could shut down the colony, and erase all evidence of its existence, once her money situation improved. Despite the odd terms, Ferguson went to work, putting up billboards throughout the state depicting families playing on empty beaches. He let the artwork do most of the selling for him, including only a single word—“Privacy” on one billboard, “Tranquil” on the next—next to the address “Rancho Malibu Beaches.”

He shouldn’t have bothered. Anna Q. Nilsson, perhaps the most popular silent film actress at the time, rented the first lot that came available. Marie Prevost, whose large eyes and dark curls landed her roles as flappers in a string of popular comedies, came next, and then Raoul Walsh, a legendary one-eyed director who briefly made an eye patch a mark of sophistication, signed on, and before Ferguson knew it, he was fielding calls from seemingly every person in Hollywood for a spot in what was becoming the playground of the stars.

The Movie Colony, as it came to be known, was far from glamorous in itself. With the terms of the lease taking away any incentive to build something of substance, movie stars and directors who secured a piece of Malibu took to employing set designers and stagehands to build their beachfront cottages, with predictable results. The earliest homes baked in the daytime and froze at night, with each one barely held up by walls so thin that more than one drunken argument ended with a man punching his hand clear through to the cottage next door.

It was the company that mattered. For the first time, the idea that movie stars lived in their own charmed world was made literal. Stars posed in publicity photos, sunning themselves in their beachfront backyards, and gossiped about who would be able to make the transition from silent films to talkies. The public ate it up, if only because it confirmed their fantasies. The beaches of Malibu were described as a place where beautiful actresses “blend in with the seascape, being in much the same key; they too are dazzling, a little wearisome, and more than a little unreal; they too have that quality, that suggestion of having stepped out of somebody’s fever dream, that goes with the Pacific Ocean and no other ocean,” novelist James M. Cain wrote in a feature on life among the Hollywood elite. Early fan magazines like Photoplay and Motion Picture Story sent reporters up to Malibu, desperate for any news from the Colony that would satisfy their readers’ never-ending appetite. When Mary Pickford was seen volleying with Charlie Chaplin, shortly after the colony’s first tennis court was completed, the photo was reprinted across the nation. The Colony soon had its own police force, courthouse, grocery, post office, and general store, giving the most famous one-mile stretch of beach in the country the outlines of a small town, albeit one whose gate was guarded at all times by armed patrolmen.

Aerial photograph of the Malibu Movie Colony and the Malibu Pier beyond, 1930s.

May put as much distance between herself and the stars as possible, never once venturing out to the Colony to mingle. She eventually granted one grudging interview to Screen Book, an early trade magazine. “I have been accused of many things, including a lack of public spirit,” May told a reporter in an article carrying the headline “The Landlady of Malibu.” “But it was sentiment which inspired me to forbid a road through the rancho. I knew that once we let down the bars, the ancient beauty of the place would be forever destroyed. I held out for years but finally lost in the courts.” The influx of glamour along her coast seemed wasted on her. “Yes, I’m proud of my movie colony, I do not know a one of them personally and seldom go on the beach. They are excellent tenants and I never have any trouble with them. My favorite tenant? Oh, I have none, they are all fine,” she said, before ending the interview with the admonishment “Give my movie people all the publicity you want, but leave me out of it.”

The success of the Movie Colony, along with a tile factory farther up the beach, gave May her first new source of income in more than twenty years. She resolved to spend it in glorious fashion, constructing two proud monuments as proof that, although the Roosevelt Highway now cut through her ranch, she was not ruined. On a small promontory at the mouth of Malibu Lagoon once called Vaquero Hill, she began work on a beach house as gift for Rhoda and her family. Stiles O. Clements, one of the most prominent architects in Los Angeles at the time, designed a two-story home with whitewashed walls, shaded courtyards, and a red tile roof, evoking the ranchos that had spread across Southern California just a generation before and of which Malibu was the last. Malibu tile covered nearly every surface of the seven-bedroom mansion, from the top of the oak table in the dining room to the white-and-blue trim of the dog bath in the rear courtyard.

Whatever restraint May showed in the construction of Rhoda’s beachside mansion vanished when it came to designing her own. On the hill overlooking where the mansion lost in the fire of 1903 once stood, May began work on a fifty-four-room palace with wings for Frederick Jr.’s and Rhoda’s families, all meant to serve as a symbol that the Rindge family would forever rule the kingdom of Malibu. She planned to pay whatever was necessary, not flinching when told that her plans could cost her upwards of $500,000—nearly $7 million in contemporary dollars. In Frederick Jr.’s bathroom alone, she told workers to build a thirteen-by-seventeen-foot swimming pool, which would prove to be neither the first nor the last pool to appear on the property. Tile lined every part of the home, often from the ceilings to the floors and even the doors themselves. Sewing rooms, butler’s pantries, a music hall that was said to be large enough to fit in the Los Angeles Philharmonic—each room, no matter its importance, was set out with its own pattern of brilliant tile.

She paid for it all with gold bonds issued by the Marblehead Land Company, the corporation she had formed to manage what was left of Frederick’s empire. As security, she pledged 7,965 acres of the Malibu ranch, along with 600 acres of what would become part of the exclusive Cheviot Hills neighborhood south of Pico Boulevard, and seventy-five lots on Crenshaw Boulevard between West Adams and Exposition Boulevard. Dividends from her stocks alone—a collection that included Union Oil of California, Union Oil Associates, Pacific Mutual Life Insurance, and the Artesian Water Company and together represented a market value of more than $1.4 million—paid more than $235,000 a year, she noted in a letter to potential bondholders. The leases at the Malibu Movie Colony brought in another $660,000, a sum more than enough to cover the annual interest charges of $360,000 without having to sell any part of the ranch. “We have never sold any portion of our Malibu holdings, preferring to add to them rather to sell any part of the estate,” May wrote.

In the spring of 1929, as the home began to take shape, she turned down an unsolicited offer of $17 million—worth $237 million in today’s money—to develop Malibu into a resort, complete with a marina and hotels. The success of the last four years, coming on the heels of her greatest setback, had convinced her that she could withstand whatever the world conspired to throw at her. As the tower of her home rose above the open expanse of the Pacific on one side and the untouched green foothills of the mountains on the other, she assured herself that she was finally free to enjoy her kingdom without worry that it would be taken from her. At the foot of the stairway, she added a final touch: the Rindge family coat of arms, crafted out of a perfect patchwork of pastel tiles.

 

Adapted from The King and Queen of Malibu: The True Story of the Battle for Paradise by David K. Randall. Copyright © 2016 by David K. Randall. Reprinted by arrangement with W.W. Norton.