Birdwell Blog

The King and Queen of Malibu
Dazzling Blue #84

The King and Queen of Malibu tells the story of Frederick and May Rindge, who fought tooth and nail to preserve their beloved Malibu. A sufferer of rheumatic fever, a Harvard graduate, the only heir to an immense Boston fortune, Frederick came west seeking not gold but good health. He landed in Sonoma County in 1880, where the elixirs and tonics of a Madame Preston did him lots of good—and where Madame Preston connected him with her niece and Frederick’s soon-to-be wife, Rhoda May Knight, a poor Midwestern farmer’s daughter.

 

 

     Frederick and May settled in Los Angeles in 1887, where Frederick proceeded first to contribute massively to the development of the city of LA, then to make his epic purchase: the 13,300-acre Spanish land grant Rancho Topanga Malibu Sequit, aka “Malibu Rancho,” which would later expand to the 17,000-acre Rindge Ranch.

     I grew up an avid surfer living on the valley side of the hill, so the Santa Monica Mountains described in the book are viscerally familiar, though back in Frederick and May’s day there were no canyon roads, there was instead terrain impossible to pass, coyotes, mountain lions, and bandits on the run.

 

 

 

    The Rindge story is epic on every level. Frederick was a philanthropist, funding libraries and civic buildings in Cambridge. He oozed the same kind of optimism found in juice bars and yoga studios of today’s Malibu:  “To absorb the peace the hills have, to drink in the charm of the brook, and to receive the strength of the mountains, by dwelling in their company—this is living! To lose one’s self by the side of the sea! Free indeed am I!” he wrote. He made wise moves to protect his Malibu, buying out homesteaders, putting locked gates along the beaches to keep trespassers out. He made even wiser business moves that would outlive him—between 1905 and 1940, with an estimated net worth of between $700 million and $1.4 billion, the Rindge family was widely considered one of the wealthiest in the world.

 

     When Frederick died suddenly in 1905, May inherited both a ton of money and the crusade to keep encroaching forces out of Malibu. This was by no means her field of expertise, but she was a quick study, making savvy moves like building her own private railway—the “railway to nowhere”—before the Southern Pacific could beat her to it. She fought in every way possible. In the end, what tipped the scales was really the proliferation of the automobile, and the mood-elevating joys of driving along the coast. Malibu was just too beautiful to be kept private. In 1923, after multiple long and hard court battles, it was decided that a public road would be built—soon to be known as PCH. This kicked off the construction of many scenic roads throughout California. Building roads became synonymous with building happiness.

 

 

    There’s not a lot of surfing in The King and Queen of Malibu—the hotdoggers didn’t show up till later. But there are fascinating echoes. The Rindges obsessive desire to guard The ‘Bu reminds me of Dora’s famous quote: “Malibu is summer … summer is ruined. Now you have to share summer vacation with everybody—I hate to share my time with working slobs.” The ferocity of May Rindge reminds me of Gidget—they were breaking out of gender roles long before it was a thing. Most of all, there’s great reverence paid to nature. You get a window into an Edenic Malibu, one that probably every surfer that’s streaked across a First Point wall has imagined.

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