Los Angeles has no shortage of wealthy private enclaves, but none has quite the allure of the Malibu Colony, a mile of about 115 densely packed houses, off Pacific Coast Highway, mostly on 30-foot-wide lots, half of them on the "land side" (where prices have reached $6 million), half on the more desired beach side (where a home sold for $15 million this summer). Every house behind the simple wood guard shack and gate has a number (30, for instance) and many of them a celebrity provenance (No. 38 passed from Timothy Hutton to Bette Midler to Woody Harrelson.)
But the Colony is also a place where families have lived since it was established, and where thousands of kids (including this writer and later, her children) grew up, at least part of the year. Memories of the colony's beauty, close-knit community, its storied residents and sun-drenched privilege drew about 150 people to the Littlejohn family's tennis court recently for a first-ever Malibu Colony reunion. Ranging in age from 7 to 77, the group was ebullient but well aware of the obvious seductions and potential liabilities of growing up in the Colony.
"It is a place that gets in your heart and stays there, for good and bad," says Joanne Gerson Blum, who, at 35, is living in her family's longtime home there.
The magical mile was christened the Malibu Movie Colony in the late '20s. Southern California Edison heiress May Rindge, who with her husband had purchased the whole of what was officially called Rancho Topanga Malibu for $10 an acre in 1891, was forced to lease it in the late '20s. Rindge, with the help of friends in real estate, reached out to celebrities such as Dolores Del Rio, Ronald Colman and Gloria Swanson.
With the stars came carpenters from the studios to build cottages, and they were about as sturdy as what you find on a back lot. "It was certainly not glamorous from an architectural standpoint," says Ann Fulton, who has had a house there for more than 50 years. In 1940, a cash-poor Depression victim, Rindge declared bankruptcy and the rancho was put up for sale.
Richard St. Johns, son of the Hearst newspaper reporter and screenwriter Adela Rogers St. Johns, says, "I went from the hospital where I was born to the Malibu Colony in 1929. Mama loved the beach and her house — No. 104 — was the third or fourth built."
Adela was famous for her salon-like gatherings — "The house was always full of her pals like Clara Bow," says St. Johns, an attorney living in London — and for being a surrogate mother for other youngsters. "All the kids called her Mom through the late '40s until she came down the stairs one morning and it was wall to wall sleeping bags with kids in them. She walked over to the corner desk, took out a pair of keys, dropped them in my lap and said, 'You worry about them now.' And she left for 10 years."
For decades Malibu remained a slice of country life, away from the city, with cottages and ramshackle houses. There were virtually no homes on the land side and activities included badminton on the beach and an annual play put on by local celebrities on a tennis court.
Today, one thinks of Malibu as full of trendy stores and restaurants like Nobu and Granita. But in its early days there was little but Art Jones' Malibu Inn — good and bad news for kids growing up there.
"I swear there were some winters we were the only family there," says Frank Capra Jr., son of the director of such classics as "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." (Capra Sr. was on the Malibu Colony Assn.'s first board of directors. "[No.] 95 was our only house from 1933 for many years. My dad used to drive into the studios or have his writers come out to work at the beach."
Fulton's screenwriter father bought their Colony house in 1939 when she was 1. It was a splendid summer house for a little girl, but when they moved there full time in 1953, it had its drawbacks, especially once she started high school in Santa Monica. "I was a sophomore and it was the most isolated existence you could imagine. I got a special driver's license like you get on a farm, restricted to going to and from school. Dating was daring! If guys came to pick me up, you knew it was the real thing."
Famous people were just neighbors and family friends. "I remember Dave Chasen trying out ribs in our fireplace and then my dad talking him into opening his own place," says Capra Jr. "Our favorites were Clark Gable and Carole Lombard because they'd take walks with us."
John Marin, 77, was about 7 when his father bought house No. 90 in the 1930s. "My first serious crush was on Loretta Young, who was renting there. She used to read to her child and me."
Morton Gerson is another early Colony kid. He lived there with his father during the '40s, bought another house later, and now his daughter Joanne, 35, lives there with her young family.
By all accounts, the '60s and '70s were when the Colony changed most dramatically. Lana Turner's Malibu cottage was replaced by architect John Lautner's moon-shaped structure and the building race was on. More and more families came out to live full time.
"I have a theory that it was the fires of the late '60s and 1970 that drove people out of the canyons and into the Colony," says Zach Feueur, 51, a former Malibu kid who worked for director Hal Ashby in his Colony home.
It was also when the number of children increased dramatically and the fun began. "It was still kind of the wildlands," says 49-year old Mark Pierson, a producer-manager who grew up in the Colony and whose parents still have a house there. "That was before it went from bohemia to suburbia. By the age of 5, I was cut loose. It was bikes and skateboards and marbles and peashooters, total freedom. You would go to sleep and wake up with the pound of the surf and you knew what was happening before you walked on the beach."
Bonnie O'Neal, the only girl in a family that included four boys, recalls that as kids, "We used to roof jump. We'd go along the beach and get on the roof and see how many houses we could go down without falling between. There was no way to be bored."