My very first morning in residence as a homeowner in the Malibu Colony, I was out on the street with my dogs when three surfers approached from the lagoon side, wetsuits peeled to their waists, carrying their boards. I recognized some new neighbors—Edward Norton, Jonah Hill, and Flea. Norton greeted me—we live in the same building in New York, and I’d run into him during a recent stay in the Colony, while I was visiting a friend. He has a house here—an architectural landmark designed by John Lautner—as do the other two. I returned the greeting as the trio ambled down the road past Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson’s house. Such was my welcome to the Colony—a mile-long stretch of houses on a south-facing beach, sealed off from the real world behind a guardhouse.
This article appears in Issue 23 of Alta Journal.
If the Colony, once known as the Malibu Movie Colony, is no longer the exclusive preserve of Hollywood’s upper echelons, as it was in its founding years, nor as raffish and bohemian as it was in the 1960s and ’70s, when it was the seaside outpost of the Laurel Canyon rock and roll scene, it still has more than a vestige of the communal and offbeat vibe that attracted rock stars and directors and screenwriters. It has long been the beach-community equivalent of the Chateau Marmont—which was my home away from home when I toiled as a screenwriter in the ’90s—a refuge for the nonconformists and the outlaws of the entertainment world.
An investment banker acquaintance of mine, hearing that my wife and I had bought in the Colony, expressed his surprise, exclaiming that the houses there were cheek by jowl, without the luxury of privacy. Which is true. The typical house, on the ocean side, has a 30-foot-wide lot, and most of the houses are built up to the edges of the lot lines. If your neighbor has a party, you will be able to sing along to the music. If he is grilling burgers, you will smell them. And if he’s out on the deck when you’re on your deck, you can chat with him, as I have found myself doing more and more often as I settle in. That’s always been part of the charm and the allure of the Colony—the promise of a community, the sense of living in a very exclusive village. And maybe the sense that investment bankers wouldn’t want to live here. (Although several moguls of finance, like Stanley Druckenmiller, have infiltrated in recent years.)
The houses on nearby Carbon Beach, a.k.a. Billionaires Beach, sit on the very edge of the highway, whereas the Colony is a tranquil haven protected from traffic and day-trippers by a guarded entrance. And while it is probably less like a village now than at almost any time in the past, the ideal persists, even if your neighbors are absent much of the time, off at one of their other homes or skiing in Europe. The entire community, along with visiting friends, seems to converge on Malibu Colony Road for the Fourth of July and especially for Halloween, when decorations run rampant and many residents host parties.
This past Halloween was my first here, and the Colony’s first since the pandemic shutdown. I’d watched the decorations go up, starting with the gatehouse, festooned with skeletons and ghosts and monsters. Early residents employed Hollywood set designers, and some of my neighbors probably did as well, judging by the quality and intricacy of the designs. My favorite was the skeleton-surfer tableau a few doors down from us. If not quite as bacchanalian as I might have hoped, given accounts of past years, the evening was still a serious revel. The Colony population was swollen for the night with friends and family—visitors needed someone to put their names at the gate. Families with kids dressed as Marvel and Disney characters took to the street before six. By eight o’clock, things had started to get raucous, with several thousand people crowding the mile of Malibu Colony Road. Adult costumes ranged from the wildly extravagant—wine merchant Richard Torin and his wife in 18th-century French court regalia complete with powdered wigs—to simple black masks. Food trucks and fun-house booths lined the street. Neighbors greeted neighbors. Celebrities like Hill and Jamie Foxx, a visitor, wandered unmolested along the street. I took it all in on my way to the home of my friends Jef Levy and Pamela Skaist-Levy, who were throwing a party. Jef’s a TV and film director, Pam the cofounder of Juicy Couture. They served vintage champagne and wines with pizza to all who passed through—a procession of screenwriters, models, set designers, a sober companion and several drunks. Eventually, a group of us staggered up to the other end of the Colony in search of a party at a home being rented by Balthazar Getty, populated by well-lubricated, attractive young Gettys and their friends.
The Colony sits just west of the Malibu Lagoon, the former site of the Chumash village Humaliwo, which translates as “the surf sounds loudly.” (The Hu wasn’t stressed, and Maliwo became Malibu.) The nearly 13,000 acres that make up modern-day Malibu were part of a land grant to a Spanish settler in 1802 that was purchased by Frederick Hastings Rindge in 1891 for $10 an acre. Rindge and his wife, May, installed fences and went to great lengths to keep people away from their land.
After Frederick’s death in 1905, May oversaw construction of her own railway track to prevent Southern Pacific Railroad from building a line along the coast. She also hired guards to block access to her paradise, although intrepid trespassers occasionally gained entrance by horseback at low tide. Southern Pacific’s railroad was subsequently diverted inland. In 1911, May sued the State of California over its plans to build a coastal highway from Oregon to San Diego. The state sued her back. Eventually, May lost her suit in a United States Supreme Court ruling that the county had the right to use eminent domain to build a scenic highway. Construction of the Malibu segment of the Roosevelt Highway (later known as the Pacific Coast Highway) began in 1926.
By then, May was struggling to remain solvent, and she decided to start leasing land along a mile stretch of beach west of the lagoon, hoping to reclaim it after the 10-year lease period was up. Anna Q. Nilsson, a hugely popular silent-film star, was the first to sign a lease; she was followed by fellow silent star Marie Prevost, who specialized in playing flappers. Next came Raoul Walsh, a successful director with an eye patch. The community of houses on the beach became known as the Malibu Movie Colony. Many of the homes were built by Hollywood set designers on loan from the studios. Barbara Stanwyck, Dolores del Rio, Ronald Colman, Gloria Swanson, and Clara Bow were among the early tenants.
Kevin Babineau, a third-generation contractor whose father built and maintained many of the Colony’s homes and passed the business on to him about 20 years ago, says that some of the houses were originally built on skids so that they could be pulled back from the beach in winter to protect them from high tides and storm surges. My own home is from 1930 and I imagine it perched on skids, ready to retreat from an encroaching surf. These early cottages seldom displayed great architectural ambition. But while the houses were ramshackle, the neighbors were celestial.
“For the first time,” writes David K. Randall in his book The King and Queen of Malibu, “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.” Fan magazines like Photoplay and Motion Picture Story sent reporters and photographers to the Colony. A shot of Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and Douglas Fairbanks on the tennis court in the Colony was reprinted around the world.
In 1933, James M. Cain, the great pulp novelist, wrote in Vanity Fair, “Whatever else may be said of Malibu, the place where the movie queens grow their sunburn, there is one thing that you have to hand it: it is probably the finest beach ever created by God.” Of the screen goddesses who populated this stretch of sand, Cain wrote, “They 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.” Cain noted that in this part of Malibu, the coastline faces due south, with the result that the sun shines directly on the beach all day long, as if it were perpetually noon.
The stars and directors of talkies were plentiful among the second wave of Colony residents, to whom May Rindge started selling the properties outright as her fortunes continued to decline. The lots went for $12,000, which many considered an outrageous price at the time. (“Did somebody take these pulchritudinous suckers for a ride?” asked Cain in his article.) Lana Turner, Frank Capra, and Loretta Young were among those who moved in.
Decades later, Cary Grant took a house down the street from ex-wife Dyan Cannon after she filed a restraining order against him. Liz Taylor and Richard Burton rented in the Colony while they were married. The houses got bigger and more ambitious, constructed in a head-spinning variety of styles—desert adobe, Japanese, Bauhaus modern, Tudor, Spanish, Moorish, Cape Cod colonial—more than a few of the structures seeming to illustrate the theory that wealth and fame are no guarantors of taste.
In the ’60s and ’70s, rock and roll came to the Colony, the new era inaugurated by a legendary Fourth of July party that Jane Fonda and her soon-to-be husband, Roger Vadim, threw on the beach outside their house, where the Byrds played till dawn under a giant plastic tent. Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Steve McQueen, Sidney Poitier, Buck Henry, Joan Didion, Dennis Hopper, and Brooke Hayward were among the guests. Some saw it as the moment when New Hollywood gave the collective finger to Old Hollywood. According to Mark Rozzo, in his recent book, Everybody Thought We Were Crazy, Henry Fonda approached the stage and started tugging at the pant leg of bass player Chris Hillman, begging him to turn the volume down. Hillman relayed Fonda’s request to David Crosby, who said, “Fuck that,” and played on. When Hillman later consulted Peter Fonda about his father’s request, the younger Fonda said, “Don’t pay any attention to him. He’s an old man.”
Rozzo quotes Jane Fonda as saying, “It was quite an amazing scene. There was a hippie who followed the Byrds in line at the buffet with a tie-dyed skirt and her breasts exposed, nursing a baby. Danny Kaye was behind her with his eyes popping out, and George Cukor behind him, kind of gagging.” My next-door neighbor Paul, who grew up in the Colony, remembers sneaking into the party. “At first, we just assumed it was a Byrds cover band,” he says. “Of course, we were pretty stoned. My friend snuck up to the stage and touched the drummer’s leg.”
My friend Griffin Dunne, the actor-director-producer, spent summers in the Colony with his parents, Ellen and Dominick Dunne, who went to big parties there rife with showbiz and literary folk and eccentrics without portfolio, including an English aristo named Sharman Douglas, who once arrived on an elephant, which she allowed the kids to ride until the elephant, maddened by the heat of the road, bolted off toward the Pacific Coast Highway. Dunne also remembers being impressed by the parade of movie stars visiting Roddy McDowall’s house in the mid-’60s.
In the years that followed, more rockers infiltrated the Colony. Singer turned producer Peter Asher drew many of his musical friends there, including James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. Linda Ronstadt moved in, and the members of Led Zeppelin rented multiple houses one summer. Ronnie Wood also rented there; Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were frequent visitors. Neil Diamond bought a house, just a few doors down from the one my wife and I now own. A&M Records cofounder Jerry Moss hosted many of his famous recording artists, including Cat Stevens, who supposedly had a religious conversion after he almost drowned in the waves off the beach. A couple of decades later, rappers joined the party: Suge Knight rented in the Colony and apparently set a new high bar for loud, crazy parties. The owner of the house, Lawrence M. Longo, a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney, was fired for his handling of a 1992 assault case against Knight. The State Bar of California was not amused by the fact that Knight had signed Longo’s 18-year-old daughter to a recording contract with his label, Death Row Records, not long before he took up residence in Longo’s house in the Colony.
The Colony featured heavily in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s 1953 novel starring Elliott Gould, released in 1973. (The shots from the street side of the Colony are legit, but knowledgeable viewers will wonder why the party scenes on the beach show an isolated house with no near neighbors.) A few years later, the Eagles played a concert at the cul-de-sac on the western end of the Colony, in front of the big adobe house belonging to actor Larry Hagman (which is currently owned by Sting). My friend Jef Levy was among those in attendance. He told me recently, “When I was a poor kid growing up in Culver City, my brother had a friend whose father ran Universal Pictures, and one summer they invited my brother for July 4th, and he brought me along. The Eagles were playing a concert for everyone on the street. I said to God: ‘Please let me live here one day.’ ” Some 25 years later, Jef and Pam bought Number 56, a small cottage on the west side of the Colony with an outsize history. Director Hal Ashby used the house as his production and editing headquarters, and his friend Robert Towne sublet the place and wrote part of the script for Chinatown there. Barry Spikings, the producer of The Deer Hunter, subsequently bought the house and rented it to director Ridley Scott during the making of Blade Runner. (More recently, my wife and I stayed there for a couple of weeks before learning that there was a house for sale up the street, which we purchased and where we now live.) This is, as far as I can determine, a pretty typical Malibu Colony house history.
It’s doubtful that there is another mile of road anywhere in the world that has hosted quite as much creative energy, as much beauty, as much fame, and as much sheer decadence as this one. I’m doing my small part to keep the creative legacy going—much of my latest novel has been written here. And I seem to have been accepted into the fraternity of surfers who take advantage of several excellent breaks off the Colony beach and the adjacent Lagoon Beach, though I was somewhat nonplussed when my neighbor Paul explained recently that Joe’s Break, directly off our deck, was named for a surfer who died when he hit one of the rocks that create the distinctive wave.
Given the inevitable march of global warming, and the inexorable retreat of the beach, the future of the Colony is uncertain. And yet the demand for these tightly packed houses—including those on the land side—has never been greater. It is perhaps less bohemian here than in years past, but movie stars and rock stars still roam the beach—and surf the waves. After almost a century, the magic abides.•