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Paradise lost: The historic battle to keep Malibu private

“The King and Queen of Malibu: The True Story of the Battle for Paradise” by David K. Randall (W.W. Norton, 2016)
“The King and Queen of Malibu: The True Story of the Battle for Paradise” by David K. Randall (W.W. Norton, 2016)
W.W. Norton

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Malibu invites images of mansions perched atop seaside cliffs, shaggy surfer dudes and movie stars cruising PCH. But its origins are far less glitzy.

Frederick Hastings Rindge was the sickly son of a Boston scion. He wanted to be a self-made man and after attending Harvard he headed out to a place where sunshine and opportunities were plentiful: Los Angeles. Rindge quickly proved himself a shrewd businessman and made a fortune in life insurance, oil and other ventures.

He eventually married Rhoda May Knight and the two moved to Malibu in 1892, where they had three children. The couple was known for their philanthropic endeavors, but they refused to allow a road to be built that would have allowed settlers to travel across the coast.

California native and senior reporter at Reuters David Randall sat down with Larry Mantle to reveal the story behind two of the Golden State's most iconic locales: the Malibu coast and the Pacific Coast Highway that traces it.

Interview highlights

Let’s set the stage for what Malibu looked like before the beaches were developed and how remote and inaccessible those mountains and shores were.

David Randall: It was almost like it was a kingdom apart from the rest of L.A., and to get there you actually had to time when you were going to go by the tides. If you didn’t go at the right time, you’d be stuck on the beach or the rocks, just kind of marooned there. So, where Malibu is now used to be the property of Frederick and May Rindge. Behind it is where the homesteaders lived. The homesteaders needed to get through what we know as Malibu today to be able to go down to Santa Monica to get supplies, medicine, or anything else they’d need. The Rindges wanted to close it. They wanted this to be their own paradise.

When Frederick died suddenly, his wife May inherits this big empire of over $500 million in today’s money. At a time she can’t vote, she’s the head of an empire that stretches from L.A. to San Francisco to Boston to South America. Everybody thinks,” OK, who’s going to take over all of this?” At his funeral, people were openly whispering about who was going to take over. She defies all of them and says she’s going to keep it all for herself. She essentially becomes the most hated woman in Los Angeles for the next 30 years of her life. Homesteaders literally come on horseback with rifles and try to kill her. The city kind of turns against her and she’s no longer welcome in elite society, and she just tries to keep Malibu as her private kingdom for the next 30 years against all comers and is willing to do whatever it takes.

Who were the homesteaders?

David Randall: After the Homestead Act was passed after the Civil War, people just came West. Here was free land for the taking, so they went for it. One of the most famous was Marion Decker. He’s the namesake of Decker Canyon Road, which is in Malibu now. It was almost like a game of musical chairs. There was all this free land for the taking. The frontier era in L.A. ended so much faster than anyone was expecting, so everything stuck in place. The homesteaders that were there, they can’t leave. They can no longer afford to go somewhere else. The Rindges don’t want to leave. They own all of Malibu. So there’s this fight. The homesteaders have to go through Malibu to get to the beach to get to Los Angeles. If you drive it now, it’s treacherous even now when there’s a nice road there, but think about doing it on a donkey or a horse. If you go on the beach, it’s maybe a full day trip. If you go the other way, through the mountains, it’s four or five days. If you’re a homesteader, you’re barely surviving. You need food for your kids, you need medicine, you need oil for your lamps. This woman is keeping you from happiness. You have a big incentive to kill her. So, the homesteaders would literally lie in wait for her.

Growing up here in Southern California and spending time in Malibu, I don’t recall seeing the Rindge name on anything around town.

David Randall: That’s what was so striking for me, too. I grew up in Riverside, and everyone knows the happy story of Malibu. You know, sunshine and movie stars and surfers. No one knows that all of Malibu as we think of it today really required this tragic fall of the Rindge family. So, when May spent 30 years trying to keep Malibu as her own private kingdom, it obviously didn’t work. It went all the way to the Supreme Court and was a landmark eminent domain decision over the Pacific Coast Highway’s construction. What was so interesting is that eminent domain is usually for something like a military base or something for obvious government use. This was the first time that the lawyers for the state of California basically argued that seeing beautiful places was also a public necessity. It was this progressive idea that if you’re in a beautiful place it makes you a better person. So, the irony of it was that the beauty of Malibu brought the Rindges to Malibu, and the beauty of it is also what made them lose it eventually.

So the Rindge name is really kind of lost to Malibu. Does Malibu have its own origin story?

David Randall: The modern idea is you think of it as a 1950s Gidget, surfers, all that stuff. That wiped away all of the Rindge history. It was kind of like this new era, the 50s, optimism. Let’s look forward and push away everything that came before. Hopefully, what people will see with this book, is that L.A. history from 1887 to 1941, which is when May dies, it went from frontier. When the Rindges got out here 20 years before then, L.A. had some of the highest murder rate in U.S. history. It was the worst of the Wild West. The railroads tamed that to a certain extent, but L.A. went from frontier to global metropolis with hardly anything in between. The tragic part of May Rindge, besides the fact that she was willing to exhaust an inexhaustible fortune to try to keep Malibu and everything as her private kingdom, is that she outlived her time in many ways. She reaches L.A. right when the railroads get here. By the time she dies, they’re already planning on building the 10 freeway not very far from her home.

Note: This interview has been edited for clarity.

This story has been updated.

David Randall will be at the Payson Library at Pepperdine University for a book reading and signing today, Monday, March 14. The event starts at at 4:00pm. For more info, click here.


David K. Randall, author of “The King and Queen of Malibu: The True Story of the Battle for Paradise” (W.W. Norton, 2016). He is a senior reporter at Reuters