'The King and Queen of Malibu,' a History of Paradise

The New York Times, March 30, 2016

On the map, it's about 25 miles of shoreline sealed off by a chain of mountains. But a map can't convey the wildly divergent terrain of saw-toothed peaks and plunging canyons, of peaceable beaches and fast-encroaching tides, of sun and clear skies and floods and wildfires and mudslides.

And for all that harshness—and perhaps because of it—it is a place of extraordinary beauty. The kind of raw, seemingly ownerless beauty that, on the evidence of David K. Randall's tart, snappy history, "The King and Queen of Malibu," everybody wants to lay claim to.

Mr. Randall's book is a true story of the battle for paradise, but you could also call it a tragedy of the uncommon—men and women fighting for a slice of earth like no other. And that uncommonness extends all the way up the chain of antagonists to the 19th-century figure who set the battle in motion.

Born to wealth in Cambridge, Mass., Frederick Rindge was the only one of his parents' six children to survive to adulthood. (He barely survived, and rheumatic fever stalked him for the rest of his days.) His reward was an estate worth about $140 million in today's dollars and a mystical sense of economic and spiritual mission that sent him back to the West, where he had originally gone as a child for the fresh air.

Disembarking at Los Angeles in 1887, he and his wife found a lawless frontier town whose chief features were sunshine and a staggering murder rate. But his optimistic nature also found "a blank slate, ready to be filled in," and he wasted no time building one of Southern California's first great business empires.

His habit of thinking big extended even to vacation homes. So it was that, in 1892, he bought a former Spanish rancho roughly half the size of Manhattan (for the bargain price of $10 an acre). Just getting there required a day's ride on horseback from Santa Monica and more than a passing familiarity with tide tables, but the ranch's very inaccessibility brought with it immaculate, empty beaches and the promise of eternal privacy.

How illusory that promise was became apparent within a few years, as homesteaders in neighboring canyons began clamoring for a right of way along his family's beach. Mr. Rindge responded by reinforcing his gates, but that didn't stop the Los Angeles County government from making noises about a beach road, carved out of Rindge land. With his money and clout and affability, Mr. Rindge must have imagined he could hold off the invaders indefinitely, but upon his death in 1905, the task of safeguarding his family's retreat fell to his redoubtable wife, May.

Mr. Randall—whose previous book, "Dreamland," explored the science of sleep—doesn't always escape the pop-history trap of cheesy foreshadowing: "Frederick had no way of knowing it then, but his belief in the fundamental goodness of men would soon be tested to its core"; "Little did she know that her pain was just beginning." But he is smart enough to locate the universal themes in a strictly local story and has the good sense to know that, of all the disparate types who populate his old California—ornery homesteaders, secretive ceramists, Franciscan monks—the keeper is May Rindge.

She began life as Rhoda May Knight, one of 12 siblings scratching out a living on a family farm outside Trenton, Mich. Luckily for May, she had a guardian angel for an aunt: a self-styled Northern California prophet and faith healer who called herself Madam Preston and who catered to the maladies of the wealthy through a combination of caustic chemicals, wine cordials and marijuana.

One of her acolytes was the young Mr. Rindge and, perceiving that he was in need of a wife, she dispatched him to Michigan. The young niece he found there was "tall and broad and calloused," with a wide nose and deep-set eyes, but something in her answered Mr. Rindge's purpose. They were married within the week, and their mutual devotion never wavered.

So it was natural that May should see Malibu as "an unbroken reminder of her husband's love" and should wage on its behalf one of the longest and most acrimonious land battles in American history. She spared no legal expense, jumped at any expedient (including a train line to nowhere) and made every possible enemy. Her sheep were slaughtered, members of her staff were shot, and she herself was subjected to so many death threats that she took to strapping a revolver to her hip. By the mid-1920s, she was "the woman all of Southern California had grown to hate."

Stubborn, isolated and innately distrustful, May couldn't grasp that her prerogatives as property owner were being challenged by a new birthright, coaxed into being by the rise of the automobile: the right to beauty. Or, to quote the 1923 Supreme Court decision that killed off May Rindge's last hopes (and fortune): "Public uses are not limited, in the modern view, to matters of mere business necessity and ordinary convenience, but may extend to matters of public health, recreation and enjoyment."

In other words, the government had a right to Malibu because the place was too wonderful to sit on. It took only six years for an actual road to materialize, and with it came the movie stars and the surfers and the billionaires and all the other fauna we associate with this pristine stretch of sand where, thanks to a south-facing shoreline, you need never squint into the sun.

But May Rindge's legacy of cussedness and exclusion lives on. Her unfinished mansion has been reborn as a gated community, and in an atavistic echo of old battles, Malibu's newest homeowners are once again working to seal off public access to their coastline.

One more piquant afternote: Malibu's small colony of 13,000 residents currently houses more than 35 state-licensed drug and alcohol rehab centers. Maybe, in the end, paradise is meant to be lost. Or maybe we just lose ourselves in the act of keeping it.

© Louis Bayard