Great Escapes

04.29.14

The Rise of the Malibu Movie Colony

Welcome to Malibu Colony, a one-mile stretch of beachfront property that has been witness to the shenanigans of the stars for over 80 years. And oh the tales these homes could tell...

It is one of the most famous miles in the world. Jane Fonda threw an infamous all-night party here. (The Byrds closed the festivities down at dawn on her deck.) It is where Cat Stevens had his Muslim moment, and where Robert Redford saw a bundled up Mary Tyler Moore strolling the beach and decided right then to cast her in Ordinary People. Gloria Swanson allegedly entertained Joseph Kennedy at her secret hideaway, while former best friends and next-door neighbors Larry Hagman and Burgess Meredith fought a vicious and costly legal battle over a few feet of obstructed ocean view.

This star-studded locale is Malibu Colony, a private stretch of around 100 homes sitting side by side on the Pacific Ocean. For over 80 years, celebrities and moguls have flocked to this beachfront, where they have held memorable parties, written Oscar-winning scripts, and hired private barges every Fourth of July. While the enclave is gated and guarded, part of the beach itself (below the high tide line) is theoretically accessible to the public. From a distance, they can gaze at the eclectic style of homes, and their equally mixed residents who may be long-timers, temporary renters (Pink has been a constant presence), or those who make their home (or one of their several homes) here, including the likes of Tom Hanks, Rob Reiner, and Jim Carrey.

But what’s most delicious about the Colony is not its present—which, while still a celeb stomping ground, is, in fact, at something of a crossroads—but its history. The neighborhood began in the late 1920s when the widow of an oil and electric company magnate, May Rindge (“Queen of the Malibu”), owned all 27 miles of a then almost-unreachable and deserted coastline. Finding herself in financial trouble after lengthy legal battles, she decided to rent space on one secluded mile to Hollywood celebrities. It was instantly dubbed the Malibu Movie Colony.

The studios loaned out set designers to construct shacks where folks like Clara Bow, Ronald Colman, Barbara Stanwyck, and many more could enjoy privacy, a place to conduct their illicit liaisons, and have some athletic fun. There is still a photograph along the wall of the first tennis court built there, of Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford, racquets in hand. 

By the mid-1930s, Rindge allowed the stars to actually purchase their homes, which, as the decades moved on, grew more and more expansive (though most houses were, and remain, on 30-foot lots). The stars kept coming: Bing Crosby, Gary Cooper, Merle Oberon. Eventually, the musical world invaded, with former singer turned producer Peter Asher hosting everyone from Joni to James for all-day sing-alongs. Neil Diamond owned for a long time, Ronnie Wood rented, as did Linda Ronstadt, who jogged the beach with her boyfriend, Gov. Jerry Brown. Even rapping rivals Shug Knight and Tupac Shakur rented one year…at the same time.

PHOTOS: Liz Taylor, David Beckham & More Stars Frolicking Around Malibu

malibu-colony-david-beckham
Fame Pictures

It was while visiting A&M Records founder Jerry Moss that Cat Stevens took a swim in the ocean, realized he was drowning, and pledged that if he survived, he would devote the rest of his life to Islam. Hello, Yusuf. Virtually every rock star of the ’60s and ’70s partied in the Colony and one can only imagine what, and how much, has been smoked there over the decades. Longtime homeowner and Dallas star Larry Hagman—who led a famous Fourth of July parade for years on the beach—actually grew marijuana in his yard and was pissed when he discovered some of the teenage neighbors were sneaking by during the night to steal it.

Growing up in the Colony was a combination of good and bad, especially from the ’60s to the ’80s. Kids were entitled, (Cher hired elephants and an Army tank for her son’s first birthday party), surfing by day and partying by night, and left alone way too often.   

They were also bored, with most their friends living in Santa Monica, where the Colony kids had to be bused to schools. “It was the most isolated existence you could imagine,” the late Ann Connelly Fulton, whose family moved there in 1940 and who became active in Malibu civic affairs, once told me. Likewise, the late producer Richard St. Johns once recalled that his famous writer mom, Adela Rogers St. John, came downstairs one morning and saw her floor lined with teens in sleeping bags. “She walked over to her desk, picked up some keys, dropped them in my lap, and left for 10 years,” he told me. Too many Colony kids ended up on drugs, in suicidal attempts, and with underachieved lives.

Virtually every house in the Colony has a story within its stories. When Dyan Cannon and Grant Grant split, she attained a restraining order, so he rented another house a bit further down the road. Neighbors still recall how he would come down in his bathrobe every morning just to wave to his daughter as she was driven to school. 

It’s time that the museum officials live up to their own words and become more transparent and forthcoming.

Peter Guber built an all-Japanese home when he was running Sony Pictures. Larry Hagman sold his adobe-style one to Sting. Woody Harrelson put up a teepee at #38 (whose previous tenants included Timothy Hutton and Bette Midler) for his well-attended parties. Liz and Dick rented for a while, and one former neighbor says, “a lot of booze was drunk there by noon.” Frank Capra had the Tom Hanks house at one time, where his friend Dave Chasen used to cook up such good chili that his Hollywood pals urged him to open his own restaurant. The result, Chasens, was renowned for that dish and was the site of the post-Oscars bash for years.

I have spoken often over the years with residents, who were (and, in some cases, still are) also neighbors. My father bought #74 for about $125,000 in 1969. In our home alone, Andy Gibb tried to kill himself in a bathroom, Philip Kaufman wrote the screenplay for The Right Stuff, the E Street Band’s Roy Bittan presumably did some rockin’ during his long lease, and Redford watched Mary Tyler Moore stroll the beach. Barbra Streisand came to check out the house one day, and when I mentioned that Redford had rented previously, she said, “He’s going to be my co-star in this movie! Maybe we could co-live here.”

Politics has also found a place in the Colony. Bobby Kennedy was at director John Frankenheimer’s home before heading to the Ambassador that June night in 1968. Fundraisers have been held for candidates from Brown to Romney. I actually met Jimmy Carter—then the former Georgia governor—at a small dinner party at the swanky Colony home of a Democratic Party contributor. I was so charmed that I walked into the CBS newsroom (where I was working) the following morning and announced that I’d met the future president of the United States. My colleagues laughed uproariously. 

I woke up one morning to see my father—a longtime businessman and activist—sitting on the deck with Paul Newman, Warren Beatty, Neil Diamond, and Redford. They were discussing environmental issues and out of that meeting was born Energy Action, a D.C.-based watchdog. A famous Los Angeles judge, Stanley Mosk, emerged from the ocean one afternoon and fell on the sand. A party was in progress on the beach, and canape-carrying waiters stepped over and around him. Finally, someone decided to make sure he was all right. It was too late and Mosk was pronounced DOA of heart failure. Speaking of death, director and Colony owner Tony Scott’s suicide last year shook up and confounded all his neighbors.

Today, the Colony is still exclusive and has its charms, but those who know it well say the feeling has changed. “It’s like a ghost town,” says Tim Barry, the tennis pro who has served and served to every famous tenant and their kids for three decades. “More and more people are buying multiple homes here, and, for a lot of the folks, it’s one of four homes they own.” One thing that never stops, says Barry, is the squabbling, the latest of which surrounds paying steep prices to place all the telephone lines underground. 

Just getting to Malibu Colony has become an obstacle course. The traffic, as in all of Los Angeles, is a serious impediment. While not as bad as some environmentalists have expected, there is beach erosion. The prices can be prohibitive, with houses selling for between $15 million and $20 million. Philanthropist Wallis Annenberg has been asking even more for her huge home (once owned by Michael Landon). Even summer rentals can cost over $100,000 a month. Right now, there are more on the market than ever before, which says the famous may not be flocking to this stretch in the numbers that they once did. 

The old families are dying out or have moved on to simpler places, seeking the small-town ambience and funky eateries of the early days, now replaced by Nobu and Café Habana. They still lament the loss of their beloved old haunt, Malibu Lumber, one of those great emporiums where you would see locals like actor Ed Harris buying his paints, which was torn down and turned into The Lumberyard, a mini-mall filled with designer stores.     

Still, they come. Susan Anderson, a Victoria’s Secret designer, likes to rent for a week in the Colony with her husband and young children, and knows that it’s best to stay put once there. “It’s a beach getaway but still a vacation for locals like us,” she says. “We love that everything is a walk or bike ride away. It feels secluded and special and safe for the kids.”

Agreed. I thank my prescient dad every August at sunset.