Meet the Couple Who Made Malibu, Then Lost the "Battle for Paradise"

Reading through the standard L.A. histories that scholars rely upon (or let dust gather upon) for information about the city’s beginnings, one almost never comes across the names of Frederick H. Rindge or his wife, May Rindge, who were, for all intents and purposes, the founders of Malibu. After reading David K. Randall’s new book, The King and Queen of Malibu: The True Story of the Battle for Paradise, this seems very odd indeed (in recent years, only Malibu Magazine seems to have paid attention to the long-buried story of these pioneers of the coastal paradise).

Frederick Rindge, as chronicled in this book, made enough of a mark on downtown Los Angeles in the 1880s and ’90s as a real-estate developer and builder (he also laid the groundwork for the “tony” West Adams neighborhood near USC) to qualify as a “founding father” of L.A. But it was really the holy quartet of the Southland, our delicious mountains-desert-forest-and-ocean, that were his true loves, the original reason he trekked out here as a young man in the first place. The King and Queen of Malibu charts the history of the Rindges’ love affair with “the Malibu” (from the Chumash Indian word “Maliwu,” whose meaning is unknown) dating back to 1892, when they bought the original 13,000-plus-acre Malibu rancho. Their efforts to keep all of that land to themselves — and why it ultimately proved to be futile (much to the benefit of the rest of us) — constitutes the bulk of this story.

Frederick Rindge was of a type you often read about in the biographies of mid–19th century Americans: one of those frail and pale Easterners who suffered through a sickly youth (a childhood attack of rheumatic fever seems to have threatened his health for the rest of his life) before he came out West, not only for the healing benefits of California's climate but also because the self-described “happy vaquero” found the gorgeous Western landscape to be a place he just naturally felt at home. Restlessness, wanderlust and a frail constitution seem to have been the three recurring themes of this man’s relatively short life, but he packed a lot into it.

As detailed in the opening pages, Rindge was hardly a self-made man. Born into a wealthy family in Boston (his father, who actually was self-made, built his fortune from the ground up as an importer-exporter), young Frederick naturally went to Harvard at 18, where he met and became close friends with the young Teddy Roosevelt (future conservationist extraordinaire). This would develop into a permanent, lifelong friendship, one that would have many advantageous and fruitful consequences for the rest of Rindge's life, especially out West. Frederick’s own ambition and pride took the form of creating businesses and a real-estate empire of his own; this would take root later, in Los Angeles.

The Rindge House circa 2008
The Rindge House circa 2008

After a pro forma recitation of Rindge’s origin story, Randall’s narrative gathers steam and fascination once his subject indulges his inborn restlessness (“No matter where he went or whom he encountered, Frederick was often little more than a caged bird, impatient to roam”), leaving dear old Boston for St. Augustine, Florida, then heading out to the largely unpopulated landscapes of Colorado and New Mexico. Young Rindge headed West to strengthen his frail body, but it also emboldened him to move to Southern California, a place his well-traveled parents first took him to see as a boy.

Luckily the author spares us the standard recital of Los Angeles’ beginnings that now tends to be repeated ad infinitum in books about early L.A. (which are usually published in New York); instead he applies just a few broad strokes, then cuts to the chase by following Rindge and his new bride, May, who are sitting together on a train in the year 1887 heading out to bustling, dirty, post–Civil War Los Angeles. (Scholarly note: Be sure to read the early L.A. memoirs by both the amusingly profane cowboy author Horace Bell and the dignified downtown merchant Harris Newmark; their books are essential.) Los Angeles then was a violent and isolated town without so much as a railroad connection to the rest of the country (it was also a place where “lynch law” was not unheard of).

The author manages to squeeze a lot of mini-stories into just over 200 pages. If you’ve ever wondered about the earliest American men and women who first built downtown L.A. from the ground up, then this compact description can feel either like a small revelation or perhaps too hasty a writeup:

“Sensing that the future of the city was in its English-speaking districts, Frederick purchased a dirt-filled lot several blocks south of the plaza on the northeast corner of Broadway and Third Street. There he sent a team of men to work at 254 South Broadway, intent on raising a modern commercial building that could hold the offices of the law firms and insurance companies he envisioned one day flourishing in Los Angeles. The building climbed brick by brick from the hard valley floor. When its three stories were complete, Frederick told his men to spell out the word 'Rindge' in big iron letters out front, stamping his name on his new city. The building would prove to be a forerunner of more to come. Not long after the Rindge Building opened, in 1888, the mayor announced plans for the construction of a new city hall only a few doors down. With one move, Frederick had laid the cornerstone for what would become an empire.”

With “one move”? Perhaps a little more period detail and a bit of Theodore Dreiser–like urban sweat and human incidents would have helped flesh out this vignette, but Randall is nothing if not terse when he wants to be.

Randall, the bestselling author of the novel Dreamland, is capable of being an artist in prose. He’s fascinated by that lost world that was 19th-century, downtown-centered Los Angeles, and he paints some beautiful word-pictures of pre-1900 L.A. that are sure to please the mind’s eye:

“The pair settled into a Victorian home on South Bonnie Brae Street, then a part of one of the city’s more fashionable neighborhoods. Shrubs of recently planted palm trees, each one no higher than a man’s hips, lined the road, which crested a gentle hill just to the west of the city’s core. During the day, soft breezes off the ocean cooled each room as the sun poured in through bay windows. At night, Frederick and May fell asleep to the sweet scent of lemon blossoms and honeysuckle. If this wasn’t paradise, it was close enough.”

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Frederick Rindge appears to be, from every angle in this biography, a sympathetic character: kind, fair, patient and high-minded, but also decisive and strong-willed. Still, in a century of excitable and often extreme American personalities, he comes off as downright docile. According to Randall, Rindge was modest to a fault, addicted to homilies and self-help maxims, which he would memorize to carry him through a life that was idealistic but also perpetually interrupted by health setbacks, of (unspecified) attacks that could leave him incapacitated in bed for weeks, sometimes on the verge of death. (“I am working to acquire the habit of thanking God for even the smallest things very frequently. I find it great wisdom,” he once wrote to his wife.)

The story of his purchase of the Malibu Rancho, all 13,315 spectacular green acres of it, excites our own enjoyment of the genuine ecstasy Rindge felt when he acquired the land, before embarking on building the house of his dreams there: “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! There was nothing human about that vista; it was divine.”

Rindge’s not-quite-unexpected death at the age of 48, brought about by an impulsive trip to a mine (where the exertion from climbing up a mountain and breathing in the heavy, dirty mine air was too much for his frail constitution), strikes the reader as genuinely tragic.

To her contemporaries, May Rindge was not quite as lovable. May’s story, as Randall traces it in detail, is a bitter and seemingly endless back-and-forth battle, lasting for decades, between a loyal widow and preserver of her family’s estate-paradise, and an army of enemies both big (governmental) and small (pesky neighbors) too numerous to tick off in this review. But this is where the book’s greatest claim to first-hand originality really comes out, in the revelations we get for the first time in these pages of a very strange and lost milieu, one that we didn’t even suspect existed; that of the wild, irascible, shack-building, shotgun-toting “mountain men” who lived, in the early 20th century, in the virtually untouched Santa Monica Mountains. These were the “homesteaders,” tempted out West by President Lincoln with offers of free land, to help populate the Western United States. Living high up in the Malibu hills, these rough characters often needed to cross the widow Rindge’s land, to travel to Ventura or Santa Monica for supplies and sustenance. They proved to be a thorn in her side for years. Randall must have had a grand old time uncovering the documents where these hot-tempered old spirits still live and breathe, including May Rindge’s particular bête noire, a burly cabin dweller up in Encinal Canyon named Marion Decker, whom the author sums up with the words, “But mostly, he shot things.”

Neighbor wars, including between the homesteaders, over fences and boundaries got so bad that (you guessed it) gunplay and violent death became commonplace in the mountains, with city dwellers putting their newspapers down in horror: “Los Angeles still had its rough edges, but nothing compared with this. A person standing on the beach in Venice could watch the setting sun behind Malibu at the far side of the bay and wonder just what was happening in that lawless place.”

You may need a road map to follow the book’s final chapters tracing the complex back and forth of shifting boundaries and borders of the Malibu rancho/ranch/estate, with un-poor old Mrs. Rindge fending off the ever-encroaching outer world that always seemed to be getting into and onto her sprawling acres. Suffice it to say that nothing remained stable for long; for years armed guards were posted at “the Malibu’s” borders, all the way out to the beach, where large iron gates, at both north and south ends, kept “outsiders” from crossing her oceanfront property. Clearly, this couldn’t last forever. If May Rindge ends up sounding like “the old woman who lives in a shoe,” it is still possible to sympathize, barely, with her desire to hold on to her husband’s bequest. But as Los Angeles experienced a veritable avalanche of population growth after WWI, this became increasingly untenable.

Her stubborn resistance even to building a public road running alongside the coast so that others could enjoy it seems to have been the last straw; you don’t need to be a Communist, just a citizen, to feel a great sense of a wrong finally being righted when, in the book’s final chapters, the inevitable resolution comes to pass and the U.S. Supreme Court decides in favor of, well, the rest of us: “A taking of property for a highway is a taking for public use, which has been universally recognized from time immemorial,” the ruling began. “[T]he main road … will afford a highway for persons desiring to travel along the shore to the county line, with a view of the ocean on the one side and of the mountain range on the other, constituting … a scenic highway of great beauty.” Thus reason, and an artistic reason, prevailed: “Public uses are not limited, in the modern view, to matters of mere business necessity … but may extend to matters of public health, recreation and enjoyment.” Voila!

There’s an interesting feeling of push-pull, not to say of bait-and-switch, when reading this human story; if the Rindges start out as its heroes, it's clearly next to impossible to root for May’s later attempts to prevent the rest of the city, the rest of the country, from enjoying Malibu’s wild beauty forever. Like it or not, Frederick Rindge comes off a whole lot nicer, better, as a nature poet and even an ecstatic. Preserving his spirit is one of the gifts of this, the first solid attempt to chart the incredibly serpentine story of this long-forgotten but hugely consequential “battle for paradise.” 

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