Light and Shadow

No doubt about it, the Southern California coast can be a mixed bag of impressions.

No doubt about it, the Southern California coast can be a mixed bag of impressions.

On one hand, you have the Technicolor, sun-drenched, everything’s-bouncy-and-wavy, postcard-perfect image. The dark side is the divisive history, the greedy land battles, and the mysterious deaths (real and fictional) that got into noir novels as easily as a blonde enters a Thunderbird convertible.

Weaving through the landscape where “the mountains meet the sea” is Highway 1, Pacific Coast Highway, a road inhabited by escapees. Escapees from the East, from other countries, from Los Angeles. Escapees who, having grown weary of rigid social rules or miles of hot concrete and stucco tract homes, fled to the ocean for respite. Life got ya down, Bunky? A 2 a.m. drive on PCH, with the full moon illuminating and a 4,000-mile ocean view, is the remedy. The gridlock, the smog, and the stress of a life moving faster than the latest Internet connection all fall away on PCH. It is your road.

You just don’t get the same feeling driving down Ventura Boulevard.

Photo: Carey Saker.

Pacific Coast Highway has inspired writers and artists for generations. Joan Didion and John Fante immortalized the highway in their writings. Charles Bukowski drank, whored, puked and wrote his way up and down the highway, from the 49er Tavern on PCH in Long Beach to Sean Penn’s house in Malibu.

By the late 1800’s, Spanish coastal land grants from Hermosa to Malibu were being bought and sold by savvy land barons who paid as little as ten cents an acre for thousands of acres. Some would profit from their vision and some would tragically lose their holdings to governments. The Southern California coast became an area of elegant seaside resorts catering to older people who had the time to take a carriage ride to the beach.

The Automobile Club of Southern California was created in 1900 and Los Angeles became a city so inexorably wedded to cars that “motoring” became much more popular than walking. The availability of cheap local gasoline, color saturated scenic postcards and PR created a region that was a motorist’s dream destination. The automobile made travel accessible to the average American who would discover the wonders of sun-kissed beaches and entertainment centers like Venice Beach, which by the early 1900’s had become a paradise of fun — amusement parks, faux canals, pier dance halls, public swimming pools and cheap housing. What happened in Venice, stayed in Venice.

Beach houses begin to line the coast

In 1909, the California State Legislature authorized a bond issue of $18 million for “beginning a system of paved roads” and the U.S. government Highway Act of 1916 matched grants to states for road building. “California, here we come!” was the mantra of flivver-owners across the country. Articles in early motoring magazines extolled the virtues of the state’s Mediterranean climate and outdoor living.

The number of registered cars in LA County quadrupled between 1920 and 1930. By 1925, there was one car for every three people and LA had become the most auto-centric city in the world.

Automobiles meant people could live away from their work. Beaches started to sprout private clubs and silent film star residences for the likes of David O. Selznick, Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford.

In 1926 at Newport Beach, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks attended the official dedication ceremony of the section of Highway 1 that stretched from Newport to Huntington Beach. Pickford was dressed as the “Spirit of Progress” and Douglas as the god Vulcan (in case other attendees didn’t recognize the silent film stars sans costumes). The presence of the most famous couple in America was yet another PR stunt to draw attention to Southern California. The common misconception about early Los Angeles is that the movie and aerospace industries lured people to come west. While they did play a major role, in reality, it was early real estate “boosters” who promoted the sunny skies, orange groves and prospects of year-round swimming in the blue, blue ocean that brought settlers to the region in droves.

Surfing was introduced as early as 1907 to Southern California, but it was Hawaiian legend Duke Kahanamoku who popularized the sport in Newport Beach in 1922. It was practiced only by a small number of thrill seekers and locals who traveled Highway 1 constantly searching for the perfect wave. It would be 40 years before surfing would become an obsession for thousands of land-bound teens who watched 1963’s Beach Party, and decided Southern California ocean activities (including bikini watching) might be more interesting than spending the summer in Kansas. Pacific Coast Highway was changed forever.

A Palisades Beach postcard, circa 1931

Prior to the 1960’s, few people lived on PCH year round. Beach houses were mostly inhabited by part-time residents seeking relief from city or valley heat or by wealthy celebrities. From the 1930’s through the 1950’s tourists were the biggest users of Highway 1, lured there by the image of a road on the beach with cliffs and flowers and fresh air — even though the actual highway was sometimes routed away from the beach, becoming Sepulveda Boulevard in Manhattan Beach and Lincoln Boulevard in Marina del Rey.

Some didn’t buy into the sparkling image of the LA coast. Novelists Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and Dashiell Hammett often used the coast highway as a path to dank corruption and destruction. In The Postman Only Rings Twice, waitress Cora dies in a car accident on Highway 1. Mildred Pierce expanded her café empire (that would foreshadow drive-in eateries) as far as the beach, while losing her daughter to greed and shallowness. The climax of Farewell My Lovely takes place at the Santa Monica Pier, where Highway 1 once again joins the beach.

Not all the noir was in books and movies, though.

1930’s actress Thelma Todd ran Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café on the coast highway in Pacific Palisades, not far from the beach house where JFK would meet Marilyn Monroe for secret trysts 30 years later. The café was used as a location for a shot in the film Farewell My Lovely. The party-loving Todd arrived at the café in the early morning hours after a night of drinking at the hot Trocadero nightclub in Hollywood in 1935. She was found later that day in her car in the garage, dead, still dressed in her beautiful gown and with blood on her face. The grand jury ruled her death a suicide, despite the rumored jealousy of her playboy boyfriend over her constant flirtations with mobster Lucky Luciano. Her death remains a mystery to this day. The building was eventually sold to Paulist Productions who still inhabit the building today.

In Malibu, gun-toting May K. Rindge, who had inherited most of Malibu from her beloved husband, Frederick Rindge, impeded the highway’s progress. May took her husband’s last words to “preserve Malibu” to heart and, for many years, successfully fought to keep not only the Southern Pacific Railroad but also coast highway builders from crossing her land. Travelers from Santa Monica told of meeting cowboys with guns who threatened to shoot anyone stepping onto the Rindge Land. Rindge built a beautiful home on the beach in Malibu in 1930 for her daughter, Rhoda Rindge and her husband, Merritt Adamson, and decorated every room with lavish tiles made in the family’s Malibu Potteries. Merritt started Adohr (Rhoda spelled backwards) Farms, one the largest milk producers in the world. When Malibu Potteries burned down, along with the family homestead, May struggled to pay exorbitant legal fees incurred by her battles to save the land and began to sell small parcels of beachfront property to movie stars. In December 1940, most of the remaining Rindge land went up for sale, lost to taxes, business failures and the collapse of the Rindge ranch. The defeated “Queen of Malibu” died in February 1941, a victim of decades of struggle and disappointment. Within six years, 80% of the property had been sold and businesses began to spring up in Malibu. The Albatross Hotel and Restaurant opened at Los Flores Beach in 1941, portrayed as a spot with a shady reputation in the film, Strangers When We Meet. Lana Turner used the Casa Malibu as a secret hideaway.

Descendents of May and Frederick Rindge still administer the beautiful Adamson House on PCH which was purchased by the State of California by eminent domain in 1968, and the family still owns and operates the Point Dume Club, an enclave of million dollar mobile homes in Malibu, just off PCH.

LA county beaches continued to lure wealthy developers. The lavish Bel Air Bay Club was built between 1927-28 by prominent LA developer Alphonso Bell and continues as a private club today. The club’s property is divided by PCH. Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst built an extravagant beach home for his mistress, comic actress Marion Davies, on Highway 1 in Santa Monica. The huge white mansion became a costume party headquarters for the fun loving actress’ movie pals that included Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Cary Grant. Unfortunately, Hearst only provided for Davies while alive and left her nothing in his will. Davies eventually lost her beach home and died in poverty. Her home was turned into a private club for many years but was eventually ravaged by earthquakes and storms. Facing condemnation and demolition, the property sat idle for years until the city of Santa Monica received a grant from heiress Wallace Annenberg to renovate the property. Only a portion of the original guesthouse and pool were saved and restored. In 2009, the very modern Annenberg Beach House opened to the public with much fanfare.

The Golden Bear, at 306 Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach, was built as a music venue and restaurant in 1926 that hosted the most popular music legends of the times until it closed in 1986.

In 1959, as per California State Highway code 625, Highway 1 became the Pacific Coast Highway.

Oil mogul John Paul Getty would build an Italianate villa off PCH that would eventually be expanded to house his great collection of antiquarian art, named the Getty Museum, now known as the Getty Villa. The small beach cottages that were built for almost nothing in the 1920’s and 30’s began to disappear — to be replaced by mansions, resulting in many legal battles about public beach access.

But it was the hippies and surfers that really eventually increased the traffic flow on PCH. Eddie Erickson, a Malibu resident for four decades, can remember when he could ride his new 10-speed from the new family home on Pt. Dume in Malibu to San Vincente Boulevard in Brentwood in the 1960’s — with few cars on the road.

“I sure wouldn’t recommend that now,” he laughs. “Too dangerous.”

Gidget, Frankie Avalon, and Annette Funicello brought thousands of surf wannabes to golden LA beaches in the mid 1960’s. California, as portrayed in beach and biker movies, represented freedom to uptight teens from the East Coast who were attracted to the seemingly easy living and relaxed moral sexual and drug practices found here. Pacific Coast Highway was soon clogged with woodies, flower power buses, and choppers. No one seemed to care if kids parked their vans on the beach, built beach shacks and bonfires and smoked pot all night. Nude beaches were tolerated. For the first time, the term “California lifestyle” entered popular lexicon and Pacific Coast Highway was the road to that lifestyle. An artists’ colony of ramshackle (but creative) huts existed for decades just off PCH at Topanga. Traffic jams abounded and continue on busy summer weekends to this day.

Various solutions have been presented to help the traffic problem on the popular highway. In 1961, the “Sunset Seaway” was proposed by Seaway Enterprises. In a 30-page document, the company presented renderings for a causeway running from Santa Monica to Malibu, 4,000 feet from the shore. A 200-foot-wide freeway would run in the middle of this “artificial archipelago” and 2.5 million square feet of public beaches and marinas would be created. It was an ambitious proposal, to be sure, that didn’t take into consideration the regular tidal forces that would require costly regular dredging, the 97-million-cubic-yards of landfill from the Santa Monica Mountains, and of course, the opposition from residents. The project was soon abandoned.

By the 1980’s, laws were beginning to regulate the public’s beach use, partly due to demands by residents weary of constant parties and noise. Fires and alcohol consumption were forbidden, but the banishment did not discourage people from wanting to surf, swim and sun on LA beaches. PCH from South Bay to the Ventura County line continues to be both a wonder of scenery and a driving hazard. U-turns made by desperate beachgoers seeking parking, drunk drivers, and speeding Ferraris cost lives and property every year. Residents of beach communities complain about the year-round roar of hundreds of motorcycles on PCH.

Still, locals know that we can take that late night ride on Pacific Coast Highway that reminds us why we live here. We roll down the window and feel that ocean air brushing our skin, the salt and marine life filling our nostrils, a lone gull catching the headlights – and we dream the dream that has brought so many wanderers here for generations. We stop running away because there’s no place left to run. We are at the edge of a continent and we like it here. We’re staying.

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