Brad Darrach
August 01, 1983 12:00 PM

Malibu, as the media would have it, is the G-Spot of North America. For millions the name conjures a South Seas paradise that can be reached by freeway, a dream world of wealth and pleasure in which Maxfield Parrish mountains plunge into a sapphire sea and wide gleaming beaches are littered with perfect bodies. Superstars varoom the region in custom Maseratis. Rock queens stroll into elegant restaurants behind leopards on leashes. Movie moguls offer their dinner guests fun desserts—like sinsemilla soufflé or ice-cream scoops of cocaine. And social life takes the form of a circadian bisexual orgy. “Malibu,” says Joan Rivers, “is the only place in the world where you can lie on the sand and look at the stars—or vice versa.”

Don’t believe a word of it. Malibu is astonishing but for much more significant reasons. It’s true, however, that this one tiny township (pop. 20,000) includes the largest collection of celebrities on the planet; at one time or another almost every famous person in America has lived or vacationed there. Right now these major public figures own or rent property in Malibu: Herb Alpert, Julie Andrews and Blake Edwards, Anne Bancroft and Mel Brooks, Christie Brinkley and Billy Joel, Lloyd Bridges, Bryan Brown and Rachel Ward, Genevieve Bujold, Johnny Carson, Cheech, Chicago, Dick Clark, Bruce Dern, Bob Dylan, Earth, Wind and Fire, Sam Elliott and Katharine Ross, Farrah Fawcett and Ryan O’Neal, Mick Fleetwood, Steve and Eydie Gormé, Lou Gossett, Lorne Greene, Larry Hagman, Goldie Hawn, Jascha Heifetz, Dustin Hoffman, John Houseman, Tim Hutton, Bruce Jenner and Linda Thompson, Jennifer Jones and Norton Simon, Stacy Keach, Billie Jean King, Jack Klugman, Kris Kristofferson, Michael Landon, Led Zeppelin, Jack Lemmon, Rich Little, AM MacGraw, Shirley MacLaine, the Maharaj Ji, Lee Majors, Dick Martin, Walter Matthau, Joni Mitchell, Olivia Newton-John, Carroll O’Connor, Tatum O’Neal, Jon Peters, Robert Redford, Don Rickles, Linda Ronstadt, Martin Sheen, Dinah Shore, Steven Spielberg, Rod Steiger, Rod Stewart, Barbra Streisand, Jan-Michael Vincent, Flip Wilson, Shelley Winters, Pia Zadora.

Not to mention such frequent visitors as Richard Burton, Jimmy Connors, Steve Garvey, Richard Gere, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bianca Jagger, Brooke Shields and Elizabeth Taylor, or such once and possibly future residents as Bette Davis, Jane Fonda, Katharine Hepburn, Nancy and Ronald Reagan, Lana Turner—and so on.

Most of these people are filthy rich, and along with hundreds of little-known but enormously wealthy people from other walks of life they have deposited on a narrow coastal strip running west and north from Los Angeles one of the most massive concentrations of money in any U.S. community of comparable size.

Along the 27 miles of Malibu’s coast there are 18 beaches, and the mountains that jump up to 2,500 feet behind them are cut by dozens of canyons. The rich and famous have clustered on five beaches (Broad, Carbon, the Colony, La Costa, Old Malibu Road), in six canyons (Big Rock, Escondido, Las Flores, Ramirez, Serra Retreat, Winding Way) and around Point Dume and Paradise Cove. And wherever they are, prices have shot out of sight.

Beachfront lots in Malibu, most of them covering no more than 3,600 square feet (the average lot in the Colony measures 30 feet by 125 feet), are selling for at least $1 million. One double lot that in 1959 was bought for $7,750 recently sold for $6 million. If the lot has a house on it, no matter how dilapidated, add another million. Robert Redford got a beachfront bargain last November when he bought the old Bing Crosby property (built in 1927 by songwriter Nacio Herb Brown for $3,500) for a mere $1,850,000. Not long ago producer Jerry Perenchio (a Norman Lear partner) decided he needed a place to jog. So he picked up a two-acre sandlot not far from his house for a cool $2.7 million.

Really classy establishments, which start at about $3.5 million, can cost up to $13 million. On top of that, upkeep costs an arm and a leg—wood warps in sea air, fixtures rust, paint peels. Fire and storm insurance take the other arm and leg. But the wealthy can afford to pay. “There’s been no depression in Malibu,” says real estate agent Carol Rapf. “The rich are richer than ever, and they’re buying the top of the line.” When they don’t buy, they rent—for as much as $25,000 a month.

What are all these fortunate people getting for such outlandish outlays? The plain truth is that they are getting a noisy, shabby, perilous and polluted pseudoparadise.

To begin with, the Santa Monica Mountains are anything but art deco. Blotched with unsightly housing developments and at many points besotted with sewage from hundreds of overloaded septic tanks, they fall into the sea at Malibu like a pile of enormous soggy cantaloupes. Mudslides are a frequent occurrence in winter, sometimes toppling houses and often blocking roads. And more and more frequently, when hot desert winds are blowing, the coastal range is swept by arson-instigated firestorms that race up and down the ridges at speeds up to 100 mph and, as they did in 1978 and again in 1982, torch hundreds of costly houses in their charge to the sea.

And the sea is not sapphire. It’s gray most of the time, and when the vast Pacific is powered by gales the water slams into the land with appalling impact. Late last winter, when wild storms savaged the West Coast, 20-foot seas did major damage to several hundred Malibu homes and demolished 14 outright—at an estimated loss of more than $30 million.

The sea is often polluted too. During the recent storms more than 200 septic-tank systems burst open and every day for weeks at least 150,000 gallons of fecal pollution were pumped into the sea. Dismaying odors filled many beachfront houses—in Malibu the seaside lots are so small that the tanks and their drainage fields usually lie directly beneath the houses they serve.

Why in such a wealthy community is there no sewer system? Because people in Malibu believe that sewers would permit a population explosion that might turn the place into Miami Beach with mountains—and they may be right. “Meanwhile,” says resident author William Peter Blatty (The Exorcist), “a mass attack of diarrhea could make this whole coast uninhabitable.”

As for the famous beach, in most areas it is either so narrow or so crowded (150,000 people land on the sand in Malibu on an average summer Sunday) that on weekends a family can scarcely spread a blanket—and they’d better check for tar balls or dog droppings first. What’s more, the riptides are treacherous. Thirty or 40 swimmers are sometimes carried out to sea at once; on one rough day, Malibu lifeguards pulled 408 floundering swimmers out of the surf, and in an average summer they rescue more than 3,000. Given all these deterrents, many celebrities who have spent millions to live by the sea rarely set foot in it.

Immediately behind the beach, often for several miles at a stretch, stands a solid wall of houses, most of them architecturally boring, all of them grotesquely expensive and utterly vulnerable to wind and wave. Immediately behind these houses runs the Pacific Coast Highway, a roaring speedway that all week long is crowded with commuters and house-shuddering trucks, and on weekends carries bumper-to-bumper traffic to and from the public beaches. And on the inland side of the coast highway, facing the villas of the wealthy, rises a succession of fast-food stands, dry cleaners, bakeries, beauty parlors: one Malibu real estate agent calls it “a maritime slum.”

In such a setting, celebrities are exposed to every criminal who comes down the pike. Tape decks are stolen from their cars, and sometimes the cars themselves are ripped off. Not long ago Michael Landon’s $135,000 Ferrari was snatched from in front of his house. And homes are regularly broken into. Larry Hagman’s house, which stands less than 50 feet from a guardhouse, has been robbed twice in recent years. Two years ago someone broke into Linda Ronstadt’s villa, slashed her pillows and left a note stabbed to her butcher’s block. It read: “I shall return.”

Worse things have happened. The daughter of a leading Malibu family was recently raped in her garage. In 1981-82, according to Los Angeles police, 32 women were raped and six people were murdered in Malibu. What’s more, bodies of people murdered in other parts of L.A. are not infrequently dumped in the sea off Malibu and in the mountains behind it.

Many of the murders, police believe, are drug-related. Every year tons of marijuana and many kilos of cocaine land in hidden coves on this suitably intricate riviera. Some cocaine passes through the nostrils of Malibu residents, but the drug scene in Malibu is less than frantic. People obsessed with the drug are known to most celebrities there as cocaine bores.

Commuting is a hotter topic than crime in Malibu—almost as hot as septic tanks. When the freeways are clear, the drive to Universal City takes 40 minutes. But during rush hours the trip often takes an hour and a half. And if accidents or mudslides delay the commuter in Malibu Canyon, he may not reach his office until noon.

Speaking of inconvenience, better not get your car or your clothes dirty in Malibu; because of the septic tank problem, there are no car washes or Laundromats there. Better not have a major medical problem in Malibu; the nearest hospitals are in Santa Monica or on the other side of the mountains. And better not die; there isn’t a single undertaker in town.

What makes people who can afford to live anywhere choose to live in a place that presents so many problems? “It’s so quiet,” answers Rod Steiger. “Malibu is such a great place to think.” “It’s the privacy,” says Jack Lemmon. “Malibu people are unimpressed with celebrities. Nobody shoves an autograph book in your face.” One storekeeper actually fired an employee for asking Charles Bronson about his latest movie. Even between neighbors a reserve is maintained. Celebrities visit each other but seldom start a casual conversation.

Other Maliboosters say they love the place because it’s healthy. No smog. The mountains fling it all back on Los Angeles. “There’s a windchime feeling in the atmosphere,” says trumpeter Herb Alpert. Landon agrees: “You see the ocean and the birds and say ‘Ahhh.’ ” Many people insist that sex is better (and more frequent) in Malibu.

Show business types who put out so much energy when they’re on, enjoy the laid-back Malibu life-style when they’re off. They wear what they please, eat when they feel like it. “The minute you’re here,” says Dick Clark, “you’re on vacation.” Author Blatty likes “the friendly, small-town atmosphere.” “All I have to do is walk into the Trancas market,” says LeVar Burton, “and they start cutting my favorite cheese.” But Malibu is sophisticated too. There is gourmet food in the supermarket, a first-class French bakery and an excellent bookstore.

All these advantages make Malibu a happy habitat for Goldie Hawn. She lives on one of the more secluded beaches behind a low dune spangled with wildflowers. Her house is a pleasantly spacious two-story, three-bedroom redwood affair with cathedral ceilings and a large picture window that looks out over the sea. African masks, Mexican rawhide chairs, a sofa covered with white Haitian cotton—all very relaxed and cozy.

In this setting, with the help of a cook and a secretary-companion, Goldie and her two children, Oliver and Kate, live a remarkably normal and private family life. In the early morning Goldie often jogs on an empty beach, then goes shopping at a nearby market. Or takes a spin up the coast to a fish store in Ventura.

In the afternoon she keeps Goldie golden by mooching around on the beach with the children. When neighbors stroll by—Dick Martin, Walter Matthau or Dinah Shore—they wave but, obeying the unwritten law of Malibu, don’t stop to chat.

Whenever possible, Goldie cooks supper for the family. Sometimes her mother and sister are there, sometimes her ex-husband, singer Bill Hudson. Sometimes Kurt Russell, her leading man in Swing Shift (scheduled for fall release) drops by to take her out. Sometimes Goldie spends the evening writing in her diary, often in verse. And so it goes, month after blissfully monotonous month, until career pressures force her back into production.

Stars who find life at the beach too exciting take refuge in the Santa Monica Mountains, the ultimate isolation tank of celebrity. In hidden canyons they discover solitude and a wild beauty. Young and swiftly rising, the ridges shatter and pleat into gorges that run every which way, and the coarse mat of chaparral that covers them conceals a teeming life: rattlesnakes, rabbits, squirrels, weasels, possums, skunks, foxes, roadrunners, hawks, owls, bats, badgers, bobcats—and human critters with crazy eyes and matted hair who live on lizards and stockpile ammo against the day when the Commies take over.

From the peaks at sunset the view is immense and magical. Night fills the east and under it lies the endless twinkling web of Los Angeles. A mile below, in green waves edged with gold, a big black gleaming body heaves and rolls—a whale is sanding barnacles off its back. While far to the west the sunset crashes brilliantly into the sea.

Paradoxically, the most compelling of Malibu’s attractions are not the advantages but the agonies of living there. “Living in Malibu is like having an affair with a wild and beautiful woman,” says Malibu’s Judge John J. Merrick. Dick Clark, who once battled a mountain fire that died less than 30 feet from his magnificent villa, says he loves “the constant challenge, the real danger. It’s frontier living 40 minutes from the office.” Landon knows the feeling: “There is something strangely exhilarating about dealing with nature when it’s ticked off.”

One man, a follower of the Maharaj Ji, formed his bond with Malibu the night his house was burned to the ground in a firestorm. “The fire arrived suddenly in the middle of the night, and my wife and I ran in the only direction we couldn’t see flames. We ran toward the sea and all the animals on the mountain were running with us. At the water’s edge we stopped at last and stood gasping for breath. Back up the mountain I saw my house explode, and I felt a pain in my heart. But then I saw all around us on the beach a huge crowd of rabbits and wildcats and deer and people and coyotes and foxes and raccoons, and all of us were mingled together peacefully in the darkness. It was like a vision of the Peaceable Kingdom, and I thought, ‘This is the most terrible and wonderful night of my life.’ And I knew then that I would rebuild my house and I would stay forever in Malibu.”

The Curse of the Chumash haunts the place

The Indians were there first—as early as 3000 B.C. By A.D. 1000 the Chumash had taken over the region. They were energetic fishermen and traders who made elegant baskets and seven-man oceangoing plank canoes. The Spaniards arrived in 1542, and the Indians they neglected to slaughter were exterminated by birth control—Chumash males were forced by the mission fathers to live apart from their wives. In revenge, some say, Chumash medicine men laid a curse on all who would possess “Maliwu” after they were gone.

The first to take possession was Don José Bartolomé Tapia, who in 1802 was granted royal “permisión” to graze cattle on a 16,000-acre tract he called Rancho Topanga Malibu Simmi Sostomo Sequit. But Tapia lost the authorizing document and had to fight off a long challenge to his rights. In 1848 Tapia’s widow sold the ranch to her grandson-in-law, Leon Victor Prudhomme, for 400 pesos—200 in coin, 200 in “goods.” Hard-pressed during the panic of 1857, Prudhomme sold out to an Irishman known as Don Mateo Keller—for $1,400.

Keller escaped the curse. A graduate of Dublin’s Trinity College who spoke five languages, he planted vineyards and was soon shipping 250,000 gallons of wine a year. Eleven years after Keller’s death in 1881, Rancho Malibu was sold for $172,000 to a Boston insurance magnate named Frederick Hastings Rindge, and the curse revived. Rindge was a Harvard graduate who envisioned “the Malibu” as an American Riviera that would someday rival in splendor the Côte d’Azur. But Rindge died in 1905, leaving his widow beset by bands of cattle rustlers and powerful interests that wanted to cut a highway up the coast and to hell with the beauty of the place. A tight-jawed, pistol-packin’ mama, Rhoda May Rindge hired a small army of desperadoes to protect her empire, but in 1925 she lost her fight to block the highway and the next year, hard up for cash, she leased some beach lots for cottages. Modern Malibu was born.

By 1928 “the Movie Colony” had sprung up on a beautiful curving beach near Malibu Lagoon. Screen moguls built love nests there with lumber and carpenters supplied by their studios. Guards were posted to turn away detectives hired by irate wives, and builders were instructed to build bedrooms without windows.

In the ’30s Billie Dove took a house in the Colony, and Howard Hughes flew over it every day to bomb the lady’s deck with roses. One noted director kept two Malibu residences: one for his wife and one for party purposes. Funnyman Joe E. Brown showed up and organized Sunday baseball games that were played on burros.

In the ’40s, while she was making National Velvet, Elizabeth Taylor perfected her riding style in Malibu. And now and then during the ’60s people strolling on the beach near a house owned by Lana Turner, who entertained some characters with a peculiar sense of humor, were startled to hear shots and see bullets kicking up the sand around their feet.

Over the years hundreds of movies and television shows have been shot in Malibu. Mack Sennett filmed some Bathing Beauty sequences at the Colony, and Westerns by the dozen have come out of the Fox and Paramount ranches that lie north of Malibu Canyon. In recent years M*A*S*H was filmed entirely at the Fox Ranch, and in The Rockford Files James Garner’s trailer was parked perennially at Paradise Cove.

What next for Malibu? An earthquake? An oil boom? One thing seems certain: Real estate prices will keep on rising. There’s so much demand and so little land.

‘The flames shot 120 feet into the air—we were inside them!’

A firestorm is the ultimate Malibu experience. Mary Crosby, Bing’s actress daughter (she shot J.R. on Dallas), went through the great Malibu firestorm of ’82 with her husband, music publisher and songwriter Edmund (“Eb”) Lottimer. This is her story:

“Our ranch is way up a canyon at the end of a dirt road, so we knew we’d be on our own if the fire came our way. We decided to stay because we’d been told that was the only way to save the house. But that meant we had to keep the horses there, too. They had been abused before they came to us, and we didn’t know how they’d behave if a firestorm hit. We had cleared the land around the house, as you’re supposed to, and to keep up with the fire’s progress we kept in touch by telephone with a distant neighbor who had a television set—we don’t.

” ‘The fire’s in Liberty Canyon,’ he was saying, ‘about 45 minutes away.’ Then I heard him gasp. ‘Oh my God!’ he said. ‘It’s here!’ That meant we had 30 minutes to get ready—maybe. So we moved fast. We shut the dogs in the bathroom and locked all the doors and windows so no sparks could get inside. Then we ran out and began wetting everything down with a hose—the house, the outbuildings, a pile of lumber. The cats had gotten out so we grabbed them and then rounded up the horses and led them into the corral.

“By now the air was black with smoke and flying ashes and so hot it was hard to breathe. The cats were hysterical and the horses were trembling and whinnying. But we talked to them and stroked them and they became calmer. There were three of them, two mares and a filly 4 months old. We hosed them down and hosed the cats and ourselves. We’d brought some blankets to put over us and some towels to breathe through and we soaked them, too.

“Then we got into the horse trough, the two of us, holding the cats, and pulled the blankets over us and kept talking to the horses and hosing them down until the air got so hot the water in the hose boiled and we had to stop. But the horses were calm now and all at once they did something wonderful. They put the filly between them, so that she was protected on both sides.

“By now the wind was screaming, tearing the blankets out of our hands. We had all we could do to hang onto them and at the same time hang onto the cats, who were clawing and screeching. And all the while it kept getting hotter and hotter, we were being cooked alive.

“Then all at once the firestorm hit. You wouldn’t believe the flames! We saw photos of them later, shooting out 200 feet in front of the main body of the fire and 120 feet into the air! And we were inside them! We were inside the fire for no more than 30 seconds but it seemed like 30 days. In 30 seconds, traveling at 65 miles an hour, half a mile of flames rolled over us.

“And then just as suddenly as they’d come the flames were gone. The wind was still roaring and the air was hot as an oven but the flames were gone. We stood up and looked around. The horses hadn’t been hurt. Neither had the cats. Neither had we. But the house was on fire!

“We jumped out of the trough and raced through soot and sparks blowing everywhere, but when we turned on the spigot outside the house—no water! The pipes were plastic and the fire had melted them. So we grabbed buckets and dunked them in the swimming pool and threw water on the flames and soon they fizzled out—we only lost part of the guest room.

“We grabbed each other then, all covered with soot and coughing up crud, and danced up and down and yelled, ‘We did it! We did it!’ Then we rushed off to help our neighbors, who as it turned out had lost their house.

“Going through the fire was a horrifying experience in a way. Facing the power of nature, standing up to it in such an overwhelming form. But it was a liberating experience too, and it changed us both. It taught us that we can have total trust in each other. We have a good marriage but the fire made it better, deeper. It had an incredible bonding effect. It bound us to each other and to this place. How could we not love a place where we had experienced so much?”

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