‘The King and Queen of Malibu’

David K. Randall

Malibu’s sparkling waters and vistas have attracted Hollywood stars and surfers alike for decades with its promise of endless summers. But few people know the story of how Malibu came to be established as a California paradise. 

In a new book, “The King and Queen of Malibu: The True Story of the Battle for Paradise,” reporter and best-selling author David K. Randall uncovers a tale of money and power, deceit and desperation.

Randall shared that he has fond memories of driving along the Pacific Coast Highway as a teenager going surfing. During a bout of homesickness after he moved to New York City for grad school and was stuck in one of the city’s worst blizzards, he decided to look into the history of PCH. 

“As I read through old newspapers, I kept finding mentions of armed homesteaders trying to kill this woman who owned all of Malibu,” Randall said. “It was like I had stumbled onto an alternative history that I had never heard of, and I couldn’t let it go.”

The story begins with Frederick Hastings Rindge, the sickly son of a wealthy Boston businessman. After surviving attacks of rheumatic fever that plagued his childhood — and claimed the lives of his five siblings — Frederick moved to Los Angeles to make his own fortune.

Frederick founded dozens of companies, some of which became Pacific Life Insurance, Southern California Edison and Unocal 76. 

Frederick then married May Rindge, who had a far from regal upbringing. Her hard life growing up on a Michigan farm made her strong enough to tame Rancho Malibu with its rocky terrain and sometimes-violent weather. The couple was enchanted by the spectacular views while riding on horseback from Santa Monica and moved to Malibu in 1892 where they raised three children. The family did not live in Malibu full time but as an escape from the city.

The Rindges steadfastly refused to allow a road through Malibu so that settlers could travel across the coast.

When May came into sole possession of the family fortune (worth about $700 million in today’s money) following Frederick’s death at the age of 48, she used all of those funds to try to keep Malibu closed off from the outside world, including a legal fight that lasted decades before ending in failure at the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Even after her court defeat, May continued to refuse to sell any of the land. A badly timed decision to sell bonds backed by the property a few months before the start of the Great Depression was her downfall. 

May outlived Frederick by nearly 40 years, dying in 1941 at the age of 77.

“She reached LA when it was one step away from the frontier,” Randall explained. “When she died penniless in a crumbling West Adams mansion, the city was well on its way to becoming a global metropolis.”

Rindge descendants still live in Malibu. Frederick and May’s daughter, Rhoda, married Smoke Adamson. The property (now known as Adamson House) was a wedding gift to the couple. After May’s death, her descendants kept much of the land and donated large portions of it to the city and county for public parks, including land to build Pepperdine University.

Randall spent seven years meticulously researching this book that has been widely praised by reviewers. The author believes the couple would be happy with today’s Malibu.

“It’s the best version of the place they could hope for,” Randall said. “May’s goal was to preserve the ‘ancient beauty’ of the place, and Malibu is still largely undeveloped. Frederick was of two minds. A deeply religious man, he imagined the pleasure that God took in creating Malibu because of its beauty. Yet he was also practical enough to see that it had the potential to be an American Riviera.

“The fact that Malibu is considered such a special place with the name used to sell everything from Barbie dolls to family sedans is something that would have pleased him greatly.”

Randall will talk about “The King and Queen of Malibu: The True Story of the Battle for Paradise” at its official launch on Monday, March 14 at 4 p.m. at Pepperdine’s Payson Library.

To reserve a place, call 310.506.4745.