North of Zuma Beach, past the Hows Trancas market, a locked gate bars entrance to a narrow road. It curves down to a point overlooking the ocean, where, on an outcropping of rock sits Sam Zell’s California retreat.
It’s nearly 40 miles from downtown Los Angeles and the newspaper he has agreed to buy. But it’s only a fraction of that distance from Ventura County’s Camarillo Airport, into which Zell and his wife, Helen, fly from Chicago by private plane on many weekends.
They wanted to be close to the airport because “this was going to be their little retreat,” said Kathleen Austin, a Malibu Colony resident who met the couple at a cocktail party the Zells hosted last year at their Malibu home, which was designed by the famed John Lautner, an apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright.
The front of Zell’s house, a mix of beige stucco and blond wood, is a low-key facade that belies the expansive, 12,000-square-foot property, which includes a gym, a pool, four bedrooms and a guest house. Zell paid $13 million for the home in 1998.
The numbers of the address are carved in a giant rock that sits at the edge of the driveway. The ocean side of the house is a wall of glass windows. The house is perched above the beach, a pile of jagged rocks propped below and a “No Trespassing” sign stuck in the middle of them.
“When they come to Malibu, they go to their house and just stay there,” said Austin, who with her husband owns a Lautner house as well. “They have never been past Geoffrey’s,” she said, referring to the popular restaurant that overlooks the ocean a few miles south. She recalled them as gracious, friendly hosts and described Zell as having a grumbly voice and his wife as lively and outspoken.
She said the two had known each other years before connecting again at a party. “He called her right away. Instant flame,” Austin said she was told. “She was his princess.”
The Zells visit their Malibu retreat about 26 weekends a year, according to a neighbor, who requested anonymity out of respect for the couple’s privacy.
“They want to come and relax and look at the ocean,” Austin said.
Relaxing shouldn’t be a problem. On a weekday morning, the loudest noise is the pounding thud of the ocean waves. For the most part, residents say, these houses are not their owners’ primary homes.
“Most of the people, we never see,” said Nick Rodionoff, head coach of the Pepperdine University women’s swim team, who has lived on nearby Sea Level Drive for 30 years. “I don’t know what they do or where they go or how many houses they have, but they spend very little time here.”