Living chic by jowl in the Malibu Colony

Bing Crosby's Malibu Colony home in 1931. The first to sign a lease was Swedish silent film star Anna Q. Nilsson.
(Malibu Lagoon Museum)

When Cheronda Guyton, a senior vice president with Wells Fargo, used a foreclosed home to host lavish parties last summer in the Malibu Colony, she broke more than a few company rules. But by caving to her craving for the beach life, the now-fired bank executive joined a long line of people aching to lay claim to that fabled stretch of sand.

Located in the heart of Malibu just up the coast from Surfrider Beach, the famed Malibu Colony is a half-mile stretch of 100 or so homes that sit inches apart on the shoreline. They’re luxurious retreats outfitted with outdoor kitchens, private cabanas and seaside teahouses. The roster of residents reads like the credits of the world’s biggest ensemble movie. And the price tags, which start in the high seven figures, climb ever upward.

To be sure, the century-long history of the land has always been rich and star-studded.

It starts, as so many things do in Malibu, with May Knight Rindge. The widow of industrialist Frederick Rindge, she was left the sole owner of the 17,000-acre Malibu Rancho in 1905. The seaside paradise stretched from Las Flores Canyon to the Ventura County line. Her inheritance was a tantalizing prize to land-hungry Angelenos, who mounted nonstop lawsuits for access to and control of land she wanted to keep private.

The first battle was over a roadway now known as Pacific Coast Highway.

In 1926, despite 20 years of legal battles that cost her a crushing $20 million in legal fees, Rindge was forced by the U.S. Supreme Court to allow the highway to be built across her land. Previously the road was little more than a rough path that often ran on the wet sand and made for hours-long trips.

The new road, then named Roosevelt Highway, was a modern, two-lane marvel.

“The coast road started at Las Flores and, in 1926, came as far as Malibu Canyon,” said Glen Howell, a local historian. “That really opened up Malibu to easy travel.”

Never one to be bested by defeat, Rindge promptly began to cash in on the new highway. She offered up 10-year leases on a stretch of coast just west of the Malibu Pier to anyone willing to build a house there. The 30-foot lots cost $30 a month, or $1 per beachfront foot.

Thanks to her prolonged and highly publicized legal fight over the highway, there was pent-up demand for the property. The mysterious Malibu Rancho, so close to Los Angeles and yet so zealously guarded, was open to the public at last. Despite the fact that every ounce of building material had to be ferried in from the city at great expense, people came.

The first to sign a lease was Swedish silent film star Anna Q. Nilsson. Drawn by the beauty and the privacy, much of the rest of Hollywood soon followed. Delores del Rio, Bing Crosby, Clara Bow, Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck and Ronald Colman soon signed on. Included in the leases were deed restrictions crafted by Rindge, a strict teetotaler.

“If anyone in the Colony was caught drinking alcohol, May Rindge could break the lease and take the land back,” Howell said.

To erect their beach getaways, many of the stars hired the carpenters who built movie sets. The resulting homes -- that’s putting it kindly -- had the same ephemeral qualities.

“Those beach shacks were a little bit flimsy,” said Louis Busch, a second-generation Malibu Realtor and avid historian. “You could almost push your finger right through the walls.”

Even as the Colony’s popularity grew, Rindge’s finances deteriorated. Drowning in debt, she declared bankruptcy in 1938.

A few years later, the homeowners were free to purchase their leased land. According to a handwritten ledger kept by Busch’s father, empty lots sold for $6,500 to $15,000 in the early 1940s.

The homes in the Colony have numbers instead of addresses, a practice that still endures. Home No. 51, described in the senior Busch’s handwriting as “an exceptionally nice home” with four bedrooms and three baths, rented for $375 a month in 1941. No. 65, a more modest bungalow, was a bargain at $100 a month.

Today, the Malibu Colony’s homes rent for upward of $50,000 a month. Expanded to two and three stories, built out to 4,000 or 5,000 square feet, they fill their 30- and 60-foot lots from edge to edge. And boldface names are still willing to live packed so close together that, as novelist Gigi Levangie Grazer wrote in “The Starter Wife,” “It was impossible to breathe in one house and not cough up carbon dioxide next door.”

Tom Hanks? Check. Kevin Kline? Yes. Larry Hagman? Oh, yes. Add in Frank Capra, Linda Ronstadt (who was visited by then-boyfriend Jerry Brown), Alice Cooper, Cher, Liz Taylor, Richard Burton, Don Rickles and Robert Redford, and you’re barely scratching the surface.

“Who has lived in the Malibu Colony?” Busch said. “I think it might be easier to name who hasn’t lived there.”

Special correspondent Veronique de Turenne can be reached at metro@