Where is Malibu? What is Malibu? And is it really full of movie stars?
But first an apology: by the very nature of this essay name dropping is hard to avoid.
Where is Malibu?
At school I was taught the Pennines were ‘the backbone of Great Britain.’ It came as a bit of a shock to discover they stop well short of Scotland. Was Scotland spineless? In the same way, we hear of Malibu and assume it part of Los Angeles. Muscle Beach, built to appear a mini-Venice with canals, is part of Los Angeles. LA’s commercial port is distant. Malibu is a long way away.
Malibu sits over 33 miles distant down the coast for Tinsel Town. It stretches another ten spottified miles further. (I use spottified to mean houses dotted all over the place.) If you lived by the beach but worked in Edinburgh it would be Gullane. Or Glasgow to Irvine. Or Inverness to Elgin. It incorporates Dume Point, the abode of wealthy LA lawyers and Bob Dylan. (St Andrews University gave him an honorary degree. He kept the gown.)
Malibu ‘village’ is more a shopping ‘mart’ plus a stretch of sparsely populated coastline. Last time I checked the entire population village and coastline was 28,000, 28,001 if you include a lonely Scot. Nevertheless, it has its own jurisdiction as a city and its own court.
It’s an hour’s drive at commute peak time. But what a drive! From the minute you take the slipway down from Ocean Avenue, Santa Monica onto Pacific Coast Highway you are in driver’s heaven. Miles of ocean and beach one side, mountains and canyons the other, cars of all years and types to satisfy any petrolhead. One daily driver is an Aston Martin with the license plate – HUBRIS.
Malibu-ites love Porches, especially old ones. On hearing a hill fire was about to consume his property a big time LA lawyer who had a show garage of collector Porches phoned in panic from his LA pad to his maid to tell her to get the cars out to safety. His wife and family were still in the house at the time.
To Zuma and beyond
Past Zuma Beach the location for ‘Baywatch‘ (known as ‘Crotch Watch’) and its iconic lifesaver huts on stilts, past Paradise Cove and the fictional Jim Rockford’s trailer, you reach my modest pad down on a sliver of a beach cove well below the road, another seven miles beyond Malibu village, so remote not even the UPS guy can find it.
The last bus from LA, a late night Metro bus, takes you to Trancas terminus the last vestige of Malibu civilisation, leaving the final few miles to walk to my pad in the sultry heat of the night. The odd, very odd, half-naked jogger cum exhibitionist runs past you in the dead of night. Women drive by in huge SUVs, interior light on so they adjust their makeup in the rear view mirror. A coyote runs across your path.
Movie stars everywhere
Not quite. Some go to great lengths not to be seen, others are friendly. Martin Sheen doesn’t give a fig for stardom. Sheen waves back and asks, “How’re yi doin’, buddy?” If you hang around awhile you will encounter them, but you won’t recognise the one without make-up, and the other in a full beard.
Movie star homes are well protected, or off the beaten track. You have to know where they lie to see their owners drive in and out. There are a couple of exclusive streets guarded and gated where celebrities congregate for safety, and to associate with other famous people for the comfort of their egos.
The late ‘Stay with us’ David Bowie, and Charles Bronson lived in Malibu Colony, a cul-de-sac patrolled by security guards; all your needs, wants and provisions delivered, high-class hookers included, a beach front constantly in the courts for right of public access. When I see a movie set in Los Angeles, shot around the Malibu coastline, I know most of the case live a few miles apart. It’s an easy job for the casting director.
For all their money and show homes Angelinos look down on them as a bit of a joke.
Malibu beach living
I have yet to appreciate the attraction of building your home right on a beach with only the abstraction of ocean and sky to look at. Okay, the light changes, the waves get choppy, clouds scud by, but to me flat calm under blue sky is a blank nothingness.
Cheaper beach houses nearer LA, the earliest ones built, get battered by waves. I was in one once that sat on stilts. Never again. You don’t want to be drunk on tequila and feel the room shift markedly every few minutes, hit by an express train.
Much of Malibu’s architecture would sit comfortably anywhere on the Spain’s coast. Red pantile roofs abound, stucco walls everywhere. You could be in Spain until you notice the cars and American billboards.
The community took off in earnest only in the fifties, when celebrities decided they wanted out of LA. As the film industry grew movie stars began spreading their money along the coastline buying plots to build bigger and more ostentatious homes than their neighbour, some truly excessive, tasteless architecture nauseas to look at.
The go-west pioneering spirit lives long in Malibu. Build a house over the sands on a beach, get it washed down and out on stormy days. Build a house on the hillside bluff, have it reduced to a chimney stack every ten years from raging brush fires. Answer? Rebuild it again in the exact same style and in the exact same place. Lesson? Insurance is tricky.
That said, Malibu domestic architecture, like that in Los Angeles itself, is the best in the world, and the most diverse. It’s beach houses are second to none. But a ton of money can give birth to some ugly edifices as well as the most insensitive to the location.
What is Malibu?
Malibu proper is a bit of a disappointment. They call it a plaza. It really is no more than a number of stores with the highway running through it. There’s a few decent restaurants; some grossly over-priced clothes shops; a large Ralph’s food store that exceptionally has no security because to arrest a celebrity will get the store a bad name; a cosmetic dentist; a doctor who charges over $100 to listen to you; two hair stylists; a pet store selling pocket dogs; a wall newsagent where movie stars purchase armfuls of glossy magazines at $200 a time; a garage; a Catholic chapel, and a decent wee cinema. Of all things, there is a monastery high on a bluff worth a visit for the view if affords over Malibu to the bay.
Where to eat?
The best value for money restaurant is more of a daytime breakfast and lunch eatery called Coogies. Sit there long enough chomping a good salad and you’ll see movie actors slide into a booth or an open table for their daily steak and cheese cake. (If you want to goggle at a gaggle in one go, attend mass in the chapel.)
The etiquette is uncomplicated. Do not stare or interrupt their meal or ask for an autograph. If you do you’re liable to be stopped by the café owner next time you enter. Stars value their privacy, that’s why they draw attention to themselves wearing shades on cloudy days, drive expensive bright yellow supercars, sport their latest plastic boobs, and wear costly designer clothes with slashes everywhere that cost an Armani and a leg.
But yes, the guy in the corner shovelling Eggs-Benedict into his gob while reading Variety, the man that looks like Pierce Brosnan is Pierce Brosnan. The slim boy-like figure behind you with the Hindenburg lips is Angelina Jolie.
Keeping your distance is extremely frustrating when you’re a hungry writer with scripts. The one and only time a famous actor talked to me unsolicited was John Cusack. He sat next to me at the bar counter for fifteen minutes before he spoke. “What do you think of Obama?” he asked, suddenly, without any warning. I introduced myself, expressed my thoughts, he ruminated over them a few minutes and then answered, “Thanks. I’ll be voting for him.” If I can help people as I go along my living has not been in vain.
History of Malibu
Before the 1930s the coastline was empty but for brush and rattlesnakes, a cattle farm owned by one rancher who got his stake by riding his horse as far as he could until sunset. He gradually sold up parcels of land, and the beach front to one entrepreneur who built a tile making factory in 1930, where Malibu village lies, the oldest house in Malibu, and a railway track to it and a pier to ship tiles around the USA. For some years it was quite successful. Then it closed down. The line of the railway is now the highway, but the house still exists, a museum, Adamson House – good Scots name – marking it as a genuine historic property.
There is one other property I want to draw reader’s attention. It was first the home of Scottish rocker, Rod Stewart, designed by the eminent Malibu beach architect, Harry Gesner, who lives next door to it and me. He shaped the roofs like open clam shells, the roof tiles like fish scales. Back in the mid-1950s a young architect knocked on Harry’s door uninvited, holding a copy of Stewart’s home illustrated in a magazine. He had come to discuss Harry’s design, and to praise him. “I’ve been given a prestigious commission for a public building,” he said, “I want to design it on the same principle as your beach home.” That building is the Sydney Opera House. Despite some awful designs Malibu has real claims to architectural innovation and fame.
My first digs was atop Decker Canyon, in the mountains, in a stifling hot basement of an out-of-work actor, whose only claim to fame was a modest role in one movie, Woodstock. I shared it with coyotes and cicadas and cockroaches. The winding road to it has no crash barriers making an unwary driver chance a 200 foot drop to the canyon gorge below when faced with a fat six-tyre pick-up bombing towards you around a corner on what is essentially single track. I remember thinking anybody going over the edge would never be found. In fact, that’s where a canyon cruncher discovered the remains of lead bass guitarist, Philip Kramer of Iron Butterfly, over four years after he disappeared on his way to the airport in 1995 – a mystery solved.
One day I did chance upon a car over the edge. I followed the skid marks and looked over. The car was upside down, only a few feet below the road edge, held precariously on stout bushes growing out of the side of the cliff. A million to one chance. But here is the really surreal part – the young driver was at that moment clambering back up to the road shaken but unharmed, clutching a sandwich in one hand he had rescued from his glove box – and eating it! “Shit! Ma pa’s car. Gotta go back for the radio. It’s new,” he said.
What else has Malibu got?
This essay has not the space to cover everything, and isn’t interested in the squalid stuff, the murders, the infidelities, the hairy chested narcissists jogging against the highway traffic wearing nothing by a pair of Speedos, the drug dealers, and the boozed up talent. Readers can find that stuff galore in the gossip magazines. In any event, there seems to be a movement out of Malibu, away from the glare of the paparazzi.
Malibu has its share of poor. There is a heap of poverty hidden away in the canyons, folks easing out a living looking after rich folks horses, fixing cars on the cheap, selling hash, living out of a two-roomed wooden shack. Their homes tend to be open to the road among trees. Too many are abandoned single mothers struggling to make ends meet. And let’s not forget the hard grafting Mexican gardener who looks after the homes of the wealthy for a daily pittance, homes with annual council taxes of tens of thousands of dollars.
Of letterbox and surf
Two more things are worth mentioning.
Malibu letter boxes are second to none. They are an expression of the owner’s individuality, as much as their sedans, pick-ups, and humongous pimped SUVs. The observant will soon notice them and marvel. An illustrated book waits to be published.
And then there are the surfers. Surfer culture is everywhere. The top surfboard makers work and sleep there. Surfers doss in cheap trailers, or motor in for a day on the surf. Even without a pair of surfing pants, or a board tucked under their arm, you can tell them apart from the rest of us. An hour at Coogie’s bar gives testament to their dynamic slang.
“Man, Ah was on ma Rhino Chaser by Big Jim square foot, you know, shootin’ back at the pier, when the damn wave got all squirly jist before a pearl. Ah was sure Ah was headin’ to the barrel, but before Ah could make the cutback the bomb hit me full-on!”
Would I like to live in Malibu permanently? There isn’t any real depth of history, not hundreds of years of history of the kind that binds a man to the land and its people. You have to be a person for whom image and money is everything, sunshine a bonus. Malibu is a dormitory.
And there is a strange air of angst just below the surface veneer, people on the verge of a meltdown, the kind that issue from waiting to hear that phone call confirm your career is on the ascendency or in the toilet, your precious home and cars lost.
Down to your last bag of rubies, filling pulp papers with stories of your ills and illnesses, that’s Malibu. It has its compensations … as the photograph of the surfer below testifies.